Timeless Tales of Malaysia by Tutu Dutta

A version of this piece was first published in The Star in 2009.

Timeless TalesTimeless Tales of Malaysia is a collection of 11 folktales, retold by Tutu Dutta. Born in India, Dutta grew up in Malaysia. However, she now spends much of her time away from the country as she’s married to a Malaysian diplomat whose next posting is to Cuba!

Dutta has always been interested in folktales, legends and myths, which, she says are “little capsules of culture, history and also human nature”. She read and researched a great many stories before selecting those that appear in Timeless Tales. Some of them were tales Dutta remembered from her childhood; others she had read on the Internet and discussion forums; a few were from travel articles and also from published collections. The final selection was based solely on what appealed to Dutta most. “First of all, they had to have an interesting plot and the possibility of character development,” she explained to me via email, adding that she also favoured stories that end with twist. Most importantly, the stories had to “speak” to her.

Interestingly, the central characters in most of the 11 tales are female. Many are princesses; some are commoners who marry princes; there is a foolish young lady who turns into a mermaid as a result of her greed; a mother who is literally swallowed up by despair; and a young beauty whose arrogance causes the death of any man who marries her.

Although Dutta says that she did not deliberately select stories with female protagonists, “it’s quite possible that I have an unconscious preference for female-centred stories. I think only The Kelumpang Shoot Child was selected intentionally as an advocate for the girl-child – definitely, the preference for the male-child in many Asian culture needs to be addressed.”

Timeless Tales is a beautifully designed book – it has hardcovers, sepia-tinted paper, and coloured illustrations. The first letter of each tale is decorated with fine vines and flowers. Some very pretty and detailed patterns also appear in many of the illustrations, for example on the clothes of the characters and the depiction of lattice work, jewellery, vegetation and household items. Dutta actually drew all the pictures – she made pencil sketches, which were then inked in before each drawing was scanned. The colours were then added digitally by Lee Jin Jin of Marshall Cavendish, and I have to say the effect is quite impressive as the tones and textures of the colours are more varied than I have come to expect of digital work.

Dutta’s drawings have the look of 1920s Art Deco illustrations, with symmetric patterns, geometric shapes and stylised figures. The rich, bright colours make Dutta’s pictures of flowers, trees and shrubs particularly beautiful. However, her human heads lack expression and character.

As for Dutta’s writing, on first sight, the large blocks of, often uninterrupted, text might put off a child, and even an adult who might be expected to read these tales to a child. However, once you get stuck in, you’ll find the stories interesting. Still, I do think they could be improved upon by being more descriptive and also if more dialogue were used to break up the long narrative passages. 

My personal favourite story is Split Stone, Hollow Stone, which is an unexpectedly dark tale of a woman who is consumed by bitterness and unfulfilled desire, brought about, partly, by her children. Here’s a story that many mothers might (guiltily) relate to – I can imagine it as the topic of a paper on the hidden feminist imagery in children’s literature! I’m glad that it’s been included in Timeless Tales as I believe some might consider it too grim for children.

Dutta has two more books out this year – both will be published by MPH Publishing under the author’s married name Tutu Dutta Yean. These are also story collections, but are not confined to Malaysian tales. Instead, they include stories from several countries from across the Pacific Rim. The books also contain pen illustrations by Dutta.

A Q&A with the author

What made you write this collection of tales?
I’ve always been interested in researching, reading and writing (retelling) folktales, legends & myths. They are little capsules of culture, history and also human nature. But I wrote this collection specifically for Marshall-Cavendish as I was given a publishing contract. 

Where did you come across these tales? Did you have to do much research? If so, how did you go about it?
I read tons of stories before selecting the eleven in the book. The stories come from various sources – a few I heard about or read in childhood, some from Internet discussion forums, a few from newspaper articles (travel writers) and some from published books. I try to re-research all of them. Sometimes the story is just a fragment and I piece it together from a few sources. 

How did you make your selection?
I made the selection based purely on the fact that the stories appealed to me. First of all, they must have an interesting plot and the possibility of character development and perhaps a surprise or twist at the end. But more importantly they have to ‘speak’ to me. It’s hard to explain – I just prefer some stories over others. 

I notice that your stories tend to have female protagonists. Was this a conscious decision when you made your selection?
No, it was not a conscious decision to select stories with female protagonists. I just found these particular stories more interesting. But it’s quite possible that I have an unconscious preference for female-centered stories.  I think only The Kelumpang Shoot Child was selected intentionally as an advocate for the girl-child (Definitely, the preference for the male-child in many Asian culture needs to be addressed). 

I understand you are publishing another collection of stories. How do they differ from Timeless Tales?
MPH is publishing two of my books. No surprise here as they are both collections of folktales & legends. But the stories come from several countries from across the Pacific Rim (including Malaysia & Borneo) and is perhaps wider in scope. The other difference is that the MPH books are positioned as ‘young adults’ books i.e. aimed at a 14+ readership. At the moment, they are referred to as  The Qilin Book and The Phoenix Book

Why did you decide to do your own illustrations? What medium do you like to work with? Was it harder to write the stories or illustrate them?
I decided to illustrate my own book because I had a definite idea about the style of the drawings/illustrations I wanted for the book (the publisher also requested that I do the illustrations myself). However, I am not an artist and I don’t have any particular favourite medium. All the drawings were drawn by hand using pencils first and then inked in later and finally scanned and edited by computer. Then the drawings were coloured using photoshop -refer to the Acknowledgements on the last page.  It was much harder, physically, to illustrate the book than to write it, even though I just had to draw and edit the images. I had neck ache, strained eyes and Carpal-Tunnel syndrome in my right hand from gripping the pencils & pens for so long! 

Which pictures did you like illustrating the best? And why?
My favourite illustrations were generally the outdoor scenes with lots of nature & foliage e.g. Princess Hidden Moon in her moon garden (pg 19), which I thought was languid and melancholic; the seven princesses in the forest grove on pg 24 & 25 for the vibrant colours (thanks to Lee Jin Jin), the mother and child on pg 41 is quite serene, the illustration on pg 60 is rather dark and sinister, conveyed by the cave and the sinister looking trees (and Jin Jin managed to covey the mood very well with her colours) and of course the illustrations on pages 89, 90 & 91 have a sense of drama! 

Which is your favourite story in Timeless Tales? And why?
I enjoyed writing and illustrating the Gift of the Winter Melon because of the upbeat story and the element of humour. 

What can readers look forward to in your next collection?
More of the same, (also refer to Q5). I would also like to write an original chapter book for young adults. It’s also possible that I might collaborate with an illustrator instead of drawing my own illustrations! 

Who are your favourite children’s writers and illustrators? Can you name some favourite books too, that you love for their illustrations?
My favourite children’s writers are: Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton, J.K. Rawlings, C.S. Lewis, Citra Banerjee Divakaruni, Chris Wooding, Jonathan Stroud, Alan Garner and many more (mostly sans illustrations). I also enjoy reading manga by Rumiko Takahasi and the Japanese mangaka group CLAMP. Favourite illustrators are: Beatrix Potter (Peter Rabbit books), Jane Ray (Moonbird by Joyce Dunbar), Rumiko Takahasi (Inuyasha series), CLAMP (Tsubasa Chronicles), Natsuki Takaya (Fruits Basket series), L.K. Tay Audouard (Singapore Children Favourite Stories by Di Taylor), Jeong Kyoung-Sim (Korean Children Favourite Stories by Kim So-un ), Jan Pienkowski (The Fire Bird and Fairy Tales) and Aubrey Beardsley (stories by Oscar Wilde). 

How do you feel about the state of Malaysian children’s literature? What do you think must be done for it to develop and improve?
I feel there are many locally-produced children’s book out there but the quality in terms of research, writing, illustrations and production is poor. Perhaps publishers are not investing enough to develop children’s literature in the country? But one can’t always blame publishers if the public i.e. parents do not support local writers, illustrators and publishers. Parents do not give enough importance to buying good quality books for their children but are willing to splurge large sums of money on computer games, CDs etc. Teachers could also play a part in promoting reading among their students. The only way to go forward is a paradigm shift on the part of both parents, teachers, publishers and children!

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