How to revive Malaysian fairy tales

'Bidasari and the Djinn' by Ninot Aziz is her retelling of an epic folktale or 'hikayat' (left). Calistro Prize-winning author Ninot Aziz believes in reviving Malaysian fairy tales (right). – Pictures courtesy of Ninot Aziz and Silverfish Books
'Bidasari and the Djinn' by Ninot Aziz is her retelling of an epic folktale or 'hikayat' (left). Calistro Prize-winning author Ninot Aziz believes in reviving Malaysian fairy tales (right). – Pictures courtesy of Ninot Aziz and Silverfish Books

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 9 – Growing up, we are nursed on a staple diet of European fairy tales such as Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood.

How many of us remain unaware of a wealth of local myths and fairy tales though? Ninot Aziz hopes to rectify that with her new illustrated book, Bidasari and the Djinn.

Published by Silverfish Books, the book is Ninot’s retelling of an epic folktale or hikayat that used to be popular throughout the Nusantara region.

Silverfish Books publisher Raman Krishnan views the book as one way of preserving the 'hikayat' stories
Silverfish Books publisher Raman Krishnan views the book as one way of preserving the 'hikayat' stories

The Malaysian author and Calistro Prize winner, whose earlier books include Naga: A Legend of Tasik Chini and Kirana: Dreams After The Rose, explains that the myth was “one of the most romantic syair (a Malay epic poem) of all time."

In 2011, Ninot (whose real name is Zalina Abdul Aziz) embarked on a personal project of retelling and reviving Malaysian folk tales and legends.

She says, “I was putting together all my research on Asian stories into an anthology of 400 legends and folklores. I had written a few novellas based on the hikayat epics and syair. Bidasari struck me as unique as its retelling is recognisable across the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia.”

Around the same time, Silverfish Books publisher Raman Krishnan came across The Epic of Bidasari – first published by Colonial Press in 1901 – while looking through some volumes of the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (JMBRAS).

He says, “Charmed by the fairy tale, I decided to republish it in 2012. It is the story of Sleeping Beauty that appeared to have been written before the arrival of Europeans to the East, giving rise to the question of who copied whom.”

'Garuda' by Dani Warguide
'Garuda' by Dani Warguide

Serendipitously, Ninot didn’t find any text on the Bidasari myth until she read the version Raman published, leading to the two meeting up in 2014.

Raman says, “We decided to collaborate on a project to publish a series of books on the subject to both reclaim our heritage and introduce the books to the local and international markets. We cannot be a nation without stories of our own.”

In Ninot’s retelling of the fable, Bo the Djinn is a storyteller who lives in the mountains and acts as the wise narrator who relates the tale of Bidasari, who is “a veritable Sleeping Beauty of the East.”

The book, which is targeted at adults and young readers alike, is meant to be the first in a series of titles based on hikayat romances.

'Magical Goldfish' by Shimo Manaf
'Magical Goldfish' by Shimo Manaf
Bidasari and the Djinn is illustrated by a trio of artists – Dani Warguide, Walid Muhammad and Shimo Manaf. Ninot says, “The illustrations were meant to showcase the ancient Malay world. This was not easy. Kembayat was based on Champa civilisation, one of the earliest Malay kingdoms. The plants and kampung scenes were added to create that nostalgia as you turn the pages of the book. It was a team effort.”

According to Ninot, the journey to the finished book came with its fare share of humbling experiences. She says, "I have heard other writers describe Raman as the toughest editor in town. He is, but he is key to my growth as an author. He never accepted anything less than his expectation. Working with a firm editor to push you changes your thought process which is key to output as a writer.”

When Ninot sent in her first manuscript, she didn’t realise that the famously scrupulous editor would spend a month reading it. She recalls, “I was so impatient. Raman was kind and calm, but basically he was telling me my manuscript was not good enough. I was devastated. I am afraid I was rather arrogant when I first started working with him; I had by that time published about four titles.”

'Tok Bo' by Walid Muhammad
'Tok Bo' by Walid Muhammad

Ever the professional, Raman continued to encourage Ninot and showed her different ways to look at her story, be it building a character or strengthening the plot. She says, “I had to throw away my ego. Finally I felt confident enough and sent my manuscript back. This time, he told me it was much better. This went on for another two drafts. Finally one day he told me, ‘Your version may be the definitive retelling of Bidasari.'"

How does one revive almost long-lost fairy tales? Like an adage from such a fable, one assumes: If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again!

Bidasari and the Djinn by Ninot Aziz is published by Silverfish Books and is available at its bookshop (20-2F, Bangsar Village 2, Bangsar Baru, KL. Tel: 03-228 448 37, 03-220 11 758. www.silverfishbooks.com)