A Southeast Asian Graphic Novel Introduces Young Readers to Dementia

A Southeast Asian Graphic Novel Introduces Young Readers to Dementia

A conversation with Melanie Lee on the story behind her graphic novel, Amazing Ash and Superhero Ah Ma.

By Melanie Lee, Renee Tan

What inspired you to write Amazing Ash and Superhero Ah Ma? Where did you get the information or idea for the story?

I really wanted to write a kid’s story featuring an Asian elderly lady who would be a ‘lead’ superhero because I hoped to subvert this idea that an old woman is someone who is totally weak and helpless. At the same time, this superheroine I had in mind would be flawed to be more human. Given how common dementia is these days, I felt this was a pertinent issue that could be addressed in the story.
As I developed this story, I also realised how important it was for Ash to process Ah Ma’s condition and taking it into consideration as they figured out how to lead their lives and do their superhero thing with limitations. By the time I finished writing this story, I realised it was as much Ash’s story as it was Ah Ma’s.
My inspiration for this story came from a variety of movies such as Wonder Woman (the first one), Howl’s Moving Castle and Kung Fu Hustle, all of which featured formidable female characters.

What kind of research did you do for this story with regards to dementia? What was one of the most surprising things you learned in the process of putting this story together?

I started out reading dementia websites. Because ‘Amazing Ash and Superhero Ah Ma’ is a middle-grade graphic novel, I zoomed in on online dementia resources catered for kids to see how it is being explained in an accessible and straightforward manner.
I also started reading stories where characters have dementia such as Still Alice by Lisa Genova and Goodbye Vitamin by Rachel Khong.
Having chatted with Ivan Loh from Forget Us Not (Lien Foundation) also helped me better understand how caregivers create a rich and fulfilling life for their loved ones with dementia.
One of the most surprising things I learned is that dementia can manifest in different ways and that while it is generally a degenerative condition, there can be rises within the dips.

But before you try to fix things or give up, take a step back and realistically consider who you are as a person, and what resources are available to you. You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.

Who is this story for? How do you want this story to support the community? What impact do you hope this story will drive?

Broadly, the story is suitable for primary school children (ages 7 – 12), many of whom still have living grandparents who may be facing ageing issues such as dementia.

However, I do think this is also a great book to read and discuss as a family. My hope is that children, parents and grandparents will develop more empathy for each other and the respective challenges they have to face.

Is there a key message you want to share in relation to intergenerational relationships, e.g. grandchildren living with grandparents (or those living with dementia), that you want to highlight?

To be honest, as someone who is part of the Sandwich Generation where I have to care for my son and ageing relatives while trying to earn a living and managing a household, it’s something that I’m still working out. The complicated dynamics of intergenerational Asian families can get overwhelming because the concept of filial piety often gets twisted to either extreme.

In writing this story, perhaps what I’m trying to tell myself and others is this: there are always many things that we all can do to become better children/parents/grandparents. But before you try to fix things or give up, take a step back and realistically consider who you are as a person, and what resources are available to you. You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.

Amazing Ash and Superhero Ah Ma is a funny and heartwarming story about the special relationship between a girl and her grandmother. This compelling superhero story eases young readers into the topics of ageing and dementia. You can grab it here.

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