Why Our Stories Aren’t Really Our Own

Keynote delivered by Juvita Tatan Wan, co-founder of The Tuyang Initiative on 31 October 2019 at the E-Nation Symposium by Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC), Cyberjaya (Malaysia).

I remember a time when I was 2 or 3 years old. And my uko ledo (grandmother), took me out for a walk. She was telling me, in the Kenyah language, colourful stories from her childhood and from our longhouse in Long San, Baram – a village in the interior, about 4-5 hours from the city of Miri (Sarawak). I hobbled alongside her, always trying to look at her face because she was such an engaging and wonderful storyteller. As we were walking, we stumbled upon a dead bird on the road. I remember the bird having the most vivid blue feathers I have ever seen. My uko gently picked up the bird and said to me “Poor, beautiful thing. We must return it to the soil”. We brought the bird to a nearby land off the road, dug up a small patch of dirt, gently put the bird in the soil and buried it. I could swear I heard my uko say something, that in hindsight, could have been words of prayer. But the words were too complex for “little me” to understand. As she held my hand as we made our way back home, she reminded me that we come from the soil with nothing but who we are. And back to the soil we will one day go, also with nothing, but who we are.

When she passed away when I was about 9 or 10 years old – that memory, that story, kept cropping up throughout my life. Having lost and buried a few more elders, years after that, in the form of my grandfather and uncles, it also reminded me that the keepers of stories of my origins are disappearing and dying. That memory and story was part of why, despite enjoying a wonderful career, working in glitzy industries such as advertising, music and telco here in Kuala Lumpur – I constantly felt a void. It was an unsettling feeling of immense fear of loss, of losing who I am, who we are.

And in 2017, that was what drove me home to Miri, Sarawak to start The Tuyang Initiative. To do what little I could, to try and save what is left of our stories, and share them with the world before it is lost forever.

One core part of indigenous culture is in our oral traditions. Stories are passed down, and shared. For generations, this is how we learn about who we are and where we come from, our living environment, our customs and traditions. These stories are also delivered through poetic songs, carved motifs, in melodies or dances, or on our bodies through tattoos and elongated earlobes. And in various other expressions which today is deemed by the mainstream as “art forms”. But for us, it is just..a way of life. Our way of life.

Yet over the past 100 years, from the outside, different versions of our stories have been put out there to the world, and dictated by others. 

It started with the imperialist version of the story – “people and land of the savage headhunters”. And then followed by an oversimplified, national version of our story. And of course, a convenient, exotic tourism story. Which if you think about it, probably isn’t too far off from the patriarchal tone set by the people before that. 

And now, it’s about the tragic story of “poor people living in the jungle, with nothing”.

And there’s a real danger in that version of the story being told and repeated so often. Soon enough, we, as a community, who once had so much pride and joy for who we are. And with our belief that living in our villages meant living in abundance because of our lands and ways of life, will now come to believe the measure of one’s life – is in Ringgit and cents.

I suppose this external version of a story came about because most from outside of the community looking in would only be able to connect with us through global measures such as “poverty”, a link in what means being devoid of money, but perceived or being understood very differently – like from two sides of the same coin.

In another sphere – some of the wisest people I know are our elders, and yet we were told to go out and get “an education”. All around us, we have food – growing and harvesting our own crops or gathering from the forest, rearing our own livestock or fishing and hunting, and yet the expectations to move into intensive crop farming, or move out from our longhouses to “find good jobs or income” in the closest towns, diminishing another core part of our culture, which is the ability to care for our land and maintain our community living.

And all of this, for what purpose? None of us now truly know or understand. It is only because the stories being told to us is that, THAT is “what we need”.

When a story is directed as such, these mismatch in measures of what is important leaves us in a very complex existential crisis. Even when we leave our homes, or go out and struggle to “get an education” or “get a good job”, it oftentimes unsettles who we are. Sometimes the expectations, or the work we end up doing does not match our culture and belief systems. And that perpetuates this void inside us, and we lose our bearings, a sense of meaning in our lives. This has been seen over the years, and has led to higher rates of alcoholism, anxiety and depression, and a host of other health and social issues among members of the communities.

Now, that we cannot undo the stories that have been drummed into us for decades, we have to find a way to reconcile this. That is a core reason why The Tuyang Initiative was started.

We want to return pride to our communities by having us practice our culture while creating a meaningful livelihood. Our vision is that our communities would no longer have to choose one or the other. Our culture is something inherently ours and it is within us, and is a key part of our story, which we should lead and benefit from. Not anyone else. And we should be able to do so from wherever we are, including from our villages. Not anywhere else.

Our work at The Tuyang Initiative comes in two parts. Firstly, it is in developing, representing and managing indigenous cultural practitioners. Secondly, it is in facilitating the understanding of others ABOUT our communities through the arts.

As a community-led initiative, we believe that by balancing our professional experiences, together with our cultural sensibilities, and delivering it through channels familiar to mainstream audiences – such as world-class cultural showcases or exhibitions, or intimate classes with masters, or in commissioned craft work, or a musical-theatre show in our languages, or even at talks such as these – it would return the narratives of our stories back to us, for us to lead it.

As every service or product by Tuyang is delivered by members of our communities, not by casted actors, dancers or musicians, there is no barrier. So you will get a chance to engage with us directly, truly see and learn about us for who we are, while encouraging capacities for self-determination. And that would truly make all the difference.

Through the stories delivered by our community practitioners, we also hope to serve as a gentle reminder to everyone of the basic human values which has allowed humankind to thrive for centuries, something which I personally feel is timely. The importance of our natural environment to our everyday life, to principles of only taking and using what we need, to the importance of being a part of a tight-knit community who would always look out for each other. To celebrating life, death, love, challenges and accomplishments through the beauty of song and dance.

Basically, the essence of what it means to be human beings.

So, when I say our stories aren’t really our own, it truly comes down to these two things:

One – The narrative of indigenous stories have been led by others, and it is time to return it to the rightful storytellers.

And two – Our stories are not ours to keep. It is not meant to be stored in the archives or let die with our elders. It is meant to be shared with the next generation, and to the world, so we can better understand who we all are, and where we all come from. And hopefully, where we are all going. 

As part of an indigenous community and a living culture in this era, at this juncture of our lives, we still want to be able to pass down the cultural wisdom, OUR stories, to our children and grandchildren one day. 

I will always remember to share THAT story, and the knowledge my uko had imparted upon me about coming from the soil, as I am. So when I return to the soil as I am, my hope is that the stories and the legacy of my uko, and my ancestors will continue to live on. 

Tiga tawai. Thank you very much.

Juvita delivering a keynote at E-Nation Symposium, MaGIC in Cyberjaya
Juvita, co-founder of The Tuyang Initiative, speaking at E-Nation Symposium