Barbara Ismail lived in Kelantan in the 1970s and ’80s, studying Wayang Siam and the Kelantanese dialect. She holds a PhD in Anthropology from Yale University, and is the sister-in-law of Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Singapore’s Minister for Information and Communications.
Her first novel Shadow Play won the Best Debut novel in Singapore. Her latest novel is Princess Play, Vol.2 in the Kain Songket Mysteries series set in Kelantan, Malaysia.
Here is an interview with the author:
A foreigner writing a novel about a detective in Kelantan, Malaysia. How did that happen?
I worked in Kelantan as an anthropologist in the late 1970s, and therefore knew Kelantan fairly well. One should always write what one knows, so I wrote about Kelantan, which I both knew and loved.
What was the inspiration behind your main detective character? Were you inspired by a real life person or a fictional character in a different setting?
I was inspired by actual market women in Kota Bharu, some of whom were my neighbors, all of whom were very ‘take charge’. Mak Cik Maryam is also named for my mother, Miriam, and she’s definitely part of the character.
Was it difficult to find a publisher for your book?
I was lucky: I sent it to Monsoon press and they took it right away. Really lucky!
Your first novel Shadow Play won the Best Debut novel in Singapore. Did that change anything for the book or for you as a writer?
It was completely thrilling. It certainly changed things for me, in the sense that recognition is always wonderful. It made me more confident, for sure.
Tell us a little bit about your new novel, Princess Play. What is the big idea here and how did you hit upon it?
Princess Play begins with a murder at a Main Puteri exorcism ceremony, and explores its meaning, and of course, magic in Kelantanese life, All the Kain Songket Mysteries revolve around traditional Kelantanese Malay arts.
What kinds of stories are you drawn to?
I love mysteries myself, and read them constantly.
What books have had the greatest impact on you?
I like the Italian mysteries of Donna Leon, the Egyptian ones of Elizabeth Peters, and Charles Todd, who writes about mysteries during WWI. S.J. Perelman, a humorist, is my favorite author.
What is the hardest part of being a writer?
Actually writing! Working out the plots can be difficult sometimes.
Your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”
― Mark Twain
What is the best time of the day for writing?
I don’t have a special time of day, per se, but I need a good chunk of time to concentrate.
And the best place?
Home is good. Somewhere quiet!
What are you reading right now?
I’m re-reading ‘The Religion of Java’ by Clifford Geertz.
What do you plan to write next?
‘Songbird’, the next Mak Cik Maryam book. It will begin at a singing bird (burung Merbok) competition.