Guest Blog Post by Tutu Dutta-Yean

Monday, September 20, 2010
Hi, everyone! I have another special guest today: Tutu Dutta-Yean. She's at Asia in the Heart, World on the Mind to share a bit about herself and her work in children's literature. Welcome, Tutu!

About the Author

Tutu Dutta-Yean was born in India, but she grew up in Malaysia. She has traveled and lived in Japan and France as a student and later in Singapore, Nigeria, New York and Cuba as the wife of a diplomat. She has a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from University Putra Malaysia and also devoted a few years researching this subject for a master’s degree in the University of Malaya before embarking on a career in public relations.

Her lifelong interest in culture, folklore and children’s literature inspired her to research and write her first book, Timeless Tales of Malaysia. Since then she has published two more books: Eight Fortunes of the Qilin and Eight Jewels of the Phoenix.

She has a teenaged daughter, Shona, who was born in Singapore. At present, Tutu is living in Havana, Cuba.

How Tutu Became a Writer

I've always been interested in folktales, legends & myths even as a child and I accumulated quite a large collection of stories (mentally that is). For me these stories are little capsules of culture, history and also human nature. A six-week trip to Tokyo, Japan in 1978 as a young student sponsored by Japan Airlines, was perhaps a turning point. I was fascinated by Japanese culture and especially by their traditional theatres – Noh and Kabuki. I found the stories, which are mostly based on a mixture of legend and history, very haunting.

But I only started researching and writing folktales in earnest about 10 years ago. I think my interest was piqued when my husband Yean was posted to Lagos, Nigeria from 1999-2002. Coming into contact with a very different culture usually gives one an alternative perspective on life! While in Lagos, I was a member of the African Book Group of Lagos. It was a very useful experience as some of the members of the Book Group taught me to analyze books in terms of plot and character.

A posting to New York from 2002 to 2005 gave me the confidence to be a writer. I had the opportunity to attend talks by writers in bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, which finally made me decide that I could write a book of my own. From New York, it was back to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where I met up with an old friend Eleanor Chen. She invited me to join the Rumah Ku Children’s Book Writers Circle. With feedback from the group, the manuscript for Timeless Tales of Malaysia was accepted by Marshall Cavendish Malaysia. I decided to undertake the illustrations myself as a cost-saving measure!

About Timeless Tales of Malaysia

I started the project by researching Malaysian folktales i.e. traditional stories that originated in Malaysia. There are some stories that almost every Malaysian is familiar with such as 'The Princess of Mount Ledang' and the 'Sang Kanchil' stories, but I was looking for the not so familiar stories. I read about a hundred stories and selected eleven which I personally found interesting and which inspired me to do more research.

The stories came from various sources - a few I heard about or read in childhood, some from Internet discussion forums on history and folklore, a few from newspaper articles (travel writers) and some from published books. Sometimes the story is just a fragment and I piece it together from a few sources. When the same story appears in several different versions, I select one version but sometimes I combine two or three different versions into one story!

I made the selection based purely on the fact that the stories appealed to me. First of all, they must have an interesting plot and the possibility of character development and perhaps a surprise or twist at the end. But more importantly they have to 'speak' to me.

The stories in the book are ‘retold’ and not ‘translated’. When you translate a story, you try to write it as close to the original as possible, but in a different language. Retelling a story means that this is your own interpretation of the story; with your own characterization (dialogues) and description. It’s true I read/heard most of the stories in Malay but I try to understand (internalize them) them and then re-tell them in my own words. It was quite challenging especially when I come across words such as ‘huma’ (hill paddy) etc. and when the original is in old Malay.

The one thing I realised when researching these stories is that folktales are quite universal. For example one of the stories, ‘The Tanjung Blossom Faerie’, is about seven fairies who come to earth to take a bath in a beautiful pool in the forest. The youngest sister loses her cloak/scarf or selendang and is unable to return home.

Regarded as a national folktale in Malaysia, this particular folktale clearly originated from Penang as Tanjung was the old Malay name for Penang. There are also similarities with another folktale, 'Tanjung Bunga', which is known to originate from Penang. The bunga tanjung (Mimusops elengi) is a fragrant, night-blooming flower.

This motif of the seven fairy sisters taking a bath in a pool appears in folktales in Japan, Korea and China. In Japan and Korea, it is about the hunter who stole the fairy maiden’s magic cloak thus preventing her from flying away. We don’t know where the story first originated from but it could be based on the ancient Chinese folktale ‘The Weavermaid and the Herdsboy’.

Even more surprising, this same motif of seven fairy sisters appears in an Iban legend called ‘Jelenggai’, also found in the collection. (The Iban is a tribal group from Sarawak, a part of Malaysian Borneo).

So from studying folktales we can see that stories travel all over the world!

Tutu, the motif of the seven fairy sisters taking a bath in a pool appears in a Philippine folk tale too! Thank you so much for this informative blog post. =D