Kevin Martens Wong speaks to Nuraliah Norasid, research associate with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs and winner of the 2016 Epigram Fiction Books Prize. Nuraliad is the creator of Tuyunri, the constructed language at the heart of her prizewinning novel, The Gatekeeper, which will be published this month.
Tell us a little about your upcoming novel, The Gatekeeper (we’re excited to read it!). What’s the story about?
Every time someone asks me about it, I don’t know where to begin! (laughs) The Gatekeeper is centered around two main characters: one of them is a woman, Ria, with medusa-like abilities, and the other is a man, Eedric, whose fight or flight response takes on a more bestial form. They live in a world, in a society, that on the surface is different from our own, but which at its core faces issues and problems very similar to what we experience in our own world. In particular, the novel deals with how marginality and social stratification get reconfigured through socioeconomic conditions. It was first conceptualized in 2005, and then the writing only began 2009 proper. Without giving anything else away, I think that about covers it!
Why did you decide to develop a constructed language for The Gatekeeper?
For me, it was this idea that a lost language is also a lost people. I thought a constructed language would add a very interesting layer to the novel, and I thought it would be a nice addition to the idea of submerged histories and lost histories through a language that belongs to a submerged and marginal people. Languages tend to have a very strong cultural presence, in that they have an inextricable relation to culture and history, and history is very important within The Gatekeeper. Again, without giving too much away, I have a character who resides in the catacombs of a long dead people of whom we don’t know very much about, aside from their language, which is called Tuyunri. I wanted to develop a language that these long-disappeared people would speak, and that no one else in the novel would understand. So it’s like this group that’s basically on the fringes, and the language itself is all that remains—and even that language is barely remembered.
What does the word ‘Tuyunri’ mean?
The word Tuyun is the word for the race that speaks Tuyunri in the novel, and is an amalgamation of a number of other words in the Tuyunri language. It’s a bit difficult to break down into its constituent components, which is what I wanted: tur means rock or earth, which also references the skin covering members of this race possess in the novel, and yun means tree or bark — I guess the best way to understand what Tuyunri means is that it basically means “language of the land”, since “rock” and “bark” together reference the land.
Why did you have it mean ‘language of the land’?
It has to do with my own racial history, I think, because all of my relatives are from the Malay archipelago, where this concept of the people of the land is very strong — anak bumi, we say in Malay. So the “language of the land” was the lingua franca of that time, Malay, and so I think that just came naturally to me — that one of the submerged languages that is especially in need of recollection is a language of the land, just like Malay today.
What real-world influences did you draw on when you developed the vocabulary and grammar of Tuyunri?
I have to admit that I’m not a linguist, I got an F in linguistics in university so I can’t say Tuyunri is very scientifically derived! (laughs) But I was very interested in how older real-world languages came about. In particular, if you trace Malay to old Malay, the etymology of Old Malay has pretty strong Polynesian roots, which for me is very evocative of our maritime history. Nowadays, when people talk about Malay culture it’s almost as if you expect one to envision sampans and fishermen, but the fact is that there is actually that strong maritime heritage encoded in the roots of Malay. I guess it comes from how our ancestors observed and looked at things, and put words and symbols to particular concepts. The language developed that way.
So the way I developed Tuyunri in the novel was to think in that way — coming up with a vocabulary (and I guess to a lesser extent a grammar) based on the sort of life and culture that the ancient Tuyuns had, and other things like what kinds of activities they did on a daily basis, what their religious life and activities would be like, and so on. I envisioned the Tuyuns as a very matriarchal society. So in Tuyunri there are a lot of words for women and women’s positions in families and such, and I wanted it to encapsulate what a matriarchal society would need in terms of language.
How does Tuyunri feature in the novel?
Again, it’s hard to say—spoilers!—but it comes up in bits and pieces in the novel, particularly when the main character Ria is in school, and then her teacher decides to teach this dead language for some reason. It also figures in the catacombs when Ria is explaining some of her past to Eedric, the other main character. Most of this is because Tuyunri is a dead language — at one point in the novel it’s explained that the only words the Tuyunri still speak in their language are a prayer for the dead, which I think is something that speaks strongly to many speakers of smaller languages today (yes, like Kristang!). It’s meant to evoke that sense of submergedness and that marginality, that sense of lost culture and history—all we have left are the prayers and a few other words.
What were some of the challenges you faced in developing Tuyunri?
One of the biggest challenges was envisioning how Tuyunri would be spoken and how it would sound when it comes out from the speaker’s mouth. My idea was that it was supposed to have the texture of the very land that it came from. So you could imagine a hunter trying to say something to a fellow hunter, trying to tell them something, but then what they were saying would have to sound natural to the rainforest. So I was trying to figure out what would that sound like, and to me it was the most natural to have that kind of sound from the back of the throat. And so in the end I decided that a lot of the language would have to come from the back of the throat — something that would not project one’s voice too much, but that would still carry so that communication between hunters could happen without alerting prey.
The other thing I was concerned with was the idea that most languages are essentially patriarchal. I wanted to reclaim language for a female space. I wanted to give my matriarchal tribal society a language that would represent that matriarchal existence — so I had to think about what words needed to exist, and what words needed not to exist, the words that needed to be given less emphasis.
The Gatekeeper revolves around the figure of the Medusa, a female figure that has been vilified and considered monstrous no matter which version of the story you look for. For example, there’s the story that Athena changed Medusa into a monster. Accounts differ as to why she did it, but all of them vilify the Medusa: one says it was because the Medusa had a dalliance with Poseidon in Athena’s temple, another says she was raped in that temple but was turned into a monster anyway. So the very fact that I wrote a story where the Medusa figures so strongly is an attempt at reclaiming that figure and trying to give it a more nuanced story. So the language also figures in that way.
How do you hope readers will respond to Tuyunri?
I hope readers will take the language and world I created and expand it for themselves. You know, like fan-fiction — the idea of “I love your world so much, I want to claim it for myself”. I would love for people to actually to want to develop my world. Because there are people out there who are trying to speak Dothraki and Klingon, and that is such high praise for those languages. I actually hope that this whole Singaporean speculative fiction thing will grow, and have an even sort of, well, cultish following (laughs).
Have you learned any other languages, real or constructed? What’s your favorite language?
Besides Malay, my favorite language is Māori. I think many of the Malayo-Polynesian cluster of languages have very lovely sorts of musicalities to them. I also really like the language spoken by !Kungung bushmen, the clicking language of the Khoisan family. But as a gamer and a huge fan of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls Series, the one language I would love to speak with great fluidity is Dovahzul, the language of the dragons in the Elder Scroll V: Skyrim. I have to admit I’m very bad at Mandarin, but my boyfriend is Chinese and so I guess I have to learn Mandarin!