Chiew-Siah Tei is one of the finest writers in Scotland, but her theme is not and never has been about Scotland. Her theme is a universal one about dislocation, about people losing their identities and finding them again because they have been forced to move from their homeland to another country. And that is the theme of The Mouse Deer Kingdom in so many ways; dislocations of time and place and culture, and of coming to terms with these things.
Engi is the first person to have his life disrupted. His father agrees that he should be taken away from his Orang Asli community in the Malaysian jungle so that he can learn how to cope in the modern world. He is handed over to Taukeh Chai, a Chinese immigrant to Malaysia, who has fled southern China from famine, the failure of the Boxer Rebellion and the collapse of the Qing dynasty. And it is through Engi’s eyes that we learn how Taukeh Chai was able to rebuild his life, and that of his family, on the Malay Peninsula.
And so we begin to learn the story of the Mouse Deer Kingdom, founded by an Indian prince, Parameswara, fleeing from his enemies. And we learn of the Princess Hang Li Po, married to the second ruler of the Malacca Sultanate by her father, the Emperor Yung Lo, to secure an ally near his south-western border.
We learn of the many reasons that can force people into exile, separating them from their homelands to create a new home somewhere else. We learn of the ways in which traditions and communities are brought together, and of the ways in which they remain separate. We learn the ways in which histories that we do not know, because we have chosen not to find out, not to learn them, shape the world in which we live. And we see the way in which the arrogant, at that moment powerful, affect the course of events, without care for the fact that they do not understand, only caring to secure what is immediately good for them.
Chiew-Siah Tei forces to think about how we live in the world. She does not do this through hectoring us, but through the power of telling a good story, one where you want to know what happens next. This is a story that fascinates, that grabs your attention, that makes you listen. It is through stories that we understand our world.
Chiew-Siah Tei is a consummate storyteller.