Retellings worth rereading

Antique shadow puppet: wayang kulit from Malaysia’s neighbour, Java [credit: Invaluable.com]

Daphne Lee (editor): Malaysian Tales.
Retold & remixed
Foreword by Adèle Geras
ZI Publications, Malaysia 2011

Sixteen tales, fourteen authors, one culture, all united in demonstrating the vitality of narrative traditions from the Malay peninsula. Drawing from myth, folklore, legend and oral history, these are refurbished tales in distinctive voices with individual tones, approaches and narrative styles. A few are straightforward retellings but most spin their stories — as all creative writings do — to give them contemporary relevance, either through placing them in modern contexts or drawing out themes latent in the originals. Daphne Lee has exercised a careful editorial judgement to commission and sequence these, and each tale has a brief afterword to explain how each contributor has arrived at their choice and treatment.

And what a range of treatments we are offered. Modernised tales which bring out psychological truths about personal relationships. A fable analogous to the story of the Gingerbread Man which uses updated language, puns and twists. A legend about a vampiric raja now turned into a pitch for a teenage movie. A tale about how Singapore is saved repurposed to explain why the saviour might have been condemned to death. A curious tradition about a rock that eats a mother is given the science fiction treatment. Each tale is rooted in Malay traditions but hybridised to give startling new blooms.

There are too many tales to mention all of them, but I’ll identify a handful of contributions which were standout for me (though another time I’ve no doubt I’d choose a different selection). Karina Bahrin’s ‘A Little Warm Death’ was a fine opening to the collection, with the implication that it’s possible to persuade one’s loved one that the idea you’ve cunningly implanted is their own. The following ‘Batu Belah’ by Zed Adam Idris is the tale given the haunting science fiction spin that I mentioned earlier, a reflection of the moral ambiguity implicit in the original tale of a ‘man-eating cave’. Janet Tay’s ‘The Gift’ gives a personality and history to Hang Li Po, an “alleged princess from China” sent to marry a Malay Sultan from Malacca; while O Thiam Chin’s ‘The Last Voyage’ is presented as a memoir by Zheng He, the famous 15th-century mariner and explorer whose voyages took him from China as far as East Africa in extraordinarily massive sailing ships.

Puteri Saadong merits at least two tales in this book, both by Karina Bahrin, ‘A Little Warm Death’ (mentioned above) and ‘The Proper Care of Princesses’, in which the princess learns how to be herself, courtesy of a helpful mermaid. Daphne Lee’s own ‘Endless Night’ relates another Puteri beloved by a Sultan, Puteri Gunung Ledang, and transmutes her into an all-powerful goddess who, by promising pleasure to her suitors asserts her own power. Many of the tales are about women finding inner strength, raising their self-esteem, being more proactive than appears on the surface, taking back control; unsurprising given the editor’s Damascene moments encountering the work of Adèle Geras and Angela Carter.

The striking cover design of this collection, with its tawny-golden colours, echoes the skin of the tiger, and takes me finally to ‘The White Tiger of Temasek’. The folk etymology of the independent Malay city of Singapore, using a dubious onomastic explanation for its being named after a singha or lion, inspired Ho Lee-Ling to develop a narrative of a tiger disguised as a lion as the root of the legend. It’s completely fitting, therefore, that the coat of arms of the country has a pair of tigers as supporters.

Though I read Malaysian Tales over a period of time it made a great impression on me, underlining a great cultural tradition that remains alive thanks to creative writers remembering tales told or read in childhood. One hopes that, in a rapidly changing world, essential truths about cultures remain even as they have to adapt, and — reverting to the plant metaphor I mangled earlier — that they are strong enough to resist the pests and parasites that can so easily deform, distort or even kill them. Revisiting these pieces for a review reminds me how thoughtful and enriching these very varied retellings are, and how much I anticipate reading them all over again in the future.


I received a copy of Malaysian Tales from the editor though not necessarily for the purposes of a review. I admit I was predisposed to like them but luckily the publication is just as good as I hoped it would be!
2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: a book from another culture

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17 thoughts on “Retellings worth rereading

  1. piotrek

    Beautiful book, and you review makes the content look really interesting. I have a collection of Vietnamese folk tales, but apart from that – Japan is the only Far Eastern country whose culture I’ve ever explored.

    Most of the time, we just rehash a limited number of European folktales, and I love them dearly, but sometimes it might be a good idea to go beyond that 🙂

    1. I agree absolutely, Piotrek. I tried not to draw out too many parallels with international folklore motifs identified by the authors (especially in the tales involving princesses) because these retellings deserve to stand on their own merits, but I couldn’t resist the Gingerbread Man reference. As with you I need to read more widely in folk culture around the world, and I need to get on to my copies of Russian and Turkish folk tales and also The Virago Book of Fairytales edited by Angela Carter, all of which I’ve only briefly dipped into.

  2. earthbalm

    Great post again Chris. I passed on a used copy of a collection of Japanese folk tales yesterday and regretted it when I arrived home.

    1. piotrek

      It hurts me to even read about, why would you give away a perfectly good book? I, on the other hand, yesterday retrieved two books I loaned my friends almost a year ago, and it felt soo good 🙂

      1. earthbalm

        Apologies for not being clear, by ‘passed on’ I meant that I had the opportunity to buy but didn’t though I have given away to charity and to friends, over the last two years many, many books. Mainly, it must be said, to make space for my son’s History reference books. Again, sorry for not being clear.

        1. piotrek

          Oh, it’s me who… wait, no, I’m not sorry, even if I misunderstood you, it gave me an opening to brag about my book-hoarding habits 😉

            1. earthbalm

              There are of course, some books I could never part with – Russian Blue (by Helen Griffiths) and The Hound of Ulster (by Rosemary Sutcliff) – the two novels I have the earliest of reading recollections though there would have been earlier books I read as we received a Purnell’s Children’s Classic book (or similar) every Christmas. But the two aforementioned books I’ll never be able to give up (though I have a paperback copy of the latter, waiting for Calmgrove).

    2. That’s the downside of decluttering, one almost instantly regrets being overly virtuous when it comes to books! Perhaps there should be some kind of carousel system with books—you place them on the travelator for others to consider retrieving but then they come round again, eventually. Hang on, I think there’s a system like that, isn’t it called a library?!

      Glad you liked the review!

  3. Thanks for the review! I’m hoping to re-publish the collection (with some tweaks) after my own is out next year. It’s encouraging to read this review and I’m glad you enjoyed the book.

    1. My appreciation for this increases each time I reread one the tales, Daphne, so thank you for gifting it in the first place! Hope your own collection is going well, and that it has as excellent a cover as this one. 🙂

  4. Looks and sounds like a great read! Folklore is very revealing when it comes to a culture’s foundations, isn’t it? Whether we repurpose it and put a twist on the original tale, or just tell the old tale anew, they say so much about a worldview, environment and mindset of a people…

    1. There was an interesting interplay between cultural navel-gazing (and I mean that in a positive way) and a cosmopolitan worldview, Ola, which made this collection both attractive and accessible, to my way of thinking. But it would be interesting to read the original versions of some of these tales too, to see how much has changed.

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