Author Tutu Dutta-Yean is ‘a raconteur of tales and the keeper of old knowledge and wisdom’ – her books highlight her interests in folklore, both in her widely researched retellings of Asian folktales and her Jugra Chronicles series, a blend of traditional folklore and fantasy.
Tutu was born in Churachandpur in Manipur, India, but moved as a child, via Kolkata, to Kuala Lumpur. She has travelled a great deal, and it was while she was living in New York that she collaborated with Lucy Bedoya-Maire and James Konatich on her first children’s book, Twelve Treasues of the East. Since then she has both written and illustrated other folktale collections, published in both Malaysia and the US.
You can find and read an interview with Tutu at the Saffron Tree (2013), and Tutu herself blogs at Betel, Banyan, Basil & Bamboo, which is a must-read for anyone interested in Asian, especially Malaysian folklore.
In this article, Tutu gives some insight into her own writing: in particular, how she has blended folklore and fantasy in her Jugra Chronicles; and she also highlights some of her current favourite Malaysian children’s books: altogether, a fragrant rampai bunga (‘pot pourri’) of Malaysian children’s literature today.
The Jugra Chronicles
(Or how a story for an anime script-writing competition with a villain inspired by the Powerpuff Girls became a fantasy fiction series…)
by Tutu Dutta-Yean
Miyah and the Forest Demon was initially written for the Animax Asia Awards, a regional script-writing competition, all the way back in 2007. Needless to say, I didn’t win… (The winning entry was a futuristic anime about people who commit crime being wrapped in plastic instead of being sent to prison.)
Anyway, I wrote a synopsis of the story and pitched it to Eric C. Forbes and Janet Tay of MPH Publishing. They actually liked the idea and I decided to rewrite the script into a manuscript. After many revisions, plot changes and countless rounds of editing, Miyah and the Forest Demon finally saw the light of day. Published in 2011, the folklore-influenced fantasy novel is set in 17th-century Borneo. The illustrations by journalist/children’s book author and illustrator Choong Kwee Kim are atmospheric and beautifully detailed and add to the appeal of the book.
I chose to set the story in Borneo, due to the unique and diverse folklore traditions associated with the island, including head hunting and the use of magic! In the end, I narrowed it down to a coastal region near Brunei – in the past, the Sultan of Brunei had suzerainty over most of Borneo. The time period is the 17th century, over a hundred years after the fall of the Melaka Empire. I did some research into the history of the area and came across the place name ‘Tanjungpura’ and decided to use it in my story. The story is set against the backdrop of a power struggle in Tanjungpura, an ancient trading kingdom with ties to the Han Kingdom, Hindustan, Majapahit and Melaka, which was then under the Dutch.
The protagonist is 12-year-old Miyah, from the Tapoh longhouse, whose father is the village Shaman. Her best friend is Suru, a girl whose father (a trader from the Han Kingdom who was once stranded in the village) has long since left the village. Miyah’s mother is the village midwife, a role which is also associated with magical abilities.
One morning, Miyah’s mother asks her to remain in the longhouse and look after her younger brother Bongsu as she had to go to another village to deliver a baby. But it is a beautiful day and Miyah has promised to meet her friends at a waterfall upstream. Miyah disobeys her mother and joins her friends. A sudden sun-shower at the waterfall accompanied by the eerie cry of a bird, both harbingers of misfortune, reminds Miyah of Bongsu. She returns home to find Bongsu missing! This part of the story (of a child lost in the forest and believed to be abducted by an evil spirit) is quite a stock part of native folklore in Malaysia and many other countries. The quest here is to recover a lost child rather than to look for treasure…
The main antagonist is the supernatural Hantu Rimba or Forest Demon. This infamous creature from Bidayuh and Malay folklore grabs and literally swallows the unwary who are unfortunate enough to cross its path. But what is the true nature of the Hantu Rimba? What did it sound like? Folklore tends to be quite sketchy about such matters – we only know about its ogre-like eating habits. But I had a more manipulative and subtle entity in mind. In fact, I drew inspiration from the evil, scary HIM, a terrifying character from the Powerpuff Girls!
So the Hantu Rimba of Bidayuh folklore acquired some of the attributes of HIM. Of course, the true nature of the Hantu Rimba is later revealed in the second book, Rigih and the Witch of Moon Lake, so that it can be vanquished – otherwise that would be impossible (the devil is in the details).
Rigih and the Witch of Moon Lake picks up the story three years after the first book. Miyah’s cousin and friend Rigih, who is now an angst-ridden ‘young adult’, is the protagonist. He is aided in his quest to rescue Miyah by the mysterious Witch of Moon Lake. The Witch herself is based on the traditional Kadazan/Dusun shamanic healers known as Bobohizan (female) and Bobolian (male). These shamans have deep knowledge of herbal lore and are also the keepers of old tribal customs and traditions. They spend long hours in meditation to go into a trance where they are able to travel to the spirit world. In the past, they also played an important role during the planting and harvest seasons to invoke the rice spirit for a bountiful harvest. There are still some practising Bobohizans and Bobolians in the state of Sabah. Interestingly enough, in the southern islands of the Philippines, female shamans are known as Babaylians.
I also used another folktale (that of the seven faeries who crossed the dimension into our world to bathe in an enchanted forest pool) to explain the origin of Jugra and his magical powers. This tale is pervasive throughout Asia, from Japan to India. In most of the stories, a farmer/fisherman/hunter steals the magical cloak of one of the faeries, thus forcing her to remain on earth as the wife of the man who deceived her. I retold a gentler version of the story (The Tanjung Blossom Faerie) in my book Timeless Tales of Malaysia. Another creature of legend which makes an appearance in the book is the remaung or weretiger. There are no tigers in Borneo but folklore tells us that they once roamed the forest of Borneo before becoming extinct.
The cover and the black-and-white illustrations on the inside are by Tan Vay Fern. She made the Witch/Bobohizan much more beautiful than I had envisioned, but I’m not complaining! Her forceful personality comes through from the unwavering, direct gaze. Vay Fern used stylised traditional motifs from Sarawak and Sabah in her designs for chapter headings and also for the costumes of the characters.
A special lake plays a small but important role in the book – as you can probably tell from the title! The Moon Lake is styled after Lake Lonar, located in the Buldhana district of Maharashtra, India. Both the science and the myth behind the lake are fascinating. Previously believed to be 60,000 years old, a study in 2010 put the age of the lake at 650,000 years – plus or minus 80,000 years!
Even the origin of the lake was misunderstood – less than a decade ago, it was thought to be a volcanic crater. We now know that the lake was created by a meteorite which struck the Deccan plateau and created an almost circular impact crater. Lake Lonar is of intense scientific interest because it is the only impact crater on basaltic rock found on Earth. The extremely hard, black basaltic rock is thought to mirror the geology of the moon or Mars!
The legend behind the lake is equally fascinating. A demon called Lonar was terrorising and impoverishing the people of Buldhana, who called upon Vishnu to vanquish him. The lake was created when Vishnu (a Deva or god) flung Lonar (an Asura or demon) onto the earth. The impact of the demon’s body created the lake while his body became the water in the lake, which is more salty than the sea. A number of ruined temples along the shores of the lake indicate that people must have sensed the powerful magic emanating from the place.
Did I get my idea for Moon Lake from the Legend of Lake Lonar? Not really. I’ve known about meteorite-impact craters for a long time and had already made up my mind to incorporate one into my story. In fact, I was surprised when I read about Lake Lonar because it seemed exactly what I was writing about. The legend and the ruined temples scattered along its shores indicate that people must have sensed there was something supernatural about this lake, and my research gave me a feel for the place – how a body of water can inspire mystery and awe and perhaps even fear.
The Jugra Chronicles: Miyah and the Forest Demon
written by Tutu Dutta-Yean, illustrated by Choong Kwee Kim
(MPH Publishing (Malaysia), 2011)
For a more complete write-up about the book, refer to editor Alan Wong’s Bibliophobia blog post. He wrote that it was ‘styled according to CS Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles’ (gasp!) but the actual inspiration behind The Jugra Chronicles is Ruth Manley’s Chronicles of Old Japan –The Plum Rain Scroll, The Dragon Stone and The Peony Lantern. Unfortunately, Manley passed away before her last book was published. It has always been a secret wish of mine to write the fourth book in the series…
[Ed: And I refer you to Tutu’s excellent blog post ‘Adapting Asian Folklore as a Basis for Children’s and YA Literature‘, based on a paper she presented at the 2013 Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore.]
The Jugra Chronicles: Rigih and the Witch of Moon Lake
written by Tutu Dutta-Yean, illustrated by Tan Vay Fern
(MPH Publishing (Malaysia), 2013)
For a tongue-in-cheek write-up of the book, refer to Alan Wong’s Bibliophobia…
Eight Treasures of the Dragon
written by Tutu Dutta-Yean, illustrated by Tan Vay Fern
(MPH Publishing (Malaysia), 2011)
A retelling of eight folktales and legends about dragons from Asia. The countries represented in this collection include China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore. The chosen tales reflect the pervasiveness of dragonlore in Asia and its close connection with the element of water and with ruling houses.
You can find a review at Saffron Tree, written by Sathish Ramakrishnan.
Timeless Tales of Malaysia
retold and illustrated by Tutu Dutta
(Marshall Cavendish, 2010)
Author and journalist Brigitte Rozario reviewed the book in The Star online: ‘Some of the stories will sound familiar and some will be new – all are tales that are sourced from around Malaysia. And, by that we really mean Malaysia, because it has stories from the north to the south and even Sabah and Sarawak.
The stories are short with lovely illustrations. Most of them have a moral to them and all of them are entertaining […]Reading this book is like listening to a veteran storyteller who knows how to keep you interested in the story right till the end. […] The characters in the drawings look very Malaysian (the stance, the features and even the gestures) and the illustrations vary in size, sometimes spilling over to the next page with the words wrapping around the drawings.
Malaysian-Published Children’s Books that I Admire
(in no particular order)
Four books in the series have been published to date: ABC and Special Wheels, Let it Be and Explosions of Storks, Laughing Forest and Trees Cry Too, and Lolliland and Sick Week. When I saw the first book (gifted to me by Brigitte herself), I was under the impression that it was going to be the usual book about boisterous boys getting into scraps but I was pleasantly surprised. It does have boisterous boys getting into scraps but the books also addresses serious issues such as bullying, refusing to go to school, adapting to a new child in the family and even environmental issues, all in an accessible and entertaining way. It is also about friendship and trust.
The large, bold and colourful illustrations by Tan Vay Fern set the tone of the books. Beebo is fast becoming a Malaysian bestseller!
Fun at the Opera gives us an inside look into the now fading world of the Chinese opera, through the eyes of a child. To add to its appeal, the book is bilingual book, in English and Chinese. The lively and colourful hand-painted illustrations are by artist and antique collector, Susanna Goho-Quek, herself.
Hayley’s Vegemania Garden
written by Mohana Gill, illustrated by Tan Vay Fern
Award-winning author and culinary expert Mohana Gill reaches out to children of all ages in Vegemania. Her easy-to-follow recipes give everyone an incentive to learn cooking and present the health benefits of a vegetarian diet in a light-hearted and fun way. The content is beautifully supported by Vayfern’s delicate illustrations.
Legendary Princesses of Malaysia
written by Raman, illustrated by Emila Yusof
(Oyez!Books (Malaysia), 2013)
This illustrator-driven book is a delightful feast for the eyes. Emila Yusof’s beautiful illustrations are well supported by Raman’s text on the lives and exploits of ten legendary princesses of Malaysia. The detailed drawings of traditional Malaysian costumes and scenery makes this a must-have book for the young girl who is a romantic at heart.
The Proud Butterfly and the Strange Tree
by Jainal Amambing
(Oyez!Books (Malaysia), 2010)
The story of a proud and beautiful butterfly which tried to destroy a tree it deemed was too ugly…
Artist and illustrator Jainal Amambing hails from Sabah, a state in Malaysian Borneo. He was awarded the Encouragement Prize at the NOMA Concours for Picture Book Illustrations in 2010 , ACCU, UNESCO, Japan. His other books are: The Wonderful Sparrow, Longhouse Days and The Magic Buffalo.
Three Green Dreams
written by Roshni Menon, illustrated by Yusof Majid and Seeling Tan
(SmallPrint (Malaysia), 2012)
A well-written book about a bright and cheerful girl called Ria who travels and makes friends with children from all around the world (usually in a green dream). There is a surprising twist at the end of the story which will make readers pause and think. Illustrations are by Seeling Tan, for the characters, and Yusof Majid for the landscape. The author Roshni Menon is an ENT surgeon and this is her first book.
Picture Books for Older Readers
Ah Fu: The Rickshaw Coolie
by Choong Kwee Kim
(MPH Publishing (Malaysia), 2007)
A story based on an actual historical incident – the strike by the rickshaw coolies of Penang during the late nineteenth centruy. It features a young rickshaw coolie called Ah Fu, who dreams of making enough money to bring his family from China to Penang. Written in rhyming couplets and illustrated by the author herself, this bright, funny and heart-warming book is a little treasure.
Quek Sue Yian’s book looks at the harrowing plight of young refugees of war and conflict through the eyes of a young zebra called Kailash. The zagged and twisted mixed-media illustrations by Khairul Azmir Shoib add to the intensity of the story. Kailash was given a citation by White Raven and is part of the White Raven Catalogue 2014 for the International Youth Library.
Nonah or The Ghost of Gunung Mulu
written by Margaret Lim, illustrated by Su Jen Buchheim
(Fairy Bird Books (Malaysia), 2008)
The late Margaret Lim is known for The Payah Rainforest Adventure series. The four books in the series, illustrated by her daughter Su Jen Buchheim: Payah, Four Eyes, Precious Jade and Turnip Head, and Nonah or The Ghost of Gunung Mulu feature an eight-year-old Kayan girl called Payah who lives an adventurous and fun-filled life with her friends. They live in a close-knit community in Belaga, in the interior of Sarawak. The stories celebrate nature and life in the rainforest.
Margaret Lim was nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA) in 2008. In 2010, the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) honoured her and her daughter, by placing Nonah on its honour roll.
Pigeon Post and Other Stories
written by Gwen Smith, illustrated by Lim Lay Koon
(Oyez! (Malaysia), 2014)
In her review of this book, editor and author Daphne Lee wrote: ‘I feel this sort of book works particularly well with young readers who are just transitioning from being read to, to exploring words on their own.’ She points to ‘Chickens’ as one of her favourite stories in the collection: ‘for Lim’s illustrations, and also the very Malaysian, very real story of escaped chickens (I witnessed a similar incident as described by Smith on my drive up to Penang recently) […] None of Smith’s stories have neat, happy endings. They are really about stuff that could happen at home, and the way problems are resolved are just imperfect enough to have a satisfying ring of truth.’
by Iain Buchanan
(Consumer Association of Penang (Malaysia), 2008)
From a review by author Amir Muhammad: ‘Although this is a work of fiction, it’s very much an act of remembrance. […] Iain Buchanan did not grow up in such a place, and you might say he’s a romantic. But romantics are better than cynics, and in reconstructing the collective memories of his wife and her extended family, he has crafted one of the most stunning local publications you will ever come across. The colour illustrations, many of them spanning across two pages, are full of wonders. You can see every leaf, hear every cicada, and even smell the “pleasingly mysterious” bunga tahi ayam: ‘not sweet, not fragrant, but musty, spicy, with a little bit of pepper, earth and smoke.’
And from a review by Sharon Bakar at Bibliobibuli: ‘whilst the book will undoubtedly appeal to older children (many of whom may have lived the story!), it will strike a chord with every Malaysian who cares about the environment and heritage, regardless of age, and will probably travel very well beyond these shores as the issues it raises are universal ones. […] I’m not ashamed to say that the story moved me to tears – especially the part where Fatimah finally does come face to face with her tiger.’
There are only a handful of writers who write books in English for tweens and young adults (YA). They include Teoh Choon Ean (Nine Lives; Magic Eyes) and Golda Mowe (Iban Dreams) – I’ve written a little about them here.