500 Words From...is a series of guest posts from authors, in which they talk about their newly-published books. Here, Barbara Ismail talks about Princess Play, the second in her Kain Songket Mysteries, which she intends to be a 6 or 7 book series. The mysteries feature Malaysia’s first female detective, Kelantanese Mak Cik Maryam, a no-nonsense kain songket trader in the Kota Bahru Central Market - kain songket are gorgeously woven silks, patterned with gold or silver threads, found all over the Malay world.
Barbara Ismail now lives in her home city, New York, but she studied the wayang siam puppetry tradition in Kelantan in the 1970s, when she was doing fieldwork for a PhD in anthropology.
So: 500 Words From Barbara Ismail...
The Kain Songket Mysteries were originally conceived as a story about Kelantan and its culture. I never thought of myself as a novelist, since the writing I had done in the past was academic for the most part. However, I wanted to write something easier to read than a general ethnography, and in the bargain, way more fun to write. Writing fiction allows enormous leeway in the story and the characters, and of course, reality doesn’t limit what you can do.
Having said that, I think the background of the novels—Kelantan and its people—are quite realistic, and I have tried to stick to the Kelantan I know and the culture I love. Of course, murder doesn’t happen in Kelantan with the regularity of a mystery series, and I fear that as the stories follow each other I may be decimating the population! And while the plots are, of course, fiction, the society in which they are placed is certainly not.
I enjoy reading mystery novels and therefore thought to write in a genre I liked and could be comfortable with. Mysteries in general are quite stylized, with a strong story structure: the question is never what will happen, I think, but rather how. I find, therefore, that within the ritual, the specific sleuth and environment can be explored at length with a story line to carry it along.
When writing the stories, I usually begin with the victim, and try to imagine the full person, filling in his or her family, friends and work. The characters take shape, and then basically do what they want: I don’t begin the story with an outline or a detailed plot: the characters themselves take over the story, and in both the books I have written, I was surprised at the end to find out who did it: the murder seemed to present him or herself without my "permission".
Many of the characters are based, at least to some extent, upon real people. Mak Cik Maryam is based upon one of my neighbors in Kota Bahru, who owned a cloth stall in the main market, and also upon my Polish mother, who shares her name. The bomoh (spiritual healer or shaman) in Princess Play is also based upon a bomoh I knew in Kelantan. Mak Cik Maryam’s husband Mamat is based upon a neighbor with whose family I lived in Pengkalan Cepa, and also owes a great deal to my sister-in-law, who first commented that Mamat was so nice, it didn’t seem real: in homage to her, I have worked to make him the ideal husband, perhaps bordering on fantasy. Maryam’s daughters are my daughters; they provide a great deal of inspiration.
The Kain Songket Mysteries are published by Monsoon, in paperback and ebook, priced in local currencies.