Q&A: Nur-El-Hudaa Jaffar on the many meanings of home

Image credit: Nur-El-Hudaa Jaffar

In our ‘Local Authors’ interview series, we speak to local writers to learn more about their work, thoughts and process.

Inspiration comes in many forms and for local author Nur-El-Hudaa Jaffar, it was a kitten she adopted which became her source of inspiration for her children’s book Where Is My Home? Shortlisted for Best Children’s Title at the Singapore Book Awards last year, it explores issues of belonging and security. She’s also been hard at work translating books from English to Malay, and recently published a short story in an anthology which was released in May.

She speaks to us about the many meanings of home, the books that made an impact on her growing up and the fulfilment she gets from bringing joy to children through her stories.

Your first book Where is My Home? (Di Mana Rumah Saya?) focuses on the subject of home. Why did you choose to write about this topic?
There was a lot of stuff eddying in my mind back then. I had adopted a kitten which was badly injured and I was amazed at how her presence in my house transformed my life. I wondered where had she lived before she was given to me in a box. Then I began to think about how some animals’ dwellings had some sort of specificity to the nature of that particular animal, but not for cats in general. What would make a place a ‘home’ to a cat, or a child? To me, a home is more than a physical shell, but something that makes you feel safe, loved and cared for; a place of refuge. At that time, I was also reading a few articles on abused and abandoned children.

So I started a story about a kitten learning about other animals’ habitats, but she was only able to express what ‘home’ evoked in her – this goes back to what I believe a home should be. And later she realises her home is special to her. After a brief discussion with the editor, I realised that there was another ‘layer’ to my story when I added the bit of the kitten playing with a boy: a child may be adopted, but it does not matter if there are no blood ties. It’s the sense of security and being loved that matters more, and every child has a right to that.

Where is My Home? won the second prize at the Samsung Kidstime programme while the Malay edition was a best children’s fiction finalist at the Singapore Book Awards. Your second book I am a Tiger (Saya Seekor Harimau) was the winner of the Beyond Words initiative by the National Arts Council. Did you expect your books to be so warmly received when you started out?
Absolutely not. I just hoped someone would read, enjoy or take something away from my books. However I must stress that the illustrators did excellent work, pairing my words with lovely pictures, and adding an extra dimension to my stories.

Why did you choose to write children’s books?
Children’s books are a great gateway to discovery, development and shared joy. I like the idea that my stories have been part of, even in a tiny way, a child’s journey of growing into his or her own person, learning new things or just having a fun time.

Where do you get inspiration for your stories?
My cats, alive and departed. My own experiences with people, young and not-so-young.

Who were your favourite authors growing up, and how have they influenced you?
I suppose my preference to insert bits of levity, humour and moments of discovery, even when the story deals with a serious issue, is partly influenced by the books I read during primary and secondary school.

I tend to visualise complete scenes before I write too. Maybe it’s because I read a lot of comics and illustrated books growing up. In fact, my aunt would entertain me by drawing scenes from the stories that she told me, and she would create that story there and then! So I would say that my aunt was my first influence when it comes to how I write. Sometimes I draw on paper, but most of the time, it’s in my head.

For children’s books, I’d have to say Enid Blyton. Her stories run the gamut from the fantastical to the everyday. Her characters have flaws and aren’t perfect. Even when the issue may be ‘grown-up’, the stories are entertaining. Naturally, after Five Find-Outers, I gravitated towards mystery and adventure books.

The Asterix series by Goscinny and Uderzo is a definite, definite favourite. The books are hilarious, witty and absurd, and have great pacing. The team that translated the Asterix series into English was fantastic. The Asterix books launched my interest in comics and graphic novels.

I suspect Enid Blyton’s books and the Asterix series contributed to my fascination with certain types of food, for example, scones, jam tarts and roast meat. And good books like great food, should be savoured and shared.

I also couldn’t get enough of Tintin, Nancy Drew mysteries, and books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov and Arthur Conan Doyle.

I must mention Khadijah Hashim, a prolific writer from Malaysia. Badai Semalam (Storms of Yesterday) was my first ever ‘grown-up’ book, though I read it when I was in primary school. I became aware of the challenges faced by young Malay women, especially when traditional roles seem to clash with modern expectations.

One of my favourite Malay children’s books back in the ’70s was Pipi Kirinya Bercalar by the late Muhammad Ariff Ahmad. It’s set in an HDB flat, features multiracial characters, and revolves around neighbours coming together when a woman falls victim to a snatch thief.

What was it like reading I Am A Tiger to children at the 2016 Singapore Writers Festival?
I enjoyed it. The venue was nice and so were the volunteers. It’s always great to be able to interact with my readers, as was the case during the craft session. I also learnt how to improve for future sessions.

What’s the nicest thing someone has said about your books?
That her grandchildren kept asking for repeated re-readings until they memorised the story.

Which other Malay authors would you recommend our readers to check out?
For starters, Jumaini Ariff has stories that Singaporean children and their parents can easily relate to.

For older readers, Mohamed Latiff Mohamed’s Batas Langit remains a firm favourite of mine. If you are looking for a book that is not ‘heavy’ with social or political commentary, consider Manaf Hamzah. His YA fantasy and romance books may have complex plots and a big cast of characters, but they are fun to read. Noor Hasnah Adam has a book that presents a different point of view of several well-known events from the Malay classical text Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals).

Actually the list is rather long, comprising award winners, established and emerging writers.

We hear you also write poetry and short stories. Do you have any plans to publish them?
It’s too early, and I still have a lot to learn. It was only in late 2016 that I started sending my stories to Berita Harian for their consideration. I haven’t written enough poetry or short stories to be published as a collection.

What can we expect from you next?
I have translated two children’s picture books from Indonesia, and adapted three short books from English for publication in Malay. I have a few stories in my head, and yes, one of them has cats. For this particular story, I am hoping to incorporate a bit of science.

I also have a short story called Raja Angkasa Ingin Bersanding, loosely translated as The Space King desires a Malay Wedding, that was published in an anthology in May.

I hope to do more storytelling or story reading sessions in the future, in English or Malay. There is a Malay saying, “Tak kenal maka tak cinta” (“If you do not know, then you will not love”), and  I hope there will be more opportunities for me to introduce children and parents to children’s books written in Malay.

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