KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 22 -- Imagine a murder in Kota Baru. The victim is from a wayang Siam (Patani-influenced shadow puppetry theatre) troop. The Chief of Police is a young man from the west coast and unfamiliar with Kelantanese customs. Enter Mak Cik Maryam, a middle-aged Kelantanese fabrics trader from the central market, who decides to investigate…
Sounds like a winning synopsis for a detective novel in a local setting rather than some far-flung metropolis. Very Malaysia Boleh! What if I told you the author of this profoundly Malaysian tale also happens to be an American?
A Brooklyn girl in Kota Bahru
Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Barbara Ismail, who holds a PhD in Anthropology from Yale University, is the author of the “Kain Songket Mysteries” series. The first title in the series published by Monsoon Books, Shadow Play, won Singapore’s Best Debut Novel Award at the 2012 Singapore Book Publishers Association Book Awards.
How did this quick-witted and soft-spoken novelist end up writing about a female sleuth and kain songket trader from the Kota Baru marketplace in the 1970s and ‘80s?
She shares, “I had studied Malay in college and spent my junior year in Java. I came to Kelantan because my advisor at school, Douglas Raybeck, had done his field work in Kelantan. He was the one who taught me Malay and so I decided that I wanted to do my graduate work there.”
Barbara then spent five years in Kelantan from 1977 to 1982, living in Kampong Dusun and Pengkalan Cepa. During this period, she studied wayang Siam and the Kelantanese dialect.
“I was 17 and I had never been out of America before, so I was totally taken by the place. I lived with a family in Kelantan and discovered my inner Kelantanese!”
The women behind Mak Cik Maryam
Mak Cik Maryam was inspired by many strong women Barbara had encountered early on in her life.
“One of my neighbours in Kampong Dusun had a songket store at the Kota Baru market. Also, my mother’s name was Miriam which is why I named the character Maryam. Like Kelantanese women, my mother was very take charge. Her view of jewellery was very Kelantanese: You pass them to your daughters, and your daughters-in-law can keep their hands off it.”
Barbara chuckles as she recalls an incident, “Once my sister-in-law said to my mother, ‘I’d like to have a keepsake.’ And my mother asked her, ‘Do you have a mother? Ask her.’ And she was right. Of course, I have two daughters so I don’t have this problem.”
Family is important to this New York native. She explains, “My family came from Europe to America with their jewellery sewn into their clothing. My mother always told us, ‘You got to have a lot of jewellery because if anything happens, and you need to go anywhere, you have to be able to take it with you.’ It’s sink or swim.”
She observes, “When I write about Mak Cik Maryam, jewellery is very important – how you wear it, how you show it off, how much you are wearing for where you are going. Jewellery is one of the reasons Kelantanese women have their own money. It’s not their husband’s money; it’s not family money. The money is theirs. And so they are very independent and don’t have to put up with stuff.”
The matriarchs of the marketplace
Since returning to the States, the mystery author has returned to Kelantan many times as she loves the warm and welcoming Kelantanese culture and community.
Barbara particularly enjoys writing about her lead character and her interaction with the local police department: “Like most Kelantanese women, Mak Cik Maryam is a woman who likes to make sure things are done right, and if other people are not doing their job, then she will do her job and their jobs as well.”
She adds, “You know, Police Chief Osman is not a real person. But I’m sure there are younger men like him who is waiting for an older woman, mother figures like Mak Cik Maryam, to tell him what to do.”
Barbara observes that Kelantan has changed a lot over the years. “Kelantan is no longer just its own little world. It’s attached to everything else. Now there are roads open all year and floods no longer cut off Kelantan. It’s easier to reach and there is TV, cable and the Internet.”
She also laments the loss of some old standbys. “The old marketplace is gone. They opened a new market elsewhere. It’s a four-storey, concrete structure. The market is now darker, and not as organic. It’s not the same.”
Perhaps her books will be Barbara’s contribution to a world she loves: the past gets to live on in her stories. As she puts it – “Only the murders are invented, the rest is just reporting.”
Of Greek epics and Kelantanese mysteries
There will be at least seven books in the series – each one named after a traditional arts or cultural activity in Kelantan. The next book, Songbird will highlight merbok or dove singing competitions, customarily the domain of men in Kelantan.
Barbara shares that she only started writing these stories three years ago. “After 30 years, I thought about it and decided I was finally ready. I’m a slow thinker,” she laughs.
She adds, “There are things that you think you like to do and you do them now or they are not going to get done. Time is not infinite. I had decided I was going to learn to read Greek because I always wanted to, and to write a book. So it was time to get going as both of those are hard.”
Barbara has since read the epic poem “The Iliad” in its original Greek. She quips, “It’s really fun; I recommend it. And then I wrote my first book. You got to get going.”
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on November 21, 2013.