A journal of experiences
Singer, songwriter, surrealism artist, poet and author — Royston John Kulleh, better known as Kulleh Grasi, has made Sarawak proud this year with his 2019 book ‘Tell Me, Kenyalang’. The title was short-listed for the Best Translated Book Awards (BTBA) sponsored by Amazon, focusing on best original international fiction and poetry. ‘Tell Me, Kenyalang’ was also recently short-listed for the National Translation Award (NTA) organised by American Literary Translators Association (ALTA).
Royston was overwhelmed at the news of his work being nominated, as it was actually his first ever published work. Plus, the book was the only South East Asian representative for the award.
The 36-year-old author shared that the book was actually a culmination of his poems that he had written over the years. The earliest poem in the book was written back in 2002.
“When I was presented with the opportunity to get my works published, I couldn’t let it slide despite hesitating at first. So I curated 30 poems from my compilations since 2002, with the last few that I did in 2016,” he revealed.
As a poet, Royston shared that he could easily finish a poem in 15 minutes, “but there are times when it can take up to a year to finish. A poem is short so it requires in-depth description, and an immaculate choice of words in order to tell the whole story in a few, short lines.”
Tell Me, Kenyalang
According to Royston, his pen name ‘Kulleh Grasi’ — taken after his great grandfather — is a combination of words of twoorigins. “Kulleh in Kenyah means leopard, and Grasi is from an Iban folklore Nading Grasi. He is one of the unsung heroes, known for his determination with traditional arts in the olden days.”
From childhood legends to his own personal experiences and memories, Royston explained that the book is like his journal.
“From a young age, I was like a nomad. I was born in Sibu, raised in Sri Aman, my family now lives in Kapit and I am now in Kuching for work.”
Apart from that, Kulleh’s experiences with people from rural areas also gave him the inspiration to write. “In my opinion, not many people have the opportunity to express themselves. Hence, some of my poems represent the natives from remote areas. I also describe the beauty of Sarawak, that is usually misrepresented by many of those who had never even visited us,” said the vocalist of ethnic world music band Nading Rhapsody.
Royston explained that he wrote his poems primarily in Bahasa Melayu, “However, I also incorporate many indigenous languages as the vessel such as Iban, Kayan, Kelabit, Kenyah, Bidayuh and other.”
The Kulleh Grasi journey
Writing has always been his way to express and the Iban lad said he started realising he could pen out and connect words during his teenage years. “Back in those days, I have no confidence to speak out. So whenever I needed to express myself, I would write to respond to the things around me.”
Royston conceded that he did not know what he’s doing was actually a medium of expression, “I feel like I was just carving out my feelings. Little did I know, I was writing a poem.”
The thought of him being an author never crossed his mind. Royston said that while he had written many lyrics for his band Nading Rhapsody, he never thought that he had the potential to write a book.
“I didn’t realised all this while that I was writing poems. Also maybe because I never shared any of them to anyone to get opinions. Then one of our clients in music approached me. She is a book translator and we have met several times. In 2015, she asked me to send some of my works over for the publication of ‘Narrative|Kisah’.”
As his works were published in a book of poetry collections from authors around South East Asia in 2016, Royston was initially hesitant but he knew that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Asked whether creative arts runs in the family, he chuckled and said, “Nobody else did art. I am the only weird one!” He further elaborated that coming from a conservative family, “it is not that they don’t encourage me to go for it, but they perhaps they didn’t understand. Parents always want us to have typical jobs, be a doctor, engineer or teacher.”
Nonetheless, Royston said his parents gave him their blessings and continue to encourage him further. He would also receive words of encouragement from his comrades, “Now, I let them read my works and let them be the critics. This way, I can view my works from a different perspective. and also work to improve myself.”
Royston also conceded that his journey as an author would not be complete without his translator, Pauline Fan and his publisher, Circumference Books. “I’m grateful and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them for who I am today.”
‘Tell Me, Kenyalang’ was actually published October last year, and the author has already started working on the next one this year. Royston then revealed snippets of his next poetry book. “It is more personal this time. It will be about my love life, and it will be released either this year or the next.”