Thursday, December 29, 2011

Footprints in the Sands of Time

TINA KISIL grew up a loner in a brood of twelve. A misfit and a misunderstood child, her shyness often misconstrued as arrogance, she began observing people at a tender age and took refuge in the world of books. Forced to quit school at eighteen to help support her younger siblings through school, she was told by her mother to choose: be a nurse or a teacher. Since blood makes her faint, she chose the latter. After earning her teaching diploma, she dedicated the best 35 years of her life to her students. She now lives a quiet life in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, where she catches up on her reading and tries to charm her backyard into a garden. She still finds refuge in the world of books.

Her first book, Footprints in the Paddy Fields (MPH Publishing/MPH Digital, 2010), is both a family portrait and a childhood memoir, set against the vanished world of bamboo huts on spindly timber stilts, a world where one’s prized possessions were makeshift farm tools and a buffalo or two, and where the dead were placed in stone burial jars. It documents a waning way of Malaysian life, one where, sadly, many Malaysians are not aware of. Those were the days when removing human heads was a sport, and the only mode of transport was a pair of good legs. In her memoir, Kisil takes the reader on a journey into a world very seldom seen; it is fascinating to see how the Dusuns in Sabah on the island of Borneo lived at a time when wealth was measured by the amount of rice a farmer harvested and a hard-working sumandak made a more alluring bride than her pretty sister. Written to preserve some of the old Dusun beliefs, customs and cultural practices that the author grew up with, this engaging and enlightening memoir is a delightful reminiscence of what it was like to be a child growing up in Sabah in the 1960s when Sabah was still known as British North Borneo.

Kisil thinks she is a little weird because she enjoys her own company and likes to think and ruminate about things. “I’m at the moment taking a short break after finishing my first book, Footprints in the Paddy Fields, and trying to read as many books as possible between cooking, washing and everything else a homemaker does,” she says. She is also polishing a story for a picture book, trying to tone it down so it doesn’t turn into a horror story for kids. She doesn’t like horror. She’d love to attempt a short story or two or a novella.

Interview by ERIC FORBES
Photograph courtesy of TINA KISIL

How do you find the time to read?
Even when I was working, I found the time to read. You need not finish a book in one sitting. Five minutes stolen here and ten minutes there can add up to a certain number of hours per week. I always have a book with me to read while I wait for my turn at the bank, post office, clinic, etc. Now that I’m retired, I’ve the luxury of time and I can read whenever I want to. I also read before turning in, usually around one in the morning.

Do you think reading matters?
I believe very much so. Besides being an enjoyable activity, reading fiction makes us aware of a bigger world and takes us to places we may never even dream of going to. Reading gives us countless opportunities to walk in other people’s shoes and to experience their emotions, their worldviews, etc. We learn to care for and to empathise with fictional characters. This helps us to understand the real people we meet, perhaps even become less judgmental and critical. We develop as social beings and we understand ourselves better.

What kind of books did you read when you were growing up? Were there any books that had a significant impact on you at that early age?
There wasn’t a wide choice of reading materials for children when I was growing up, way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth! I loved the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. Enid Blyton was very popular then and I read many of her books although I wasn’t too fond of Golliwog, Noddy or talking toys as I was past the age for talking toys when I came across her books. I read most of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five series. I remember thinking she was a brilliant storyteller.

When I was a little older I read the usual stuff girls read: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, etc. At thirteen, I read Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel. It made such an impact on me that I remember the title to this day. I found an abridged version of it recently and plan to revisit it to see why it stayed with me all these many decades!

Who are some of your favourite contemporary writers? Why do you enjoy reading their books?
Contemporary? I don’t know if the writers I read are contemporary. When I check a potential read, I look at the blurb, flip through a few pages and decide whether to read it based mainly on the style of writing. I like books which tell me something new. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed Arthur Hailey’s novels. Reading his books was like watching a documentary on Discovery or National Geographic. I also loved Wilbur Smith and his sagas about powerful South African families amidst the wilds of Africa. After my teen years, I never liked mushy love stories. I don’t think I read more than a handful of Denise Robbins and Barbara Cartland—the equivalent of M&Bs during my teenage years.

I like Roald Dahl—Matilda is one of my favourites among his many books. I think Dahl’s Revolting Poems are outrageously funny! Recently I borrowed My Uncle Oswald from the library, thinking that it was similar to Matilda (and therefore skipped reading the blurb) and got the shock of my life! I’m still reeling like a drunk after that ride with Dahl. Enough said.

What are some of your favourite contemporary books? Why do you enjoy reading them?
I happen to like older works, especially stories about Asians such as those written by Han Suyin, Pearl S. Buck and W. Somerset Maugham. They tell about a different world, a different time. I liked Ha Jin’s collection of stories, The Bridegroom, and his sad love story of a novel, Waiting. I thoroughly enjoyed Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. (I’m especially drawn to books about the Chinese written by Chinese authors, such as Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, Ningkun Wu’s A Single Tear and Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai.)

Why do I enjoy reading them? They transport me beyond my four walls and make me experience a wide range of emotions. I laugh and cry and marvel; I feel anger, hope, despair, horror, love and disgust. In short, I feel and am reminded I have a heart in my chest—not a piece of rock.

Do you have an all-time favourite book? Why do you enjoy reading it? Do you reread books you enjoyed the first time round?
I have new favourites all the time! But two favourites from long ago include Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds and Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. Both have the ability to evoke such strong emotions. I always reread books I enjoy and can never bear to give them away.

Assuming you enjoy reading fiction, what are the elements in fiction that take your breath away? In other words, what do you think are the essentials of good fiction? What distinguishes the great novels from the merely good? (If you prefer reading nonfiction, tell me why. Perhaps you enjoy reading both fiction and nonfiction?)
I read both fiction and nonfiction. I find memoirs fascinating and I love their novel-like quality. I guess I’m curious about people and reading about them satisfies this curiosity. Before memoirs of ordinary people became popular, I preferred biographies and history to other genres. One of the first autobiographies I read was Christiaan Barnard’s One Life. I was hooked immediately and returned to the library for more.

For me, a great story must have believable characters who are neither saints nor devils. Everyone has some good and bad in different proportions in them. It is important that I care for the protagonist. A good plot is important as well as an easy-to-read style. I find long, unbroken paragraphs of descriptions tedious and prefer them to be woven into the narratives and dialogues. Scenes and characters from great novels keep coming back to haunt you long after you’ve finished the book.

What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring which I liked very much and I’m finishing Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. (I’m surprised that the novel has been around for over half a century!) I usually read two or three books at once, mixing fiction with nonfiction. It takes me ages to finish a book, especially when I like it tremendously because I tend to go over the bits I find beautiful or fresh, much like caressing them with my eyes.

What are your thoughts on the future of books, particularly on e-books and e-book readers? Do you think the sale of e-books and e-book readers will have a repercussion on the sale of physical books in a bricks-and-mortar bookshop? Do you think they will replace physical books one day?
I like books. I like the way they feel, the way you could flip through the pages, write notes in the margins, etc. I think many people my age find it difficult to visualise other forms of books such as e-books and e-book readers. I guess when e-book readers are more affordable and the price of downloading a story is a fraction of the price we pay for a real book, fewer people would buy books in the bookshop. Most readers, after all, just want to read the stories and it makes no difference whether they’re flipping the pages of a physical book or clicking a button on a piece of plastic. However, books may not disappear completely if they become another collectors’ item. On the plus side, more trees will be saved, it’s lighter to travel even if you’re ‘loaded’ with books, and there’ll probably be less clutter at home. I’m just wondering, what are we going to put in the libraries?

Footprints in the Paddy Fields is also available as an e-book
Reproduced from The Malaysian Insider of May 29, 2010


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