The day after our meeting with the Sultan of Kedah, Makhdzir and I were driving together to Alor Star. We dropped “The Steves” off in the forest to do whatever scientist guys do out there. As you might guess by now, Makhdzir and I had another interesting talk.
We were on our way to pick up free-lance writer Siew Lyn Wong, who was flying in from KL to interview Pak Teh and witness the honey hunt with us. You can read her articles that came out a couple of weeks later in the online archives of The Star, the largest English newspaper in Malaysia. English is her first language, but she can converse fluently and intelligently in two dialects of Chinese–Hokkien and Cantonese, as well as Bahasa Melayu, while making a good personal connection. People she has not met before will tell her things. Siew Lyn’s writing is as professional as any native English-speaking journalist I have read, silently contradicting my earlier comments on the often poor attention paid to grammatical details of the English language.
“You know what the first question the Sultan asked me was?” said M. “Why is your name not on the cover? Everybody seems to ask me that.”
Makhdzir explained his thinking about the Bahasa Malayu version of the book that he was now clearly expected to produce. Clearly the Bahasa version would have to have his name on the cover as co-author to be accepted. Everyone we met on this trip was impressed with our book: it was beautiful and most of it was amazingly correct from a local standpoint. But it was still designed for a North American audience. The issues of creating a multicultural book would turn out to be fodder for many discussions in the future.
According to Makdhzir the Malaysian edition would have to be more than a simple translation. It was going to be a tricky business. Makhdzir considered making two major changes to target a Malaysian audience, primarily of school kids. First include both boys, Nizam and Shukor, as inheriting the honey hunting tradition from their grandfather, instead of the single boy named “Nizam” in our story. Second, add humor.
He wanted to rewrite about 20% of it and have me do some more art. They’d pay me. There would need to be more pages because he wanted to include the English as well as Bahasa, so it could have the added advantage of use as an English textbook. Bahasa takes about 150% more space that English to say the same thing. A lot of the words are just longer in Bahasa. I said I could do that. The art was all painted digitally and I archive the layered photoshop master files. There are a few places I could even add the second grandson. I could do new art.
Originally both boys were in the book. Our North American editors and advisors over the years had encouraged us to simplify it: focus on one boy and his heroic conquest of his fear of not being strong enough to climb the tree, his fear of heights and of the dark. When we first started researching the book, we had the impression that only one boy was going to carry the torch for Pak Teh, continuing the family tradition of honey hunting. This was reinforced by the interview with Nizam recorded by NPR/National Geographic engineers in 1998, for their program “The Honey Hunters of Malaysia”, which broadcast on NPR’s “Morning Edition”. In this interview Nizam said, “It’s a family tradition. My brother is not going to do it…” M. told us that the translation might have been unclear. The word for “cousin” and “brother” were the same. Nizam might have been referring to his brothers who lived in Kuala Lumpur, now city dwellers.
Still, I remember always seeing them together with Pak Teh. Wherever one of the three were, the other two were not far away. Now Shukor felt unfairly left out in the book. Whatever the history really was, the fact was that the two cousins worked as a very close-knit team now. We were to witness that is a dramatic way in a few days during the first day of the honey hunt.
Makhdzir explained that, to Malaysians, the close-knit bond of friendship, teamwork, and kinship between the two cousins was more impressive and in keeping with their values than the single heroic individual that appealed to American audiences.
Makhdzir also wanted to introduce humor. It had not occurred to me up to then how serious our book was in tone. But upon reflection, it was. My first sketch of “Nizam/Shukor” standing triumphant in front of the village showed a huge smile on the boy’s face. The designer vetoed that as not in keeping with the seriousness the character had previously in the book. I had to agree. Shukor, the main model for the character of the boy was a rather quiet and serious guy. Or seemed that way to me. So a slight smile was more in character.
I remembered that indeed humor was a major element in our relationships with Malaysian friends. They made us laugh a lot. I remember our friend and other host, Roslan, manager of Desa Utara Pedu Lake Resort, our home while working on the book. I once asked him if there was a beautiful woman on his staff that would be willing to pose for me. I wanted to use her as a model for HITAM MANIS, the beautiful girl who, killed by a spear through her heart, became the spirit of the bees in the ancient legend told by Pak Teh by lamplight at the forest camp in the “story within a story” in our book.
HITAM MANIS became a running joke for years to come. Roslan teased me endlessly about it. On each visit, Roslan would tell me that he had staged a beauty contest and had found yet another even more beautiful woman for me to use for HITAM MANIS. There were insinuations that I might want to marry her followed by peals of laughter. Each time he brought me a new female model, I did draw her. My crowning moment was when Roslan convinced me to be the “groom” in a mock wedding ceremony staged at the resort for a traditional Malaysian wedding feast held as a cultural event for guests at the resort. It was hilarious to see an anglo like me dressed in traditional garb sitting with Roslan’s latest beauty queen in a little decorated house, my hands on a pillow, receiving gifts. I think he enjoyed this spectacle more than anyone else.
After the grisly story of HITAM MANIS and her lover, the prince who is cut up into little pieces for using a metal knife to cut honeycombs, Makhdzir wants to tell a humorous firelight story, this one told about a real event. A honey hunter had climbed up his tree only to be surprised by a honey bear, who had also used his ladder to more easily climb up and get to the combs. When they saw each other at the first branch, they both screamed, and each ran in opposite directions. Except the only escape was down the trunk. The human climbed as fast as he could down the ladder and the bear slid down on the other side of the huge trunk using his claws for traction. The story ends with the honey hunter eventually going back up the tree feeling like he won out over the bear. This is made more funny by M,’s pantomime of the parts of the bear and the man. It also adds another natural element, the Malaysian honey bears, who also play a part in the larger story of wild rain forest honey.
We agreed, however, that the book was correct to come out first in it’s foreign edition. The market is just too small in Malaysia to justify the expense of publishing such a book, which was much more likely to turn a profit in North America. Makhdzir will have to find grant money to supplement publishing costs of his Malaysian version. It was to be targeted towards the primary schools in Kedah in the Pedu Lake region. From there, it could go throughout Malaysia.
“Your illustrations are the key.” said M. “No one else could have done this book. There are few illustrated children’s books in Malaysia and nothing like The Bee Tree.”
“Well, I’ve seen a number of beautifully illustrated nature books by local artists.”
“Yes, there are a few, but we’d have to pay them!“
Ha. I thought. Yes, I was working on passionate interest, the chance to travel, obligations for friends, and a small amount of money for all the hours I’d spent. In fact, even after my advance, I was still paying on my credit cards for the opportunity to work on this book. He didn’t have to rub it in. These local artists were better businesspeople than I was, right?
But I knew what he meant. Of course the local artists would want to be paid. So do I. Illustration is how we make our living. But, in this case I did the book mostly on my own time. It’s not the kind of project you can pay someone by the hour to do. It involves a personal investment in the project. True, I was on a royalty contract, so I would benefit from any success the book would enjoy. But if it does not sell beyond the original printing, I still survived the process. They fed me well at Desa Utara. And looked at as a whole, the 8 year book project was its own reward. I simply had to look at it that way.
All of this continues to provide food for thought. We’d meet Nizam and Shukor soon at the honey hunt.