Unveiling 'Dragonlore': a mythical journey through global cultures


An artwork by Walid Muhammad which is featured in the 'Dragonlore From East And West' book, a new anthology series initiated by Ninot Aziz. It brings together 14 writers from across the globe, and features 24 stories in conjunction with the Year of the Dragon. Photo: Walid Muhammad

In the enchanting realm of Malaysian storytelling, where the threads of ancient tales are intricately woven into the cultural fabric, Ninot Aziz has been slowly but eagerly carving a niche for herself, inspired by her love for legends and the written word.

The co-founder of Hikayat Fandom, a Malaysian publishing house dedicated to preserving the heritage of the Malay Archipelago, Ninot is on a mission to share the magic of "hikayat" with the world.

For those who don’t know, hikayat translates to story, tale or fable.

And her most recent initiative, Dragonlore From East And West, explores a broader canvas of Ninot’s written work, and allows one to witness the unfolding of a cultural adventure that transcends boundaries.

The anthology brings together 14 writers from across the globe, and features 24 stories in conjunction with the Year of the Dragon.

“Dragons have long been associated with China, Japan and Korea. However, many do not know they are equally inherent in the Malay world,” says Ninot in a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.

“The legend of Tasik Chini Naga, the Dragon of Kinabalu, the Langkawi Dragon, the Bakunawa, the dragon of Mintian and the tale of the Green Dragon of the Andaman have almost been lost in time.

“The fact is, however, that from the Malay Archipelago to the Arctic, from the Sumerians, and Abbysianians to Persians and great civilisations including the Chinese and Greeks, dragons have existed in all great civilisations.”

Ninot’s inspiration for this project is rooted in her belief that legends are the memories of ancient civilisations. Photo: The Star/Raja Faisal Hishan Ninot’s inspiration for this project is rooted in her belief that legends are the memories of ancient civilisations. Photo: The Star/Raja Faisal Hishan

Ninot says that she had been wanting to work on such an anthology like Dragonlore since 2012.

“And it’s finally here! I had wanted to write a book about dragons and began researching back then but when I couldn’t make it in time for that year, I began collating tales to target 2024, the next Year of the Dragon. The idea was to bring together dragon tales, and people, from both East and West to show that we are not so different after all,” says Ninot.

“Dragons are universal. They have a way of being both mythical and very real at the same time. Perhaps this is why they exist in our legends until today, in many layers of reality. Very often the stories of dragons are about brave heroes and adventures, of new beginnings, as well as stories of the creation of the world.”

In 2022, in preparation for the Year of the Dragon, Ninot invited writers from 10 countries to collaborate. The writers were carefully selected based on recommendations from the Frankfurt and Istanbul Book Fair Fellowship, Selangor International Book Fair, as well as from Ninot’s own network of poets from the international poetry blogosphere Dverse Poets, Poets United, and the former Magpietales.

The cover of the 'Dragonlore From East And West' book, which features writers and storytellers from 10 countries. Photo: The Star/Raja Faisal Hishan The cover of the 'Dragonlore From East And West' book, which features writers and storytellers from 10 countries. Photo: The Star/Raja Faisal Hishan

Ninot, 59, who wears many hats, including PR consultant, publisher, author, and poet, says: “When selecting which countries the stories should come from, I felt China and our neighbouring South-East Asian legends were a must. I also wanted writers from Europe, the Americas, Africa. Soon our publishers in Italy and Germany came on board.

“The final line-up of writers and translators include Emmy Award winner, producer and founder of the global Lunar Codex project, Samuel Peralta (Canada), together with Cora Wang Siyao (China), Anna Kordzaia S (Georgia), Helmut Kunkel (Germany), Rita Angelelli, Renato Ghezzi, and Maria Beltrami (Italy), Imam Qalyubi (Indonesia), award-winning poet Arian Tejano (Philippines), author and poet Can Yigit Tuncman (Turkey), The Journey Man (Britain), with Malaysia being represented by Dr Minah Sintian, Ruby Yusof, as well as my very own beloved English teacher and award-winning writer, Teoh Choon Ean together with me.”

Ninot adds that with encouragement from the Malaysian National Book Council and World Book Capital, she was able to initiate the project in 2022 at the Frankfurt Book Fair and had a strong vision then to reach an international audience.

“Our friends from Turkey and Italy gave constant feedback to me and my co-editor Johnny Gillett.”

An artwork by Ariyana Ahmad, which based on a Langkawi legend, is part of the 'Dragonlore'  book. Photo: Ariyana AhmadAn artwork by Ariyana Ahmad, which based on a Langkawi legend, is part of the 'Dragonlore' book. Photo: Ariyana Ahmad

Ninot’s inspiration for this project is rooted in her belief that legends are the memories of ancient civilisations.

“Legends promote confidence and pride in our heritage and culture, and greater understanding among people of different backgrounds and origins. These 24 retellings for Year of the Dragon 2024 show us how we are kindred in our greatest dreams and fears, heroes and villains, tragedies and triumphs.”

The anthology not only celebrates the universal appeal of dragon tales but also has been selected to be archived on the Moon via the Lunar Codex 2024 project, joining 3,000 other pieces of artwork and literature from 155 countries; a project founded by Peralta, one of the contributing authors of Dragonlore.

“Imagine my excitement to find out we’d been asked to join the Lunar Codex initiative. I believe that Dragonlore will help preserve our collective cultural heritage for generations to come.”

Crafting a cultural legacy

Hikayat Fandom, co-founded by Ninot and her husband Rudy Daud two years ago, is the embodiment of a 20-year dream to take Malaysian hikayat to the global stage.

As Ninot sums it up: “We focus on the Malay Archipelago and Asian legends, folklore and culture. And thankfully, today our books are being published overseas in particular, Italy and Germany, and we look forward to partnering with publishers in Australia, Azerbaijan, Philippines and Nepal.”

A visitor takes a look at the artwork in Ninot’s 'Hikayat' series at the Hikayat Fandom gallery in GMBB in KL. Photo: The Star/Raja Faisal Hishan  A visitor takes a look at the artwork in Ninot’s 'Hikayat' series at the Hikayat Fandom gallery in GMBB in KL. Photo: The Star/Raja Faisal Hishan

Ninot says the husband and wife duo’s idea was also to create a space where people could identify with, read, create, draw, feel and touch the world of the ancient Malay Archipelago.

So it’s no wonder that early last year, the Hikayat Fandom book gallery took root in a quaint corner on the first floor at the GMBB mall in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur.

“We opened to this spot in February 2023, and it’s been doing well so far,” says Ninot, adding that this year, there will be more monthly activities including storytelling conducted at the Hikayat Fandom Folklore World (opposite the book gallery) by the Storyteller Guild, launched in November under the auspices of Ministry Of Tourism, Arts & Culture, Think City, and GMBB.

“We are hopeful that this will encourage engagement between local storytellers and children,” says Ninot.

“We will have organisations like the Malaysian Book Publishers Association and Kota Buku come together to feature storytellers. Every year, three storytellers – could be anyone who tells stories including writers, Mak Yong practitioners, awang batil – will be admitted to the guild. And these storytellers will have physical sessions at our space in GMBB.”

Hikayat Fandom, co-founded by Ninot and her husband Rudy Daud two years ago, is the embodiment of a 20-year dream to take hikayat tales to the global stage. Photo: The Star/Raja Faisal Hishan Hikayat Fandom, co-founded by Ninot and her husband Rudy Daud two years ago, is the embodiment of a 20-year dream to take hikayat tales to the global stage. Photo: The Star/Raja Faisal Hishan

The diverse offerings of Hikayat Fandom, ranging from themed anthologies to children’s series, novels, and graphic novels reflect the duo’s commitment to preserving and sharing cultural wealth of the region.

One of the series that Ninot is particularly fond of is the Hikayat Kid Series, featuring stories like Puteri Santubong (Sarawak) Huminodun (Sabah), Arduga Wijamalai (Langkasuka) Seri Gumum (Tasik Chini).

Beautifully illustrated by Ariyana Ahmad, Walid Muhammad, and Dani Warguide, the series is published in Bahasa Malaysia and English and features simple, short stories that are rooted in traditional performing arts like Mak Yong and Mek Mulung, and aim to captivate young minds and instill a sense of pride in their cultural heritage.

Ninot has also published Mutiara Kata Alam Melayu, a collection of 101 quotes over 1,400 years of thought leadership from the Malay world.

“This was in response to the growing preference and reliance on Western and other civilisations for wisdom in our classrooms, lecture halls, business settings and among our highest leadership. We hope, with this book, everyone will have a go to reference where they can find some Malay World inspiration,” she says.

Next up, an encyclopaedia

With so much already under Hikayat Fandom’s belt, Ninot has now embarked on another ambitious project for 2024 – an illustrated encyclopedia of the Malay Archipelago. With a childhood love for illustrated encyclopaedias, she aims to fill a void in representations of Austronesian and Malay Archipelago traditions.

A general view of the Hikayat Fandom gallery space, which carries Ninot’s books and other related Nusantara-material. Photo: The Star/Raja Faisal Hishan A general view of the Hikayat Fandom gallery space, which carries Ninot’s books and other related Nusantara-material. Photo: The Star/Raja Faisal Hishan

“We hope it will be ready by Merdeka,” she shares, emphasising the need to bring the rich legacy of the region to the forefront.

“I have always promoted the beauty of our Malay Archipelago’s arts, culture and heritage alongside legends. We want our children to be able to hold on to these as a visual image in their minds, and feel the rhythms in their hearts. This we can do through cultural performances. However, we also need to bring the Malay Archipelago closer to our homes, so our children can browse through, touch and appreciate this legacy,” says Ninot.

“In London last year, in a small bookstore, I found beautiful illustrated books on many different regions of the world, and that was when I decided to create this illustrated encyclopaedia. I sought assistance from the International Islamic Universiti Malaysia and several other bodies to help with this project and I was happy they were ready to provide expertise,” she says, adding that work is already underway.

Hikayat Fandom’s creative team – including illustrators Walid, Dani and Ariyana – plays a pivotal role in bringing the ancient tales to life.

“We share a strong passion to showcase this almost long-lost world,” says Ninot.

Their collaborative efforts go beyond creating visually striking illustrations (of which many are on display and for sale at GMBB); they aim to resurrect a world that has been overlooked, bridging the gap between generations.

A view of the storytelling and activity space at Hikayat Fandom at GMBB in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: The Star/Raja Faisal Hishan A view of the storytelling and activity space at Hikayat Fandom at GMBB in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: The Star/Raja Faisal Hishan

“We work very closely, in fact, despite their unique approaches to the Malay world, the three of them support each other when they have deadlines to meet. You should see my initial sketches to help them visualise a scene!” says Ninot with a laugh.

“They used to draw what I described and sketched ... but now they are able to draw a scene after reading the stories.”

Apart from the encyclopaedia, Ninot is also putting the final touches to her novel, Leyla Wayfarer Of Empires, which will be published this year.

How does she manage to accomplish so much, all while holding down a full-time COO position at an integrated marketing company?

Ninot says her husband plays an integral role in giving her space to do her thing.

“He left the F&B industry to take care of the book gallery, he manages the children (Ninot has five daughters) and ensures that I have time to work on my writing. In fact, I first began writing poetry prolifically after I first met him and fell in love. Rudy is my muse.”

Ninot’s hard work is also fuelled by the joy she gets from working with other like-minded individuals.

“I find connecting with other writers and artists genuinely fun. It may sound cheesy, but it’s such an amazing global camaraderie that we have, and it’s just wonderful.”

Follow us on our official WhatsApp channel for breaking news alerts and key updates!
   

Next In Culture

A Winston Churchill portrait by an artist whose work he hated is up for auction
Salman Rushdie's 'Knife' is unflinching about his brutal stabbing and uncanny in its vital spirit
Artist shuts down Israel's Venice Biennale exhibit in anti-war protest
A taste of heritage at the DFP Seni Festival 2024
Faith Ringgold, pioneering Black quilt artist and author, dies at 93
Salman Rushdie's forthcoming memoir 'Knife' will detail his stabbing incident
Restoration of 122-year old Penang gurdwara to finish in two years
Five years after fire, Notre-Dame rises from ashes
'Dungeons & Dragons', now 50 years old, is enjoying a resurgence in popularity
Melaka government allocates funds for preserving historic Villa Sentosa

Others Also Read