Drawing from folklore and current issues, Kejora is a collection of illustrated stories rooted in Southeast Asia. These stories explore the cracks and dissonances in our vibrant, multi-ethnic societies. They ask us to consider what we look away from in our everyday lives, to imagine kinder, gentler futures.
Kejora's roots reach deep, going back to a time when I was a child and adults whispered: work harder, you've got the wrong skin colour. It comes from my time as a schoolteacher, tearing apart students fighting over being called an immigrant, hearing a boy shout with derision: teacher, he’s gay. It arises from recent issues and conflicts: child marriage, xenophobia, the rapid degradation of our forests and rivers and seas. But Kejora is not moralistic or didactic. It's an invitation to wonder. To look afresh at society, to ask: what if?
All little girls know of the man who lives in the big house by the tangki air. Most little girls will wed him. No little girls leave his house. The law of the land offers little refuge, so when he comes to see her parents, they give Nura over to him. She nods as he tells her not to go under the house, her eyes darting towards the heavy darkness under the stilts, and smiles like a good little girl should.
Night falls. Nura rises. She moves through the room on feet so light the floorboards make no sound. Beneath the house, he is digging, digging. Nura waits for him to uncover the first little foot and then she screams, a scream full of generational rage tearing through her chest, loud enough to wake the dead little girls who reach out their arms and pull in unison.
A retelling of the Bluebeard fable.
Not a monster.
Not a monster not a monster not a monster, he breathed to himself, swaying past the garland makers where the scent of jasmine filled the air. Lost my home, lost my friends, but not a monster. Lost my job, lost my name, but not a monster. All I am is beauty. Beaten bloody, I am nothing but beauty.
The chrysanthemums blazed in the evening sun.
In memory of those who lost their lives to bigotry.
First he showed us his tools, gleaming and glinting under the fluorescent lights. When I go, he said, someone will have to take over.
What do you want to know? One cleaver for the bones. One knife for the meat. Iron sharpens iron. Will the market still stand ten years from now? Slice it cleanly. Elbows level. Who wants to do this kind of work nowadays? Bone, marrow, tendon, fat. We were sure there was magic in his movements, spells woven into the chopping block perhaps, but we could find no trace of it.
When he was done he wiped his hands, smiling, and told us to come again.
In memory of a certain grey-haired market vendor.
THE SUAY LANG
What I know of the woman I will tell you. She is young and fair. She is middle-aged and sunbrowned. She drowned in a well. She hung herself. She passed in childbirth.
If you see her by the rubber trees before dawn, do not speak to her. For she will tell you the truth of how she died by my hand, and what peace shall we have then in the village?
A reinterpretation of the langsuir.
A dutiful student should, by all means, strive to arrive before the loceng sounds.
Wading through the floodwaters, he should remain calm and poised, reciting multiplication tables in his head. Each book is to be laid out on the desk before the teacher enters the class. Each book is to be carried with him whenever he attends school, lest the teacher asks for question 2(a) on page 165 of workbook 3 for a sudden quiz.
In this manner shall the dutiful student prove himself a truly kiasu achiever.
THE LAST STRAW
They don’t grow on trees, you know. What a thought! Word on the streets is that if you want the finest straws, you go to the jinjangs, the smokey mountains, the edges of the blackwaters. And then you wait under the grey smog-filled skies. You’ll see them slowly sprouting, pushing up through the heaps of rotting somethings in plastic bags. If you’re patient you can get a really big one before one of the other kids runs by and snags it for themself. Then you bring your bushel of straws to the edge of the heap and wait for the uncle to putter by on his motorcycle. He’ll give you a few cents and bring the straws to the city for people to use.
Why won’t they pick the straws themselves? What a thought! Who wants to know where straws come from?
Every year thousands of students gather to celebrate the burning of their most beloved teachers. Carving their likenesses into wax, they set these representations upon pedestals in the front of classrooms where their teachers used to sit. Teachers’ Day is a festive occasion, full of games and songs and food. When evening arrives the students solemnly return to their desks. They light their handiwork and watch the flickering flames sear these words into their hearts: teachers are like candles; they burn so that others may have light. The air is heavy with smoke and reflection.
The next day a fresh cohort of teachers arrives, eager to shine brightly.
portrait of a young bride
“Little girl, smile lah,” said the photographer. “It is your big day mah! What you thinking about?”
“I am thinking about my in-laws,” replied the bride. “I am thinking about the day I visited their house and watched the mothers and aunties cook in the kitchen while the men played cards in the hall. I am thinking about the uncles and nephews who ate first while the women waited out of sight. I am thinking about the cousin who insisted on wrongly explaining xylems to me even though I have a PhD in plant biology.”
“Aiyah,” the photographer fussed. “Now cry already. Here, tissue. I think better you don't tell anyone else. You know lah, some people still stuck in the patriarchy. You not going to live with them right? Smile today and twice a year can already.”