Monday 4 May 2020

First Three Way Translation Interview: Elaine Chiew Chats With Kulleh Grasi and Pauline Fan about Tell Me, Kenyalang

Courtesy of Circumference Books


TELL ME, KENYALANG is a collection of poems by Kulleh Grasi, a writer and musician from Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. This groundbreaking book is one of a handful of contemporary works of poetry written in Malay to be translated into English and the first in decades to include Malaysian indigenous languages. Translator Pauline Fan brings the work into a thrilling, living English. Kulleh Grasi's poems are entirely new and yet intimate. They are entwined with myth and nature and yet are fully post-modern. They are outside the context of American poetry and also deeply inside the questions and experiences American poets are grappling with today: questions of identity in relation to nation and language and sexuality. 

Grasi, both a known poet and rock star in Malaysia, writes new rivers and islands into the landscape of identity. Grasi says: "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." 

TELL ME, KENYALANG will change the way people think of contemporary poetry throughout the world and about the role of indigenous languages in global literature and in translation. The book is a powerhouse.

EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Kulleh (KG) and Pauline (PF). It’s a distinct honour to host as a first-time a three-way interview with author and translator in The Contemporary Voices column at Asian Books Blog. Congratulations on Tell Me Kenyalang, which has just been longlisted for the Best Translator’s Book Award 2020. Tell us more about yourselves.

KG (PF translating): My name is Royston John Kulleh. I am Iban, from the district of Song in Kapit, Sarawak. Kulleh Grasi is my pen name. My creative journey began as a singer-songwriter with Nading Rhapsody — a band I co-founded that creates and performs avant-garde world music from Borneo. I started writing songs around 2011, first for Nading Rhapsody, and later also for independent and commercial artistes. My love for poetry predated my song-writing — it has grown within me since I was an adolescent. At that time, I began recording a chronology of my personal life through the medium of poetry. Initially, I was caught between prose and poetry, even though what I wrote then was only for my own eyes. I am inclined to find expression through buried, implicit meanings; what I say bears little trace of the literal. To be honest, I am a very shy person and I don’t talk much. Poetry is a realm where I shed my inhibitions and embrace my voice.

PF: As a literary translator, I translate across several languages — Malay to English, English to Malay, German to Malay, German to English. My first projects of literary translation were from German to Malay — poetry by Bertolt Brecht, a seminal essay by Immanuel Kant, a play by G.E. Lessing — which were all published in book form in Malaysia between 2006 and 2008. Around the same time, I began translating poetry and prose from English to Malay and Malay to English. Although many of my translations from German or Malay into English have appeared in international literary journals, Tell Me, Kenyalang is my first book-length translation to be published internationally. I still work across all these languages, each of them speaks to a part of myself that is intimately bound up with memory and a sense of place — excavations and wanderings through inner topographies and outer landscapes. 

Pauline Fan and Kulleh Grasi at the Singapore Writers Festival 2019. Courtesy of Pauline Fan.

EC: How did this project begin? What led to publication with Circumference Books, which is based in New York?

KG: Truly, my journey as a poet feels as if it was blessed by a beautiful intervention of the universe. For me, poetry had always been something deeply personal, it cannot be denied that poetry encompasses the inner voice and essence of the poet. A few years ago, I was approached by Pauline to send her a few of my poems for a journal she was editing. Pauline was one of the few people who knew that I wrote poetry. Actually, I didn’t feel quite ready to share my poems with the reading public, perhaps because they were just too personal. But there are forces larger than ourselves at work, the doors of possibility have no date, time or month. When it comes, it comes. One thing led to another, and there was an almost magical confluence — Pauline as my translator, Circumference Books and the two founding editors, Jennifer Kronovet and Dan Visel, and Tell Me, Kenyalang was born.

PF: I first met Kulleh about 7 years ago, through his band Nading Rhapsody and my work with the cultural organisation PUSAKA. We have collaborated many times since then, for festivals and cultural programmes. Rooted in the indigenous oral traditions yet creating their own contemporary soundscape, Nading Rhapsody explores uncharted paths for the music of Sarawak. One of the things that struck me most about them was the intensely poetic nature of their lyrics. After one of their performances, Kulleh and I were in conversation backstage, savouring a glass of homemade tuak, and I asked him if he wrote poetry. It turns out that he did, but he had never shown it to anyone. Sometime later, I convinced Kulleh to send me some of his poems for a journal I was co-editing, Naratif|Kisah. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I was astonished by the power of his poems. The way Kulleh expressed himself in the Malay language was unlike anything I had encountered — it felt ancient and completely new at the same time. I published two of Kulleh’s poems in the journal, and started translating his work into English. In 2018, on a cold spring morning at a cafĂ© in Berlin, the poet, translator and editor Jennifer Kronovet told me that she was establishing a small press for poetry-in-translation, Circumference Books. Jennifer asked if I was working on any interesting translation projects, and I told her about my translations of Kulleh’s poetry. I sent Jennifer some samples, and she soon offered to publish a volume of Kulleh’s work as the second title by Circumference Books. And so, Tell Me, Kenyalang was born. It’s been an incredible process, and Jennifer is the kind of editor I thought only existed in dreams. 

EC: Sarawak, where Kulleh resides, is as Pauline describes in her Introduction, home to over 40 indigenous tribes, including broadly the Iban (Sea Dayaks), Bidayuh (Land Dayaks) and Orang Ulu (Upriver People) which encompasses 27 different tribes. An amazing feature of this book, which I’d not seen before, is the incorporation of Iban, Kayan, Kelabit, Penan, and Bidayuh oral languages within the poems, in the process dethroning the primacy of Malay. 

(1) To give us a sense as to how different they sound, are there different names, for example, for Kenyalang (the hornbill) in different tribal languages, and (2) is there a kind of symbolism to the Kenyalang’s chatter?

KG: The diversity of tribal languages in Bumi Kenyalang (the Land of the Hornbill) lies at the heart of my literary self, it is the identity of my poetic voice. While you are right in saying that the presence of these languages in my poetry “dethrones the primacy of Malay”, I deliberately chose Malay as my primary language of poetic expression. As a Malaysian, and a poet steeped in Malay and Indonesian literature, I felt that Malay was the most natural medium for my contemporary poetic expression. At the same time, my language has been shaped by the distinct dialect of Sarawak Malay. My birthplace, my ancestry, and my life experience has given me a form of linguistic emancipation, through the richness of indigenous oral traditions and local dialect. My poetry is woven through with the syntax and sounds of local languages that have become part of me since birth.

PF: The majestic rhinoceros hornbill is known in the various indigenous languages of Sarawak as Kenyalang (Iban, Bidayuh), Tinggang (Kayan, Kenyah, Penan), and Menengang (Kelabit). Among the indigenous communities of Sarawak, the Kenyalang is believed to be a sacred messenger between our world and the celestial realm.  The Kenyalang’s call holds messages from the gods and spirits. 

(3) Why was it important for you to include these oral languages within literary discourse?

KG: The presence of indigenous languages and oral traditions in my poetry imbues it with a sense of belonging. It emerges organically in what I write. It’s not only important for me in the literary sense, but it is part of my assimilated everyday language, it’s the essence of my identity.

PF: For me, the indigenous phrases in Kulleh’s poetry is an affirmation of the power of oral traditions to redefine, or even subvert, written text. Much of contemporary literary discourse disregards oral traditions altogether, or treats them as something anachronistic. Oral traditions are by nature mutable, they constantly shift and transform according to who is telling them. Another aspect of oral traditions is the validity of multiple versions of the same story, song, or poem. These challenge the very notions of literary authorship that most of us are accustomed to. I also want to emphasise the distinctiveness of Kulleh’s Malay, which is one of the things that drew me to Kulleh’s poetry. It reminds us that there are many varieties of Malay, and that Malay is by no means only spoken by what we categorise as Malay communities. We often repeat what we learnt in school about Malay being the lingua-franca of Nusantara, yet some of us are bewildered or unsettled when we encounter other kinds of Malay, including local dialects and expressions. Kulleh’s love of the Malay language was nurtured and developed outside the literary establishment, and is free of some of the limiting sensibilities that characterise Malay literature. As Goenawan Mohamad wrote in his blurb to the book, “the poems disrupt the typically linear, narrative-bound verses of mainstream Malaysian poetry.” 

EC: What were some of the challenges of translating this collection, particularly in translating the various tribal languages (and some which you chose not to translate)? How much interaction was there between yous in the process of translation?

KG: Being part of the translation process of Tell Me, Kenyalang was so beautiful; it was an unforgettable experience. Collaborative translation is such an intricate and personal process. We usually worked after midnight. The process of translation required me and Pauline to open ourselves to each other, to share our thoughts on each sentence, word and emotion. This is because we wanted to deeply understand each poem in its context, it wasn’t just a matter of translating language. Pauline understood the context of each emotion that emerged in my poems. We often met online, me in Borneo, Pauline in Peninsular Malaysia, and sometimes we met face to face during our translation process. We left some phrases untranslated, to retain the linguistic layering and colour of the original. 

PF: The process of translation was intimate and collaborative. Kulleh and I are both nocturnal creatures, our creative fires flare up after midnight; we worked through many nights, refining the translations till dawn. Those nights usually unfolded like this — we would decide which poem to work on, I would sketch out a rough draft, then Kulleh and I would discuss each line, paying particular attention to the context and personal story of each poem. We decided together which words and phrases to leave untranslated, after much discussion and rereading. Some of the untranslated phrases are incantatory in nature, their presence in the poem serves an aural purpose, they are meant to be spoken and heard in the original language. In other instances, we felt that it was important to retain the sound of the original, and that the need to translate ‘meaning’ was secondary. All the indigenous words and phrases that appear in the book, whether translated or untranslated, appear in a Glossary at the end, so readers who wish to delve into ‘meaning’ in more detail may do so.

EC: Nature or the inanimate anthropomorphised is a predominant motif in this collection: “the floor catches sight of dawn” (Nebula), “the lips of the sky” (Bough), “calendar leaves fold into letters” and “pebbles inscribe promises” (Man of Hope). Is there an atavistic message here being recuperated for an urbanised nation and a national narrative that has eclipsed an indigenous way of life?

KG: Nature is the canvas and the colours for my poems. The things of nature, both animate and inanimate, are ciphers that remind me of significant moments in my life, which emerge in my writing. Writing poetry is not only self-expression for me, it is also to document a way of life that I want to see continue. As an indigenous person, nature is part of me, we live in close symbiosis. The symbolism of nature in my poetry is not just metaphor, it is something that is alive and speaks to me.

EC: Myths about Sarawak are juxtaposed with mythology from indigenous tribes, such as the legend of Gerasi Nading, an Iban warrior expelled from the celestial realm, and in the Introduction, Pauline spoke about the Western gaze and the prevailing myths about Sarawak as: (1) the land of the ‘White Rajah’ James Brooke, (2) a land ravaged by uncontrolled logging and deforestation, (3) an exotic tropical paradise for travel or (4) the land of Headhunters, following the Iban warrior tradition. How does the collection reflect upon, subvert or play upon these various myths?

KG: Myth and the ancestors of the indigenous people of Sarawak are inseparable, like the moon and the earth. It’s rather nebulous if we look at it from the perspective of ‘civilisation’ or cultural anthropology, because myths can be mystical and logical at the same time. Our myths, stories and folktales have been passed down from generation to generation through oral traditions, which encompass human values that serve as teachings to guide us in our lives. So, myth is thoroughly intertwined with my poetry, at times mythological beings are the narrators or subjects of my poems. 

PF: Many of us, not only from the West, still see indigenous people as ‘noble savages’ and, sadly, can only imagine the indigenous experience through an ahistorical and apolitical lens. Indigenous experience is not some vapid ‘disneyfied’ notion of living in harmony with nature and loving humanity, their land and culture is not exotic backdrop for the escapades of ‘adventurers’ and Instagram travellers. Language has been one the most powerful weapons — brandished by colonialism, nation states, and global capitalism alike — in dispossessing indigenous peoples of their knowledge, worldviews, land, and ways of life. Thus, when an indigenous person writes about the indigenous experience in his or her own language, this is a political act, whether or not the subject of this literature is overtly political. In Tell Me, Kenyalang,Kulleh explores the nature of that experience, expressed in his own language(s), on his own terms. The telling of that experience —wholly contemporary yet cradled by indigenous mythology — subverts the imposed narratives and ‘myths’ of outsiders. 

EC: To give a flavour of the collection, I’ve included a snapshot of one of the poems, one of my favourites. Here too, I feel a myth is being addressed: the sexualisation of the Malay male, and the fecundity of language. How should we interpret desire and myth in this collection?

KG: The indigenous male. Sexuality and mythology is a coming together of symbolisms that are entwined yet taboo in Sarawak’s indigenous communities. Poetry is music, it is ambiguous and holistic. The sensual language of the body is an expression of personal freedom that I combine with indigenous myths. This is my concept of the mundane world and mythological realm brought together through the metaphors of poetry. For me, it is an abstract reality. 

PF: In Kulleh’s poetry, sexuality is pervasive and palpable. The body of the indigenous male and female are made powerfully present in moments suspended between the sacred and profane. Desire is an animating force, not only in the human realm but also in the mythic realm of the gods.

EC: A couple of the poems, such as ‘Raan’, reference maps while several others reference distant lands – land of the sakura, or Delft City and Adelaide, where some of the poems were written. What is the hither-thither notion of place that you hope to impart; why this criss-crossing between the local and global?

KG: Poetry itself is a kind of wandering. No matter where we are when we write or read poetry, we travel somewhere else. My poetry charts all the places I have lived in or visited, directly or indirectly. The voice of my poetry remains constant whether or not I find myself in the landscape of my home. All the places I travel to become part of the memories I carry in my body. Some poems are particularly marked by the place where they were written. And I imagine my poems drifting in the clouds of every faraway land I have visited. 

PF: A sense of place is paramount in Kulleh’s poetry. Some poems speak of specific rivers and hills in Sarawak, while others evoke places that are longed for through images such as the ensurai and sakura flowers. I think the criss-crossing of local and global in Kulleh’s poems is something natural, it’s the way he responds to each place he visits — to touch the earth and write upon the sky.

Thank you for joining us on Asian Books Blog.

NB: Tell Me Kenyalang may be purchased from Circumference BooksKinokuniya Malaysia, BooksActually (Singapore) and Kinokuniya (Singapore).  It is available now for free online reading on the publisher's website here without subscription.