The sound of colours

by Kenny Mah

Have you ever had the experience, while travelling on the subway, when your mind just wanders off to some place between waking and falling asleep, with the chug-chug-chug of the train as a lullaby?

We could be finding our way out of a forest, where the trees are an impenetrable labyrinth of branches and roots, hiding sinister creatures in plain sight. We could be sunbathing on top of a giant whale while it swims across the seas. A pair of wings could grow from our backs and take to the sky, with the rest of us along with it.

The facts of a long day dissolve, giving way to a particularly vivid daydream or — what? We tell ourselves that it’s our minds playing tricks on us. Maybe this is simply another journey we are taking, albeit one in our imagination.

I’m reminded of the lessons we can learn from our subconscious when re-reading Jimmy Liao’s The Sound of Colours (better known as Di xia tie in Chinese, meaning “The Subway”). Jimmy, as he’s better known in his native Taiwan, began his career with 12 years in advertising before a bout of cancer forced him to re-evaluate his priorities in life.

After being successfully treated for leukaemia, Jimmy left his corporate job to fulfil his dream of writing and illustrating books. More than twenty books later, the author-artist is published around the world and his works are translated into dozens of languages. There is something universal about his whimsical stories and vibrant, colourful images that appeal to each of us.

Yet it soon becomes clear, if we pay closer attention, that Jimmy’s beautiful picture books also tell tales of the very human struggle to navigate in an uncertain world. His heroes, often children, adventure alone and appear very small amidst the chaos of the unknown.

Life becomes a series of philosophical questions, and the answers are not always forthcoming. Jimmy’s objective here isn’t to provide a solution but to reassure us that it’s fine to keep looking for one. The journey that the blind girl in The Sound of Colours take in the subway isn’t a linear one, and neither are ours, if we are honest with ourselves.

Her imagination allows her to recreate sensations – the weight and fragrance of a plump, juicy apple in her hands; the feeling of leaves falling around of her like sunshine she will never see again; the wind on her face from a butterfly flapping its wings – from her mundane surroundings.

Jimmy’s embattled characters affirm that life is indeed difficult but not impossible. There is always a way out; there is always a way to survive and thrive. Sometimes this could be something as simple as blind faith (no pun intended) – the girl cannot see the stars but believes she will find someone to describe what they look like to her one day.

Our imagination can save us.

Perhaps this is Jimmy’s legacy to his legions of readers and admirers – his insistence that giving in to grief and giving up is always a failure of our imagination. His own story reminds us that we can beat the odds and we can overcome. What happens in the end may not be exactly what we desired – it certainly won’t be perfect – but it will have meaning.

For we cannot go on journeys and return without changing, even if it is in ways we cannot yet see. Like the little girl, we may be blind. Like the little girl, we have the power to choose to see, perhaps not with our eyes, but with our minds. Our imagination.

There was an article in The Harvard Business Review titled “What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do” which went on to offer a four-step plan to deal with any challenge. I can’t help but wonder why we don’t follow the blind girl’s lead and just use our imagination?