Who’s Watching the Storytellers?
Author’s notes: For context, in Singapore, the majority race is Chinese. All names have been changed.
I received my first job offer in London before I graduated from university, over steaming mint tea for my clogged nose, green apple raita and chicken biryani for my loud stomach—all homemade by my good friend R’s mother, Ms. A, who was visiting him from Singapore. The offer was to illustrate Ms. A’s own Tamil books for children once I returned.
I had worked for her two summers ago, illustrating English textbooks and worksheets for preschoolers. The drawings had also made their way to Kerala with her reading charity, where, as Ms. A told me proudly, the children had been delighted. I knew Ms. A to be an unconventional employer: happy to pay extra for rushed requests, effusive with praise, disorganized and often apologetic about it. Working with her was mild chaos, waiting to pick up my check because she wasn’t home when she said she would be, having tea while her tutee sat alone outside, his appointment pushed back as mine was.
As for myself, I fit into my generation’s stereotype: emotional, wrestling with dance trends and privilege out of sight to varying degrees of success. Predictably anxious, canines ground flat in my early twenties. Jobs in the arts, with their own stereotypical implications of financial instability and subjective judgements, hadn’t been on my post-graduate list—not because creative jobs weren’t good enough for me, but because I feared I wasn’t enough for them. My love for stories felt like leftover childhood precocity, a simple knack for narrative—and when telling them out loud to rapt friends or adults, a cheap thrill of performance. Consulting jobs felt more serious, despite meaning nothing to me.
But this offer felt alright—books seemed like the grown-up version of stories. I told myself that maybe stereotypes fit like one-size clothes: just enough that you could think them passable, despite slight gaping everywhere. In the gentle sunlight glowing through the old priory window in R’s London flat, warm with the endearing thought of working with Ms. A, I agreed to be her illustrator.
Storytelling has always been associated with performance: minstrelsy, theater and now social media, where “Main Character Syndrome” refers to people who perform an overstated role in civil society, assuming everyone else’s behavior revolves around them, frequently linked to performative, hollow stances on social issues.
For me, main characters across all mediums of storytelling are more associated with acting (doing) than performance. In the stories I hold close, main characters are mostly united by an ability—either inherent or eventually learned—to perceive life as if the world is present, urgent, affecting, then acting accordingly.
In Singapore, Ms. A and I commiserated over the proofreaders’ nitpicking: why couldn’t teachers be depicted sitting down while supervising children play instead of squatting by their side, breathing down their necks? (Teachers had to look involved.) In one of the stories, a daughter taught her Amma: birds leave their young if they smell a stranger on them. The proofreaders didn’t find it plausible that a child would be educating their parent. “Archaic,” Ms. A chastised them and texted me. “Innocence protects knowledge.”
Despite all their gripes, I never expected to see a text from Ms. A about an extra request from the proofreaders that the skin tones of the family be lightened, so that readers wouldn’t think all Indians were dark-skinned.
Conceptually, the true enemy of the main character is an entity who upholds the way things used to be—someone jaded, inert, skeptical.
The proofreaders sent over a palette of “appropriate” skin colors from their previous Tamil books, of browns so dilute they looked tan and ruddy. Ms. A was upset. So was I, that she had to be ambushed with that critique over the phone—untraceable, cowardly. I could not see her face but I sensed a layered unease, her books in the balance, her own narrative undermined.
My own reaction to their colorist request was stomach-deep, even with the privilege of it not referring to me or mine. But while I was sometimes too unafraid of confrontation for my own good, I also knew the decision to go along with their choice was Ms. A’s decision to make as part of the South Indian community herself. “They’re out of line,” I texted her, my thumbs tapping out a not-sad-enough face. I encouraged Ms. A to push back with my support as her illustrator, in a signed letter that would give the proofreaders the benefit of the doubt.
I requested direct clarification on why the darker skin colors were unacceptable. I outlined why lightening the characters’ skin was wrong due to the history of colorism worldwide, which Singapore wasn’t innocent of. That my color palettes were created directly from photographs of South Indian people. That it would be odd to exclude factual skin tones, especially from books that were in Tamil, about South Indian culture and traditions.
How important it was for children to see themselves in their stories.
The proofreaders never replied to me. Instead, they came back to Ms. A with anecdotal evidence that non-Indian children in multicultural classrooms called their Indian classmates “Blackie”, which these books—if left the way they were colored—would exacerbate. The word Ms. A chose for the proofreaders was “backward”.
In the professional pursuit of performance, there is a theater exercise on desire, in which everyone is given an objective to pursue as hard as they can for the duration of the scene. The exercise flattens nuance into a sharp disk of obstinacy, the performers-in-training vessels of pure conflict.
That was where the exercise began for me and Ms. A.
“We should just do what they say,” Ms. A wrote in our chat.
I knew that I wouldn’t.
We had no contract. There was one at the start, but it required amends on Ms. A’s side, then never came back to me. It hadn’t bothered us because I lived so nearby and often let myself into her house—I could sign it whenever. In light of the new situation, I considered a quiet resignation, made easier by not being legally bound, sacrificing the rest of my pay. I respected her decision to go along with their colors, but I refused to do work that I believed was harmful, especially by someone Chinese. I would sign over the rights to let her use all the drawings so far, so she could just hire a new illustrator to do what I wouldn’t.
R was equally outraged at the proofreaders’ request but didn’t want me to leave with nothing. He suggested I make the rest of the amends barring skin tone, get paid for what I’d already done, then quit. We agreed that the proposed solution should placate what had become his mother’s main concern at this time: keeping her book deal. He told me he had never seen her this fearful before, of something we both couldn’t ascertain. But R and I grew up well-versed in willpower, inclined to see systems as suggestions, not stone.
Ms. A was my mother’s age; the latter also frequently found my expectations of change fevered. My mother was born and raised in Singapore but her favorite movies were shot in black and white with gentle transatlantic accents; her favorite television show took place on a prairie. In her and Ms. A’s time, basic representation was hard-earned, nuanced representation not expected. Victories were won slowly in the way of broader labels: woman before woman of color, equality before equity. We never reconciled enough to discuss it, but perhaps Ms. A thought it would be better that there were more South Indian children’s books, albeit compromised, instead of fewer. Agency-diminishing in this instance, for a community-minded goal.
In the heat of discussion, it seemed more likely to me that Ms. A’s fear was of not being published, of a scuff on her standing from the turned heels of faceless higher-ups. Humble intentions are capable of harm. Underestimating your bodyweight doesn’t prevent toes from bruising when you step on them.
I knew some hurt was inevitable. I took a whole Saturday to draft the long text acknowledging that going ahead with their request was her choice to make, but I didn’t want my name on the work. R approved it and I sent the text the following morning. The ticks barely turned blue before she called.
Ms. A shouted from the start, asking whether I knew how selfish I was being, accusing me of throwing her under the bus. She suggested that I was living in a bubble where taking a stand would make a difference (she assured me it would not). She asked why I even cared (since I was Chinese, not Indian). She questioned herself, whether she was a fool for trusting her son’s friend, claiming that this, I, was a lesson to her in misplaced loyalty. She sounded like she was shaking as much as I was. Maybe she would also eventually have nightmares, albeit not filled with receiving denigrating texts about work ethic: a vignette of her husband agreeing that they should take me to court; being barred from crossing the threshold of her house with R and his sister looking on.
The call made me fold inwards. Was performativity defined by a lack of cause (me being Chinese) or a lack of effect (no material difference)? Was I acting like the Main Character or was she? But also, how would it help children with learned racist behavior to be pandered to? What would the Indian child whose inherited skin matched the darker hue feel, when yet another batch of books meant for them had only light-skinned heroes? What about those main characters? Was something only worth doing if it had known results? I’d spent close to a year illustrating at this point.
Shortly after we hung up, R woke up in London. After he’d talked her down, his mother agreed to engage a lawyer to draft a new contract. All seemed headed the right way, until the contract landed in my inbox, two litigators attached. I didn’t need the legal training often suggested to me as a wiser degree to discern what was happening: that she was setting me up to be served an injunction for any ambiguous damage to her reputation, hinging my payment on made-up technicalities. Engaging my lawyer uncle as my attorney, I highlighted my concerns and sent the contract back. After multiple rounds, Ms. A suddenly stopped replying.
In the silent meantime, I made all other amends to the illustrations, submitted them, found a salaried job and turned twenty-four.
As I worked my other job, I tried not to pay attention to the recent government-released survey results about wage boosts, dubbing “artist” the least essential job in Singapore. The local discourse ran itself ragged: obvious backlash, then angry indifference about external validation, before quieting with long posts by creative industry veterans and art-lovers on the basic insensitivity of those words, in these times. The discussion faded into rising Covid-19 death tolls that cast a truthful light on most things being less than essential—not just now, possibly always.
The survey was irritating, but not surprising. I’d studied History of Art and English Literature, then chosen to work on children’s stories; I knew the jokes about degrees ranked in order of usefulness, about bananas taped to walls. Tapping through my mood boards did seem aggressively frivolous. But when did the person who decided to publish those misguided statistics stop believing art mattered? Or were they just performing how they thought they should in a national newspaper during a pandemic: focusing on serious issues (although consultants were also dubbed non-essential), doubting the importance of their most-played song, a dog-eared novel, the play that kept them up at night; any constructed expression amidst a global crisis frivolous, serving no one, creative labor deservedly unseen and underfunded. I was annoyed, but mostly that I might agree.
Ms. A and I were neighbors in an area of Singapore with wide streets and manicured leaves. Where we diverged in racial experience of this city, we lived in close proximity of what we could afford, including convictions, including grace, and yet:
Two weeks after Ms. A’s last reply, I received a lawyer’s letter of termination. I wouldn’t be paid any further than the half she’d already paid. They also wouldn’t be using my work—the books would be redrawn from scratch. As I tried to breathe through being fired while imagining my drawings in the digital trash, R frantically intervened again to resume contract revisions. His mother sent consecutive lawyer letters, all misstating facts, eventually offering a non-negotiable fraction of the full sum. I did not want to prolong a game of Principled Chicken. I agreed to her terms and sent her a balanced invoice, with a payment deadline a week from then—two months since I’d submitted all owed work. A week passed and she didn’t pay. The next stage was to go to the Small Claims Court, but I hesitated.
Throughout everything, R had been exceedingly noble in his attempts to mitigate the emotional mess. He stated that he didn’t want me to feel pressured to accept the deal if it would mean more long-term resentment than had already solidified. Which was why, when I learnt that he was sick with Covid and hiding it from his mother in case it made her more hostile, I knew the dispute just needed to end.
Ms. A and I removed ourselves from the discussions and let our lawyers talk: her two litigators, my uncle. My uncle planned to concede partial payment in exchange for Moral Rights and permission for me to use the work in my portfolio with names redacted. Moral Rights? I told him I wasn’t too fussed about that clause if it was impeding the resolution. I wasn’t going to use these drawings for anything else anyway. After the three of them conferred, my uncle let me know, “Her lawyers weren’t told what the original sum was.”
The next day, I received a new contract without any hostile language that granted immediate, full payment upon signing at their office. Ms. A would not be present. I signed. R recovered after a few days of rest.
Moral Rights, from the French “droit moral”, refers to the right of creators to control the fate of their work, preventing a creation from being manipulated to cause personal and reputational harm to the creator. Private portfolio permissions for a year’s worth of artwork. Evidence of how I’d chosen to handle the stories. I only realized that my uncle had seen what I couldn’t when tidying my desk, full of character sketches, loose notes on story synopses and my iPad with 170 project files.
Someone more charitable than me would have assumed that the proofreaders’ stance was a product of not thinking a book for children was important enough to shake the status quo, or check their biases. After all, my uncle’s toddling son spends more time with his video game about delivering mail than I’ve ever seen him devote to a book.
But I know Ms. A didn’t believe that; bullying seems proportionate to its perceived threat. For every child that wanders away from books distracted, one pays too much attention. Story-loving children are familiar with their identities even if they can’t articulate or touch them with their small hands. The stories they watch, hear and read that come close enough to what they recognize have the ability to move them then, and again, and still.
Stories aren’t and have never claimed to be like the bones that hold up our world: engineering, medicine, technology. Reliable, actionable, infrastructural. Even at its best, narrative effect is soft, made up of implication and feeling. But stories, when shaped with precision, articulate beliefs which spur action—powerful in a persevering way, tissue and organ as crucial as bone. People who know this can use stories as a way to manipulate identity, to minimize essentiality and agency. Tricking you into thinking you should look out for yourself first, opt for stability because change is unlikely, see self-censorship as a virtue and consider fear pragmatic. A tiny clause against an imagined Goliath.
These giants became real when they told Ms. A that her own story was wrong. I had used a lot of her family photos as affectionate visual references for her books. I snuck in the coif of her son’s hair at age four, the pointed chin of her daughter at eight, her husband’s trim moustache, her own broad cheeks as a young mother, swatching the characters’ skin tones directly from the scans. “Gorgeous,” she’d called the illustrations just before we’d sent the final proofs off.
So maybe social performance and performativity are not failures of personality, but a flawed framing of an individual as the center. A misunderstanding of the world stage as it really is: an ensemble. Multiple actors, all protagonists, making things happen not because it’s been proven to matter but because the alternative is bleak.
I won’t be applying to illustration jobs for the foreseeable future but I’m regularly making art that I care about. I hear Ms. A has employed someone to redraw all the books with the recommended colors, assured that my work will not see much light. Our ensemble of two seems permanently divided. It has been years since we talked, but sometimes I wonder what we might’ve made together.
I drive past Ms. A’s house every week; her house is on my way to dinner at my grandmother’s. There is a stoplight on Ms. A’s road where I brake, her white walls in my peripheral vision. Sitting still in the car reminds me of the afternoon we had our first meeting with the book printer at a small cafe in Little India. My masala chai, bhaji, and bread halwa on the table, paid for by her. The two of them were wondering how to write my name in Tamil, scrawling phonetic options on scrap paper in amusement. Ms. A gave me a lift home. Stuck in traffic, she had turned to me with bright eyes to ask, “Aren’t you excited?”
“For the books, yes very.”
“No, yourself! Your first books, I’m so excited for you!”
Then the light changed.
Claire Chee’s writing won the Soft Punk Fiction Prize and can be found in Sine Theta Magazine, The Selkie and elsewhere. She lives in Singapore.