I grew up with ghosts outside my door. They haunted dark trees and cemeteries and were the spirits of young girls betrayed by lovers. These stories were made real by my cousins who were always telling me how just last year a child around my age had been snatched by one of these ghosts - Pontianaks. And never seen again... Then there were the rumours of babies abandoned in the rainforest because they were girls. Whenever I met Chinese girls raised by Malay families, I wondered how much truth was in these stories.
In Singapore it is considered a treat to bring children to Haw Par Villa, originally a venue for teaching traditional Chinese values. Here children are shown the ten views of Hell. I had nightmares for a week after each visit. Even today, I can visualize the demons as they tortured liars by pulling their tongues, elongating them grotesquely.
This is probably why I never wanted to be a writer. Initially.
Writers bend the truth. A little.
Then I came to Australia for my education, met my husband, married and stayed.
When my first son was born I read him stories. And somehow something stirred. I remembered my grandfather and how he would tell fairy tale after fairy tale, at least ten per night until in frustration he would record them to be spared reading the same stories repeatedly.
Thus, in a strange land far away from my own family and what was familiar, I began to write. And in my stories, I could come home.
To a land where boys turn into crickets and mousedeer dance laughing upon the backs of crocodiles.
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Late 2021 - My journey into Baba Malay
Disclaimer: I am no expert in Baba Malay or Chakapan Baba. Which is why I spent 1 year doing this course. So how did I get here?
The strange thing was that I had no idea initially that Baba Malay existed.
I had always assumed that there was only Malay i.e., Bahasa Melayu.
So when I started writing THE GIRL SUDAN PAINTED LIKE A GOLD RING, and discovered that Malay had subdialects, this came as a complete surprise.
I knew I had grown up in a Peranakan family. I remember relatives speaking Malay, but for some strange reason, I always assumed it was Bahasa Melayu.
So it was a shock to discover Baba Malay.
Now you have to remember that by 2021, I had been living in Australia for decades. So when I heard Baba Malay spoken, it was as if my late grandmother was standing right in front of me.
I saw her smiling face. And I wept.
I had to do something.
I knew I couldn't let the language die.
The silly thing was that I couldn't speak the language. Or at least I thought I couldn't.
I signed up on Facebook into a Peranakan group and this was where I discovered other Peranakans like myself searching for our roots, our history.
Next, I signed up for a course in Baba Malay.
I found books, or at least some books. Many of them were published many years ago and hard to get. All were expensive.
But where were the resources for children?
There were none.
I knew I had to do something. Only what?
I decided that a picture book was needed. Sounds easy, right?
I am a writer. I should be able to write a picture book. That was what I thought.
And I had good reason to think that way. When I first decided I wanted to become a writer it was as a writer of picture books. Even though I am now published, it is as a YA writer. But I had training initially as a picture book writer. Somehow I had strayed into YA territory. But surely this was the chance to go back into what drew me initially into writing? That was what I thought.
First Hurdle - Getting the Manuscript in shape
So I wrote a picture book. I had done courses with Libby Gleeson about 10 years or more ago, and I assumed I could draw on past skills.
Haha! I was wrong.
I sent my first manuscript to Cathie Tasker. The result - a suggestion to do a course in picture book writing which I did and where Cathie was the teacher.
See. I was so wrong.
But I did do the course. And Cathie kindly invited me to lunch at her house in April 2022 where she discussed picture books.
It was there that she suggested that I do a chapter book instead of a picture book. It made sense.
Thankfully I had also signed up for a chapter book course as well. :)
Second Hurdle - Finding the Illustrator
Around that time I had even selected an illustrator and she had drawn up a contract.
Problem was that a war broke out between Russia and Ukraine.
The illustrator whose illustrations I loved so much was Russian.
I never knew that getting a picture book out could be so difficult.
Third Hurdle - Workbooks
Cathie's idea was a great one. Now I was looking for an illustrator who could do black and white sketches instead of F/C illustrations.
I began to think about a phrase book. I went down to the bookshop to check some out but they all seemed rather difficult.
I began to think, dream, write...
I started putting down my thoughts but the task seemed too hard. I had a language that was almost dead. No sponsorship except for my wonderful husband. I was waking up at 5 AM just to try to find the time to do this. Only what was THIS?
By now I had rewritten my Sang Kancil manuscript from a Picture Book to a Chapter Book. I still had no illustrator but that didn't worry me. Yet.
My problem was that Cathie had suggested writing a blended book which meant the text was mostly English with a few Baba Malay words thrown in.
On the last two pages she suggested having the English version on the left and the Baba Malay version on the right.
I tried it.
But ... it didn't work.
The problem was that Cathie and I assumed that if we cut the number of words down to say 400 that the text would fit on the page.
It may have fit on the normal size of a picture book but it didn't fit on the normal size page of a chapter book.
I needed at least 2 pages for the English version and 2 pages for the Baba Malay version.
So would should I do?
In the meantime, I had a brain wave.
The thought of a smaller sized book appealed.
Then the holidays came along and the family went to see a movie - THE BAD GUYS.
I liked the idea of a chapter book and I examined the size of the chapter books for THE BAD GUYS. Could I produce a chapter book roughly the same size? It would be like a phrase book.
And suddenly I had my solution
I would produce workbooks the size of chapter books.
This would help beginners to learn the language.
Small books would not be seen as a threat or challenge.
Fourth Hurdle - Curriculum
How do I start?
Thankfully I was doing a course with Ken Chan, the author of BABA MALAY FOR EVERYONE - a comprehensive guide to the Peranakan language. I went through the course notes. I wrote. Wrote some more. And then finally it came.
I remember as a kid learning to read. The books I had were simple. Something along the lines of - This is Ali. This is Siti.
I remember asking numerous questions when learning. And so this is how the books - SAPA, APA, MANA and AMCHAM, APASAIR, BILA started.
9th of Septmember 2023
On the 9th of September 2023, I was the guest speaker at the Peranakan Association of NSW's AGM.
My topic was - Saving our Peranakan Language
I shared my journey with the audience, telling them that I had prepared 5 books with Book 6 coming out in 2024
I also shared the fact that Baba Malay is sadly an endangered language with less than 2,000 speakers worldwide. Many were shocked to hear that. But one lady said that Baba Malay is still widely spoken in Malacca. That was good news indeed and I hope that there are a lot of speakers there. I spoke about how I am also planning to create a series of readers (blended and bilingual) in the form of picture books and middle grade books.
One project that I was hoping to get underway however was an anthology - a collection of stories. Anything Peranakan. I am still hoping for this to happen. I just have to be patient while I wait for the stories to come in.
I provided the audience with ways that they could help. Because saving Baba Malay should not be left to one person - me.
OTHER WAYS TO HELP
1. Speak the language
2. Learn (If you do not know the language)
3. Share the news that the language is dying
4. Lobby/Apply for grants - because it is an expensive process both in time and money
5. Suggest ways to help/Brainstorm - because one person (me) cannot come up with all the answers.
I also mentioned that there are other resources.
Baba Malay for Everyone by Kennth Chan
A grammar of Modern Baba Maly by Nala Lee
Baba Malay Dictionary by William Gwee
All in all it was a great day at Pennant Hills and I thank everyone for coming.
Click on covers to see more.
By author Theresa Fuller.