Tutu Dutta retells Malaysian folktales and also creates original stories based on the myths and legends of the region and beyond. Her latest book is The Blood Prince of Langkasuka (Penguin Random House SEA), inspired by the Malaysian legend of the fanged king of the Bujang Valley. The following Q&A was done over email. For more of Tutu, visit her blog Betel, Banyan, Basil & Bamboo.
What is the best thing about being a writer? And what inspired you to become one?
Writing came naturally to me. Possibly the best think about being a writer is that you can do it at your pace and do your best work in places like cafés and libraries instead of an office.
I worked as a Researcher for a number of years and later as a Public Relations consultant for a decade, so it was a way to earn a living. If you are referring to writing fiction, I only started about seventeen years ago, when we were posted overseas. It may have been inadvertent -— I spent a decade reading the books my daughter was reading (maybe from five to fifteen) and acquired a knowledge of children’s books and trends in children’s writings. I started writing to create books I wished were out there.
Could you elaborate on the kinds of books you wished were out there?
This was before the year 2000, so I had little knowledge of what books were out there for Malaysian children. I wished we had the Malaysian equivalent of Enid Blyton, the Harry Potter books, for example. Actually, I remember that Oxford University Press/Fajar Bakti and Federal Publishing had some children’s books but they seemed to have disappeared. As I child, I didn’t bother to remember the names of authors/publishers, I only learned these later as a teenager. S
Were you a reader as a child? What turned you on to reading, and what was/were your favourite book(s) growing up?
Yes, I was an avid reader as a child. I don’t know what turned me on to reading; my father was a lifelong reader (he read more books than me) and so was my grandfather. Reading is a compulsion, and I may have inherited this trait. However, I remember being irresistibly drawn to books with colourful, well drawn illustrations as a young child. The books themselves seemed to have magical qualities. I also remember reading the labels on cans and bottles and knew things like Nestle had its headquarters in Nassau, the Bahamas as a seven-year-old but no idea where that was. A curious child will read the world, not just books.
My favourite books would have been the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Andersen (initially simplified and illustrated), and I didn’t know who wrote them. When I could read more fluently, I picked up Enid Blyton, the Tin Tin and Asterix comics, the Biggles books by W.E. Johns, Edna O’Brien, Paul Berna, Antoine de St. Exupery, R.L. Stevenson and later Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, Louisa M, Alcott, Jules Verne, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Oscar Wilde, Pearl S. Buck, Bronte Sisters, Marvel comics, Adibah Amin (non-fiction articles), Lat, Shahnon Ahmad, Samad Said, etc. These were not necessarily books that belonged to me or my family — they came from libraries, or were borrowed from friends. I grew up with four brothers and I never went through the ‘romantic books’ phase. When my friends mentioned ‘Mills & Boon’ as a teenager, my response was ‘What are Mills & Boon?’
Did you read/hear about any local folktales/folklore when you were growing up? Whom from, and what stories were they? Also, what did you think of them?
I came to Malaysia (from India) as a child in 1963 and grew up in Malaysia. I remember the Indonesia-Malaysia Konfrontasi in Standard One — we were told to run out of the class and line up in the field whenever the alarm bell rang (but nothing happened.) In India, my uncle read to us Bengali folktales, which featured a lot of witches known as petni. In Malaysia, we had Malay neighbours — the children of army officers. I learnt to speak Malay from them, and it only took a few weeks, I think. The stories about penanggalan came from the Indonesian maid; about Orang Minyak standing under the banana tree from the spooky eight year old Malay girl next door. She also told us that we had to ask permission from the ‘penunggu’ before plucking any flowers and fruits from. Stories about pontianak and Batu Belah Batu Bertakup came from television. Books were mainly the source for fairy tales. They were all fascinating …
Which of your books is your favourite to write, and why? And which one was the hardest to write, and why?
My favourite book to write was probably Timeless Tales of Malaysia, perhaps because it was the first to be traditionally published and was a labour of love. The research was almost as interesting as the writing and gave me an understanding of Malaysian folklore. It was also the book where I honed my skills as a writer of fiction. However, I almost developed carpal tunnel syndrome doing the illustrations.
The hardest to write was The Blood Prince of Langkasuka, because of the length (I’m used to writing short stories and tightly written novellas), the complicated plot and the need for the story to unfold in a logical manner (it surprises me that reviewers find it simple and easy to read) and also the research involved in making the world building convincing. Writing this book required some detective work to place the protagonist in a probable timeframe and setting.
What inspired you to write The Blood Prince of Langkasuka?
I’ve had a longstanding fascination about the pontianak and vampires and would have written a book about vampires eventually. I did some research into the Bujang Valley Civilisation in 2013, due to the public outcry over the bulldozing of some of the ancient chandi in the valley. I even wrote a blog post on 4th December 2014 about the need to gazette this entire area as a UNESCO Heritage site. During this time, I was also researching a figure from Croatian folklore called the Black Queen of Medvedgrad since we were living in Zagreb at that time. It seemed logical to expand the research into other vampire legends, including Raja Bersiong.
I saw the Raja Bersiong film by Jamil Sulong as a child and also read the Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa in school and later, newspaper articles about Raja Bersiong (the Fanged King). It was the research into the Bujang Valley Civilisation which made me wonder if the Fanged King had actually walked in this valley! The clincher was my research into Kedah genealogy — the fact that he had a name — Phra Ong Maha Perita Deria — and a place in history. The genealogy placed the character within the Bujang Valley timeframe and also within the Sri Vijaya timeframe — so I had a name, place and a setting. Of course, the book is a work of fiction.
Why do you think you’re fascinated with the pontianak and vampires? Do you believe in supernatural creatures and have you had any encounters/experiences that you’d describe as supernatural?
I honestly can’t explain this fascination, but I believe it exists in all of us to a greater or lesser degree. Maybe it is a need to experience danger. As a teenager, I thought pontianaks and vampires were terrifying and vile. Three TV series — Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and later, the Japanese anime series, Blood+ -— changed my views about vampires. And of course, Anne Rice’s book and the movie, Interview with a Vampire. I would also like to mention my research into Indian folklore uncovered vampires called vetala, which were described as intelligent and perceptive higher-level demons. This resulted in a retold folktale entitled King Vikram and Betaal the Vampire, in Nights of the Dark Moon.
I don’t think I’ve had any encounters with the supernatural, except perhaps when I’m in a waking dream and I seem to sense the presence of others. But these feel more like beings from other dimensions rather than supernatural creatures.
Can we expect more supernatural stories from you? Any hints as to what they might be about?
Maybe just another one. I still haven’t decided yet. It could be a possession.
Your books tend to be collections of folktales or inspired by folktales. Why do you like to write these kinds of stories?
I’ve naturally been drawn to fairytales and folktales, since I was a child, so it’s possible that my brain is wired that way. These stories resonate with me, no matter which culture they come from. I’ve read different versions of the same stories by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen from childhood to adulthood, and each re-reading has been fascinating. Fairy tales and folktales are a rich treasure trove of stories and they are rooted in our culture — readers will identify with them almost on a subconscious level. I remember back in 2002, when I picked up a book (Michael Foreman’s World of Fairy Tales) for my daughter but I ended up reading myself. This is an anthology, with stories written by well-known personalities. There was a story about a demigod called Maui, from New Zealand by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa which intrigued me. After some research, I was thrilled to find out that the Maui myths were found throughout the Pacific islands — New Zealand, Hawaii, Fiji, Tonga, Tahiti, Samoa and the Easter Islands. The realisation dawned that folklore linked all these islands and the people living there …
Anyway, this could be the latest trend in books, and it goes back a long way. Starting with Alan Garner in the 1960s with The Owl Service and The Wierdstone of Brisingamen; Gregory Maguire in the 1990’s (Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister), the Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Barduga (which is supposed to be based on Russian folklore) then Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, The Winter Witch trilogy by Katherine Arden, Circe by Madeline Miller, very recently The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec, and the very latest, Sister Song by Lucy Holland.
What stories can we expect from you in the future? Have you ever thought of writing something that has nothing to do with folklore?
My latest WIP is a contemporary middle grade-YA crossover entitled Lapsang Souchong. The main character, Nathan, is a biracial 15-year-old boy who has a Siamese cat called Lapsang Souchong. It’s a coming-of-age school adventure story, set in the Subang Jaya suburb. There are refences to the folklore and history of cats, but the story itself is not based on folklore.
I also have an unpublished picture book, called Meng the Tiger (illustrated by Vayfern Tan), which is contemporary and not based on a folktale. It is about the circle of life and the need to understand the true nature of animals (and people) and accept them as they are.
Can you recommend your favourite retellings of folktales (from any part of the world)?
Sengalang Burong by Benedict Sandin; Folktales from India by A K Ramanujan; Green Willow and Other Japanese Fairytales by Grace James; The Noh Plays of Japan by Arthur Walley; Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales; Hikayat by Ninotaziz.
Which authors are you inspired by, in general, as well as those who retell folktales and are inspired by folktales?
I probably first thought of writing children’s books after reading Ruth Manley’s books, but I didn’t start until twenty years later. This Australian author only wrote three children’s books: The Plum Rain Scroll, The Dragonstone and The Peony Lantern, these were absorbing original stories with engaging characters and events taken from Japanese folklore. The other author who inspired me was Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni with her Conch Bearer trilogy. Other favourites are Antoine de St Exupery (The Little Prince), Agatha Christie, J. K. Rowling, and more recently, Susanna Clarke and Yangze Choo. Two novelettes, Red as Blood, White as Bone by Theodora Goss, and How the Marquis got his Coat Back by Neil Gaiman also stunned me.
What’s a book you’ve read recently that you really love?
The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke, The Traveling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, Tiger Spirit by Barbara Ismail and The Malay Story of the Pig King by Heidi Shamsuddin. On my TBR is The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf, Black Water Sister by Zen Cho, How the Man in Green Saved Pahang and Possibly The World by Joshua Kam, The Keeper of Stories by Suffian Hakim and Wing of the Locust by Joel Donato Ching Jacob.
The following list comprises Tutu Dutta’s books that are still in print:
- Eight Jewels of the Phoenix Published by MPH Publishing, October 2009.
- Eight Fortunes of the Qilin Published by MPH Publishing, October 2009.
- Eight Treasures of the Dragon With illustrations by Tan Vay Fern. Published by MPH Publishing, June 2011. Finalist for the PNM-RTM Award 2013 for Best Fiction in English.
- The Jugra Chronicles: Miyah and the Forest Demon With illustrations by Choong Kwee Kim. Published by MPH Publishing, March 2011.
- The Jugra Chronicles: Rigih and the Witch of Moon Lake With illustrations by Tan Vay Fern. Published by MPH Group Publishing, May 2013.
- Phoenix Song With illustrations by Martina Peluso. Published by Lantana Publishing (UK), September 2015. (Lagu Cenderawasih (Malay translation), 2017).
- The Magic Urn and Other Timeless Tales of Malaysia Published by Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2016.
- Nights of the Dark Moon: Gothic Folktales from Asia and Africa Published by Marshall Cavendish Editions, Singapore, May 2017.
- The Principal Girl Published by Gerakbudaya Enterprise, Kuala Lumpur, March 2019.
- The Blood Prince of Langkasuka Published by Penguin Random House SEA, Feb 2021.