The Penan of Sarawak, East Malaysia, on the island of Borneo, are an indigenous community who have adapted to survive under the strictures and expectations of the Malaysian nation-state while proudly holding on to their traditions and identities. One such tradition is the practice of Penan storytelling (tosok), which plays a remarkably effective exogenous role in engaging the attention of everyone from state functionaries to visiting anthropologists while continuing to perform the endogenous function of reinforcing community bonds. The role of storytelling in mediating the relationships between indigenous peoples and the nation-state, which claims the territory they inhabit, has rarely been subjected to scholarly scrutiny. This article explores how Penan elders and community members have used and adapted their practice of storytelling to engage with the Malaysian state, civil society, and the public imagination, ensuring that Penan voices are heard on issues as varied as access to education, the predations of logging companies, and the existential questions of land tenure. In setting aside space for a Penan storyteller to speak in his own eloquent words, this article is itself a channel for Penan perspectives to be heard, an opportunity the Penan are not hesitant to use where available.
Penan Storytelling as Indigenous Counter-Narrations of Malaysian Nation-State Developmentalism
Zawawi Ibrahim is a visiting professor at the Lakeside Campus of Taylor’s University in Malaysia; previously he was professor of anthropology at the Universiti Brunei Darussalam from 2011 to 2020. His book publications include Borneo Studies in History, Society and Culture (2017); Human Insecurities in Southeast Asia (2016); Social Science and Knowledge in a Globalising World (2012); and The Malay Labourer: By the Window of Capitalism (1998). He has published in numerous journals, such as Journal of Contemporary Asia, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Modern Asian Studies, Asian Studies Review, Suomen Antropologi, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Sociopedia.isa, Asian Journal of Social Science, South East Asian Studies, Senri Ethnological Studies, Journal of Glocal Studies, Situations, and American Anthropologist.
Lin Hongxuan is an adjunct lecturer at the National University of Singapore. He earned a PhD in history from the University of Washington in 2020, where his dissertation, “Ummah Yet Proletariat: Islam and Marxism in the Netherlands East Indies and Indonesia, 1915 – 59,” won the University of Washington Distinguished Dissertation Award for the humanities and fine arts. His work has been published in Southeast Asian Studies, Studia Islamika, and New Mandala. His research interests also include confluences of Islam and Marxism in Malaya/Malaysia and South Asia as well as the circulation of progressive Islamic ideas across the Indian Ocean. He will spend 2021 as a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics’ Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asian Center.
Zawawi Ibrahim, Lin Hongxuan; Penan Storytelling as Indigenous Counter-Narrations of Malaysian Nation-State Developmentalism. positions 1 February 2021; 29 (1): 163–182. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10679847-8722836
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