Meet the Storyteller: Cecilia Leong
Thank you, Cecilia for being one of our featured storytellers this May-June.
You have just recently launched your book Rainforest Hike and Other Stories at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content. How was that experience like for you?
I enjoyed the talks given by other writers. It was nice when other writers shared their experiences and how the writing process is different for everyone.
You have a PhD in Communications and conduct emotional intelligence workshops for children and teach tertiary level students life skills. What made you decide to write stories for children?
I have always enjoyed reading children’s books (and still do!) and my childhood memories are filled with the monthly outings to the bookshop where my parents would indulge me by buying me a book. So, to me, children’s books are really special in a sense where you have to use language in such a way that it captures the imagination of a child. Even for an adult reading a children’s book, to be able connect with the child within is something so precious, don’t you think?
What inspired you to write Rainforest Hike? Did you have to do any kind of research for this book or was it all based on your very rich imagination? How long did it take you to write this story?
Rainforest Hike was written more than 4 years ago during the late nights when my daughter was a baby. Writing the stories became a private meditative time for me as well as to immerse myself in writing the stories which brought me to an innocent time of looking at the world through the eyes of a child. That period was a particularly difficult time for me and my family as my father was involved in an accident and suffered extensive head injury. So, writing the stories became a refuge and a way of reliving the happy times.
All the stories in Rainforest Hike are based on real outings I did with my daughter which helped me to recreate in my mind the setting of the stories. The main character, Xiao Rae is based on her character, although I took creative liberty to imagine her as an older girl. It helped a lot to situate the two main characters, Xiao Rae and Nazri on people I knew. I molded 7 year old Nazri based on the personality of my friend Nazri. Nazri would reminiscence about his trips back to his father’s house in a small town in Kedah, Malaysia. What was more challenging was to structure the stories, to create the flow and to hold the reader enthralled.
Rainforest Hike features the many adventures of Xiao Rae and her friend Nazri – featuring The Night Market, Cool Clowns, Elephant Ride, and Winter Solstice among others – are the stories meant to be read sequentially, or would you consider them stand-alone tales?
All the stories are stand-alone tales. There is no need to read them sequentially.
Which one of the stories within Rainforest Hike is your favourite? Which one did you have the most difficulty writing?
It’s hard to have favourites! Every single one of the stories have been rehashed, restructured until I was happy with it. For my first draft, I had a few other stories but they got thrown out as I was not happy with them. I would write the stories and then look at them a month later with a fresh eye and would feel that there was something missing and that story would get thrown out and I would start again.
For me, the challenge was not in any particular story but getting the story to convey the energy I wanted. I wanted the stories to reflect the unconditional love between mother and daughter. As for Xiao Rae’s friendship with Nazri, it was important for me to acknowledge that each child came from diverse cultural traditions but when you grow up immerse in it, it becomes entwined with your own collective memory of your own childhood and no longer someone else’s culture but a shared culture.
There is such a detailed description of food delights, particularly in your story Vegetable Pickle and The Night Market – can you tell us a little more about this and your inspiration behind Xiao Rae and Grandma’s story as well as the pasar malam?
I like to cook. In fact, when my daughter was a baby, she would be in the kitchen with me when I was cooking and I would let her play with lemongrass, kefir lime leaves, carrot bits or whichever vegetable I was preparing. While eating together promotes bonding, I think there is a lot of bonding that we do through food preparation. There is a fluidity of teacher-student roles when someone is there to impart knowledge on how some foods are prepared and the process itself becomes part of a collective identity of a family because each family will have their own unique way of preparing a dish as common as vegetable pickle.
My auntie, who had a Peranakan mother-in-law, has very high cooking standards. There are no short cuts used. Food is such a basic need but how you fulfil that need becomes an embodiment of your values. For example, in the Winter Solstice story, Grandma’s way of making the tang yuan is traditional, yet she accepts that the children would like to make animal shaped tang yuan and when the boy flicks the tang yuan into her hair like a marble, she tells him off but chuckles at the same time too, suggesting that tolerance and patience is also part of family harmony.
I love to visit night markets. There is always vibrancy in the air. Everyone is moving. The colours and smells are rich. In the night market story, I wanted to capture that energy of the people. The interaction between Xiao Rae and the pancake seller give rise to a dynamic closeness that one gets from buying local. I often experience this when I compare my buying experience in the wet market versus buying from the supermarket. The experience with the former is that it becomes more than just buying but a building of a relationship.
Any upcoming books/ literary conferences that your readers should know about?
I have already got requests from my young readers for a second book on Xiao Rae and Nazri! I still can’t believe that my young readers have enjoyed reading about them. So fingers crossed, there might be a follow up!