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