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“My song of love and lament for the indigenous people of Sarawak, our land and our worldview”

Kulleh Grasi

Tell Me, Kenyalang, a translated poetry book by Malaysian author Kulleh Grasi has made it to the longlist of the 2020 Best Translated Books Award.

Kulleh Grasi is the pen name of Royston John Kulleh. He is a poet, singer-songwriter, and cultural activist of Iban descent from Kapit in Sarawak. He is also a founding member of Nading Rhapsody, a band which draws from the oral traditions of Sarawak. He writes in Bahasa Malaysia, Iban, and several other indigenous languages of trans-national Borneo.

This is the first time a book by a Malaysian writer and translator is in the running for this American literary prize. It is one of 10 poetry books from all around the world that have been longlisted this year.

Tell Me, Kenyalang, was translated into English by Pauline Fan, co-director of the 2019 George Town Literary Festival and creative director of Malaysian cultural heritage organisation Pusaka.

This year’s Best Translated Book Award longlist also includes books translated from Spanish, French, Catalan and Korean. Tell Me, Kenyalang is the only South-East Asian book on it.

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Dream-weaving between worlds

Sarawak-born writer Kulleh Grasi's work is striking in his multi-lingual shape-shifting

Kulleh Grasi

“… these dreams we carry

seek poems from the jungle, 

rhythms from sebayan,

qasidahs from bunian.”

– Kulleh Grasi 

THE hour of twilight falls and soon enfolds us, a pair of crepuscular creatures at play by the water.  

In the disappearing half-light, his ink-inscribed body becomes one with the dark. I watch his silhouette as he walks towards the lake bearing a glass of tuak — libation to the spirits of this world and the other. The ceremony is over quickly; we moisten our lips with the heady rice wine and gather the threads of our conversation. 

In that passage between waking and dreams, Kulleh Grasi and I sealed a bond wrought with passion and poetry. It was a year later that Kulleh first showed me his poems, furtively, as if entrusting me with secrets excavated from his innermost being. 

My deep regard for Kulleh’s artistry as a singer and songwriter did not prepare me for the unpredictable power and distinctive beauty of his poetry, which interweaves Malay with six indigenous languages of Sarawak. I am still struck today by these incantatory lines from ‘Ibun’, the first of Kulleh’s poems that I translated… (view more)