Friday, December 02, 2011

Retelling Tales

This review of appeared in The Star last week.

Folktales hold a mirror up to our inner lives and provide us with a shared frame of reference, so it’s small wonder that many modern authors (among them Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories and Adèle Geras who writes the introduction to this book) have been inspired to update these traditional stories.

In Malaysian Tales Retold and emixed, Daphne Lee pulls together a selection of some of Malaysia’s finest fiction writers (as well as Singapore’s O Thiam Chin) to share their versions of traditional stories. What results is a collection of very fresh new fiction with its roots in the oral past, but exploring contemporary concerns.

The writing is most effective when the writers give their legendary characters a human voice, exploring their motivations and preoccupations. Endless Night by Daphne Lee gives a voice to the legendary character Puteri Gunung Ledang and transforms her into a “wholly magical entity” in a piece which is both lyrical and sensual. Preeta Samarasan’s retelling of Si Tanggang captures the depth of a mother’s heartbreak and makes it entirely plausible that this wronged woman could utter the terrible curse that would turn her own child to stone. Samarasan also transforms the Langkawi legend of Mahsuri, a woman accused of adultery and summarily executed, into a moving contemporary love story of a young woman much wronged, both by her absentee husband, and by her delinquent brother who claims to have killed his sister for the family honour. The writer uses the piece to ask important questions about sexuality in Malaysia – an issue, she says, which is quite inseparable from race and religion.

In several other stories in the collection, the female protagonist emerges as stronger and wiser than in the original version and violent confrontation is replaced with wit and diplomacy. This is certainly the case in Karina Bahrin’s A Little Warm Death where the legend of Puteri Sa’adong is given a contemporary twist as jet-setting wife Sadie manages to finally persuade her reluctant stay-at-home husband to accompany her on her travels. And in Trick or Tree M SHANmugalingam reinterprets the Sang Kancil legend and gives it a cheeky twist: Kamariah the idealistic little mousedeer joins forces with her traditional foe, the crocodile Bakar Buaya to fight the loggers who threaten forest.

It is remarkable how well O Thiam Chin’s The Last Voyage and Janet Tay’s The Gift mirror each other. Each takes a real historical character around whom legends have accrued, largely because we have so few solid facts about them, and they create entirely convincing voices for them.

O Thiam Chin shows us Admiral Zheng He reflecting on his great sea voyages and past glories He shows us too his private pain and longing, as he prepares now to venture into the unknown territory of love. The Gift revisits the story of Hang Li Poh sent from her home in China and delivered “appropriately packaged like a birthday gift fit for a king” to marry Sultan Mansur Shah of Malacca, a sweetener for a trading partnership between the two nations. In both stories there is a revealing of physical mutilations (for Hang Li Po it is her bound feet, for Zheng He the scars of castration), and a hope for acceptance in the face of truth.

There is more lighthearted fare in the book. Playwright Ann Lee’s Su and her Natural ove for Swimming brings together an unfulfilled housewife and a rather strange swimming pool attendant who form an unlikely friendship. Amir Muhammad’s contribution – written in the form of a proposal to a head of studio for a remake of Raja Bersiang – is a tongue in cheek piece in which Amir draws on his extensive knowledge of the film industry in Malaysia. As he suggests each change the story (transposing the story to a private secondary school, tapping into the teenage vampire craze, turning it into a musical) the story becomes increasingly farcical.

Another piece that stands out is Rehman Rashid’s The Legend of Din Ketolak which grew out of his research for a series of articles he was commissioned to write on Pulau Pangkor. The voice of the old man comes through most strongly as he tells us about the days when the Malays were giants, three times bigger than they are now, and true heroes.

Elsewhere, Zed Adams rewriting of Batu Belah gives the traditional story an imaginative sci-fi twist; Ho Lee Ling accounts for the strange Singha creature spotted by the Prince of Palembang after which the Lion City got it’s name; and Kee Thuan Chye’s retells the story of Hang Nadim the young man who saves Singapura from the swordfish scourge. It is as Kee says it is “a tale that speaks to use today”, with its echoes of the contemporary political scene, and indeed he has used it as the basis for his bitingly satirical play The Swordfish, Then the Concubine.Working with original tales clearly gave the writers a firm framework on which to hang their own ideas. If I might be permitted a slight niggle though, a short synopsis of each original story would have helped readers to appreciate the transformation. (Perhaps this information could have been put on a website?). However, most of the retellings are strong enough to be enjoyed in their own right, and this is without doubt one of the best Malaysian short story collections of recent years.

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