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Doing the Write Thing: Kathrina Mohd Daud

Doing the Write Thing: Kathrina Mohd Daud

Kathrina Mohd Daud is a finalist of the 2020 Epigram Books Fiction Prize and author of The Fisherman King. Holding a PhD in Writing from the University of Manchester (2011), she is currently an Assistant Professor in Universiti Brunei Darussalam's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, specialising in Bruneian literature and Creative Writing. She has published both creative and academic work, including her debut novel, The Halfling King (2017).

From a civil war to a picture of a giant serpent that went viral on the Internet, Kathrina charts the events leading up to the writing of her novel, and gives us a glimpse into what it's all about.

What’s The Fisherman King about?
The story is about Lisan the fisherman, who is an orphan, but who has always believed he was descended from royalty. At the beginning of the novel, it’s been eight years since he left his wife in the Water Village. Now he’s back and he says he can prove it. At the same time, in a parallel narrative, we go back six hundred years, to when a forbidden relationship between the royal children of Brunei sets into motion a chain of events, which will end with the death of a king or the death of a god. So, as the novel progresses, we found out more about the story of Lisan’s true intentions and what he was really doing in those years away and we also unravel the story of those doomed royal children and the god that they called forth.


(Photo from The Guardian.)

What inspired your story?
My story was inspired, actually, by a bit of fake news. It was a picture that was floating around the internet, I think in 2010 or 2011, of a giant sea serpent. So the picture was taken in an aerial view of the Brunei river, and the picture showed a giant sea serpent swimming underneath the river surface. So it was inspired by that, by the strength of, and interest in snakes and sea serpent imagery. In Brunei, there are a lot of myths about the Water Village and what lies underneath it.

(Photo by Kathrina Mohd Daud.)

I was also inspired by fragmented bits of history from Brunei. So the story of the Sultan shooting the crown jewels into the river and the story of those royal children is actually one that is showcased on a plaque in the middle of our capital city and so the graves are there as well. I didn’t know a lot about these various histories and I deliberately didn’t try to find out much more because I liked the suggestiveness of these stories and their outlines, and I wanted to think of a way to tie them all together.

What were some of the challenges in writing this story?
The biggest challenge I think was to try not to worry about what was factual, what was misrepresenting history because it’s fiction.

I think once I was able to stop thinking about what was factual, what was history, what I was representing, and really try to take that representative burden off myself, I was really able to have a lot more fun with the story and go really dramatic with it, really dark with it. So I think that challenge of censorship and that kind of representative burden was one of the greatest challenge, just in writing this story, because there isn’t a lot of anglophone fiction about Brunei. So I think any writer who is trying to write about Brunei has to kind of confront that, that what they’re trying to put out there is one of the few representations of Brunei in English.

What was the biggest lesson learnt by writing this story?
The biggest lesson learnt by writing this story was drama, I think drama and structure. So I think an earlier draft of this story had much less of a structure. I actually put this story away for quite a few years, I think about five years, before I came back to it. When I came back to it, I started writing the story all over again from Bathia’s point of view, but that ended up being a quite different story, but I guess I learnt a lot about plot from writing this story, just knowing that I had to have a narrative for striving forward. So, a lot of technical lessons learnt by writing this story.

How alike is the protagonist to yourself?
Given that Lisan abandons his wife, has a habit of disappearing into jungles and trying to find out dark and mystical secrets, we are not very alike. I think we are most alike in our belief that some things are greater than the lives that we live. There are things worth sacrificing for, that there is a purpose beyond our own small lives, I think that is the biggest similarity between us.

What/who are your favourite books/authors who have influenced your writing?
Some of my favourite authors are Alice Hoffman, I think her work with magical realism is amazing, and I’ve freely been in awe of the kinds of books that she puts out. This year, Naomi Novik has been one of my favourite authors. I’ve loved her really epic fairytale retellings.

In Southeast Asia, I love Zen Cho. I think Zen Cho really showed to me with her Spirits Abroad, that you could write authentically about your country, both by acknowledging that, you need a whole new language to write about your country. You can’t depend on language that you’ve grown up knowing. So Zen Cho has really been a tremendous inspiration.

Seanan McGuire, with her retellings of fairy tales has been a huge favourite this year. And of course, Daniel Ortberg, who used to write for The Toast and who is Dear Prudence. His conversations, his text conversations with literary characters is just one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. I go back to it periodically. I also love Luvvie Ajayi. ‘I’m Judging You’ is a perennial favourite of mine when I’m at the airport. I love the idea of social justice and humour going together, and I love the way she executes it. So I’ve tended, in the last few years, to read a lot of female writers, not consciously, but after the first year of tracking my reads, I’ve realised that that’s what I’m drawn to.

What are some of your hopes for the novel?
My hope is that my fellow Bruneians would read the story, that they would like the story, that they would see something in it that reflects or mix magical Bruneian history in some way. I hope that in challenge to this story or in rebuttal to it, they go off and write their own stories and I really think there’s so much Bruneian talent, that they would write much better magical, historical fiction than I could. So I really hope I get to read more of that. So, yes that’s my hope for the novel, that my fellow Bruneians would read it and like it.

Get The Fisherman King here.

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