Interview: Dee Char

mr-low-and-the-magic-of-borneoDee Char is the author of Mr Low and the Magic of Borneo, a children’s book set in the foothills of Mount Kinabalu. It is an adventure story as well as the coming-of-age tale of Bibi, a Dusun child who must learn to deal with the unique gift she possesses as well as the changes and threats that her community is facing.

Dee (who is based in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah) and I met on Zoom as fellow writers and committee members of the Malaysian Writers Society. From our subsequent text- and video-conversations, it’s been evident how interested and passionate she is about Kadazandusun (the unification term and the collective name for more than 40 sub-tribes who are the native speakers of Dusunic languages and some non-Dusunic speaking tribes who call themselves Dusun or Kadazan) culture, and traditional arts and skills.

I interviewed Dee recently via email, about the experience of writing and publishing her first book, and how she hopes to write more stories that feature indigenous lore.

What led you to write Mr Low and the Magic of Borneo?
During the month of Harvest Festival in 2019, a friend asked me if I knew of any local legends for children. To be honest, at that time, I only knew about Huminodun (a character, from Dusun mythology, who was sacrificed to bring an end to famine). This story, about the origin of the harvest festival, is one of the few that the native community still shares with their children. Apart from Huminodun, I did not know any other legends. I was searching for more stories when I came across Gayo Nakan. I decided that I wanted to bring him to life via a historical connection to our sacred Mount Kinabalu. That is how ‘Mr Low’ came in. That was how it started.

Why did you choose to set the story in that point of time?
It was a progression from the idea of trying to fit ‘Mr Low’ into the story. I also wanted something not too far in the past, when life in Sabah was at the verge of being modernised, but still had its innocence; and talk of what we now call ‘magic’ was a normal part of life. Plus, I was interested by the life of people before missionaries came to our shores.

Are you planning to write more stories that feature the folklore of the Dusun and other indigenous groups of Sabah?
Yes, that is the plan. I have two more stories lined up, but have yet to get them on paper. The idea is for a book series and I want to bring our other indigenous groups to attention too in the stories. Our different tribes, our diversity, is what makes Sabah beautiful.

What made you self-publish your book instead of trying to find a publisher?
I wrote to a few publishers based in Malaysia but there was no response. It was also the start of the pandemic in 2020 when the book was ready and I thought why not just self-publish. Maybe it was just me being so excited (or rather impatient) to get it out that I couldn’t wait for any feedback or response. Haha. As you know, submissions to publishers … these things take time. It could be months of waiting and sometimes one may not even get a reply. So, when it came to registering for an ISBN, I just went for it.

From experience, what are the pros and cons of self-publishing?
I would say one definitely has more control over one’s work when one self-publishes. But it is a big cake to bite! Especially when one is green. You will feel overwhelmed and suddenly realise, uh-oh, I have to organise the layout …what about images? Oh dear, the budget! Yes, all that comes into play, but if you are confident and can take criticism and feedback, you can improve along the way. I cannot say that my first finished product is 100% great — there are things that I could still improve on.

With self-publishing, you have to do everything from writing, to illustrating, to the marketing of your book. Unless you get help, or can pay others to do it, if you can wait for a publisher or a literary agent to get back to you, it is worth waiting. If not, you do it like I did, haha! Don’t think too much, just do it! Haha!

But sigh, I am lacking in the marketing area … so yeah, just taking it slow at the moment, doing what I can, when I can.

One must also remember that, with this pandemic, everything is almost at a standstill. So yeah, just don’t be too hard on yourself. Just set a reasonable goal and work steadily towards it.

Is it something you will do again for future books? And if so, what, if anything, would you do differently?
I would wait to see I hear back from an agent, or a publisher! Haha. Back then, in early 2020, I did not know certain people I know now. So, with my other books, I would ask these people for advice It might be tricky as the other books are part of the same series as this first book, but it’s all up for discussion. For example, I have made contact with a literary agent in Malaysia. They are interested but can only discuss my work sometime in October. So I have to be patient and wait for that discussion. Only after we have talked, will I know what new direction to take (if any).

What kinds of books did you read as a child? Any favourite titles or authors?
As a child, we didn’t have many good bookshops here in KK … but we got access to Enid Blyton. I think her books were my favourite. I also loved TinTin.

And what are you reading these days?
Believe it or not, my child’s books. Haha! I thought, if I need to write for children, I’d better think like one. At least try to get into their world. I do love to read children’s books now. I find it a way for me to escape and relax after a long day.

Is there an author who inspires you?
If I could pick two women … the poet, Maya Angelou and the Sabahan Artist, Tina Rimmer. Both started their art in adulthood. Maya went through a lot as a child. She found inspiration where pain would have engulfed many. And Tina, she found inspiration in a land new to her. And she kept at improving herself, despite not being trained professionally. Decades later, she became a Sabahan Icon. They were bold. Lesson: Start where you are and keep improving.

Could you share your thoughts on the preservation of the culture and customs of the Kadazandusun through stories? How important is this to you and why?

To date, we are lucky that preservation of the culture and customs of the Kadazan-Dusun community has been spearheaded by the KadazanDusun Cultural Association (KDCA).  They have published some books and through their annual events, have raised awareness of our cultures and traditions. It is great that Malaysians in other states know that we have our own language, our own belief systems and traditions.

I was once approached by a Singaporean who blatantly stated that natives of Sabah are Malays. She continued to say that the native languages in Sabah are derived from the Malay language. I have never felt my blood boil so much. I don’t have an issue with my fellow countrymen, but I do have an issue when it comes to the blanketing of cultures.

That lady’s ignorance showed just how badly many outside of Malaysia (as well as in Malaysia) do not know how diverse our country is. If she knew a bit more about Sabah, about our belief systems, and if she were aware of the richness of our native languages, she would not have said that sentence. I pitied her ignorance. But what she said kept the flame burning inside me.

However, I am what I call a lost Dusun. My father is not Dusun so we were encouraged to speak English at home and I do not speak my native language. Thus, in my family the language has been lost in just one generation.

Actually, the word Dusun, used to label natives outside of the Penampang (a district in Sabah with a majority Kadazan population) area, is not a name that we originally gave ourselves.

This word, Dusun, is a Malay word, which means ‘Orchard’. So naturally, it isn’t a word that we called ourselves but evolved administratively over the centuries.

This word was used for tax collection purposes by the Brunei Sultanate and then adopted by the British. To bring our ethnic group together, we now use terms such as KadazanDusun and KDMR (Kadazan, Dusun, Murut, Rungus) or Momogun KDMR. (Momogun means ‘indigenous people’. )

I would like to see our culture represented in children’s books, in genres that are interesting for children in the cities, interstate and (dare I say ambitiously), overseas.

Our children belong to a generation quantum leaps from our childhood, with digital tech and information at their fingertips. We need to bring our old stories to life in a way that our children can relate to or can get interested in.

If not, our identity and knowledge of the culture will slowly dwindle.

Could you tell us more about your links to the Kadazandusun?

My mother is native Dusun. She came from a family whose ancestor was once revered as a chief and prominent leader in his community. It was said that he held special knowledge. This was before Christian missionaries came.

In our conversations you have mentioned medicine women who are instrumental in the rituals and ceremonies of the Kadazandusun. Could you please elaborate a little on these women and how the knowledge that they hold is dying?

They are known as the boboizans or bobolians. Within the Penampang area, they are known as bobohizans.

Outside of Penampang, all other native groups call them bobolians.

They are priestesses in our community, highly-respected women who are trained from childhood. I am no expert but what I understand is that their training takes a long time because of its oral nature of passing on knowledge.

Priestesses and priests (which are a minority in Sabah’s tribal communities) are intercessors, standing in the gap between people and the spiritual realm. They are called upon for every important event in Sabah, from the sacrifices made on Mount Kinabalu to our Tadau Kaamatan (Harvest Festival) to a blessing ceremony. If you are lucky, you will see one present at such events. However, many of our bobohizans have passed away. I am unsure of how many we have left. Due to modernisation and religious conversion to either Christianity or Islam, many younger natives no longer practise the old religions or rituals. They have opted to pursue education and, where possible, a life in the city with good salary.

Another obstacle of being a bobohizan/bobolian is that one must be chosen. One cannot simply rock up and say ‘I want to learn!’ A child is chosen based on her/his gift and this ‘gift’ is spotted by the bobohizan/bobolian, the teacher-to-be.

One must also be able to carry such a role. The child must grow into this role and be strong enough to take it on.

Author Image_Dee CharMy great grandmother was chosen and trained. As a child, she was made to recite and learn their rituals. But she converted to Christianity as a teenager when she married my great grandfather. I do not know when she stopped being trained, whether later on she was not suitable for the role or she just wanted to marry. And as it was a taboo to ask about anything of the ‘old art’, they never talked about her life prior to accepting Christ.

But remnants of her training would resurface occasionally. She would scold my mother (in the old days) when my mother brought plants into the house. Perhaps my mother tried following the Western style of having indoor plants but my great grandmother saw something else in those plants.

Another time, my great grandmother read the moles on my sister’s foot and told her that, as an adult, she would be far away from home. Whether it was a vision of the future, or just coincidence (that this came to be), I will never know.

Finally, what are you working on at the moment?
I am working (on and off) on pieces for the second book of the planned book series and I am also writing another short story which I hope to submit for an online entry. Online entries are great motivators. It is good to pick and choose a deadline because it forces one to keep writing for something!

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