‘Nusantara: A Sea of Tales’ Brings Realistic Truths to Light Through Didactic Folklore and Fables
The often-told cautionary tale of Si Tanggang who sets sail to find his fortune and returns home rich and royal, then disowns his poor old mother, has kept Heidi Shamsuddin awake at night long after her father told her. . It was the first time she was completely obsessed with a story and something stuck with her.
Heidi’s fascination with the wonder and magic of fantasy stories grew from childhood until her teenage years, when it became uncool to read them. So she put those books aside and went on to study law, then worked as a litigator in London before returning home to Malaysia in 2007.
Motherhood took her back to fairy tales as she began reading them to her three children. “I was buying new books under the guise that it was for them, but it was actually for me.” Revisiting old favorites as an adult, she saw them in a different way and also noticed details she had completely missed before.
“I discovered that I had never really grown up with them. In fact, they had hidden facets, which only became accessible once I had experienced a little life. That’s what I likes most in fairy tales: everyone can take what they need from a story and interpret it according to their own experiences.
Written in the universal language of symbols and images, fairy tales are deceptively simple, short, and devoid of any kind of description. “However, their flat, nondescript nature allows the reader to fill in the gaps with their imagination and put themselves in the protagonist’s shoes.”
Heidi went above and beyond. She began to rewrite a few local folk tales, keeping brief notes on the history and background of each as a record for herself. As her research expanded across borders, she noticed variations of the same stories in different countries. For instance, If Tanggang exists as Malim Kundang and Lancang Kuning in Indonesia, and Mahkota Manis in Brunei.
It also surprised her that there was no comprehensive collection of folk and fairy tales from the region, “our own version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales or the Arabian nights”. Thus, she adapted and compiled 61 fables, myths, legends, folk tales, epics and marvelous and magical tales from Southeast Asia and Nusantara: a sea of tales was launched earlier this year.
According to Heidi, author of The door under the stairs children’s series, Manis Valley Kayu, The Malay Tale of the Pig King and Chickaboo the ostrich on the run (illustrated by Lim Lay Koon), inspired by an ostrich that made news while running down the Federal Highway in Kuala Lumpur in June 2016. She wrote the screenplay for Bat Girlwhich won Best Animated Short Film at Festival de Largos y Cortos de Santiago 2019 in Chile, and Gold Medal (Regional Category) at the 20th DigiCon6 Asia in Japan.
About the Nusantara collection, she says, “I want these stories to move and adapt as they were meant to and inspire other writers and artists to use them so they spread again.
“I believe a fairy tale is a form of transportation. Like a car or a train, it transports us to other places. Fairy tales travel and move; they come from our distant past, in our present and are the stories we leave to our children. If we stop telling them, they will die and eventually be forgotten. But if we continue to tell them in different forms, whether through print, media, art, music or dance, they will live and flourish. I seek new and more relevant ways to preserve and share these stories. »
Determined on this, she launched a YouTube channel, Nusantara Fairy Tales with Heidi, in January 2021. Between that month and September of last year, she uploaded a video every Friday morning. To date, there are over 41 episodes and she wants to do more, taking inspiration from Angela Carter, one of her favorite fairy tale writers, who said, “I think there’s something in those old stories that does what song does to words. . They have transformative abilities, in the way melody can transform mood. They cannot transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don’t create an imaginary world to escape reality; we create it so we can stay.
Going from print to online was a whole new experience for Heidi, who figured that since the old tales she had put together started out as oral traditions, the ideal approach would be to tell them. in his own words and to talk a bit about how they may be relevant to our lives today and how they reflect our culture. “With fairy tales, each story adds something new and further enriches the story.”
The technical aspects of filming, lighting, audio and uploading videos to YouTube, which she had no knowledge of, were difficult. Heidi watched tutorials and took video editing lessons and got help from her daughter, Layla, who created the channel, designed the original thumbnails and even composed the theme song, her favorite part of these videos. She hired a local artist to design her avatar – a Nusantara pirate in search of lost stories – to make the channel as attractive and professional as possible.
Heidi records the episodes in a small studio at home. “It was really awkward at first, as you can probably see in the early videos. I kept looking in the wrong place, spoke too fast, and my editing was very jerky. But gradually the quality got better and I felt more comfortable in front of the camera.
The idea of having a YouTube channel to spread Nusantara’s stories to the world came to him during the early dark days of the Motion Control Order in 2020. It certainly is. Listeners wrote in to share their own versions of what she presented as well as resources for other stories. “A guy even gave me his thesis on a famous folk tale from Nusantara called Hikayat Parang Putting. The videos gave people a lot of joy and comfort.
What amazes Heidi is how some of these fantastical, extravagant and unrealistic stories reflect her own journey through life. “These false stories contain some of the most realistic truths.”
In her youth, she was drawn to the stories of protagonists facing hardships that drove them to embark on journeys that saw them learn and grow. Now she prefers the ones about the older woman, the witches and the stepmothers, and has begun to question the reasons behind their actions.
Many fairy tales seem didactic on the surface, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find other story elements, she says. If Tanggang asked him: How could the son treat the mother this way? Should we obey our elders in all circumstances? What if our elders were wrong? Why is the punishment so severe? “These questions, I discovered, were what kept me awake at night as a child.”
Heidi is working on a second volume of Nusantara tales, which will include more stories outside of Malaysia, and is slowly categorizing them so people can easily trace their origin.
Last September, she stopped her weekly video uploads to care for her mother, who fell ill, but still does when she can. Lately, the author has experimented with producing an audio version of the stories, as well as the idea of doing podcasts.
“When we listen to fairy tales, our souls are invited to travel to a place of horror and violence, along with enchanting rescues and romances. They assure the listener that if evil, danger and violence exist, they can be transformed. By stepping into the magic of a fairy tale, we can find strategies to navigate the difficulties that life presents to us. That’s why I love them,” says Heidi.
This article was first published on June 27, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.