Q&A: Jumaini Ariff on grief, the joy of storytelling and dreaming big

By Jillian Wong on 11th September 2017

Jumaini Ariff Image from Jumaini Ariff

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

With nine books under her belt, it’s safe to say local children’s book author Jumaini Ariff is a figure to watch in the English and Malay literary scene. The former teacher, who won an award at last year’s Beyond Words initiative for her book Tiga, Dua, Satu, Zoom!, has regaled young audiences at the Singapore Writers Festival and Asian Festival of Children’s Content. As the founder of Storyscribblers, she also conducts storytelling and literature programmes for children, which she says is her way of giving back to the local writing community.

We speak to her about how her father’s death from cancer led her to write a book about grief, the satisfaction of mentoring young writers and the importance of dreaming big.

You wrote P.S. Grandpa, I Love You (Sila Lihat, Atuk Saya Sayang Atuk) to cope with the grief after your father passed away from kidney cancer, and to help children going through bereavement. What was the writing process like?
As an adult I found it hard to cope with my father’s passing. However, it was my four-year-old daughter’s stickman drawing of her smiley grandpa that helped me see things from a totally different perspective. Instead of feeling sad, Humaira felt that we ought to be happy for Grandpa as he was no longer feeling any pain. Her words struck me deep in my heart.

Even though I had my family’s support to share our experience with bereavement, it didn’t make the writing process for P.S. Grandpa, I Love You any easier. As a matter of fact, it was quite heart-wrenching as I had to repeatedly revisit the last moments before his passing in my mind in order to recall the emotions. Nonetheless, I knew that I had to dig deep as many families could benefit from me sharing.

When I started penning down my thoughts, I tended to be too factual even though the characters were fictional. As a result, my initial drafts were heavy and had a strong undercurrent of sadness. I wasn’t meeting my objective which was to help young readers and their families heal from their loss.

In order to rework the manuscript, I spoke to Hospice Care Association’s Psychosocial and Grief Management Team to help understand the emotional state of grieving children. It was during this time that I discovered the cathartic effect the project had on me. The act of 'paying it forward' to others who were going through the same rough experience as we did was a very empowering one. It helped us to work through the painful memories and hold on to the good ones.

P.S. Grandpa, I Love You Image from Jumaini Ariff

Besides writing, you also run storytelling sessions at libraries, schools, and festivals. What do you find most fulfilling about storytelling?
Storytelling allows me to spread the joy of captivating stories to audiences of all ages and backgrounds. I liken it to a bridge that gently evokes curiosity and generates interest in the audience to find out more about the story afterwards. Interactive storytelling makes stories come alive and it’s a perfect way to get young children all revved up about picking up a copy of the book that was just presented by the storyteller. Being able to share the wonders of tales and engage audiences of all ages with just spoken words, gestures and facial expressions is truly a humbling experience. It is very fulfilling to encourage the appreciation of literature through the art of storytelling.

Apart from promoting the Malay language, you also tell stories in Arabic. What’s your motivation behind speaking Arabic?
I am able to understand and converse in basic Arabic, but my main motivation for conducting tandem storytelling in Arabic, Malay and English alongside proficient Arabic speakers is to ensure that my books can be enjoyed in Arabic too. I believe it helps enrich my storytelling repertoire. The opportunities to present tandem storytelling sessions came along after my first picture book series, Ariff Discovers, was translated by Alsagoff Arab School. I had the privilege of telling alongside a very talented facilitator and students from the school during their assembly shows and at the Imagine | Native – Creative Fest for Kids at S.E.A. Aquarium in 2016. As the author, I found their interpretations of my stories very refreshing!

You started Storyscribblers to nurture children in storytelling and picture booking writing. What are the lessons like and what’s it like mentoring children to create stories?
Storyscribblers’ writing workshops focus on generating creative ideas. For example, our young participants are given random items to brainstorm with. It is very exciting to see little light bulbs appear when they realise that they are actually crafting their very first manuscript. As for our storytelling workshops, we believe that the key to becoming a confident storyteller is feeling comfortable enough to express yourself in the language. This is why we play a lot of language games along with basic storytelling techniques with aspiring storytellers. Mentoring these young writers and storytellers is very satisfying. It’s the least that I can do to give back to Singapore’s literary scene.

You have taught pre-school children and children with special needs. Has your teaching experience influenced your writing?
Yes, my experience in teaching does influence my writing. I feel that it helped me to understand the perspective of child characters quite easily. My teaching experience also helped me to gauge the level of understanding of my target readers. When I craft a new manuscript, I often think of fun elements that will hook readers, such as rhymes and songs. It also keeps me very YOUNG AT HEART!

How do you feel about Tiga, Dua, Satu, Zoom! being one of the winners of the National Arts Council’s Beyond Words Open Call?
Being one of the winners of the open call was a momentous occasion for me as it was my first national award as a writer. Tiga, Dua, Satu! was all about creativity, imagination and dreams and I am so heartened that the manuscript caught the attention of the judges, and my vision for it came through to them. The award was definitely the motivation that I needed to spur me to reach even higher.

Books by Jumaini Ariff Image from Jumaini Ariff

You participated in two storytelling sessions at last year’s Singapore Writers Festival and also spoke at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in 2014. What were the experiences like?
Taking part in SWF and AFFC was something that I wanted to achieve ever since I started dabbling in children’s book writing and storytelling. Prior to being a speaker, I often attended the festivals as a participant; going for workshops and lectures by other invited writers. Those experiences widened my view of Asian literature and got me thinking of other ways to reach out to my readers. It definitely made me more hopeful for the future of children’s literature in Singapore too. The other great plus point was the opportunity to network with many prolific writers and speakers!

What has been the highlight of your writing career so far?
I had the opportunity to present Storyscribblers’ unique children’s literature programmes during the #BuySingLit campaign. I wrote a brand new animal fable and created a storytelling workshop for seven to nine-year-olds based on it. The event was sold out! Seeing my written work being appreciated by the children during the workshop was definitely a highlight in my journey as a writer.

Which local Malay authors would you recommend our readers to check out?
As a parent, I truly enjoy reading Rilla Melati’s picture books. Her books are always colourful and funny and often come with songs, which I’m a big fan of! Do check them out!

How do you juggle writing and organising storytelling classes with bringing up two children?
I am very blessed to have a supportive husband and mother who believes in what I am championing. We work around the children so that their routines are not affected by my projects. I try to involve the family in my work by asking for feedback from my young critics during rehearsals and prop making for storytelling gigs. Getting the family involved also helps us bond and enables me to make time for everyone.

Jumaini Ariff conducting a storytelling session Image from Jumaini Ariff

Do you have any tips for parents on choosing children’s books?
Let your kids choose what they like, be it a comic book or edutainment magazine. Inculcate the habit of being around books and the love of reading first, before introducing them to standard reading materials.

What advice do you have for young aspiring writers?
I dreamt about having my name on covers of storybooks back when I was in primary school. I kept that dream alive by practising the skills needed to achieve it even though I wasn’t sure how to get there. I was 34 when I got published. So to all young aspiring writers out there, “Dream BIG but Do BIGGER!”