Monday, August 13, 2012

Love, Loss and Longing

SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH is spellbound by the magic of old Terengganu in DINA ZAMAN’s maiden story collection, King of the Sea

Photographs by AHMAD ZURIN NOH

CLIMBING TREES. Hanging out in the homes of strangers. Cats. These images colour Dina Zaman’s memories of growing up in her beloved Terengganu.

“I think my childhood years in Terengganu were among the happiest in my life,” she recalls. “I used to go in and out of the neighbours’ houses and sometimes even the homes of people I didn’t even know. They never minded, even if they didn’t know who I was.”

As Dina thinks back to those years, a smile of sweet nostalgia lights up her face. Then, just as abruptly, her expression reflects a shadow of melancholy. “That was about twenty, thirty years ago. It is not the Terengganu you see now,” she says, with an almost imperceptible shake of her head. “I go there for [Hari] Raya and there is none of that community spirit anymore—no sense of romanticism.”

She may mourn the Terengganu of her childhood but she should take heart that all is not lost. It appears that—in a way—her abiding love for old Terengganu has kept it from vanishing forever.

King of the Sea is Dina’s captivating collection of short stories set in the picturesque state on the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The stories revolve around a group of people living in a peaceful seaside village. Although she says she never set out to recapture the idyllic era of her childhood, almost every tale resonates with the simplicity and uncomplicated lifestyle commonly associated with a bygone era—no doubt inspired by the Terengganu in her memories.

Each story in King of the Sea radiates distinct undercurrents of whimsy and magic but is rooted in the very real themes of love, loss and longing. Dina expertly crafts her stories to keep them hovering in that no-man’s-land between reality and fantasy. Literary types would call it magic realism but you don’t have to be a scholar to appreciate the power and beauty of each tale as it transports you to a delightful world where men marry jungle spirits and women literally disappear into movie screens.

It is a testament to her remarkable talent as a writer that, despite the eccentric storylines, you’ll find yourself wanting to believe everything she has to say. Every one of her characters is relatable and oddly memorable—they stay with you long after you’ve put the book down.

So, it’s no surprise that Dina received the incredible honour of being longlisted for the prestigious Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award for King of the Sea. Winning would mean joining the esteemed ranks of such authors as Haruki Murakami, Yiyun Li, Jhumpa Lahiri and Miranda July, four previous winners of the award that, this year, comes with a €25,000 bounty.

Although she would be forgiven for going on and on about this achievement as many other writers in her position would do, when asked to elaborate how she feels about this honour, Dina states simply: “For me being longlisted is good enough.”

This reticence is just one of the many clues that point towards her humble nature. In fact, her deep sense of modesty appears to spring from a tendency to be a bit reclusive. “I tend to socialise only with good friends. I’m scared of crowds!” she confesses. This bit of insight into her true character might come as a surprise to some people. “I’m sometimes seen attending events like glamorous fashion shows but that’s only because I know a friend who is a fashion designer,” she says. “I’m actually just sitting there to warm up the seats!” she adds, with a laugh.

Dina says her preference to keep to herself probably came from her nomadic past. “My father was a diplomat and we moved around a lot when I was small,” she says. Although having to start over at a new school every now and then was a bit of a challenge, she does not regret any of it, especially the fact that she regularly ended up at her grandparents’ house in Terengganu. “I stayed with them during school holidays or sometimes for extended periods when my dad was travelling.”

Her father’s profession is also one of the reasons behind her deep appreciation for stories—both verbal and written. “Before my younger sisters came along, I had no one to play with, so I used to hang out with the adults and listen to all their stories.” This habit became more entrenched when she spent time at her grandparents’ home. “Dekat kampung [in the village], all the orang-orang tua [old folks] would meet in somebody’s kitchen and sit and talk,” she remembers. “I used to sit with them when they were frying curry puffs for tea and ‘pretend’ to help but I was really only interested in their stories,” she confesses, with a grin.

Dina may not have learned much about making curry puffs but the stories that swirled around her left a lasting impression. “I realised ... eh, telling stories is so much fun!” This early attraction to storytelling blossomed and evolved into a full-blown love for the written word although for the longest time, it seemed young Dina would never be much of a reader.

“My father’s constant travels meant that there were times when I didn’t really attend school, so my reading skills were all over the place,” she recalls. “But my parents were very strict and they made sure I learned to read.” When the meaningless squiggles on the page finally began to make sense, there was no tearing her away from books. “I read all the Enid Blyton books—those were my favourites. Of course, there was also Mary Poppins and The Wind in the Willows and all the other classics,” she says with visible excitement.

She is now the proud owner of an immense, ever-growing collection of books. Her addiction to buying books is due, in part, to the fact that she was never allowed to purchase them as a child. “My parents encouraged me to borrow books but because we were travelling so much it wasn’t practical to own them. That’s why now it’s like buy, buy, buy!”

As an avid reader and gifted writer, Dina understands the deep pleasure of losing herself in the pages of a book and she hopes King of the Sea will offer the same to her readers. “I had this one reader who asked me all these intellectual questions and I told her she was reading too much into it,” she says. “I wrote the book because I wanted to write it. You do whatever you do because you love doing it.”


1. She painstakingly writes her stories by hand and then types each one on the computer.
2. Growing up, she never wanted to be a writer. She wanted to be a veterinarian or an actress.
3. She started out in public relations before moving on to full-time writing and editing. She currently writes for a Malaysian news portal.
4. All her works of fiction are handwritten in red-covered notebooks. Non-fiction is written in notebooks with black covers.
5. It took her more than a decade to write King of the Sea. She started the first story thirteen years ago and then added to the collection over the years.
6. She strongly believes that many aspects of Malaysian culture and arts are in danger of being lost forever if better funding and support aren’t put into place.
7. She has an overweight cat named Handsome.
8. The stunning black-and-white photos of Terengganu featured in King of the Sea were taken by the late Sultan of Terengganu, Almarhum Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah, who was an avid photographer. She obtained them from a friend, YAM Raja Ihsan, who was happy to provide his grandfather’s pictures.
9. She believes blogging, the Internet and reality TV have ruined true art because everyone wants to be an instant star.
10. She is dating an environmentalist who was the inspiration for “Man in the Jungle,” one of the stories in King of the Sea.

Reproduced from the July-September 2012 issue of Quill magazine


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