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When I started writing Iban Dream, I thought that I was going to write an exciting adventure story for others, but instead, it became an adventure of self-discovery. Growing up in town where I was surrounded by people of Malay or Chinese descent, I was made to feel that my Iban heritage was pagan, backward, and unsophisticated. Iban women were often associated with being housemaids or prostitutes. Even though, my Iban grandparents lived well and lacked nothing at the longhouse—that sense of being inferior to everyone else persisted.

However, since I started writing stories based on the Iban culture, my perspective has changed quite a bit. The Iban storytelling culture is far more sophisticated than I had expected. I also learned that our so-called backward lifestyle is merely different but not inferior. The enduring preference for communal living among present-day Iban is proof of that. This has made me think deeply about the disparity between what I have learned as a modern woman who is urged to pursue goals to be better than others, versus the Iban value of doing things well so I could enjoy the result of my hard work. The aspirations drummed into me seemed similar at first glance, but while the modern one drives me to pursue one goal after another, the other only asks that I work for my happiness. It is perplexing to learn all this just from writing stories, but I guess this is how it is like when one returns back to one’s roots.

While writing Iban Woman, I was reminded of my early teen years in the 80s, when I was being taught in school and church about the ideals of being a moral and upright woman – be submissive, be hardworking, be filial, be faithful, and stay a virgin until you marry. I was shocked when I learned that my Iban grandmother had married seven times. She explained that the first six men were useless, so she divorced them. There was not a whiff of shame or guilt on her. I was also surprised that no one in the longhouse thought badly of her because of the string of divorces. It was only years later when I understood: The moral norms that applied to men, also applied to women in Iban society.


The Catalyst to Write

I have wanted to write an Iban fantasy novel since the mid 1990s, especially after spending four years in Japan and experiencing the entertainment and literary culture there. You can call it my period of enlightenment because I learned that local folklore characters could be adapted to modern tastes.

My biggest obstacle to writing Iban stories back then was my own ignorance and the biases I had against my culture. I was anxious about being ostracised by my Christian friends for writing about pagan deities. I also worry that society at large would reject my work because they feel that the stories were too strange. On the other hand, I was concerned that the Iban community might reject me because I felt that I do not have enough knowledge to write proper Iban stories.

Despite this, from the moment I decided to type out the first sentence, my insecurities had kept my work honest. Since I questioned every scene I wrote, I was forced to research deeper and deeper into the culture. I talked with people I would never have talked to, I found out-of-print books that I would never have read, and the more I learned, the more stories I came up with. At first, I had only planned to write one book. Once I got over myself, so to speak, the original plan of one grew into three novels in the Iban Dream series and one children’s book, The Laughing Monster. I am currently working on a contemporary Iban fantasy, a chapter book commissioned by the Sarawak State Library.


Transferring Emotions

Here in my home state Sarawak, there have been some self-published original novellas in the Iban language, but none in English at the time I started writing Iban Dream. Many of the published fantasy tales were written in the traditional style of oral storytelling. They tend to be lyrical and repetitive, a style that will not sit well with contemporary readers of books. Since I wanted to tell my stories in the way an Iban storyteller would, it became an interesting exercise of testing the limits of traditional versus modern storytelling. The first thing I needed to figure out was how to make my favourite folklore characters interesting to readers in general. Please keep in mind, I never had any kind of formal training on writing. Hence my methods of ‘learning to write’ might seem strange because I did them intuitively.

I had to learn mostly from trial and error, in the sense that I read a lot, so if what I have written is sub-par, I will know it is sub-par. I had enough self-awareness about my lacklustre storytelling skills for this method to work. During this time, learning through observation became necessary. The first thing I noticed was that, when I am reading something of a familiar setting, I will fill in details automatically, even if the writer made no mention of it. For example, H.G. Wells does not give a lot of details about clothes in The Time Machine or The Invisible Man. He did not have to, because he was writing for readers from his period, and of his culture. Even modern readers like myself have no problem filling in the gaps because steampunk culture is now so familiar that detailed descriptions are unnecessary.

However, this style of writing is counter-productive when the theme and background is unfamiliar to most readers. For example, when I read local folklore sagas in the Iban language, the stories may be sparse in detail but to me they are as rich as a 200-page fantasy novel. This emotional connection does not occur when I tried reading translations of folklores of different cultures. Thus, I started wondering about why I am excited by Iban folklores but only vaguely interested in the other tales. It was while reading Tolkien's fantasy work, Lord of the Rings, that I started to guess the reasons why.

Just from studying the first chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring, I already noticed the difference between traditional storytelling styles which targets an audience of many versus current styles that targets an individual reader. Tolkien jumps straight into the details of life in the Shire and, even though there are plenty of side characters, their individuality is clearly portrayed in their actions and reactions. In the traditional folklore style of storytelling all characters are presented in a two-dimensional manner. The way they look and behave are based on common archetypes. This style of storytelling has persisted because it is a quick and effective way to get everyone in the audience on the same page. It makes the presentation lively when people jeer, laugh, or startle at the same time.

Writing for the individual reader, however, requires a different storytelling style because even if some of the more popular books will get readers in the hundreds of thousands, for the most part, they would each be reading in their own mind space. This presents a new set of challenges for the storyteller. It means that the charm of folklore, which is its simplicity and predictability, needs to be adapted in a manner that will keep the reader interested sans the collective excitement of cheering and laughing together.

This again got me back to thinking about my emotional connection to Iban stories, and I figured that the reason I find simple Iban folklores so compelling is because I already knew Iban culture. When an item is mentioned, for example,  pop-rice, I already know the look, feel, and taste of it. So, the moment I read the word, I will have a subconscious reaction to it. Any folklore character mentioned will arouse all the auto-reactions necessary to make her come to life in my mind.

The problem is, how do I transfer these knowledge and feelings inside me to someone who does not know. Sometimes a detail that will move my heart will make someone else laugh. For example, the Goddess Kumang is said to be so fair that her calf is ‘as white as the underbelly of a catfish’. Of course, I can rewrite it as ‘as fair as white jade’or ‘as white as snow’ but it would mean that I have not relayed how Ibans view beauty. All three phrases mention the colour white, yet one referred to nature, the other to a gem and the Iban to an edible fish. Don’t they each exude a different vibe? Yet risking being ridiculed is the approach that modern indigenous writers have to consider if we want to present our culture authentically.

Tolkien’s detail-rich work made me realised that the reason translated folklores sound simplistic is because cultural symbols are not easily recognised, making it difficult for an outsider to know what is important. The meaning of symbols is often not explained, so I tend to scan over them without realising their significance. For example, when I was young, I could not understand why toadstools were the only mushroom ever mentioned in fairy tales, and why nobody ever picked them up to eat. I’ve even imagined them tasting like apples because they were described as red. A child from Britain would be awed or afraid, but I felt nothing.

Cover of The Monk Prince by Golda Mowe

As an indigenous writer, it can be difficult to know how much or how little detail to give. Most times I feel that when I explain the symbols, I take away the sense of awe or fear from a scene. Let me give you an example from an actual experience. During a banquet in Sri Aman in July 2006, some men came forward and told people that while they were outside smoking, they heard the sound of wind circling the building, then they saw a shadow flying past. This news spread like wildfire around the banquet hall. Instantly the Ibans present became cautious, afraid of offending a spirit through careless speech. No explanations were given to curious non-Iban guests because people were afraid of even alluding to the spirits. On the surface nothing seems to be happening, unless you are Iban. If my target readers were Iban, I would just describe this scene as it is. I do not have to explain anything, because by doing so, I will lessen the tension of this occurrence. However, if I want non-Ibans to understand this scene, then I will have to explain,and thus sacrifice the visceral fear of the unknown by doing so.I think this is because when a superstitious fear is explained, the reader becomes cerebral instead of emotional.


Translating Values

It can also be difficult to portray the values of a culture. For example, the story of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King used to be a confusing one for me. He was rebellious and he fought the Jade Emperor (the ruler of Chinese heaven) but that was often only after he found out that the Jade Emperor had tricked him. A ruler of heaven being conniving and a powerful hero being rash are confusing traits for a young girl raised with Catholic values. When I asked, my mom just told me that they are badly behaved because they are pagan. Everyone else just told me to shut up and enjoy the story. Maybe because of my experience with the story of the Monkey King, I am now more conscious of how my presentation of a head-hunter’s values can confuse a reader who is new to Iban culture.

The problem with being a person writing about a culture you are born in, is that sometimes you do not even notice your choices until someone points it out to you. For example, in my Iban stories I often mention my characters eating smoked fish or meat. These were just stuff my grandmother liked to add to her soups. I thought nothing of it until a reader pointed out that I never mention salted fish.

I would not be exaggerating if I say that I broke out into a cold sweat that day. Yes, modern Ibans do take salted fish because of its ready availability. But in the past, salted fish was only available if you lived near the coast. If I had not made a mistake, why was I sweating? Because I wrote naturally; without research; without confirmation, and it felt awful to think that I could have just as easily mentioned that my characters ate salted fish in the longhouse when they would not have had easy access to it in the 1800s. The choice of making my character to-eat-salted-fish-or-not-to-eat-salted-fish felt too much like a coin-toss. Does this mean that any mistake is unforgivable? No, it just means that we are not infallible. Most readers will forgive you for making a bit of mistake, but if there are too many, some might begin to doubt if you are qualified to write your indigenous story.

Other than the need to get the details right, writing indigenous stories may also require that you get off the beaten path, especially if your story does not conform to mainstream ideals. Like the Chinese tales of the Monkey King, your tribal hero may not be heroic in the contemporary sense. Even the concept of the perfect lover could be warped. For example, in Iban folklore, Keling is the ideal man and he is said to be the only one who can win Kumang’s heart. Yet he is wayward and oftentimes disappears for years on end, leaving his wife to fend for herself. Most stories of these two lovers focus on Keling’s attempt to woo back his wife. I cannot imagine how this kind of scenario would be received by contemporary readers.

As the storyteller, it is your job to decide whether to let your hero keep his or her folkloric character, or to follow the trend of the market. Being first to write an English novel for any indigenous group, also meant that you will only attract the interest of people who are already familiar with the culture or studying it. This is only natural because we all only read books that we are interested in. So, if you are a non-famous person, and you are writing indigenous, be aware that your first group of readers will be people who are very familiar with the culture. Hence, mixing and matching fighting traits from another culture just so you could liven up your indigenous story might earn you bad reviews from some cultural otaku.


Reality Check

Along my journey, I have met a few people who say that what I am doing is a great idea, and that it will garner me plenty of fame and fortune. Reality and great ideas are like fact and fiction: sometimes they match, most times they do not. There are now so much entertaining distractions that trying to get people to notice your book is like busking outside the stadium of someone else’s sold-out concert. Few will give you any attention, you just become part of the clamour and noise that often characterises such environments.

I realise my own limitations as an indigenous writer, I also understand that no matter how well I write, unless I get a large enough group of readers, my work will never get enough traction to make my writing a living. That is why many of us try to compete over the few awards and prizes that are made available to us. Yet to win, I have to conform to mainstream expectations. A story about an Iban boy who tries to find his place in modern city life by applying indigenous wisdom might tick all the boxes for a good indigenous story, but it will never be as exciting as a story of magical adventure. These are the kinds of choices you have to make when you decide to write indigenous.

We are often regaled with stories of how famous writers are discovered, but if you really study their background, you will come to realise that many of these writers have met the right people through their social network. In the case of an indigenous writer in some small town or remote village, the odds are stacked against us. Passion and talent alone are not enough. There has to be support, and access to right information.

With all of these issues, what does it take then to become a dedicated indigenous writer? Firstly, you cannot expect that your work would be supported or applauded just because you are writing about your own people. It could be that the new perspective you are presenting might disagree with mainstream beliefs. For example, in the Iban culture we had a courting ritual called the ngayap. After the whole longhouse had gone to the sleep, a suitor would sneak into the bed of the woman he was interested in. There he would declare his love for her and try his best to charm her into showing interest in him before he revealed his identity. Only after she agreed, would he send representatives to her family to ask for her hand. This ritual had given Iban women a bad reputation because the place of meeting is so intimate. In reality, it was rare for an Iban lass to sleep alone. There was often another female relative feigning sleep by her side, so she would be chaperoned throughout the encounter. This ritual was important for the woman because it gave her the right to say no to the man without peer pressure. In those days, young fighting men were important for the security of a longhouse. A young man who was rejected publicly might decide to leave the longhouse permanently.

Yet, writing about such a practise from the indigenous perspective is not going to be beneficial for many publishers. There have been various sensationalised books about the immorality of Iban women in the past. Even in the last two decades, two movies – The Sleeping Dictionary (2003) and Edge of the World (2021) – have been produced by big budget studios to showcase these white-men fantasies of native Iban women. On top of that, revisiting an old practise might not always be accepted by the new generation of natives because many of them are used to the idea that their original culture was backward and unsophisticated, and by many accounts, pagan and ungodly. Sometimes trying to push them to accept their past roots will be met with resistance. One example is that Iban women in past generations were bare-chested, like the men. Many photographs of these women were banned (except for the art ones) to preserve the dignity of Iban women. This means that history books printed in Malaysia will rarely carry group photos that include women, making it appear as though they have no role at all in the community. But enough of all these talks of contemporary native insecurities and societal politics. You will come across plenty of them in your own journey down the indigenous route.


The Challenge is Fun

Let us now go into the fun reason for writing indigenous. One of the foremost reasons I started writing Iban fantasy novels was because I thought that Iban folklore characters were super colourful and fun. There are lots of characters to explore and there are plenty of interesting ways to plot their growth and development.

Expanding the potential of the characters, however, requires that you be always aware of how your folkloric characters are like or unlike contemporary popular heroes. If you are going to promote your work as an authentic indigenous story, all you need is one culture specialist to shoot it down. For example, in Iban folklore there is a monster called the koklir. She is supposed to be a mother who died at childbirth, and who then returned as a vengeful monster who eats male testicles and female nipples. I cannot exactly write a vampire style love story with this character now can I, even though she is said to be beautiful and alluring. But I think I can do a modern one about a paranormal serial killer.

Just keep in mind that any changes you do to cultural characters might change the environment they are in. For example, if I give my Iban heroine wuxia fighting abilities, then the villain’s fighting style will have to change too, because if I do not present them both as equally strong and skilled, then all I have is a hide-and-seek story, where the villain is always running from the heroine. Any other option I choose, a curse, a promise, an allergy to weapons etc. to even the field between them will all just appear affected and ridiculous. But if I give her opponent the same wuxia abilities, then I might as well just write a Chinese story. Wuxia skills are not spontaneous, after all. They require a lot of meditation and training, which is not at all in line with Iban lifestyle in the longhouse. So, if you must adopt foreign elements, make sure you are aware of how they impact your indigenous story.

Depending on which route you choose to take, your trajectory forward will be very different. My writing decision means that I get plenty of scholarly attention for my work. Discussions around my work tend to be pedantic and academic, but I like it that way. On the other hand, if you would prefer something less rigid, then I suggest you study Japanese anime. Their anime series have adopted many foreign elements, yet they are still distinctively Japanese. Just be aware that the foreign elements you add into your story may not appeal to foreign readers. This may be because as outsiders, we tend to rely on cultural archetypes even though many of these archetypes were built on prejudice. For example: the Chinese are good in Math. I have Chinese friends who get annoyed when they are asked to do some mental calculations to split the bill.


Dealing with Misrepresentation

Many times, misrepresentation happens because some behaviour or certain spoken words are misunderstood. The Iban culture is rife with those kinds of examples because we tend to use ‘jakokarong’ or euphemisms when speaking about matters that will cause emotional discomfort. This style of expression is meant to soften the teasing or the warning, and in times when people are fearful, it is meant to conceal the actual message from bad spirits. For example, when we say that a person is ‘engaged to a crocodile’, we do not mean being romantically involved with a paranormal creature. We mean that the individual is cursed to be eaten by that creature. This manner of speaking is meant to confuse whatever spirit is listening because we believe that little spy demons live right under our chin. We also believe that they are simple-minded, so we do not expect them to understand our euphemisms.

The point I am trying to make here is that, sometimes a non-native will tell you that you are wrong because your story is different from something she has read in the past. I was not surprised when I got an email saying that my short story Under the Bridge, which I wrote for The Principal Girl anthology was wrong because the crocodile lured my protagonist as if she was prey. ‘She got engaged with a crocodile, does that not mean that she will go live with him in a magical crocodile kingdom?’ But I am 100% sure that I did not get the story wrong. Why? Because my mother’s first cousin was ‘engaged to a crocodile’. They said, she picked up something that did not belong to her by the river bank. My mom said she went berserk when the shaman tried to cut her spiritual link to the crocodile. That night, the whole longhouse heard loud angry roars and gurgles coming from the pier. While the shaman was trying to free her from the spiritual lure, she screamed and trashed about, begging people to let her go, so she could be with her lover. Finally, the shaman cut a stone out of her back and declared that she was free. (Some sleight of hand must have occurred, I pointed out, but my mom only gave me that tired-mom look.) Cousin calmed after that and the noise outside stopped but everyone continued to be vigilant for days afterwards.

Sometimes misrepresentation can also happen because your culture has been assimilated into mainstream culture some generations ago. Of course, as tribes migrate from one point to another, changes are inevitable but some changes can be so strong that it will change the essence of the culture itself. I think one of the most significant changes among the Iban of Sarawak currently is the representation of the ideal Iban woman. Iban women of the past were expected to be physically strong. They were farmers, after all. They were expected to be proud and strong-willed. How do I know? She was not ashamed of this at all, and she never even considered that it was her fault that her earlier marriages failed. The ideal new Iban woman, however, is different. She is expected to be gentle, humble, and tolerant on top of being skilful, smart, and hardworking.

Your culture may experience something similar. I only have two methods which I find effective in helping me navigate my way through the layers of changes. The first is to rely on my own actual experience. Luckily, I am old enough to have known the older generation of Iban women. This way I know that my grandmother’s attitude is not an anomaly, but is considered normal for her generation. The other way is to read or listen to original folklores. Luckily many Iban oral stories have been documented for study in the past. In the older folklores, I have come across stories of Kumang getting new lovers after her husband went missing for a number of years. Her behaviour of accepting new suitors is treated as rational and expected. In fact, it is her missing husband who is faulted for being irresponsible. Who told him not to be back in time for the land-clearing season or for not replenishing the firewood in her kitchen? But in the new stories, she is loyal and faithful like Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey.


Conclusion: Iban fantasy in the future

There are many Iban concepts and life philosophy that I can easily apply to modern or futuristic stories. For example, the Iban form of egalitarianism which is based on meritocracy could be used to build a strong female character for a contemporary story. The bejalai concept, whereby an individual travels to new lands to earn wealth and new knowledge can be used for a sci-fi space exploration plot. I think I can also use tie-dye weaving for a spy plot, something similar to Dickens’ use of knitting in A Tale of Two Cities.

Ultimately, as with all long-lived tales, it is the folk who will decide in which direction the wind will blow. Which stories will survive, how they will be dissected and reassembled into another culture will all depend on their popularity. There are limitations to many indigenous stories because they were birthed within a culture that had not been mixed and matched with a myriad of others. Favourite tropes used in the romance, fantasy or horror genre might not work in your indigenous story if you want to be culturally authentic.

There are now so many distractions in life that readers are forced to rationalise everything, even how they want to be entertained. Writers like us can pour our heart and soul out into our work, but we cannot force anyone to care. The best we can do is be happy with the result of our labour; that must be good enough. Such an attitude may be disadvantageous in this competitive field, but it is the only way to keep from disappearing. In the eye of the world, it is as uneconomical as a woman who gave up her career to raise a family. But as an Iban, I understand that the continuity of a family is as important as a great achievement outside the home. If you can understand this, then you can understand why women have equal standing with men in Iban society.

Writing authentic stories may require you to make the same sacrifice. This is not a question of whether or not you are ready to write indigenous literature, but whether you are willing to do so. Whatever your decision, continue to be kind to indigenous writers. Do not ask us why we are not famous or complain about why we are not getting support for our work. There can only be one answer to that: people are too busy to care. At least you care, and that should be enough to keep my culture alive.

Thank you for your attention today, from the bottom of my heart.











Golda Mowe is passionate about history and folklore. The jungle of Sarawak filled her dreams when she wrote the Iban Dream series, and the smell of spices haunted her while working on The Monk Prince. You can find a list of her work at
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