Today, I am very lucky to be interviewing Tutu Dutta. Tutu is an Indian-born Malaysian author of children’s books on Asian folklore. She has published eight books to date.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
1. What made you become a writer?
I used to read a lot as a child. After my daughter was born, I read a lot of books to her when she was young 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…
2. How long have you been writing?
About 10 years in Public Relations/Communications and another 10 years as a children’s book writer.
3. You have written 8 books in all? Which is your favourite?
It’s hard to say. Probably Timeless Tales of Malaysia, my first traditionally published book (Marshall Cavendish.) It has been republished in 2016 as The Magic Urn and Other Timeless Tales of Malaysia, by Marshall Cavendish Asia.
Eight Treasures of the Dragon is also quite special because adults seem to like it as much as the children!
I’m also very proud of Phoenix Song, because I think it’s the first children’s book to be published in the UK, by a Malaysian writer. Phoenix Song is also my first picture book and my first book to be translated into Malay as Lagu Cenderawasih.
4. What inspired you to write your first book?
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.
5. Where do your ideas come from?
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.
6. How much research do you do for each book?
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.
7. How long on average does it take you to write a book?
Usually about eight months, however I don’t write 24/7. I’m usually only writing about an hour or two per day. The two novellas took much longer. The Jugra Chronicles: Miyah and the Forest Demon and Rigih and the Witch of Moon Lake took almost two years, each.
8. Who do you think will enjoy reading your book? Do you have any reader (age group) in mind when you write?
The books published by MPH can be classified as Middle-Grade Readers i.e. for children who are comfortable reading chapter books. I would say 11+, although younger children have enjoyed them. Surprisingly, adults also enjoy these books because they learn aspects of Asian culture and folklore they may not be aware of before.
9. What genre are your books?
My books are usually classified as Folklore & Fantasy, and sometimes Historical Fantasy for The Jugra Chronicles.
10. How do you find time to write?
My daughter is grown up now so I have more time on my hands. But I started writing when she was young because I spent a lot of time overseas where I I was basically a homemaker.
11. What are your books about?
Timeless Tales of Malaysia is a collection of Malaysian folktales. Eight Treasures of the Dragon, Eight Jewels of the Phoenix and Eight Fortunes of the Qilin are three collections of Asian folktales.
The Jugra Chronicles are two books in a series
12. Are your books a series or stand alone? Which do you prefer to write/read?
The folktale collections are stand alones but The Jugra Chronicles is a series. The folktales are probably easier to write because the plot is already there. The series are harder to write because I have to come up with an original plot and subplots. I used the old Spice Route and the Monsoonal voyages from China to Southeast Asia as an element in the story – about how people from different cultures found themselves in a single village. I would really like to see more support for the series, because I think the two books are quite interesting to read. The series also incorporate elements from folktales but in a new way.
13. Do your books have a moral lesson?
Most of them do. But I don’t try to push the moral lessons in an obvious way. It’s more about being honest and true to yourself; looking beyond the surface; working together to achieve something important; respecting the opinions of elders who may actually know more than young people etc Usually, but not always, bad people get punished in the end.
14. What cultural values can readers gain from reading your book?
My books are steeped in Asian culture… 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!
Also, referring again to Question 13, I’m more interested in telling a good story. A book has to draw a person in and make them feel compelled to read. Using Eight Treasures of the Dragon as an example, I was also told by a Chinese Ambassador that she was really surprised to read the folktale from China called The Dragon Wells of Yanjing because she never knew that Beijing had such an interesting history behind it!
15. Who designed your book covers?
Tan Vay Fern designed Rigih and the Witch of Moon Lake and Eight Treasures of the Dragon.
Choong Kwee Kim designed Miyah and the Forest Demon. The rest were designed in house by MPH Publishing. The cover for Phoenix Song was designed by Martina Peluso and I illustrated Timeless Tales of Malaysia myself.
16. Are you working on another book?
I’ve completed the third book in The Jugra Chronicles series a few months ago. It’s called Suru and the Bloodstone of Temasik. However, I’m facing difficulties in getting it published because of the lack of support from readers. Apparently, this is a problem faced by many Malaysian writers.
17. Can you share a little of your current work with us?
In Suru and the Bloodstone of Temasik, Suru and her best friend Miyah journey to Tanjungpura (a powerful trading city with ties to the Han Kingdom, Hindustan and Melaka, which is under Dutch rule) with Dayang Putih, who is a powerful witch. The three women enter the household of Pangeran Delima as members of her elite female guards. They are later joined by Suru’s brother, Temaga and Miyah’s cousin, Rigih. Temaga and Rigih informs them that the penyamuns are looking for something known as the bloodstone of Temasik, which is a magical object of power. As Tanjungpura is in turmoil due to a spate of kidnapping and thefts, there is plenty of action in this book!
I’m also collaborating with Tan Vay Fern on a picture book project, called Meng the Tiger.
18. How can readers discover more about you or your work?
Thank you very much for taking time from your busy schedule to answer our questions.
We hope our readers enjoy reading this insight from Tutu Dutta as much as we did.