So on 17th March I did a TEDx talk at Universiti of Malaya as I mentioned in my previous post. It was fun, nerve-wrecking, mind-blowing and fabulous all rolled into one. I had a great time thanks to the fabulous team at UM (that’s you Harree, Zane and Natasha … you guys are amazing).
In the end, I did a talk about something which was really close to my heart – why fairy tales stay with us and why I think these stories are still important today. You might think why the heck is she talking about fairy tales. Well, I didn’t realize till quite recently but fairy tales, specifically the book of fairy tales my father gave to me when I was around seven years old, have shaped how I view the world and how I tell my stories. Like I said in my talk, “Fairy tales are the carriers of plots endlessly reworked as we weave the narratives of our lives.” I truly believe this.
I know many of you didn’t get a chance to come to my talk because the tickets were sold out like hot cakes. So for those who are interested to hear my take on fairy tales, here is a transcript of my talk. I might also put up Amin Daud’s artwork which I used in my presentation because these are stunning and made my slides look so pretty. Once the video of my talk is out, I’ll put that up too. Enjoy!
MYTHS, FOLKLORE AND LEGENDS: WHY WE STILL NEED OUR FAIRY TALES
When I was a little girl, around 7, my father gave me a book of fairy tales. I didn’t know it back then but it was to be the best gift ever. Sadly, we moved around a lot and I lost my book. But even though I no longer have it, I can still remember the stories and the beautiful illustrations.
I liked the princess stories of course, but my favourite were the scary ones. Hansel and Gretel. The first time I read this story it shocked me for days. It shocked me because I learned that children could be abandoned on purpose by their own parents and worse, that we could be eaten by hungry people. I looked at myself and thought, I’m just a piece of meat and someone could come by and eat me. It terrified me, but it also fascinated me. It fascinates me till this day.
And this really is what I want to talk about today – how something so small like a fairy tale can stay with us throughout our lives. How fairy tales helps us make sense of the world and why we still need these stories today.
Before I go on, I just wanted to mention that the beautiful artwork I’ll be showing you today is from Amin Daud, a talented artist, so please enjoy the art as well as my words.
Diana Wynne Jones, one of my favourite authors had this to say about fairy tales.
“Each fairy tale has a true, strange hidden fact in it. You can find it if you look for it.”
For as long as humans have existed, we have told stories to explain things we don’t understand; natural disaster, birth, the sun to name a few. And as humanity progressed, these stories spread – stories which combined our world and the mythical world with seemingly impossible plots. Elves coming in the night to make shoes for the shoemaker. Dead mothers who turn into magic swings.
These fairy tales are a mark of our humanity. There is no other species on this earth that communicates through the telling of stories and this is the main reason why we have survived and thrived. We succeeded because we were able to sit around the fire and collaborate and exchange information through stories. Our ancestors learned that they should stay away from that cave because that’s where the hungry tiger lives. And they learned this through a story. There is true wisdom in these tales.
Once upon a time, these stories were not just for children. They were for all of us – both young and old. In fact, the original fairy tales were laden with brutality, sex and cruelty but as time progressed and morality intervened, the tales became diluted and more child-friendly.
However, despite these changes, despite our growing sophistication and the advances in science and technology, we continue to use these fairy tales in our everyday life. It’s as if there is something ingrained in us that compels us to interpret the world through the lens of such tales. And if we are not the ones telling the stories, we are the greedy consumers of such stories.
And this is the wondrous thing about fairy tales – they have survived all these years by adapting across culture and borders. Fairy tales are the carriers of plots endlessly reworked as we weave the narratives of our lives.
So this the reason why fairy tales have thrived but why do I love fairy tales? And why do I think we still need them today?
The real fairy tales – not the ones adapted and written as a moral lesson- the real fairy tales have very little pure morality. These stories are raw and basic and hit you right here – in your heart and in your gut. Every emotion is dialled up a hundred times – you fall in love truly, madly, deeply. You die in the most brutal way. Yes, there is violence in these tales but the violence is over the top and doesn’t make sense. For example, in the original Cinderella, the stepsisters were punished when birds came and plucked out their eyes. In the story of Batu Belah Batu Bertangkup, the haunted rock swallows up the mother in despair leaving her children motherless.
But, because we use the code words “Once upon a time”, all this brutality can be accepted. We can say and do anything in these stories. Once upon a time – these words signal that these stories are not for real, but when we read them we know that there is some truth in it. Once upon a time, allows our imagination to soar but at the same time, it’s a safe place for all of us.
There is also the promise of a happily ever which is a great strength in these stories, because there is that hope that the hero will defeat the monster. But at the same time, not all the tales have a happy ending and therein lies the power of a fairy tale. Sometimes things don’t work out and what you have to do is to work through it. Get help and find a solution. Do not ever despair. Do not give up.
To me, the real value of a fairy tale is that it gets us talking. It allows us to have a conversation about life. And this conversation can be quite controversial:
Innocence and Seduction (Rapunzel)
Monstrosity and Compassion (Beauty and the Beast)
Depression and Despair (Batu Belah Batu Bertangkup)
Male Domination and Female Empowerment (The Story of Bayagong).
Do you know this one? In this story, Bayagong sees a beautiful fairy princess bathing in the river and decides to keep her for himself. He steals her wings so that she can’t fly away and then he tricks her into marrying him. These are serious issues in a bedtime story for children. But we can use these stories as a way to talk about difficult topics. We can use these stories to learn about the world and about our own values.
So now you all know how much I love fairy tales. But there came a point when I was around 9 when I noticed something was missing. I realised that all the stories I loved were about people who were different from me. The girls had golden hair and their skin was as white as snow.
And I thought to myself – where are my fairy tales. Where are the stories about me? And I searched for them. I found some of course and have even retold some of these stories –
the story of the Crocodile King, Ulik Mayang, The Mosquito Queen and the Origin of Mount Kinabalu.
So these local fairy tales exist but I want to ask you – how many of you know about these stories? Are you more familiar with Little Red Riding Hood than Bayagong? I think the answer will probably be yes, because that was my experience. I grew up with the fairy tales of the West and of course this is not a bad thing, but I wanted to read our fairy tales too.
I want to tell you a fairy tale now. It’s not a very well known story but it shows how an old tale still has an impact today. This story is called ‘The Tale of Hitam Manis.’
The Tale of Hitam Manis
Once upon a long time ago, in the land of mountains and green lush jungles, there lived a beautiful maiden named Hitam Manis. Her skin was as dark and smooth as the midnight hour, and her smile as sweet as honey. Hitam Manis worked at the palace and took care of the flowers in the garden but one evening, she was asked to serve dinner to the Sultan and his Prince. As she entered she could see that the Sultan was angry with his son.
“You are going to become Sultan one day, my son. You must take your duties seriously.”
“Yes, father,” said the miserable Prince. Just then, the Prince looked up and saw Hitam Manis and he was struck by a sudden intense love for the girl. Hitam Manis looked into his eyes and in that brief moment everything changed. Unfortunately, the Sultan also noticed the look of love and knew that this nonsense had to be stopped.
The next morning, Hitam Manis danced around the palace garden thinking of her handsome Prince. Soon, all her friends gathered to watch. Unbeknownst to the girls, the royal guards had crept into the garden bearing daggers of steel, for the Sultan had given the order of death to the girl who had stolen the heart of his only son.
Hitam Manis leaped through the air, and in that moment a steel dagger stabbed her heart. The guards did not know what to do with the other girls and so, they too were killed in the same brutal way. After the murder, something peculiar happened. The bodies of the dead girls shimmered and then vanished into a black mist. Shocked, the guards ran away but not before they saw a swarm of bees fly off into the jungle. The young Prince was upset over the disappearance of his love, but the Royal Bomoh cast a forgetting spell and soon, the Prince was back to his usual ways.
Many, many moons later, the Prince found himself in the jungle when he came upon a magnificent tualang tree. Its silvery bark stretched high into the sky, and nestled up in its branches were crescent-shaped beehives, filled with the most delicious rainforest honey. With a wink and a smile to his men, the Prince climbed the tree carrying nothing but a pail tied to a rope, and his steel dagger. He cut off chunks of the honeycomb and after awhile, the men lowered the pail of honey, but when the pail reached the ground they found a grisly sight. The Prince had been killed, his body cut up into pieces and stuffed inside the pail. The men began to tremble and someone spoke. “Oh, what will we tell the Sultan? His Prince is dead.”
When the bees heard this, they swarmed around the Prince and when they finally flew away the men were astonished to find that their Prince was alive and whole again. He opened his eyes and sat up. A voice from the tree spoke. “I am Hitam Manis. I loved you with all my heart, but was killed for that love.”
“Hitam Manis! Please come back to me,” implored the Prince for his memory had returned.
“I can never be as I was, my love. We are the Rainforest Bees and we will always have our honeycombs on the tops of the tualang tree. Our honey is the sweetest in the land but take heed, never, ever use a metal knife to cut my honeycomb for this is how I was murdered.”
The Prince fell to the ground, his heart breaking into a thousand pieces.
I found this fairy tale when I was watching a program on the Discovery channel. It was about a family in Perak who owned a tualang tree which had a hive of bees. Now collecting the honey was dangerous because the tualang tree is one of the tallest tree in the rainforest.
They chose a moonless night and the appointed man would climb up with a leather pail and a knife made out of buffalo bone. They would never use a metal knife because of the fairy tale I just told you. They also brought up a fire torch to gently tap on the hive and when the embers of the fire fell to the ground the bees would fly down to chase it. And because it’s a moonless night the bees can’t find their way back to the hive. All this while, the Atuk, the grandfather is singing to the bees with this song:
Oh Hitam Manis,
Turun dengan lembah lembut
Turun Hitam Manis
Dengan cahaya bintang
Come down Dark Sweetness
Come down softly and gently
Come down Dark Sweetness
Come with the Starlight.
So this family knew of this fairy tale and heeded its warning till this day. Isn’t that amazing? I was so inspired by this that wrote a short story called ‘Johan the Honey Hunter’ which won the Eye Level Children’s Literature Award for Malaysia in 2012.
Incorporating these old fairy tales into new stories is something I do as a way to spread our stories. I do it short stories like in Johan, and right now I’m working on a novel which is influenced by two fairy tales – the Tale of Bayagong and The Tale of the Crocodile King which is about a were-crocodile. My previous novel incorporated the myths surrounding Mount Kinabalu and my next one will be a mixture between the legend of Ulik Mayang and Timun Mas.
Right now, I’m also involved in an exciting project to to re-write some of our fairy tales. I want to collect at least 50 of our fairy tales and my plan is to write these stories in the clearest possible way, the truest possible way, the most delightful way I can. So there will be no moral lessons to be learned from my stories. In fact, my stories will be a little bit brutal, slightly naughty but also very, very true. And it’s my hope that I will be able to spread our fairy tales to a whole new generation and who knows what the effect of that would be?
‘A storm can begin with a flap of a wing.’
Something as small as a fairy tale, a bed time story could start a whole new revolution in the way we think and imagine.
There’s a famous quote or misquote, from Albert Einstein. He was asked by a mother about what books her child should be reading to become more intelligent. You know, the typical kiasu mother. Einstein said this:“If you want your child to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.”
And she replied okay, what else? What other kind of books? And Einstein replied:“If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
Just think about that, he did not tell the mother to send her kid to tuition and read textbooks. No, he told her to read fairy tales to her child. What did he mean? I think he was talking about the power of imagination. You see, there is something special about the structure of fairy tales. Fairy tales are very simple and flat. There are very few descriptions are hardly any names – you are either the Princess, the King, Witch. And in fairy tales, things happen very quickly. And this is why fairy tales are so great for our imagination. These stories force us to fill in the gaps. They force us to build images of the stories in our minds.
I would add another thing to Einstein’s quote – read our fairy tales. Read the stories that have come out of this beautiful country. Read them and use the stories as a way to discuss, to collaborate, to debate difficult issues. Read these stories to be inspired, to find meaning and a way in which we can all learn from one another.
I have one wish and it is this. That my stories can plant a tiny seed in the mind of a child or even in someone like yourself. And for that seed to be nurtured and to grow into something beautiful and useful and true. If I can do that for just one person, that would be my happily ever after.