KUALA LUMPUR, June 4 — Stories have a wondrous, mysterious power over us. Our imaginations run wild and our hearts can’t help but grow a couple of sizes larger (as Dr Seuss’s Grinch found out). Storytellers, then, are the wizards that weave magic into our world.
Yet magic isn’t the only thing that occupies the mind of Malaysian poet and author Ninotaziz. The Calistro Prize winner’s greatest desire is to preserve and share our precious heritage of hikayat or Malay literary sagas with the world. She says, “We have to be proud of these stories because they are part of our history, part of our shared wealth.”
A public relations consultant by day, Ninotaziz (whose real name is Zalina Abdul Aziz) was born in Tasmania and lived in Australia till she was six years old. When her family moved back to Malaysia, she stayed with her grandmother in Chenor, Pahang.
Ninotaziz recalls, “My grandmother introduced me to the hikayat stories, which I loved. Tales and histories such as Hikayat Malim Deman, Hikayat Awang Sulong Merah Muda, Panji Semirang and Sejarah Melayu. At the same time, I was also devouring books in English too — the Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton books.”
This formative experience led to a great love for storytelling. When she was only 11 years old, Ninotaziz started writing poetry in English. She says, “Though I don’t have the first poem I wrote anymore, I remember it was a six-stanza, four-line poem about Florence Nightingale. It made me realise I enjoyed writing, and that I could write.”
Ninotaziz’s affinity for languages means she’s more than just multilingual; she’s also comfortable in expressing herself in more than one language. She says, “As a three-year-old, I actually spoke some Polish because my nanny in Tasmania was Polish. Then I learned Malay when I grew up in Pahang. Later I picked up French when I studied in Canada. Even today, while driving, I love to listen to different stations on the radio — Malay, English, Chinese and even Indian songs.”
One question Ninotaziz gets all the time is why she chooses to write in English instead of Malay. She explains, “I feel that there are a lot of versions of hikayat written and recorded in Malay already. I can write them in Malay too but I want these stories to be truly Malaysian stories, for everyone to enjoy, and for the stories to go international.”
For her, hikayat is more than simply the stories: “It’s about culture, food, and what people used to do in the past. My interest isn’t limited to just hikayat; I’m curious about culture as a whole — from gamelan to traditional Malay dance. My daughters take these classes, for instance. It’s the best showcase of our culture.”
Ninotaziz has written six books to date. Her first three were illustrated anthologies of hikayat stories. She says, “I spent years doing research, collating the stories from books, oral tradition and even mak yong performances. But after that, I decided to experiment and tell different sorts of stories, though still strongly influenced by the hikayat legends.”
Serendipitously this sea change in storytelling style coincided with student performances of her hikayat tales. She says, “I was invited to this urban school, which was 70 per cent Chinese, and each Form did one performance based on a story from my hikayat collection. They even made their own costumes! That was when I felt that I had broken a barrier. It made me realise these are stories for all Malaysians.”
Ninotaziz began her foray into non-anthology writing with her novel NAGA: A Legend of Tasik Chini, which she transposed to the 8th century in order to make it a more expansive story. She says, “For me, hikayat is about the region rather than a specific place such as Malacca, even though it may be centred there. But there are other influences from around the region. That’s why I included characters such as a prince from the Tang Dynasty — to show connections we have to the greater world outside.”
Her foray into Young Adult (YA) fiction continued with Onangkiu, Nik and the Secrets of the Sunset Ship and the recently released Kirana Dreams after the Rose.
The latter chronicles the time-travelling adventures of an art prodigy who is transported back to Malacca in 1511, during the era of the Malaccan Sultanate. (Her forthcoming book, Siti: The Queen Regnant, will be published in July this year.)
“YA is an exciting genre for me,” says Ninotaziz. “Because my children are growing into this age for reading YA books, I’m inspired to write in this category. It’s a challenge to put their voices into it but this is also a good way for me to test my audience. My children are my first readers.”
Storytelling is a family affair, with regular outings to watch plays in Istana Budaya such as Hikayat Siti Zubaidah (2000) and Hang Li Po (2004). She says, “Starting from when my children were small, we inculcated them with a love for stories. I have a fantastic support system in my husband Rudy. He takes the kids away for holidays or to the park so that I have time to write. The day I met him I began writing poetry again.”
According to Ninotaziz, she started writing about hikayat because she realised her young daughters were familiar with fairy tales from around the world — French, Egyptian and Chinese — but not Malay fables.
She says, “This was my way of introducing them to our stories, the way my grandmother introduced them to me when I was a little girl. In my family, we are all storytellers — my grandmother, my mother, and then me. And now my daughters too.”
Stories have a wondrous, mysterious power over us. Our imaginations run wild. Our hearts grow a couple of sizes larger. Storytellers such as Ninotaziz weave magic into our world... and we’re the better for it.
Kirana Dreams after the Rose by Ninotaziz is available at www.mphonline.com and all good book stores.