Sunday, September 01, 2013

Interview with Tutu Dutta-Yean

I am very happy to present Ms. Tutu Dutta-Yean, the author of the book 'The Eight Treasures of the Dragon'. She has taken a lot of her time to write very detailed answers for the various queries that I had for her. Many thanks to you Ms. Tutu Dutta-Yean.  Do visit her blog Betel, Banyan, Basil & Bamboo. It is a treasure house of interesting folk tales and traditions of Malaysia.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into books for children. 

I was born in Churachandpur, India but I grew up in Malaysia (we came to Kuala Lumpur when I was five years old).  My father is Bengali and my mother is Manipuri.

I've always been interested in children’s books – in fact I started collecting them as a young adult, long before I got married. But I really started writing for children about 11 years ago. My husband was posted to New York from 2002 – 2005. There were two huge bookstores in the neighbourhood – Barnes &Noble and Borders. I was able to attend author talks and read many children’s books.  I think it was my daughter who got me interested in writing children’s books – after I read the books that she read. This was also the time of the Harry Potter craze and everybody wanted to write children’s books!

 I've since had seven books published and am now interested in writing books for Young Adults.

We enjoyed the book 'Eight Treasures of the Dragon'. I can imagine there being so many different stories on dragons. How did you finally choose the eight stories that you presented in the book. 

First of all, I’m glad you enjoyed the book! 

When I decided to write a book about dragons, I did an extensive search for dragon stories from Asia – both online and going through old books. It was easy enough finding stories about dragons in Chinese and Japanese folklore, but Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and India were not so easy. In fact, I found only one dragon story originating in Malaysia and I was lucky to discover a very interesting one from Indonesia called the She-Dragon of the South Seas. The story from Singapore, Sang NilaUtama, has an ‘invisible’ dragon in it!  I like stories with intricate plots so I chose stories with not only adventure in it but also because of the human element. A few of the stories are quite heart-breaking, I suppose, but one has to be true to the spirit of the original story.

The first time I read the story of Sang NilaUtama(not being aware much about the history of South-east Asia), I was amazed by the fact that the term 'Singha' is such a common term and it refers to a 'Lion' in Malay. It means the same in Tamil(my mother tongue) as well - although we say 'Singham'. Did you find a lot of such similarity in the various cultures while researching on dragons across South-east Asia. 

The story of Sang NilaUtama is known in Malaysia as well as Singapore and is part of Malay folklore. Yes, ‘singa’ means ‘lion’ in Malay and Singapura means ‘Lion City.’ This is not that surprising really as there was a lot of Indian influence in Southeast Asia in the past, especially during the Chola Dynasty. The Malay language contains quite a number of Sanskrit words; in fact, the Malay word for ‘dragon’ is ‘naga’.

The story of 'The Candlewax Prince' based in India is new to me. I have never read about this folk tale earlier. I found in your references about a person called Shovona Devi who wrote a book 'Oriental Pearls'. And her uncle is the great Rabindranath Tagore! This finding was so amazing to me. How did you come across this story the first time?

Well, it was not easy to find this story! As I mentioned before, I did an extensive internet search for old stories about dragons and nagas for my book. I must have gone through dozens of stories from India before I came across this one by Shovona Devi (pure serendipity that she happens to be Tagore’s granddaughter!) The story of the Maharani who could not trust her own son, struck a chord in me. But I added my own interpretation to the story of The Wax Prince. 

Please tell us a bit about the children's books from Malaysia. Please share some of your favorite children’s books from Malaysia. I hear that they have vibrant children's book publishing industry. 

Many children’s books are published in Malaysia but not all are of good quality. The challenge we face is that the market is segmented. There are books published in Malay, Chinese and English. Basically, I’m only involved in the small segment of the market which deals with children’s books in English.  The fact that I know almost all the publishers/editors/authors personally probably tells you that this segment is quite small!

The other challenge we face is public indifference to local writers – many Malaysian parents still think books written and published overseas (i.e. in the West) are ‘superior’. 

The Malaysian-published children’s books that I admire (in no particular order):

*Three Green Dreams by Roshni Menon
*Kailash by Quek Sue Yian
*Ah Fu, the Rickshaw Coolie by ChoongKwee Kim
*Grandma Lim’s Persimmons by Sunita Bhamray

(These are all books for young readers – from age 5 – 9.)

There are only a handful of writers who write books in English for tweens and young adults (YA). They are: TeohChoonEan (Nine Lives; Magic Eyes), Golda Mowe (Iban Dreams) and myself (The Jugra Chronicles).

Please share any interesting books that you have read recently and would like to recommend to the readers of this blog. 

At the moment I’m reading adult fiction by three Malaysian writers.

But there is a post in my blog (, called Adapting Asian Folktale for Children’s and YA Literature where I analyse five noteworthy children’s & YAbooks, which are based on folklore.

I find it hard to consider that Nagas are similar to dragons. Why do think they are similar to dragons of East and West? 

I asked myself the question ‘Are nagas, in fact, dragons?’ when I first researched the book. I believe the nagas are the predecessors of the dragons. Nagas are the serpentine dragons of India and Southeast Asia (Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos). This division in dragon lore also answers Question no 3, where you asked about similarities among Southeast Asian countries. In fact, the word ‘naga’ means ‘dragon’ in Malay and also in the other Southeast Asian countries.In the story of Sang NilaUtama, it was a naga king who gave the Jewel of Sri Vijayato NilaUtama’s ancestor. (The naga king actually gave him a crown but I changed it to a fabulouspearl to concur with dragon legends from East Asia).

I also read about a Hindu myth about the churning of the ocean, Samudramanthan, by the Devas and the Asuras. They used the king of the nagas, Vasuki as a rope. At one point, Vasuki was so tormented that he belched out fire and smoke which scorched all the Asuras! I think this definitely shows that nagas are dragons.

The Chinese dragon, the lung, is prevalent in China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and perhaps Vietnam. The lung has four limbs just like the dragon of the West. These are the lizard-like dragons.

From mythological point of view, how different are the dragons based in East vs those based in West. 

The dragon of the East is associated with the element of water and with fluid energy. 
It is said to influence weather, rain and moving bodies of water. In old China, the dragon or lung, was a symbol of imperial power and the emblem of the Emperor. In India and Southeast Asia, the dragon is known as naga. The supreme naga is Anatha-Sesha, the symbol of time and eternity. Vishnu is said to sleep in his coils. The king of the nagas is Vasuki; his sister Manasha is the goddess of snakes and fertility. 

Both the lung and the naga are said to carry a pearl or gem on its head. And both are usually regarded as benign, although they have a dark and destructive side and can cause catastrophic floods and high winds. But the dragon of the East is never evil, merely a force of nature.

The dragon of the West is associated with the element of fire and in the past, used to be regarded as destructive, greedy and even evil. In ‘The Hobbit,’ the main antagonist is a dragon who jealously guards a huge amount of gold and other treasures in its lair. In fact all the books by Tolkien depict dragons in a very bad light. The dragon was also regarded as evil in the sense that it could induce men to do evil deeds, usually driven by greed. The story of St George and the Dragon is the classic example of the dragon being regarded as a destructive and cruel creature.

However, I’m happy to note there is an entirely new appreciation for dragons in the West now. The Eragon series by Christopher Paolini depict dragons as powerful but noble creatures, in concurrence with the dragon of the East.

After word: If the readers have some better URL links to the books mentioned in the interview, please leave a comment. I will change the link accordingly. I could not find many references oline to these interesting books. 


tutudutta said...

Thanks for posting the interview (in its entirety),Sathish! Still looking for the Facebook button!

Choxbox said...

Both the review and interview sound interesting - would love to read this one.

tutudutta said...

Thanks Choxbox! The book is available online from

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