Saturday 16 April 2022

#AtoZChallenge: N for Nusantara

I’m tired, so I’m going to cannibalise part of my dissertation essay (EN5528 Assessment 2: Writer’s Journal) for this one, updated with the new name of the novel (i.e., The Weight of Strength changed to Amok).

Setting the Scene: How Centring Nusantara Changed the Backdrop of the Novel

[One] one development in the final version of Amok is its deliberate setting in a magical version of Nusantara, which first started during the planning module. Part of this epiphany came from reading books within the diversity movement, including The Weight of Our Sky (Alkaf, 2019), Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck & Fortune (Lim, 2019), Lost Gods (Yongo, 2018) and Three (Udayasankar, 2015). As I said in a recent blog post:

“…diversity is what people are looking for now. People of colour are looking to see themselves represented in fiction—and it can’t just be the colour of their skin. Not just being the token brown guy. It has to also be the way they speak, the way they mix languages, the thoughts and feelings that cannot be divorced from who they are. 

We read to make sense of the world, to discover who we are. But even more, we write to discover who we are, who we are becoming. Even if it’s only to say that we’re leaving parts of our heritage behind.”  

Amok draws primarily from my background in Malaysia, which has cultural similarities with neighbouring Singapore, Brunei, and Indonesia. This sub geographical area, historically referred to as Nusantara or the Malay Archipelago, was once united under the Majapahit and Srivijayan empires, and shares deeper cultural and linguistic roots as compared to the more Sino-influenced members of Southeast Asia such as Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

My research included reviewing the different ruling dynasties in the Malay Peninsula, with Perak, Johor, and Melaka (Malacca) as the primary royal families of note. I decided to follow the structure of the Malaccan Sultanate, from which the Perak and Johor Sultanates were later established. 

Whilst Malacca had a well-defined hierarchy in their court structure, I decided to group these officials into the “Majlis Maha”, a sort of council instead. A historian would probably point out that the recreation of the court in this manner is inaccurate—I do not claim to have represented them accurately, having taken liberties in my recreation and modernised the setting somewhat from its 14th- to 15th- century roots. It would be good to note here that most medieval fantasy novels are not 100% historically accurate either, just “accurate” within the common tropes or popular imagination of the genre and time period (Douglas, 2019). As Stuart Lee noted in his talk at the 2018 ‘Here Be Dragons’, The Oxford Fantasy Literature Summer School, many writers use the medieval period to avoid infodumps as it is a very familiar starting point (Lee, 2018). This has created a romanticising of the period with accepted deviation of facts, especially since they are often secondary worlds, not historical fiction. 

Using the Malaccan Sultanate as a base also led to some changes in the geography and landscape. In my original imagining, Bayangan and Terang were separated by land and desert. In the final version, the countries are separated by the Straits, somewhat like the Straits of Malacca between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. This was in direct response to the centricity of sea voyage to the Nusantara mindset. From Majapahit to Srivijaya, and later Singapura (Singapore) and Malacca, these dynasties were founded on control of the seas for trade and commerce. Popular stories revere the legendary Hang Tuah, Malacca’s most prominent Laksamana (Admiral). Unfortunately, I was not able to include that in the novel [Amok], except for Tok Rizal’s slightly deus ex-machina reappearance in Chapter 31.

In keeping with Nusantara setting, I decided to use Malay terms and names in creating the places and the characters. For example, Simson is the translation of Samson in the Malay Bible; Yosua is a form of Joshua. Some of the names are based on the meaning of the words—Maha as a prefix infers “great”, implying the greatness or strength of the capital city and the sultan; Suci means “holy” in a literal reference to it being the holy city and religious centre; the Secretkeeper’s name, “Ramalan”, means “prediction” or “prophecy” in direct relation to her gift of seeing visions. This then, wasn’t the creation of a new language ala Tolkien, but the use of modern Malay in this secondary world. 


That's it for today!

Head back to my theme reveal and master list.

Go check out the other A to Z Bloggers!


The Tale of the Hostage Prince (Absolution, #1.5) 

Yosua wears an uneasy crown. Although he is now Raja of Bayangan, he still longs for the land of his birth where everything was much simpler…and less deadly.

But peace doesn’t come easily, not for a twenty-year-old servant playacting at being king.

With his parents brutally murdered and his uncle bent on revenge, Yosua must decide where his loyalties truly lie. With his only remaining relative and the kingdom he has claimed? Or with his best friend Mikal and the sultanate that raised him as a hostage?


International purchases


  1. This is fascinating, Anna. Thank you for sharing all of this background info.

  2. I really enjoy reading about other writers process. What you have shared here is so in-depth.

  3. Ooh, that is some cool research! I love glimpses like this into world building...
    The Multicolored Diary