The Mudskipper—award-winning playwright and writer Ovidia Yu’s first book for children.
It’s the story of Lizhi, a ten-year-old girl of mixed heritage, who arrives at her father’s home in Singapore after his death to meet his family. Lizhi realises soon enough to her dismay that she’s an unwelcome guest there. Her frosty Aunt Mona makes no secret of the fact that she considers her niece nothing but a nuisance.
Lizhi’s only friends are Bwe Bwe, the young Indonesian maid and the mysterious old man in the garden with whom she feels a strange sense of kinship. One day while exploring the house, Lizhi finds a beautiful stone carving of a mudskipper, a fish-like creature she identifies with. Little does she know that there are many more secrets to be discovered in her father’s old home.
Ovidia Yu takes the reader through little-known nooks and corners of Singapore with her wonderfully vivid descriptions while telling a gentle, heartwarming story.
The Mudskipper was the second runner-up for the Scholastic Asian Book Award, 2011.
We caught up with the author for a quick chat about the book—
What inspired The Mudskipper? How much of it is drawn from your own life?
Ovidia: I travelled a lot as a child with my parents, my earliest memories are of camels in Egypt, snow in England, of standing on a dock in Bombay and my mother getting me to read the names painted on the sides of ships and of an enormous jasmine bush (I wish I could remember where) which you could stick your face and arms into after rain and the water droplets left jasmine scent all over you. But that also meant constantly making new friends. I didn’t go to kindergarten so when I started in school in Singapore the other girls already had friends but I didn’t know anyone. Some of that ‘outsider’ feeling is in Lizhi in The Mudskipper. Lizhi in the book also shares my curiosity about places, love of exploring, love of food, love of animals and the house in the book is very roughly based on my late grandparents house where I used to be taken to stay… which is how I know you can climb out of the windows!
Ovidia: I got into writing through reading. I really loved reading and used to get so caught up with the characters in books that I hated to let them go when the book was finished and I started to write ‘continuations’ for myself. I remember wishing that I lived in England or America where most of the books I read were set. For a long time I assumed that all real English books had to be set in England/ America and I felt very subversive when I secretly started writing stories for myself that were set in Singapore.
You’ve written extensively, but this is your first book for children. How different was the process? Did you have a specific age group in mind while writing?
Ovidia: The process was much easier than writing a play because I didn’t have to worry about casting and staging locations and deadlines! But then without a producer looking over my shoulder I also had to be more disciplined, otherwise I would just have gone on producing material indefinitely and never stopping to craft it into a book.
But no, I didn’t have a specific age group in mind. I tried to write for myself—the self I was when I first discovered a love for reading and wished there were books that explored where I was—and then I tried to write a book that ‘me’ would have enjoyed reading!
The Singapore you show in the book is very different from how one usually perceives the place. Would you like to tell us more about that?
Ovidia: I was trying to show my favourite sides of Singapore. I think countries are like family homes in how we have the sparkling clean, well-decorated spaces that impress visitors and where good children are allowed to play politely as long as they are clean and careful. But where we are happiest is in our back rooms or void decks, wearing comfortable old clothes, playing with friends and exploring.
When I was growing up my grandfather had a huge garden that I thought of as a jungle. (I think it was a former plantation. The grounds have since been bought over by the government and turned into a school) There were chickens and feral dogs and cats and occasionally a wild pig and I loved it even though I was afraid of going too deep in. There were rambutan and mango and chempadak and even durian trees and we always knew where fruit was ripening because the birds and the monkeys would be staking out the area.
Today most of the ‘wilderness’ is artificial but created to replicate original conditions. The Sungei Buloh Wetlands, the location The Mudskipper is set in, is one of my favourite places in Singapore.
Who were your favourite authors when you were growing up?
Ovidia: When I was growing up–well I’m still ‘growing up’, so when I was around the age I would have liked to read a book like The Mudskipper, some of my favourite authors were—Noel Streatfeild, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madeline L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, E. Nesbit, Philippa Pearce. There was a backlash against Enid Blyton books in Singapore at the time and my mother wouldn’t let me read them though she wouldn’t or couldn’t say why they were ‘bad’, so though of course I read them on the sly most of my books at home were ones my mother had herself grown up reading… and they were lovely, lovely books though looking back I can see the Colonial influence was very strong!