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Reading and Agency

Reading and Agency

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said that life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards. I understand this to mean that we need distance in order to make sense of who and what we are, in this case the distance provided by a lifetime. But with art, and especially the art of the novel, we are afforded a kind of cognitive distance that allows us to see ourselves with some degree of objectivity. This is the power of the novel. Thomas Mann makes the connection quite plainly in The Magic Mountain:

“[…] time is the medium of narration as it is the medium of life.”

Novels make us recognise, reflect, and subsequently enact change in ourselves and in society: books are personal as well as social.

Last Sunday on 28 April 2024 we hosted multi award-winning children’s author Onjali Q. Raúf. This British Muslim author’s breakout title was The Boy at the Back of the Class about the refugee crisis and the frustrating response from Western democracies such as the United Kingdom and France. (See our review here.) Onjali tells authentic stories from the perspective of children; children who are heroes in their own situations and predicaments. All her stories, at least the ones I’ve read, are told in first person narrative. We are given a glimpse of the emotional lives of children, in all their complexity, devastation, and subtlety. Adult emotional lives are no less complex, but the difference is children seem to have more clarity.

Onjali was at Wardah Books to launch her latest book The Letter with the Golden Stamp. During the session, she gave a heartfelt tribute to young caregivers everywhere. Young caregivers refer to minors who take on the role of caring for another person in their family or in their circle. The plight and sacrifice of young caregivers, the main theme of the book, are often unseen and unsupported because the children themselves do not draw attention to their predicaments (indeed they often actively conceal their situations), and because these children come from families that are already marginalised, they are caught in a double bind.

The other book Onjali spoke about was The Lion Above the Door. This is a story inspired by Tan Kay Hai, a Singapore fighter pilot who flew for the (British) Royal Air Force in World War II over the skies of Europe and North Africa. Onjali had researched about Tan and spoke about how Tan flew at least 190 missions, including missions to detect and intercept Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft (Onjali demonstrated this with model planes, see photo). Tan was the only Singaporean involved in the largest amphibious military operation in history, the Allied Normandy landings on 6 June 1944, D-Day.

After the war, Tan enrolled at the London School of Economics to do a course on social work. This bonafide war hero then returned to Singapore and worked at the Social Survey Department until his retirement. He passed away in 1991, aged 77. He lies buried at the Kranji War Memorial.

It is safe to say that almost no one in the room that Sunday morning had heard of Tan Kay Hai. And this really speaks to what The Lion Above the Door is all about: the righting of the wrongs of racist historical narratives that excluded the stories of non-White servicemen and servicewomen of the World Wars. The characters in Onjali’s book — the main protagonist is a boy from Singapore — stand up for what they believe in and attempt to bring to light forgotten histories with what tools they have.

While Onjali’s novels are for a young audience, adults reading along are reminded that if 9-year-olds can have agency and act upon their instincts of fairness, of justice, then maybe it’s not too strange for grownups to do the same in our own capacities. After all, life must be lived forwards.

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