The sun is almost setting and Xygarathma (pronounced zai-ga-rath-ma) Lebibi is still patiently signing copies of her new book Silent Bird. Once the crowd disperses and the 19-year-old comes over for our interview, signs of fatigue – and some relief – are evident on her face.
Does it get easier, I ask.
“The book signing? It got easier towards the end,” she replies with a nervous laugh. “It was my first time actually,” the soft-spoken teenager quietly adds.
The recent public event at the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre in Cyberjaya, Selangor, may have been her first, but Silent Bird is actually Xygarathma’s second book. Her first novel, Nothing, Something, Everything was published in 2008 when she was just 12 – she even did the illustrations for that one herself!
Looking back, though, she admits with a cringe that there are some things she would change about her debut work.
“I mean, back then I couldn’t really write as well. I had a smaller range of vocabulary because I was younger. Now, I would think of different words or something,” she says of the book written when she was just 11.
Born to an Indian father and Lebanese-German mother, the final-year animation student has always loved reading. Growing up, she remembers reading Roald Dahl’s books and just being enchanted by the magical worlds the iconic British author created. Her favourite author nowadays also used to build fantastical worlds: the late Robert Jordan (1948-2007) was known for his epic fantasy works, especially.
“I always felt really sad after a book ended, so I thought, if I wrote my own books, then it would not have to end. I would always know what happened next, even after the book was done,” she says.
Her first brush with writing was in the form of short stories: “Just a couple of pages long, until they progressed to more complicated stories,” she humbly shares.
But the more she reads and writes, the more she realises that she doesn’t know many people who think of reading as something fun. In fact, Silent Bird was turned down by several publishers because of that same reason.
“They said Malaysians don’t really read these days. So the book may not sell well,” the young author puts it matter-of-factly.
Seri Mutiara Development finally picked up the title under its Nurturing Young Talents programme. The property development company’s initiative supports local youths by providing them opportunities to contribute to society.
Silent Bird initially started as a challenge to create a book “that was as good as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter”. After studying the series, Xygarathma came to the conclusion that its success is due to the feeling it gives readers.
“A good book can make readers feel drawn into the characters’ lives and thoughts and make you feel their sorrows and joys. And I thought, if my book could achieve this effect with someone, then it would be a success to me,” says Xygarathma who spends about two hours at night to write.
In Silent Bird, readers are swept into the ancient world of Ukana where a war rages between the tribes of Alted and Leeta. Amidst this tussle is Shamool, the Silent Bird that’s destined to tip the balance of power in the mythical land.
The story was, in part, inspired by Xygarathma’s pet cockatoo: “I thought I could do a story about how animals think in relation to humans,” she says.
That being said, it’s no coincidence that both her books weave fantastical storylines. “It’s a form of escapism for me. And I think a lot of people my age like this kind of magical stuff too,” she says.
When asked what’s that one thing from her novels that she would introduce into the real world if she could, her eyes light up as she exclaims, “Magic!”
Despite her love for all things surreal, though, Xygarathma’s response is remarkably grounded when asked about career prospects in fiction writing.
“As a career, I would probably do things on the animation side. Writing is something that I can always do at home,” she offers.
Right now, though, she just wants to focus on promoting her new work. More book signings then, I suggest.
“I’m really looking forward to that if and when the time comes,” she says with a smile, “So yes, I’ll have to practise my signature.”