Thursday, March 2, 2017

100 WRITERS _____ Meet Tutu Dutta, master folklorist and champion of contemporary Malaysian kidlit

Note: This post is part of my 100 WRITERS project.

Tutu Dutta, having travelled around the world and lived in many different places, decided that she would like to focus on introducing the old legends of Malaysia and Asia to today's young readers. So she got busy and wrote a lot of books for them: nine so far, and counting. In this interview below, she tells us how she has created a writing career for herself in Malaysia.

I first met her at the Asian Festival of Children's Content last year. Here's my blog post about that event, with lots of photos. And if you'd like to meet her too, she'll be speaking at this year's AFCC, twice on the same day (17 May). Her sessions are "Folklore Finesse: Retelling and Synthesis of Contemporary Stories" and "Hide-and-seek: Hidden Elements in Asian Folklores in Kidlit". Details here (scroll down to find her name). There is Early Bird pricing available, until 31 March 2017. Look for the details on this page.

Thanks to Tutu for this generous sharing. Do enjoy her insights below. Her links are at the end, so you can contact her.

— D


What should our readers know about you?
How shall I describe myself? According to my blog: ‘Tutu Dutta-Yean is a raconteur of tales and the keeper of old knowledge and wisdom. She was born in India but grew up in Malaysia.’

As to how this came about; as an undergraduate, I was awarded a scholarship by Japan Airlines, to attend Summer School at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan. Japan’s rich cultural heritage and folklore treasure trove was not only an eye-opening experience, it taught me that folktales can be literature.

I write books for children – from picture books to Young Adult fiction. But I’m probably most comfortable with Middle-Grade readers. I have to stretch to write for very young children or young adults. 

I probably decided to become a children’s book writer because of my daughter. I read a lot of books to her when she was growing up and later, I read the same books as she did. This was equivalent to a 10 year course in children’s and middle-grade books. I also realized there were few good Malaysian/Asian books for children in English. Another factor was the fact that my husband is a diplomat. I spent a lot of time overseas with plenty of time to write…

A large part of my life has been spent living overseas and I’m quite well acquainted with five different cities: Singapore (where my daughter was born,) Lagos, New York, Havana and Zagreb. I am now back home in Kuala Lumpur.

Tutu's books

What books have you written?
I’ve had eight books published to date. The first book to be published was Timeless Tales of Malaysia in 2009. I’m quite lucky that it was republished in 2016 as The Magic Urn and Other Timeless Tales of Malaysia, by Marshall Cavendish Asia.

Five of the books are published by MPH Publishing (Malaysia) and can be classified as Middle-Grade Readers i.e. for children 11+ of age, who are comfortable reading chapter books. Eight Treasures of the Dragon, Eight Jewels of the Phoenix and Eight Fortunes of the Qilin are three collections of Asian folktales. Surprisingly, adults also enjoy these books because they learn aspects of Asian culture and folklore they may not have been aware of before. The Jugra Chronicles are two books in a series. Based partly on folklore and partly on history and imagination, The Jugra Chronicles is set in 17th Century Borneo.

My first picture book, Phoenix Song, illustrated by Martina Peluso was published by Lantana Publishing (UK) in 2015. Phoenix Song is also my first book to be translated into Malay; Lagu Cenderawasih was published by Oyez! in 2016.

A ninth book is due for publication in April 2017. The book is entitled, Nights of the Dark Moon, and features 13 Gothic folktales from Asia and Africa. It will be published by Marshall Cavendish Asia.

Why are you inspired by Malaysian & Asian folktales?
I wrote my first book with two ideas in mind: 

I wanted to make a few Malaysian and Asian folktales better known among the children of this country i.e. make them realise that their own stories are as interesting as those from the West. I mean almost every Malaysian child know about Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and now even the Snow Queen but how many know about Bawang Putih, Bawang Merah; the Princess of Mount Ledang, Princess Santubong and Princess Sejinjang and the more obscure one such as Princess Tupai? 

I wanted to create (together with other writers) a body of work with Malaysian and Asian content, which could be preserved for future generations because many of our folktales are being forgotten. 

I’ve always been interested in Asian folklore and also Malay folklore (I used to watch old P Ramlee movies as a child) and wanted to write a collection of these stories, from my point of view. Each story is a different source of ideas in terms of character and plot. Basically, one has to read and research a lot.

Tutu's writing space

Tell us about your writing process.
My books are steeped in Asian culture and my writing is based on a lot of research. It’s not enough for me to just read one version of a story, I try to read as many versions/variants of the story as possible. Sometimes, the stories in Malay folklore also appear in Borneo (Sarawak), Thailand, Vietnam and all the way to China, Korea and Japan.

I suppose an important Asian value shared by many culture is the importance of the family and the community. Heroes and heroines are expected to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. The second value would be respect for elders. 

Some of my stories, especially those in Timeless Tales of Malaysia have been described as ‘feminist’ because of the importance placed on the female characters. Perhaps this is not Asian value, but I’m happy with that! I must not forget to mention that a Graduate student at the University of Malaya is writing her master’s thesis based on some of the stories in this book!

It usually takes about about eight months to produce a book, however I don’t write 24/7. I’m usually only writing about an hour or two per day. The two novellas in the Jugra Chronicles series took much longer. The Jugra Chronicles: Miyah and the Forest Demon and Rigih and the Witch of Moon Lake each took almost two years to be published.

I’ve been working on or perhaps sitting on Nights of the Dark Moon for over 10 years as I wrote the first story way back in 2005. Every year I take the manuscript out and revise the stories after I come across more information about each story.

My books are usually classified as Folklore & Fantasy, and sometimes Historical Fantasy in the case of The Jugra Chronicles.

Tutu’s favourite cafe (Bliss 33) in USJ Subang Jaya

Are you looking forward to the AFCC this year?
I think the AFCC is a brilliant idea and serves a real need in promoting books for children with Asian content. I’m quite sure it has had quite an impact on the regional children’s book publishing industry. I like the idea of a children’s festival focusing on different Asian countries each year and I’ve always enjoyed the multicultural crowd and the talk sessions given by speaker- authors and publishers. It gives us (i.e. writers and illustrators from Malaysia) an insight into the latest trend in the industry and also an opportunity to meet writers, illustrators, publishers and other content developers from all over the world. And of course, the facilitators are always so friendly and helpful.

The AFCC definitely had an impact on my progress as a writer, in fact there is a group of people I would never have met if not for AFCC: Marjorie Coughlan (blogger at Mirrors, Windows, Doors), Kamini Ramachandran (story teller), Naomi Kojima (author & illustrator), Joyce Ch’ng (author), Melanie Lee (author), David Liew (illustrator), Corrine Robson and the team from Bookaroo: Swati Ray, Jo Williams and Venkatesh Swamy. Not forgetting Mr Ramachandran and Kenneth Quek from the Singapore Book Council, Denise from Closetful of Books and She-Reen Wong from Marshall Cavendish.

Oddly enough, I also met Malaysian writers and book industry people for the first time at AFCC: Linda Tan Lingard, Daphne Lee, Vayfern Tan, Golda Mowe, Mohana Gill, Yusof Gajah and Teoh Choon Ean. It’s a place where you can forget about everyday life and just concentrate on networking.

This year, I’m looking forward to meeting Indonesian illustrators and publishers at AFCC and perhaps even pick up a folktale or two. This is a country with incredible cultural diversity and depth. I’m also looking forward to strengthening ties with Singaporean writers, illustrators and publishers. It would be great to meet publishers from the West too, where children’s books are so established. But what I would really like is for something concrete to develop from all this, e.g. a collaborative project etc

Tutu's links

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