Creatives across borders: Eva Wong Nava

Adebayo Adegbembo (Baba Funke)
Creatives Across Borders
7 min readFeb 20, 2024

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Eva Wong Nava. (Photo Credits: Rebecca Cresta)
Listen to the full interview with Eva Wong Nava on Spotify

Eva Wong Nava is a British-Chinese Children’s book writer, coach, and sensitivity reader. Born in Singapore before emigrating to the UK in the 1990s, Eva is a polyglot who speaks English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Italian proficiently. She is a Feature Editor for Representation for Words & Pictures, the SCBWI British Isles’ online magazine where she researches and writes articles on the topic of representation, inclusion, and diversity.

In this interview, Eva talks about her journey as a writer straddling multiple worlds. As a champion of Southeast Asian literatures, she talks through different events, people, and influences within the community. She offers interesting insights into the Southeast Asian writing community in the UK and beyond.

Journey into children’s book writing

Following the birth of her first daughter over 20 years ago, she started to collect children’s books which they’d read together. That continued when her second daughter was born. As an avid reader, she was excited by her growing collection but never quite gave a thought to being a picture books writer herself. That changed when her younger daughter asked why there weren’t people like her in the books they read.

Until then, she hadn’t really reflected on representation in books for her dual heritage kids. Growing up in Singapore, most of the children’s books Eva read were written in English by American or British authors.

Though they were very incongruent to my atmosphere in Singapore, I’d read these children’s books [written in English by American or British authors]. I never questioned them. I never said, oh, why aren’t there people like me in them? Until my second daughter said that to me.

So, Eva thought about writing these books to address the issue and perhaps as a legacy to leave behind for her children. At some point, she moved to France with her family where they lived for about 4 years. While living in France, she started to write a lot of unpublished children’s stories. She also read a lot of picture books in French to her kids who were learning French as she was. She wrote these stories in English but peppered them with French phrases. Though experimental, as a polyglot, she wanted to see how far she could take any language and had fun doing it.

Career highlights

Eva considers finding a literary agent to represent her as one of the highlights of her career. She is represented by Lydia Silver of Darley Anderson Children’s Agency. Having been originally published in Singapore, she realised that her preference for traditional publishing required finding an agent so she could focus on her writing.

Cultural influences on her writings

Eva identifies as ethnic Chinese and part Malay, a mix that isn’t uncommon in Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore has a racial identity classification with the acronyms C-M-I-O (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Other). Hence, her cultural references or influences have flavours of Southeast Asia. An example is her picture book, “I Love Chinese New Year,” which captures a Chinese family based in England that’s celebrating Chinese New Year. The story also mentions Dublin because there is a large Irish-Chinese community there. In her words,

The festivities are the same. So, in that book (I love Chinese New Year), I tried to reflect that for Chinese people all over the world, reading that book to their children. Being a Southeast Asian person of Chinese descent, I’m very much influenced by my culture and background as such.

I Love Chinese New Year by Eva Wong Nava

Other creative influences from Southeast Asia

As far as books are concerned, Eva couldn’t really say there are children’s books written by Southeast Asians that have influenced her because there are so few of them in the UK. Eva’s theory is that Southeast Asia is considered the Far East, hence very faraway in the eye of the UK publishing industry.

While acknowledging that there could be more out there that she’s unaware of, she mentions a few within her circle as follows.

  • Candy Gourlay, from the Philippines.
  • Cat Aquino, a Filipino author whose book is coming out soon.
  • Lucy Tandon Copp, a dual-heritage writer of British-Malaysian descent with books about dual heritage children like her which are very rare.
  • Maisie Chan of British-Chinese heritage. A multiple award-winning author of middle grade books, she’s the voice and the impetus behind representation for East and Southeast Asian authors in the UK.

Affiliate Organizations and events

While living in Singapore between 2013 and 2020, Eva joined its SCBWI (Society of Children’s book writers and illustrators) chapter. There, she got to meet a lot of authors like herself; Southeast Asians writing in English for children in Singapore, which is very rare in the UK. She says there’s such great children’s book writers there in Singapore, waiting for a big break in a sense.

When she moved back to the UK, she became more involved with the SCBWI British Isles chapter by volunteering for them more deeply. She is the current co-Assistant Regional Advisor (co-ARA) for Events, where she organises events for the chapter. Besides SCBWI, she’s also a patron of other writers’ communities of like-minded East and Southeast Asians. These include,

KidLitSEA (Kids Literature for Southeast Asians) is a community of writers living in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. It was founded by Eva and her friend Sim Ee Waun while she was living in Singapore to promote literatures from Southeast Asia for children. Ewan is a Singaporean writer and independent publisher (Pepperdog Press), where she publishes her own storybooks about Singapore. Both were motivated to start KidLitSEA given their shared concerns that there were very few children’s books about the history of Singapore in Singapore.

BESEA.n (pronounced Be Seen) was founded by three British East and Southeast Asian women, who wanted to elevate and promote East and Southeast Asian voices and businesses.

The Bubble tea Writers Network is a face group set up by children’s book author and screenwriter Maisie Chan to support and promote ESEA writers in Britain.

ESEA Literary Festival @ SOAS

In September 2023, Eva, Candy Gourlay, Tania Tay, Anne Chen, AY Chao, and Elizabeth Wong got together to form the ECEA literary festival that was held at SOAS. Though it is an inaugural festival, they had quite a good turnout with sold out tickets. Buoyed by its success, another one is planned for September 2024.

September has also been adopted as the unofficial East and Southeast Asian Heritage Month in the UK by the ESEA community. A petition written in 2021 by the founders of BSEA.n asked that the government make September an official month to celebrate British ESEA presence, history and heritage in the UK, like Black History Month and South Asian Heritage Month.

Eva cites the following as a reason behind its push for more representation among the SEA community in the UK.

If you think about East Asia being China, Mongolia, Japan, and Korea, and Southeast Asia being 11 countries, although we seem to be a monolith; we are not. We are such a diverse community of people, but our numbers in the UK are smaller in comparison to the USA. But we do exist here as a community. Sadly, we’re kind of invisible in a sense because if you cannot see us in books and on TV, we are invisible. To that end, we are advocating for more representation for us in the books and media.

Role as a Sensitivity Reader

To address a common misconception that sensitivity readers are out to censor writings, Eva talks through the role. A Sensitivity Reader reads manuscripts before they’re published for things that could be areas of concerns or red flags. Some are called authenticity readers, others, cultural research readers. Regardless of the label, they read for sensitive issues, for writers who are writing outside their lived experiences and culture or heritage. A sensitivity reader is approached with the manuscript to vet for any inaccuracies and to advise on its authenticity.

Eva reads specifically for East and Southeast Asian representation in children’s literature. So, if a writer with little or no knowledge about say, Singapore or Malaysia specifically is writing about either, they will outsource their manuscript to a sensitivity reader like Eva. She will look over the manuscript and flag areas that need some attention with detailed explanation backed by research and lived experiences.

Offerings and Services

Eva has a company called The Writing Essentials where she offers editorial services like sensitivity reading, copy editing, coaching, and writing. She’s also a ghost-writer with a focus on adult memoirs. She says it’s quite demanding as it requires a lot of in-depth understanding of her subject for whom she’s writing on behalf.

Current and future projects

Her upcoming titles include:

  • East Asian Folk Tales, Myths and Legends — coming out in March 14, 2024 by Scholastic. It’s a collection of 16 stories of the folk tales, myths and legends from East Asian countries — Japan, Korea, China and Mongolia.
  • She also has another picture book coming out in June 2024. It’s a non-fiction history of music for children that examines music movements from classical, folk to jazz. This is a follow up to BUSY LITLLE FINGERS ART, which was published in 2022.

Wishlist

On her wish list is to write about folk tales on Southeast Asia. The 11 countries in Southeast Asia have their unique folktales, lore, myths and legends, but don’t have very many books on them.

Contacting Eva

Eva’s quite active on Instagram and Twitter but can also be reached via her website.

Tips for aspiring writers

Eva’s tip to writers is to simply write first before thinking about the publishing because that will come naturally when you write the story that comes from your heart.

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Adebayo Adegbembo (Baba Funke)
Creatives Across Borders

Writer, Backend & Interactive Story App Developer (Unity3d/.Net). Building a library for Funke one resource (books and apps) at a time.