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Rice, and everything else

I want to tell a story about journeys. Journeys that are circular, that fold back on themselves. For Gawai this year I had a conversation with my dad about rice, and about celebrations, and on Instagram I told a story from a Gawai. It also made me think about my name – the journey my name has gone on, and how I have moulded myself to others, to audiences I meet on my migration and how I fit into what feels comfortable for others.

To be complicated means having to explain myself a lot, which is both ok and annoying. I sit with both those feelings. The story of rice is complicated too, its about farming and eating, it's about gods, it's sacred but also it's everyday. 

This piece is a journey too; it is a snap shot of different things that to me, make up a whole. This is my history. My name is Anna Sulan Masing.

[I haven't edited my dad's words, because these are from back and forth chats, and I like imperfection that modern technology of rushed emails and whatsapp]


“Rice is the staple diet of the Iban” Dad said. 

“Because rice is so important in Iban society, its growth is handled with care and religious rituals are attached to every stages of its growth.  The Iban has two types of rice: (1) Hill rice.  (2) Wet Paddy.  The Planting of Paddy maybe done by individual family or in groups.  The Planting of Hill Paddy is not very productive; that is one year of work and may feed the family between 7 - 9 months, the balance months without paddy will be supplemented by rice bought from town.

I planted both Hill Rice and Wet Rice.  The one we gave to you was hill rice.  i had good harvest, so over the years since 1990, i wasn't required to buy supply of rice from town to supplement for my yearly needs.

I was in boarding school at the age of 6.  At that time I paid for my lodging and school fees by bringing in 20kgs of rice per month, and we built our own shelter, fished for our meat and cooked our own food. Because the school was far from home, we were allowed to go home for a break twice a year.  It was hard.  However, when I enrolled for primary 4, the things changed.  The mission school provided us with cooks and cash transaction was used to pay for our needs including school and lodging fees.

At Nanga Majau [the name of his parents farm] we did plant rice, but the harvest wasn't enough for our yearly need.  The revenue earned from our rubber and pepper was enough for purchasing our food and other requirements”.

(as told on my Instagram across Gawai weekend)

Gawai Dayak, which is now officially celebrated on 1 June, is a celebration of harvest; a harvest festival if you will, for the indigenous peoples of Sarawak, in Borneo.

Gawai in London is always outside, always with Durian. There is always a party. I, always have a party.

This year was social distancing picnic with friends Kate and Catherine. Catherine found durian cake, which is amazing as I didn’t think I’d be able to have any durian! I also had a bottle of tuak - rice wine, and rendang which I always make.

When I wrote my PhD thesis one of the things that stuck me was, as a poet and a storyteller, that was my way of being Iban. The oral story traditions are more than just verbal words, but a passing on of heritage and identity, they are an embodiment of community and family. Rhythm and engagement and story is so important - to have people to listen and share. I feel this is my responsibility to continue this. Which is essentially why I write. I’m not here to change minds or educate, but share and hope you listen and connect. I take my storytelling responsibility seriously.

Traditionally poetry is chanted across Gawai telling the stories of the gods. There are many Gawai’s that are held for different occasions. Some bards will chant the story across many days and nights, over the next three days I’m going to tell the story of the Timang (chant) Gawai Amat (ritual of high significance). This is also specific to the Iban people of Baleh, which is where my family is from. Originally this story was told over five days and nights, so this is a snap shot!

A timang is an epic narrative, and can be enjoyed outside of Gawai/ ritual context.

This timang is held in honour of the Singalang Burong, the god of war, the highest god in the Iban pantheon. It is a narrative told in a protracted allegory based on hill padi (rice) farming.

At the start of this story the bard states his/her purpose “my song I pour forth onto this beautiful patterned mat”

As the Iban people gather for the feast the women discover that Singalang Burong, known also as Lang, has not been invited and they are furious and suggest the men invite him, they agree and two messengers prepare to journey to Lang.

The messengers are Kesulai (a butterfly) and Antu Ribut (the spirit of the wind). On their journey the meet many supernatural beings and cross land and water and finally arrive in Lang’s home in the sky.

When Lang agreed to attend the Gawai festival he called his sons-in-laws back from their bejalai (journey to foreign lands), but his daughters refused to go. They want a trophy head, as a gift. So Lang instructs the men to go on a headhunting expedition to enemy land (which is actually Lang’s father in laws!!) and the warriors are successful.

The return to earth via the skies, and encounter many beings of mythical significance; such as the Land of Whispering Bamboos where the warriors are lured to listen to the music of the bamboos moving in the breeze and to their death... but Lang manages to lead them around it.

When Lang and his party cut their way through the sky door they are struck by the beauty of the (human) world below. When they arrive at the longhouse they bath, and dress for the party. They drink, eat and Lang is persuaded to dance; but he drops the trophy head, which rolls across the floor and begins to weep - it wants to be planted. It is nursed by female spirits.

They must forge a sword - various ritual items are needed, some require a journey across sea or to the earth below. Once the sword is forged Lang splits the head open and out pours the rice / padi seeds; Lang and his followers (including ogres!) clear forest to plant the seeds of the sacred padi. The padi ripens, is harvested and stored; then Lang plants cotton, once this has grown and harvested it is spun into a jacket by female spirits and given to the host of the Gawai feast - this is his battle jacket.

This marks the end of the festivities and Lang and his entourage prepare to return to their home in the sky, giving blessings to all.

We have a beautiful world, that we must all work hard to look after. Selamat Ari Gawai, be safe, be well, be full and we shall all dance drunkenly together soon 💞

GAWAI – Dad breaks it down

“There are, as you know, different types of Gawai or religious festivals.  The Iban have pantheon of gods.  Each of these Gawai are meant for different gods.  Gawai Kenyalang (Hornbill Festival), for example, is meant to assist the person on whatever endeavour he is pursuing.  In the old days he could be leading a head hunting raiding party.  If so, he will seek the assistance of the Lang Kenyalang Burong, (the god of war). 

If an Iban wishes for a good harvest of rice in the forthcoming season, he will seek the assistance of Pulang Gana, the god of agriculture.  If an Iban is not always in good health he will hold a Gawai where he will seek divine intervention from host of gods including Singalang Burong and his seven son- in-laws and other gods who can strengthen his immune system to fight against the bad spirits which may be wondering around in the forest and jungles.  If an Iban wants to have good fortune and increase his wealth he will hold Gawai Tuah (god of Fortune).  Hence, the Iban has pantheon of gods from whom he can seek help, and each these gods have their own particular assignment to assist human beings.  In this way the Iban religious rituals are individual in nature and focus on specific objectives. 

There is also Gawai which is held for the common good of the community.  The community that holds this Gawai will seek the assistance of all their gods.  A few weeks ago, for example, at midst of covid-19, one longhouse in Sarawak held a Gawai, to implore their gods to stop the spread of coronavirus!  The bard, while uttering his prayer, was calling for all their gods to chase away the spirits of covid-19 to distant lands! Iit was quite amazing to watch.

During these Gawai festivities the divine beings, including the humans, are invited to partake in the feast.  Therefore, it will involve big group of people gathering in one place, therefore, visitation during this Gawai was prohibited.  Individual family made its own offering to the gods whose assistance they seek.

Dreams play a part as to when and what type Gawai an Iban will host.”


The story of my name – first name ANNA SULAN; last name MASING

There is a fluidity to my name. A journey.

Like many migrants, or third culture kids, there are different strands to my life and narrative, and very few people know the full story – not even family.  Certain personal experiences are so intense they are imprinted, but have not been shared with others. My name tracks the different time and spaces I have lived in and feels personal, and outside of the facts of my life.

My name is an anglicized version of what it could be, should be, has been and will be – I have no doubt it will continue to shift. I move through the different versions of my name with ease. But when my name is wrong it is jarring. There are two things that are wrong – there are no hyphens, and my last name is Masing. I’ve only begun to realise that people instinctively think my last name is Sulan Masing is because Anna is English; ‘we’ can understand a non-English name as one section of a name, but to combine the familiar with the unfamiliar is a schizm.

As a child I was known as Sulan, Anna and Anna Sulan; my mother called me Annabella – I don’t know why, it was her special name for me and my sister called me nana. In Sarawak I was known as Sulan anak Jemut – Sulan child of Jemut (my father). My father was Jemut apai Sulan, and is still known by some elders as this, if they knew me as a child. My father is James (the name the missionaries gave him) Jemut (the name his mother gave him) anak Masing (his father’s name) – James Jemut child of Masing.

When my father married my mother they decided to follow a western context and she would take his name – Masing. Which then set up the practice for us to also take my grandfather’s name. My sister’s children have also taken Masing as part of their last name, and so grandfather Masing is now sowed into our history.

When I moved to NZ I was only ever Anna. When I left university and had to choose my Equity name I decided to reclaim my full name – Anna Sulan Masing. In work spaces, for ease I would just use Anna Masing, as I wanted to separate my creative identity from my money-earning identity. I now am entirely my creative identity therefore I am Anna Sulan Masing.

Social media is just Anna Sulan, adding Masing is just too long. None of my siblings use Masing in their social media handles either, just their English and Dayak names. When in Sarawak my sister’s children are often called by their Iban names.

On some passports Sulan is a middle name, but on my UK passport I made sure I that it was clear that Anna Sulan was my first name.

My name has always been Anna Sulan. Despite at times me moulding myself to be understood. But now I want to be complicated, I am ok with being complicated.
My friends call me ASM, Anna or Masing.

In Sarawak I am still called Sulan, although generally when up river in Kapit, and also referred to as my father’s daughter. I am now, often, called simply Doctor as my community are proud of my achievement and there is a tradition of calling people by their titles out of respect.

For me, names have been a journey, a mapping of relationships. I have become Aunty Anna over the last six years, who knows what else I will be known as. Just, for fucks sake, don’t put any hyphens anywhere.


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