Five Questions for Clar Angkasa

In Stories of the Islands (Holiday, 8–12 years), Clar Angkasa retells three Indonesian folktales in a gorgeous graphic format, reframing the tales in ways that empower their female protagonists. 

1. Were folktales a big part of your experience growing up? If so, who would share them with you? 

Clar Angkasa: Folktales were such a huge part of my childhood that I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know some of these stories. My parents told them before bedtime, and I had a picture book of Indonesian myths and folklore that I loved rereading growing up. Folktales also played a role in my education. In grade school we were given folktales as reading assignments to take home, we went to museums that delved into how mythologies influenced our art and culture, and we even reenacted some of these tales in school plays. Between all that and the fact that I was a huge Disney fan (I still am), I became fascinated with fairy tales and folktales from around the world at a very early age. (Photo: Priscilla Angkasa) 

2. How did you decide on the color palette? 

CA: I wanted the stories to be distinct from each other but look cohesive together, so I knew having a limited palette was the way to go. In the early stages of the illustrations, I assigned two complementary colors for each story based on elements from that tale. Royal purple and golden yellow were the colors for the first story, “Keong Mas,” because it's about a princess cursed to live as a golden snail. For “Bawang Merah Bawang Putih,” I wanted the two colors to represent the two main characters, Merah (red) and Putih (white), and instead of shades of gray, I used shades of blue to complement the reds. In “Timun Mas,” nature and plant life play an important role in the story, so the main color was verdant green. The complementary color is a deep orange with hints of golden yellow for the golden cucumber (timun mas). 

3. How did you go about retelling the original tales at the end of the book? Were there any conflicting versions? 

CA: I spent a good amount of time browsing the internet to read through many versions of these folktales. The very nature of folklore is ever-changing and fluid, so there are many variations told and retold throughout history. I did my best to consolidate the findings from my research online with the stories I remember from my childhood. For the three folktales I chose, most of the elements are pretty consistent across all the retellings. Some details varied, and when I came across conflicting versions, I would go with the one I was more familiar with. For example, in “Keong Mas” there were many different versions of how the princess became a snail. In one, the princess is kidnapped by a king, so a god saves her by transforming her; and in another, the princess accidentally steps on a snail, which turns out to be a witch in disguise. I went with the version I was exposed to as a child, where the princess’s jealous sister was responsible for turning her.  

4. How have your family and community reacted to your retelling and reframing of these traditional folktales? 

CA: Stories of the Islands started as a project five years ago, but as a concept, I’ve been thinking about it since probably ten years ago in high school — so I’ve been getting a lot of “you finally did it!” from my friends. My family and community back in Indonesia are especially excited about the release. There’s a gap in Western media of Southeast Asian representation and an even bigger gap for Indonesian folktales, so a lot of people feel like this book is something we really need to raise awareness of our culture. Many readers (mostly women) have told me how much they appreciated the different perspective and how they wished they’d read something like this when they were growing up — a sentiment I had that drove me to write this in the first place. Someone told me, “If young girls everywhere could read a book like yours, maybe the world would change just a little bit,” and I sincerely hope this is true and that my retelling of these folktales resonates with young readers around the world. 

5. Are there other tales you’d like to tell differently? 

CA: I don’t think I’ll ever run out of them. Before landing on “Keong Mas,” “Bawang Merah Bawang Putih,” and “Timun Mas,” I had a long list. Contenders included “Roro Jonggrang,” the tale of a princess that leads to the mythical origin story of several temples in Java; and “Jaka Tarub,” the tale of a man who falls in love with an angel and holds her against her will. Reading through all these stories, there was always at least one element that I was unsatisfied with, and these mostly had to do with how the women were portrayed. A lot of the female characters are only there to serve the plot of the male hero, and even if a woman is the main character, she only gets her happy ending when she marries the prince. Even beyond Indonesian folklore, fairy tales around the world are overly saturated with stories where girls are limited to superficial tropes. In my opinion, they all could use a change or two: giving the female characters more agency and control over their lives and creating a more empowering message for girls everywhere.

From the November 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
Horn Book
Gabi Kim Huesca

Gabi Kim Huesca is a librarian at the Fairfax County Public Library. She holds a master's degree in library and information science from the University of Maryland.

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