Singapore Writers Festival

Writers festival to feature strong voices from Malaysia and Indonesia

Author of Iban Dream (2013) and Iban Journey (2015), writer Golda Mowe (above) will be on three panel discussions at the Singapore Writers Festival.
Author of Iban Dream (2013) and Iban Journey (2015), writer Golda Mowe (above) will be on three panel discussions at the Singapore Writers Festival.PHOTO: GOLDA MOWE

Malaysian Golda Mowe melds folklore and traditions from the indigenous Iban in her stories

For her fantasy novels, Malaysian writer Golda Mowe shines the light on an unexpected group - the Iban, an indigenous tribe from Borneo.

Born to an Iban mother and a father from the Melanau indigenous tribe, she has plumbed the Iban's oral history, folklore and way of life for her two books, Iban Dream (2013) and Iban Journey (2015).

"I have no problem weaving fantasy into everyday life," says the 46-year-old. "When I was a child, my Iban grandparents often reminded me to eat each grain of rice on my plate or else the rice spirit would feel unwanted and abandon us. Being with them in those days really felt like being inside a story."

She will be among the myriad voices from Malaysia and Indonesia represented at the Singapore Writers Festival, which runs from tomorrow to Nov 13.

These writers will mine the depths of their countries' histories, delve into the experiences of marginalised communities and bring to the fore tongues and traditions threatened by modernity.

Among them are Eka Kurniawan who, in his books, confronts the chequered history of his homeland Indonesia; Malaysia's 2012 Man Booker Prize shortlistee Tan Twan Eng, who tackles war-time trauma and loss wrought by the Japanese occupation of Malaya; and Faisal Tehrani, who is no stranger to controversy in his home country of Malaysia, where some of his literary works have been banned.

  • BOOK IT /COMMUNITIES UNDER THREAT

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    BOOK IT / UNRAVELLING MYTHS AND RETELLING STORIES

    WHERE: Screening Room, The Arts House

    WHEN: Sunday, 2.30pm

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Mowe will be on three panel discussions at the festival, speaking on topics that range from myths to indigenous communities.

Her debut novel, Iban Dream, follows a young boy left orphaned in the rainforest. Raised by a family of orang utans, he grows up with the ability to speak to animals and see spirits. But in his adult life, he finds out his future has already been scripted: He has been chosen by Sengalang Burong, the Iban warpath god, to serve as a warrior and headhunter.

In her books, she taps on the real- life beliefs, myths and traditions of the Iban people, most importantly their deep links to nature.

Mowe grew up in Sibu, a town on the Rajang River in Sarawak, but used to spend her holidays at her grandparents' Bawang Assan longhouse, listening to folktales and stories about hunting adventures.

"When I first sat down to write Iban Dream, my sole purpose was to introduce Iban folklore characters to people who could not read Iban literature because of the language barrier," she says.

"The deeper I went into the folk stories, the more I sensed that the Ibans of the past had a strong relationship with their surroundings. This relationship became the central theme of both my books. I want to show readers that it is possible to

 

have a living relationship with nature."

Even to this day, she says, some Ibans still seek permission from nature before they use a piece of land. "Then they will listen for a reply which will come in the form of a call from one of the seven omen birds," she says.

Hearing or seeing the diard's trogon, a species of bird, at the padi farm, for example, is seen as a good omen.

Mowe, who is single and still lives in Sibu, admits her books are not the usual fantasy fare.

"If you pick them up expecting to read about magic and swashbuckling heroes, you are going to be terribly disappointed. But if you read them because you want to experience the rainforest, then you will enjoy them."

She herself is not a big fan of the fantasy genre, having read only books by J.R.R. Tolkien and stories about King Arthur. "I don't really enjoy the other fantasy works because I feel that there is too much magic and too little nature," she says.

The book that made her want to write about the Iban people was Ruth Beebe Hill's Hanta Yo (1979), which follows the lives of two Native American families from the late 1700s to the 1830s.

The interest was compounded when she left for Japan to study at Waseda University. "I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of folklore local writers and manga artists had modernised and used in their work," she says. "I wanted to see something similar done to the Iban heroes and gods that I love so much."

•The Straits Times is the official media partner of the Singapore Writers Festival. For more stories on the festival, go to str.sg/4x7R

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2016, with the headline 'Nature meets fantasy'. Print Edition | Subscribe