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Malaysian Tales: Retold and Remixed, edited by Daphne Lee

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I guess I should first say that I may be biased, since I’m friends with the editor. I may be, but I don’t think I am, because I also happen to know that Daphne is more picky than me when it comes to fiction, even if she is often kinder about local works.

First of all, this book has one of the prettiest covers I’ve seen on a Malaysian book. It’s published by ZI Publications, whose books usually have nice covers, although they rarely print fiction.

This anthology collects retellings of Malaysian folklore. I’ve always wanted a collection of local folklore that isn’t in the form of a (usually badly illustrated) picture book, but a book of retellings is good enough. It’s inspired by other collections, particularly Adele Geras’ The Tower Room Trilogy and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, both of which reinterprets fairy tales, giving them new and different meanings.

Some of the stories in this collection, I’ve never heard of before, such Puteri Sa’adong, retold in “A Little Warm Death” and “The Proper Care of Princesses”, both by Karina Bahrin. And then there are the more familiar stories, like Batu Belah, Batu Bertangkup (about two children whose mother basically killed herself because they, uh, ate her food); Bawang Puteh, Bawang Merah (a Cinderella story of step-sisters, an evil stepmother and a magical dead mother, and a prince); Mahsuri (a semi-historical legend of a woman wrongly accused and punished for infidelity, cursing her village to years of strife); Si Tanggang (a story of a poor boy that makes it big and forgets his roots, causing his mother to curse him, turning him to stone); Puteri Gunung Ledang (a king searches for the rumoured beautiful and magical princess of Gunung Ledang, who makes unrealistic demands because she refuses to marry him) and Raja Bersiong (a king develops a taste for blood and starts needing it more and more, developing fangs as time goes by). And the Sang Kancil stories, which are trickster stories in a similar vein to Anansi or Brer Rabbit stories, except with a mousedeer as the trickster. 

My absolute favourite story among these is Amir Muhammad’s retelling of Raja Bersiong, which is written in the form of a film proposal to make a musical version of the folklore. The proposal claims to want to capitalize on the popularity of vampires, and retell the folklore in a high school setting. The changes proposed are hilarious, and I remember joking with a friend about doing something similar with the legend of Hang Tuah once. While this is a brilliant story in itself, I do think the musical could have worked. Zed Adam Idris’s “Batu Belah” is also interesting, reinterpreted as a a somewhat strange, futuristic tale. While I’m not familiar with the Puteri Sa’adong story, both retellings by Karina Bahrin left me wanting more.

There are also historical legends retold, such as that of Puteri Hang Li Po (retold by Janet Tay) and Admiral Zheng He (retold by O Thiam Chin), and Singaporean stories like Singapura Dilanggar Todak (Kee Thuan Chye) and “The White Tiger of Temasek” by Ho Lee-Ling, about how Singapore got its name. Some authors appear more than once, but there’s a nice variety of stories to enjoy.

Like most anthologies, Malaysian Tales has its hits and misses, and there are a couple of stories that this collection may be better without, but stories like Amir Muhammad’s “Raja Bersiong”, Rehman Rashid’s “The Legend of Din Ketolok” and Preeta Samaran’s “Mahsuri”, and the fact that this collection was inspired by Adele Geras and Angela Carter puts this in my top ten works of Malaysian fiction.

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