Indigenous Feminisms, Language and Representation with villbeejay by Rebekah Siah Anggapan

R: Hi Vilbeejay, I am Rebekah Siah. Thank you for this opportunity in allowing me to communicate with you. It is such an honor to be able to know you better. Could you tell me more about yourself?

V: Hi Rebekah. Yes sure. I am from a small ethnic group called Kelabit (father) and I am also part of the Dayak race, which is Bidayuh (mother) in Sarawak. The Bidayuh ethnic group is much more well-known by majority than the Kelabit while the Kelabit ethnic originates from a small place called Bario, a place surrounded with mountains. The ethnicity of Bidayuh and Kelabit have distinct differences but one thing that is common between these two ethnic groups is that both reside in areas with mountains, unlike other Dayak races such as the Iban who reside mainly near the river or sea sides. I really cherish both of my ethnic heritage.

I am currently doing my Bachelor degree in English Language Studies in UKM (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia), and I am in my final semester of my second year, moving towards the final year soon.

R: That’s great! And all the best in your studies too!
As part of the Indigenous body in Borneo, what is your background in relation to the environment that you were brought up in and how you view your surroundings? From my understanding, during colonization, the majority of the East Malaysians have converted to Christianity but there are also communities who maintain their beliefs and religions. Could you talk more about your culture, traditions and experiences?

V: Sure. Unlike my cousins where most of them were brought up in a village in a rural area, I was brought up in an urban area. Although I was perceived as a ‘city girl’ who has the best of both worlds, I still love it whenever I travel back to my village and have fun with my cousins, involving myself in various activities. As you mentioned, during colonization, most of the East Malaysians have converted to Christianity but there are some who still preserve their religion. As for my family, we are Christians and some of my family members are Islam. But I haven’t personally met someone who still preserve their traditional religion and it would be interesting to meet one and to talk about it to know more about traditional beliefs.

Growing up on my father’s side, they love singing and music. Every time I go back to my village, my cousins and uncles would welcome me warmly, go to church together, sing together and sometimes, just a casual fun gathering while listening to music. Traditionally, in terms of costumes, the Kelabit attire is mostly made from beads so whenever you wear it, it is expected to be quite heavy, but it is also very beautiful. In terms of food, there are various traditional food and there’s one that I like from the Kelabit, which is called ‘nuba laya’ that is made of rice wrapped in banana leaves.

On the Bidayuh side, we are more chill, I guess? Well, I spend more time with my Bidayuh family due to the hectic travelling to my father’s village. Since I’m from Miri, it’s easier to travel to Kuching where my mother’s family resides rather than to Bario. There are various types of traditional food as well and the attire wise, the Bidayuh’s costume is not as heavy as the Kelabit’s.

While growing up, I don’t really listen much to stories from my Bidayuh family but my father (Kelabit), he used to recite bedtime stories to me where most of the stories are folklore. Some folklore recited by my father are general and some were passed down from his grandfather to me. It is quite sad that I don’t know much about the Bidayuh folklore but I do try to search it up and ask my grandfather if there are any interesting folklore that he had listened to back then.

R: That’s fun! And I understand that there are preservations of certain festivals that are still practiced today, right?

V: Ah yes. On the Kelabit side, they do this yearly but unfortunately for this year, due to the pandemic, they didn’t do it. They call it Food festival that is always around June or August and every time, local and even international people would visit, and there are fun activities for the kids and adults to play along together.

R: That’s fun! That is the ‘balik kampung’ mood. Moving on to your poem, I’ve read it and I love the knowledge that I gained on East Malaysians through your poem. It’s amazing to know that you love writing one-shots, fanfiction and even song lyrics! What inspired you to venture into the field of writing?

V: That’s a very interesting question as I have never really thought about writing. I used to do it for fun where I started writing fanfiction around 2012 or 2013. It was a fun trend among me and my friends because I have lots of imaginations and prompts in my head at times that I would love to let it out, so I told myself to give it a try and I started writing from there on. Sometimes, my head just could not describe the kind of ideas that I have, so I penned it down. If it comes in a short form, I would turn it into a poem, or at times, if I feel a little more creative, I will pick up my guitar or sit in front of the piano, explore certain chords and penned down the lyrics.

Back then in secondary school, during English essay exams, there are always three options of different formats to choose and somehow, I would always pick creative writing as it is easier for me to write creatively than writing factual or actual logic, it’s surprising for me at that point. When I did a course, e-Methods in Literary Production with Dr. Anita Harris Satkunananthan (from UKM), I was taught on skills and techniques on how to write a poem, haiku and short fictions. It got me thinking surprisingly, that it was what I have been doing for a while and I did not know that I was into this until this course. It’s truly inspiring and very motivational that awakens me that I can do this and I need to continue doing this to sharpen my skills for something better and bigger in the future.

R: Writing is such an art in enabling one to express themselves. Are most of your compositions based on folklore, or do you express randomly based on what and how you feel when ideas started coming to you?

V: It’s usually based on what I feel that I express it, and it depends, I can also get inspiration from movies, anime or TV shows where certain scenes or conversations execute the kind of expression that enable me to view it from a different perspective.

R: That’s really creative. In your explanation on the poem, you mentioned that the Belian tree is one of the strongest and long living trees in Borneo. Could you explain further on the context of the poem such as the roles of Santubong and Sejinjang in the Bornean folklore that are adapted into this poem?

V: Thank you. For this poem, I used the Sarawak folklore where everyone in Sarawak grows up listening to this. Originally, the folklore began with Puteri Santubong from Mount Santubong that portrays the shape of a woman lying down. She is known as a celestial princess who came down from heaven to help people with their disputes, economic, activities while Puteri Sejinjang is Puteri Santubong’s sister who became jealous of her sister. Puteri Santubong is more on weaving cloth while Puteri Sejinjang is more on pounding rice. Both of them are very beautiful. However, in the poem, Sejinjang often feels insecure because of the praises that are given to Santubong and that raises a dispute between the siblings that leads them to their curses by their celestial father, the king. Santubong is punished by becoming Mount Santubong while Sejinjang is punished with a part of her becoming a mountain while other parts of her turn into small islands.

The Belian tree in my poem is one of the long living trees in Borneo and it’s one of the strongest trees that if it is used to make buildings, houses or even furniture, it will last for a very long time. So taking this into context, I tried to use this tree as a character that no one has ever tried to flesh out and place myself in Belian’s point of view as a growing tree throughout the timeline where Belian watches the entire situation of the village while the village is still at peace to the time when the people in the village had their first dispute and up to the punishments of the princesses.

R: How long did it take for you to research and link the entire characters into a complete story?

V: If I am entirely focused and put my time into it, it will take me a day to complete it. If editing and other necessaries polish to be made, I can do it in two days. There are researches to be done as in this case and since there are many versions of Puteri Santubong and Puteri Sejinjang, it would take me some time to write it. I decided on the kind of versions I wanted to use and put a twist to it.

R: It’s an amazing piece of work and a twist that I really enjoyed.
Moving on, in this current age, Indigenous feminism is on the rise in deconstructing misrepresented voices imposed by non-Indigenous community and to reclaim their identity as Indigenous women. What do you think about the whole idea of Indigenous feminism?

V: I’m glad you love it.

The Indigenous feminism is very interesting to me. They want to voice out and represent themselves as who they are. Because even in our time, we grew up doing what we were told to do but it is not a reason for us to bury who we are. The same goes for the period of colonization on the Indigenous people. So, my thoughts on Indigenous feminism is actually a great way to speak up in order to preserve our cultures and tell the world that we exist, this is us and we are proud of it.

There’s an Eurasian and Kelabit woman (Alena Murang) who is a great representation of ‘us’. She plays the sape really well and she writes songs where she showcases her culture not only to the locals but to international people. She made a music video recently in Kelabit, a very traditional Kelabit folklorish music that it made me really proud as a Kelabit woman where we are able to gain more recognition and understanding of our culture.

R: What do you think that the Indigenous women long for and desire the most from the non-Indigenous community?

V: In my opinion, I think the main thing is to understand us, know us and to respect who we are. When we want to stand our grounds especially in preserving cultural traditions, please respect us because we want our culture to exist for a very, very long time as there are few ethnics in Sarawak where its traditions and cultures are close to extinction, we are slowly losing our language and representation, it’s really sad. Through this platform, we hope that we can get more attention, understanding and respect to allow us to preserve who we are as Indigenous representatives.

R: I totally agree with you. It’s really sad to hear about this, especially with various modernization and globalization that are taking place. So, what is your aspiration as a writer and an author?

V: Yes, it is sad.
Well, honestly for now, I am still on a journey of progression. As I have lots of works that are in progress and there are works that I am still keeping to myself since I haven’t really found a suitable platform for me to publish my works and of course in the future, I will continue to write and to sharpen my skills, as well as finding a right platform for me to publish all my works to share what I have with the world.

R: All the best, Vilbeejay. You will do well. Are there any ways that the readers are able to connect and reach out to you and your works?

V: Thank you! Yes, sure. You can always check out my twitter profile, villbeejay. I decided to use my twitter to share my thoughts, receive and accept comments, get advice from writers who are more experienced, and suggestions from readers. I do have a blog but for now, it remains personal. I will try to publish it in the future on my twitter account on the blog in which I will share my random thoughts and explanation about the Indigenous culture.

R: Great! I’m honestly looking forward to read-up your works. All the best for your future and looking forward for more.

V: Thank you, Rebekah.

Read villbeejay’s poem “The Weary Old Tree” here!

BIO: Rebekah Siah Anggapan  is enrolled as an M. A. student at the National University of Malaysia (UKM), specialising in the studies of Post-Colonial Literature. As a fervent reader and a former genetic scientist, her area of interests include works of Science Fiction, Gothic and Chinese mythology. Having won several championships, her enthusiasm in arts has motivated her to linger and expand in various fields of creativity. She is a musician and a freelance performer, painter, graphic designer, and during her free-and-easy hours, she takes delight in immersing in Mother Nature to pen her thoughts 🌳.

Truancy 8, July 2020