A folk­tale comes alive

A lit­tle gem of a book takes a lo­cal leg­end to the next level.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By TER­ENCE TOH [email protected]­tar.com.my

IT’S a tale of magic and mon­sters, of beau­ti­ful princesses and wicked queens. A clas­si­cal story of a lon­glost child, set adrift upon the wa­ters, and a mys­ti­cal bond she has with an­other crea­ture. A folk­tale of love, be­trayal, and danger. And what’s more, it’s com­pletely Nu­san­tara (of the Malaysian or In­done­sian ar­chi­pel­ago) in ori­gin.

In­die pub­lisher Ra­man Kr­ish­nan first en­coun­tered the tale of Bi­dasari while look­ing through his li­brary a few years ago. It was a short story ver­sion, con­tained in a vol­ume of the Jour­nal Of The Malaysian Branch Of The Royal Asi­atic So­ci­ety .He was im­me­di­ately struck by it.

“You never re­ally as­so­ciate fairy­tales with Malay or Asian cul­ture. We think they are from West­ern cul­ture be­cause of what we’ve been told since young. So I was very im­pressed to find this. It had no pre­tence of his­tory, no pre­tence of pol­i­tics, noth­ing! The essence of a fairy­tale is that it doesn’t have to have any mean­ing. It’s just a lovely story,” says Ra­man, 70, at a re­cent in­ter­view at his book­store, Sil­ver­fish Books, in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur.

Last month Sil­ver­fish Books pub­lished Bi­dasari And The Djinn, a “bou­tique” book con­tain­ing the fa­mous tale re­told by lo­cal au­thor Ninot Aziz (real name Zalina Ab­dul Aziz). The book is fully il­lus­trated, with gor­geous black and white art by Dani War­guide, Walid Muham­mad and Shimo Manaf.

Framed as a story an old djinn is telling chil­dren, the book tells the tale of Bi­dasari, a princess whose par­ents are forced to aban­don at birth to save her from a mon­ster. She is adopted by a mer­chant and his wife, who dis­cover her life has a mag­i­cal bond with a fish.

Bi­dasari grows up, and her beauty at­tracts the at­ten­tion of a wicked queen, who longs to de­stroy her. The story con­tains el­e­ments sim­i­lar to those found in the tales of Sleep­ing Beauty and Snow White.

While the book makes for a slim vol­ume, its jour­ney to pub­lish­ing was a long one, and prob­a­bly de­serves a hikayat (saga) of it’s own.

Ra­man’s first at­tempt at pub­lish­ing this story was in 2012. He re­leased The Epic Of Bi­dasari ,a trans­la­tion of the story by C.C. Stark­weather, told in its orig­i­nal verse form. While this ver­sion was very true to its source ma­te­rial, it did not make a large im­pact on Malaysian read­ers.

In 2014, Ra­man met Ninot, who was a par­tic­i­pant in a story-writ­ing con­test he was judg­ing. Her story was ti­tled “Onangkiu Princess Of Gel­lang­gui”, and was a retelling of a story from the famed Se­jarah Me­layu (Malay An­nals).

“I read her story, and

I said, wow, this was what I was look­ing for.

“It was a Malaysian hikayat story, but told from a dif­fer­ent point of view!” Ra­man re­calls. He ap­proached Ninot, and the two de­cided to col­lab­o­rate. In cre­at­ing his book, Ra­man drew in­spi­ra­tion for the book’s look and for­mat from an­other il­lus­trated fairy­tale book: Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper And The Spin­dle (2013), with il­lus­tra­tions by Chris Rid­dell. “That book was an Euro­pean folk­tale. But I was in­sis­tent, I wanted some­thing Malaysian. I em­pha­sised, for the art, I did not want any­thing that did not look Malaysian. No manga-style draw­ings or Mat Salleh Hang Tuahs! If the char­ac­ters were Malay, then they had to look Malay,” he says, still sound­ing rather fierce about it!

Speak­ing at the same in­ter­view, Ninot, 54, says that writ­ing the book was quite an ex­pe­ri­ence, as she had al­ways been a huge fan of tra­di­tional Malay folk­tales. Many of her books fea­ture Malaysian leg­ends, a theme she picked up af­ter she dis­cov­ered her five daugh­ters were fa­mil­iar with myths and leg­ends from other coun­tries but few from Malaysia.

“I grew up with all the hikayat. I grew up with Malim De­man, Panji Se­merang, Awang Su­long Merah Muda, those kinds of sto­ries. My grand­fa­ther was a head­mas­ter, and he had cup­boards and cup­boards of books. I read them, along­side Enid Bly­ton and Nancy Drew,” says Ninot, whose pre­vi­ous books in­clude Srikandi (2011), Hikayat (2012), Nik And The Sun­set Ship (2015), and Siti (2017).

“I also read fairy­tales from all around the world. But I never re­ally con­sid­ered Malay leg­ends to be fairy­tales. To me, they were the hikayat.”

Writ­ing the book was a chal­leng­ing process for Ninot, as Ra­man em­pha­sised that a good qual­ity prod­uct was key.

“It was a long process, be­cause what I was used to writ­ing, and what he wanted ... there was a gap. I think that process made the book what it was.

“I’ve been quite used to writ­ing in a cer­tain man­ner. But what Mr Ra­man brought to me, was ask­ing me to look at things from a dif­fer­ent an­gle, how I ap­proached the story, how (the book) should stay true to the story,” says Ninot.

“Some­times, as a writer you can go any­where. So Mr Ra­man con­stantly brought me back to the story. That was the im­por­tant thing.”

Apart from the writ­ing, the art of Bi­dasari and the Djinn was just as im­por­tant to the book. Ninot first dis­cov­ered artist Dani War­guide on­line.

“His work is very de­tailed. He drew images of Me­laka that blew me away.

“They weren’t the typ­i­cal huts and jet­ties, they were mag­nif­i­cent struc­tures that blew me away,” Ninot says.

Ninot con­tacted Dani, who joined the project. The artist is re­spon­si­ble for, among other things, the il­lus­tra­tion of the djinn in the book. Mid­way dur­ing the project how­ever, Dani moved into an­other line of work and could not fin­ish the art­work; he passed the project on to fel­low artist Walid Muham­mad. An­other il­lus­tra­tor, Shimo Manaf, was brought in to com­plete other parts of the book’s art.

Ra­man took the book to the Frank­furt Book Fair last year, where it at­tracted a lot of in­ter­est. Bou­tique books like this, he says, are the way to go – it is im­por­tant to main­tain the high qual­ity for the read­ing pub­lic.

“Our pub­lish­ing in­dus­try in Malaysia is al­most dead. World­wide, the in­dus­try is not do­ing well at all. They dare not buy new writ­ers. The mar­ket has been killed. Publishers dump books at cheap prices, it de­val­ues them,” says Ra­man.

“A book to me, is a bou­tique prod­uct. I want to pro­duce bou­tique books, col­lec­tor’s items. Books that have value in them, which you are proud to show off and present. Not bought just to be read but to be kept.

“If you want Malaysians to buy Malaysian books, we have to give them some­thing of qual­ity.”

Both Ra­man and Ninot hope to pro­duce a se­ries of books like this in fu­ture.

They have many ideas: one leg­end, Puteri Saadong, is men­tioned a lot. (Puteri Saadong was a leg­endary princess of Ke­lan­tan, who be­comes the con­cu­bine of the King of Siam to save her peo­ple).

They hope to work with the pub­lic sec­tor and pa­trons of the arts, among oth­ers, to get the books pro­duced.

Ra­man also hopes that Bi­dasari And The Djinn can be show­cased in lo­cal li­braries, to reach as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble.

“Our lo­cal sto­ries are so rich and di­verse. We have to be ex­cited about them. We need to see them on the screen, ev­ery­where. They be­long to all of us,” Ninot says.

Bi­dasari And The Djinn is avail­able from Sil­ver­fish Books (Bangsar Vil­lage II, 20-2F, Jalan Telawi 1, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur) and on­line at sil­ver­fish­books.com.

The djinn as imag­ined by Wadi.

— Pho­tos: From Bi­dasari And The Djinn

One of the main, two-page art­works from the book, por­tray­ing Bi­dasari’s be­gin­nings.

— sHaarI CHeMaT/The star

‘Our lo­cal sto­ries are so rich and di­verse,’ says ninot.

— sHaarI CHeMaT/The star

‘I want to pro­duce bou­tique books, col­lec­tor’s items,’ says ra­man.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.