Inspiration comes from the strangest places. Just ask Port Dickson-based author Zedeck Siew. In 2011, he really wanted to write a book; the only problem was, he didn’t know what it was going to be about.
Feeling stuck, he decided to look at his surroundings for ideas. And one day at a local coffeeshop, Siew looked at the coins he was using to pay for his toast. A thought struck him: What if these coins were beetles?
A whimsical thought, definitely, one that most people would laugh off. But after that, Siew began to see creatures everywhere. The monkeys and civet cats that came to visit his house. The plants that grew in his compost.
These ideas formed the genesis for Siew’s first book, Creatures Of Near Kingdoms (CONK), a bestiary of fantastic creatures, illustrated by his partner, artist Sharon Chin.
“I’m a huge nerd. I like roleplaying games (RPG), stuff like Dungeons & Dragons. In RPGs you have these books called Monster Manuals – basically, compendiums of monsters that game masters can choose from, pick out, and plop into games, for players to face,” says Siew, 32.
“I liked the idea of that. CONK is a book of creatures that people can read and plop into the imagined corners of their lives.”
Published by Maple Comics, CONK is a catalogue of 75 imaginary South-East Asian plants and animals. Think something like Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, but with a local, artsier flavour. Within its pages you will meet wonders such as the Firecracker Crow, the Malayan Spirit Tiger, the Haunted Frangipani and the Flat Panda. Each of these creatures is described lovingly in a one-page write-up, and illustrated in either linoprint (for the fauna) or repeating patterns (for the flora.)
(In linoprinting, an image is cut into a sheet or block of linoleum and then printed using either a small press or by hand.)
“I was very inspired by Angela Carter’s Book Of Fairy Tales (1992), which was full of linoprint illustrations by the artist Corinna Sargood. They were wicked and funny, but had a timeless, folksy quality,” says Chin, 38.
“There are two aspects that make linoprints exciting to look at: the expressiveness of the line, and the balance between black and white (positive and negative) in the composition.”
Although all the creatures come from Siew’s mind, some may seem strangely familiar to Malaysians. Some may explain everyday problems or current trends. Sneezing for some reason? Maybe it’s an Allergy Bunny running around.
Your phone full of fiery social media statuses? Maybe it’s the Obligation Worm, which thrives on hot-button issues in cyberspace. After getting to know the strange beasts and blooms in this book, you may never see things the same way again.
A meeting of minds
Siew, a journalist, editor and game designer, was born in Port Dickson and moved to Petaling Jaya in his secondary school years.
His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies by local publisher Fixi Novo, including KL Noir: Blue (2014), Cyberpunk Malaysia (2015) and Trash (2016). He is also one of the creators of the card game Politiko.
Chin grew up in Petaling Jaya and studied fine art in New Zealand and Australia, where she majored in sculpture. Some of her works include Weeds: Rumpai, and Mandi Bunga/Flower Bath, commissioned for the 2013 Singapore Biennale. Her works have been shown in Malaysia’s National Visual Arts Gallery, the Singapore Art Museum and Incheon Culture and Arts Center, South Korea.
Chin and Siew met through a mutual friend and moved to Port Dickson in 2011.
The couple started work on CONK in 2014; working on it was challenging, they say, but ultimately, a good collaboration. In creating the book, Siew’s stories would come first, followed by Chin’s illustrations.
“The text and visuals influence each other. Sharon sees some-thing in a story that I didn’t; I suggest a composition that didn’t occur to her. If we were both on the same page there would be no real reason to work together, would there? The key is trust, we trusted each other’s artistry,” Siew says.
Chin ultimately spent four years on CONK, the longest time she has ever spent on one work.
“After reading Zedeck’s stories, images started to flow in my head like a river. My job was to sit down and channel those images, through my hand, onto paper. I call it ‘pasang (turning on) antenna’,” Chin says.
“About three quarters of the way in, I felt I might never actually get it done, that I’d just be drawing these animals and plants until I died!
“After the drawing there was all the carving for the linoprints, and the inking for the plant patterns. So I learned to have stamina, and patience. Most importantly, I learned a different relationship to time: how to make art by working with time, not against it.”
After writing and illustrating the book, there was the road to publication to travel, which Siew says was tricky due to the unique nature of CONK.
“Meeting with publishers, trying to explain to them what we were doing, trying to wrestle self-doubt and omg-this-doesn’t-deserve-to-exist-let’s-just-throw-it-away – that was hard. Shout out to Maple Comics, who believed,” says Siew.
“It was really important to Sharon and I that CONK be paperback and affordable. We want the book to go into as many different places as possible!”
Beasts of the future
Their favourite creatures from the book? Siew likes the Stone Pangolin, as well as the Spirit Tiger, because of Chin’s illustrations of them.
“The creatures got harder to write as time went on, because I fall into thematic ruts easily. Had to be careful not to repeat myself!
“I had a lot of problems with the Cold Leech – a leech that eats cold. Cold is not a thing, but an absence of a thing. Wrapping my head around that was tough. I think it shows, in the text,” he says.
Chin especially enjoyed working on the Rainmaker Frog, which was the first creature she illustrated. She also likes the Jealous Betta, which became a tribute to the things she had learnt while training in martial arts.
Some of the book’s linoprints have already been shown at Local Fauna (in-progress!) at Run Amok Gallery in 2016, and currently in Seni Cetakan at Museum and Gallery Bank Negara Malaysia (until Nov 25). The plant patterns were shown last year in Local Flora: Patterns (in collaboration with Bogus Merchandise) at Chan + Hori Contemporary in Singapore.
“Next year I hope to do a big exhibition to show the full set of 50 linoprints and 25 plant patterns together, and that will be the final chapter of Creatures Of Near Kingdoms,” Chin says.
Siew has hopes for a Malay version of his book. He’s already completed the Malay writeups for the animals of CONK, and is at work on the plants. According to him, the Malay and English versions of his stories will be different: bilingual readers will therefore be able to enjoy two books instead of one!
“Also, we’ve been idly talking about a book of spells. Something similar to CONK, but more supernaturally themed,” Siew says.
“I was starting to write some hantu (ghost) stories around the same time as these texts (for CONK). Am saving those for our theoretical book of spells.”
Whichever fantastical path these two travel next, we think it’d be a good idea to keep an eye out for more strange fruit from their minds.