Born Royston John Kulleh of Iban descent, Kulleh Grasi is a co-founder and member of the avant-garde Borneo ethnic-world music band Nading Rhapsody, which has represented Malaysia at various international arts and music festivals since 2012. Earlier this year, amidst the pandemic, the singer-songwriter made headlines with his book, Tell Me, Kenyalang, for being long-listed for the Best Translated Book Award, an American literary award that recognises the best original translation of a work of fiction and poetry into English. The book would also go on to be shortlisted for the American National Translation Award.
Originally published in Malay, incorporated with indigenous languages, Tell Me, Kenyalang was later translated into English by literary translator and creative director of Pusaka, Pauline Fan. The book is a collection of poems that shed light on the experience of Borneo’s indigenous people. In describing his work, Kulleh shared, “I was reading all kinds of Malay literature. None of it spoke from the experience of Borneo’s indigenous people, so I started keeping journals, writing about the lives of indigenous communities that I observed with my own eyes. This was the true beginning of my poetry.”
What is the subject matter of your book, and how long did you take to complete it?
It took years for me to put together the whole manuscript. Most of my work is really personal and a form of escapism for me too. It also gives an idea of how I embrace my feelings towards what’s happening around me. The subject matter revolves around these things happening around me – the individualities, the environment, the myths and culture. The narrative is about me as an indigenous person in this modern era. The poems tell of our land, the beautiful sounds of nature and so much more. Because whenever you talk about Sarawak, you tend to think of the deep jungles, but there are actually a lot more interesting stories and meaningful messages that need to be heard in the mainstream media. So for this book to be recognised overseas is a big thing for us.
What do you hope to achieve from this?
I wanted to break the stereotypes that people have of indigenous people as outdated, uncivilised, etc – if anything, we have already moved forward, and not all Ibans wear a loincloth all the time. I was born an Iban, but that doesn’t make me less.
How challenging was it for you and Pauline to translate your work into English?
Translation is a wonderful thing that allows readers from different backgrounds to experience the culture and persona of the writer. However, often it can lead to the loss of the original meanings and, as a result, may not capture the essence of the writings. So Pauline and I have maintained some of the text in its original language, like the word “akui”, which means “me” in Kayan, to give a flavour of my culture. The translation took a lot of time due to our different schedules and locations; my editor was in New York, my sub-editor in Berlin, Pauline in KL, and I was in Kuching. The whole process took about three years. More importantly, it’s not just about me; it’s about the whole culture and the responsible portrayal of it.
What is a main contributor to your success?
Education. It is the only tool that can bring positive change to society. I hope that my success serves as an inspiration and an example for my people that the door is wide open and that they can have the same opportunity. We might be a little behind in terms of development, but we’re getting there. And I hope that everyone will play his/her role in making these changes, whether as an artist or a politician. The world is constantly changing and developing; the question is whether we are willing to change and adapt.
Photograph by Ju Shiu; Styling by Anna Sue; Concept by Eman Adris; Make-up by Orden Syam; Hair by Edmund Yong; Outfits by Gavroche:Arzmy Hargreaves and Emil Hamlyn