Because we’re constantly bombarded with bad news these days, I find myself gravitating towards books and shows that can take me to a faraway place. (Thank you, Ilona Andrews and K-dramas.)
But it doesn’t always have to be this way. Sometimes it’s good to pick up (or re-read) a novel that makes us think and reflect about the times we live in today.
Here’s why: Trafalgar Sunrise tells the story of Grace Hwang, a healthcare worker who finds herself in the frontlines of the SARS outbreak in Singapore in 2003. The experience stirs up memories of her time as a teenager in Trafalgar Home, a leper colony where her best friend, Alice, had to put her baby up for adoption.
Grace then makes it her mission to bring the now-cancer-stricken Alice and her daughter together, as she also looks for the person who discovered the cure for leprosy.
Danielle’s second book, Trafalgar Sunrise was a finalist at the 2019 Singapore Book Awards (Best Literary Work).
(Her first, The Sound of SCH, was published in 2014 and was the co-winner of the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize for English Non-Fiction. It’s Danielle’s personal account of her uncle’s struggle with mental illness, and how her mother coped as his caregiver.)
As the world deals with the COVID-19 crisis, there are certain elements to Trafalgar Sunrise that make it a timely and thought-provoking read.
For Danielle, for example, some memories and lessons come to mind, especially those about her writing and research process, the topic of SARS, and its effects on lives and relationships.
They’re just some of the reasons why Trafalgar Sunrise is next on my list. 😊 (Will I find it in yours too?)
#1 The different sides of human suffering
“Human suffering is at the heart of my writing, and with that, the search for beauty, redemption and hope,” Danielle states.
“Illness and disease have always been major causes of human suffering. Trafalgar Sunrise weaves through two infectious diseases, leprosy and SARS. Leprosy, now curable, has left perhaps the longest trail of illness and suffering in human history, while SARS, in contemporary times, is much more acute. Both leprosy and SARS resulted in the isolation of patients (much more permanent and painful in the case of leprosy), and both diseases saw the goodness and courage of the healthcare workers who cared for those afflicted.”
#2 A resolution is possible
“‘How we humans have been at the mercy, since time immemorial, of the smallest living things that derive their power from being unseen’ – this is a line from the book,” she points out.
“But, at the same time, we must continue to hope, to believe that we will prevail against these microbes, and to work hard to make that belief come true. That’s why it was very important for me, when I wrote my novel, to focus on the cure to leprosy and the overcoming of the SARS crisis.”
#3 A sense of kinship
“‘The stirrings of a German man toiling in a laboratory, who must have donned mask and gloves as he walked each day into a laboratory full of deadly microbes, testing drug after drug day after day, unseen will against unseen enemy’ – this line from later in the novel is a rejoinder to the earlier line,” Danielle adds.
“After centuries of human suffering caused by leprosy, a cure was found in the mid-20th century. After months of battling the SARS virus, we defeated it.
“I think that when faced with uncertainty and struggle, there’s a human instinct to try to make some sense of what is happening, to give form to the inner discomfort and emotions, and to search for hope. Being able to connect to the fears and struggles of the characters in my book living through SARS and leprosy will hopefully help readers feel that they are not alone, that the world has been through similar illnesses, and that we will find a way to come out of this.”
#4 A better understanding of what healthcare workers are going through
This is Danielle’s hope. “In Trafalgar Sunrise, the protagonist, Grace Hwang, is a nurse who was cured of leprosy, and who finds herself in the thick of the battle against SARS more than 30 years later,” she recounts.
“The book is dedicated to those afflicted with leprosy and SARS, and to the healthcare workers who fought so bravely against the deadly SARS virus. Some of them fell in the line of duty. Some who have read the book say that they have a greater appreciation of what our healthcare professionals are going through because of my book.”
#5 An experience closer to home
“I realised that there are very few books in Asia written from the perspective of healthcare workers battling a deadly, infectious disease. This is one of the reasons why I wrote the book,” Danielle admits.
“There was no novel in Singapore which delved in-depth into what doctors, nurses and healthcare workers went through during the SARS crisis – their fears, their struggles, their courage and their sacrifice.
“Our healthcare heroes – be it during SARS in 2003 or COVID-19 currently – deserve to be honoured, so that’s what I tried to do through my novel.”
#6 A belief that we can turn things around
“I also believe that life is reverberative, in the sense that the ‘what is’ is not static, that what I read can influence my beliefs and actions, and that if this happens, my (positive) beliefs and (positive) actions can push the boundaries of ‘what is’ a little towards ‘what can be’,” she maintains.
“This was a key focus in writing Trafalgar Sunrise – the miraculous cure of leprosy which caused tremendous suffering since the earliest human civilisations, the courage of those who helped us battle SARS, and the attempt by Grace, the nurse protagonist, to create redemption for her friend.
“If we are to hope for a better world, then we must try to create a better world ourselves, by our own beliefs and actions, no matter how small. And to be able to do this, we must search for the small pockets of beauty and hope amidst all the trials and struggles.”
If there’s one other thing that Trafalgar Sunrise also encourages us to do, is that we need to keep on going. In Danielle’s case, it’s to continue writing in some way – to find inspiration and strength in that process during these times.
She is actually working on her second novel (her fourth book). “I spent most of March just immersing in the story I’m creating and discovering – the characters, the world they live in, the struggles, but also the light, funny moments they find themselves in. I cry and laugh along with my characters.”
Danielle’s other means to stay calm and focused? 😊
• Find your escape
“I feel that when our present reality is grim, immersing ourselves in a different reality – be it through writing or reading – helps in many ways,” she observes.
“It gives us space to move out of the confines in which we feel fettered. At the same time, making that human connection with people past and present makes us realise that many have suffered or are suffering in much more painful ways than what we’re going through. Being thankful for that helps us carry on.”
• Enjoy the simple things
“I also find inspiration and strength in the small gifts life gives me: precious moments with my family (this crisis reminds us that life is fragile, that time and precious moments with loved ones are finite); a beautiful sunrise or sunset; sightings of a family of otters in the park, which bring a smile to my face; each wonderful day that we and our families are alive and safe; and each wonderful moment that I’m able to breathe the freshness of the morning air, listen to the birds chirping, smell the flowers, and be soothed by the sound of flowing water in the park.
“Going to the park has been more difficult in these times, but that’s just for the time being till we get through this crisis.”
You know what else can provide an escape, and you can add to your “simple things”? Books. More meaningful books await. Catch up on the tales you missed. 📚😊
What’s Danielle reading?
After Trafalgar Sunrise, you might want to check...
The works of Anne Lee Tzu Pheng (various collections) and Aaron Lee (Coastlands)
“I am drawn to writers who recognise the truth of human struggle, but who also push through such struggle towards gems of beauty. This is the hallmark of a lot of poetry, so in difficult times I find that reading poetry helps me.”
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
“It is a beautiful novel set during WWII, in which the stories of a blind girl and an orphan illuminate the ways, against all odds, that people try to be good to one another.”