The Gatekeeper
Nuraliah Norasid

22 January 2021—22 January 2022

Readings of The Gatekeeper, 2017, Published by Epigram.
Commissioned essay, Accompaniment to the recordings from The Gatekeeper, 2021, Published by XING.

For Bite the tongue, writer and educator Nuraliah Norasid reflects on the invention of languages in her novel, The Gatekeeper. Set against a post-apocalyptic backdrop mirroring Singapore, the novel follows Ria, a young medusa navigating a divided Manticurian world from the margins. The book is punctuated with linguistic deviations countering the colonial Ro’ ‘dal—Sce’ ‘dal as the lingua franca and Tuyunri, a fading indigenious tongue. Through audio readings and a written essay, Nuraliah illustrates the intricacies of orality and the possibilities of linguistic escapism. 

Language plays an important part in The Gatekeeper, not just in the narrative of the final completed novel but during the writing process itself. Much of the dialogue spoken by Ria, Barani and the dwellers of Nelroote in the early drafts of the manuscript that would become this novel was written in colloquial Malay—the language that felt the most familiar to me in that it rolled off the tongue in a way that felt like it was made to fit the structure and make of my face. This decision is meant to make readers, depending on their linguistic backgrounds, either feel that same sense of familiarity or an unsettling sense of alienation.

My use of languages in the novel is at the time of writing greatly influenced by Vyvyane Loh’s Breaking the Tongue, where language is used to create perceptions and shape narratives. What particularly struck me is the use of the Chinese language in the novel to tell a story that the same telling in the English language does not deliver. It is with these narrative experiences and experiments in mind that I first set out to write The Gatekeeper. However, later rewritings of the draft see me replacing much of the Malay dialogue and narration with English as it is too alienating and confusing for readers. The compromise that I arrive at is to capture the cadence of colloquial Malay in the English language by ‘breaking words, shortening sentences, barely obeying the laws of grammar’[1].

Two of the main languages featured in the novel, Sce’ ‘dal and Ro’ ‘dal are represented by Malay and English, respectively. Sce’ ‘dal, much like Malay, is the lingua franca of the Layeptic Region of which the novel’s main setting is a part. It is a language that by its name seems to trace its roots back to the Scereans, who are one of the earlier arrivals to the island. That Sce’ ‘dal is also spoken by the Cayanese and Feleenese hints at the extent of the interactions between the three races and the importance of the Scereans in forging relations within the region, especially when it comes to trade and politics. Sce’ ‘dal is also spoken by many of the pre-colonial Human arrivals from the north who have settled on the island and started their own communities, which explains why the Humans in the village that Ria and Barani live in speak only Sce’ ‘dal.

Ro’ ‘dal is a much later arrival to the island, arriving with the Humans from far north-west and, much like English in Singapore today, is a colonial language turned de facto main language. It is the language spoken by the majority of the modern Manticureans and is described as “clipped”, “controlled” and “learnt in schools” in the novel—used to explain, interrogate, convey, and build bridges, even if clumsy and precarious ones. The way it feels for me in writing the novel is that Sce’ ‘dal is an enveloping comfort place while Ro’ ‘dal feels like the necessary chore that one must do to keep the house in order. 

Amongst all this, Tuyunri exists underneath the layers of colonialism, war and economic transformation. For me, Tuyunri is reminiscent of spoken dialects that are in danger of fading out as hyper-connectivity and shifting cultural focus and sensibilities lead to new language needs and interactions. In this case, Tuyunri is the language spoken and written by the Tuyuns, a minority race in Manticura, long before the arrival of the Scereans. It is a language that I specifically created for the community, basing it on the early Tuyun’s hunting and gathering way of life, their deeply matriarchal society and the structure of their mouths and faces. As the Tuyun’s are covered in hard scales resembling tree bark and rocks, this would impact the way they shape words.

Tuyunri is a language kept alive only by those with the drive to not see it die out. Much of the written Tuyunri in the novel is found in a single book that Ria treasures throughout the many decades of her life and on the walls of the Nelroote catacombs.

The short, recorded excerpts below show some of the interactions between the different featured languages and the deeper implications beneath their use and utterances.

In this extract, we see Ria’s first grasping of numbers as well as the syntax of the Sce’ ‘dal language, which is spoken by everyone around her and is thus taught in the village school. It is not a big school and Cikgu (meaning ‘teacher’ in Malay/Sce’ ‘dal) is one of two or three teachers teaching the classes which is made up of schools from different age groups, though all with the same reading and writing abilities.

The villagers’ fear and prejudice towards Ria and Barani, who appear vastly different from the other, mostly Human, students threaten to thwart their learning progress. Barani, understanding this, echoes the villagers’ sentiments when she says with sarcasm, “People like us, what for need school?”

Cikgu’s arrival to the sisters’ home is an important moment for them as it sets Ria on her intellectual journey which would lead her to become the woman who, even without formal education, is able to interpret the histories left behind in the Nelroote catacombs.

The symbols that are mentioned in this extract is a reference to the Jawi alphabet, which is the writing script used to write the Malay language and several other languages in Southeast Asia. The Jawi script was used beginning from around as early as the 14th century (though its use might have occurred as early as the 12th century), coming into prominence with the spread of Islam and replacing the older scripts used to write the Malay language. It was eventually replaced by Roman alphabets in Singapore. The Roman alphabet is what Ria refers to as the “alfa-birds”.

In this extract, the narrator emphasises on how meaning and signifiers remain the same even as the symbols and/or systems for writing them change. This is drawn from my own fascination of the fluid and ever-changing relationship between writing script and spoken language—between symbol and utterance.

This relationship is also explored in the description of Tuyunri alphabets—“squarish symbols of whorls-and-dots, and branching twigs with crowns of eyes”—which seem to be more pictographic, likely derived from the immediate surroundings of the early Tuyuns. Fire, the narrator mentions here, is ‘api’ in Sce’ ‘dal, but is ‘krik-ek’ in Tuyunri. I hope to be able to explore the etymologies of this word further in future writings. For now, the Tuyunri word for ‘fire’ is derived from the crackling sounds of an open fire. It will be pronounced far more thickly and in the back of the throat by a Tuyun.

This extract depicts the scene leading up to the sisters’ arrival at the underground settlement of Nelroote which would be their home for the next few decades and through much of the events in Manticura’s modern history. They meet a Scerean man named Acra. At this point, Manticura is on the cusp of change. People are being evicted from villages so that those villages can make way for modern housing estates and amenities. Construction works are already underway, exposing the red soil that we would often see at such sites. Here, Ria wonders, “What creature could be so big that it required such a massive grave?” hinting at pasts that must be buried and a way of life that can no longer be.

The confusion that Acra and Barani face in their communication—not knowing if the other is more conversant in Sce’ ‘dal or Ro’ ‘dal—stems from the changes that are rapidly happening to the Manticurean people, dictating the languages that they are ‘supposed’ to speak and displacing them from homes that they have built and lived in all their lives. Acra, not getting the education that Barani and Ria got, struggles to speak in Ro’ ‘dal.

Amid it all, Ria wants to be helpful with the bare bit of Tuyunri that she knows.

The word ‘cerita’ which means ‘story’ in Malay is often pronounced as ‘ci’ta’ in colloquial Malay. You want someone to tell you a story? Spill some gossip? Recall an event or an incident?

“Ci’ta lah.”

The word ‘cita’ is understood to mean ‘create’ in Malay. I never thought much of it until this was pointed out to by a speaker during a lecture or a talk that I had attended a while ago. It has been many years, and this still stuck with me. The word ‘ci’ta’ embodies the inherent duality of narrative, in that there is the creation and the story. This then opens into a narration of Manticura’s history and the constructed nature of place names and meaning.

Ma(an) TisCera is a Tuyunri name for the island and this is later changed to Manticura, in reference to the manticore, the chimeric creature that is believed to be unconquerable. Even in the grand scheme of the novel’s fictional narrative, this creature is a myth, but it is chosen as a symbol of strength for a new, emerging nation surrounded by much larger and more powerful countries such as Upper and Lower F’Herak and South Ceras (formerly Su(ma)). With this renaming, the Sky Hills fades into topographical memory as a new (and monstrous) city rises in its place.

1. Vyvyane Loh, Breaking the Tongue, (New York: W.W Norton & Company), 2005, p.3.

Nuraliah Norasid

Nuraliah Norasid is a Singaporean writer and researcher. She is a research associate at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs in Singapore. She graduated with a PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing from Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Her thesis was a work of fiction that examined marginality, isolation and socio-historical traumas. That work resulted in The Gatekeeper, which won the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2016. Her writing has been published in Quarter Literary Review Singapore (QLRS), Karyawan Magazine, AMPlified, and Perempuan: Muslim Women in Singapore Speak Out. Published in 2017, The Gatekeeper is the Winner of Epigram Book Prize 2016.