Taking inspiration from her late aunt’s work, film director Sarah Lois Dorai started a publishing company to produce children’s books in her indigenous language.
As a commercial filmmaker, Sarah Lois Dorai, 31, often wondered how she could help contribute to her Kelabit indigenous community in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.
The largest state in Malaysia, Sarawak also has over 40 indigenous groups, ranging from large Dayak communities such as the Iban and Bidayuh to smaller groups like the Bisayah and Penan peoples.
Together, these indigenous groups comprise just under 2 million people, roughly 70% of the state’s population. Kelabits are among the smallest indigenous groups in Sarawak and Malaysia as a whole, with roughly 6,000 members.
They mainly reside on the border of the Bario highlands with Indonesia’s North Kalimantan province, pursuing their traditional economic activity of cultivating highland wet paddy rice.
However, modernisation has led to many migrating to major towns and cities in search of better economic opportunities.
With Malay and English predominantly used in business and education in Malaysia, the number of Kelabits who still speak in their native tongue, or “karuh Kelabit," has been dwindling.
Sarah herself is of bi-racial heritage, with a Malaysian Indian father and Kelabit mother. Her parents had made the conscious choice to raise her in her Kelabit culture, and she is also officially registered as a Kelabit person in official documents.
Even then, Sarah admitted not being able to converse in Kelabit herself, a common phenomenon among younger indigenous people as modernisation and economic migration to the cities meant more exposure to the predominant Malay and English.
And although there have been books published in Sarawak’s indigenous languages, these have tended to be drier, more academic texts, such as dictionaries.
“Growing up in the city, our generation’s understanding of culture is very different from our grandparents or even our parents,” said Sarah.
“There has been a movement (in Sarawak) to document, especially the folklore, and a lot of younger generation Dayaks have been trying to reclaim these stories.”
“There were also some Kelabit folklore books produced, but only in English so far,” said Sarah.
It wasn’t until mid-2021, as Sarah was sorting through her late aunt Lucy Bulan’s photographs and memorabilia for a montage, that inspiration struck.
As a former school principal, the late Lucy Bulan had hammered pages of Kelabit text together using WordArt and generic images. She and her son, David Lian Labang, then used these texts to teach village children some basic Kelabit words and phrases.
“One issue was that I can’t speak Kelabit, and for a long time I did not know what legacy I could pass to my children in the future.”
“So when I came across these materials, that was when I realised this could be turned into something bigger and more effective,” Sarah said.
Sarah decided to collaborate with David and her mother, Lillian Lipang Bulan, to compose an initial set of bi-lingual children’s primers in Kelabit and English, as an extension of Lucy’s work.
“These three initial books are all super simple, like counting from one to five. Another is on facial features and teaching how to address close family members,” Sarah said.
Even then, there were issues such as deciding on the orthography, where Sarah’s community would pronounce certain words with stops while others might not.
“But we decided that we would write it the way we have always spoken Kelabit, because if we were to go around consulting everyone, we would never move on,” she laughed.
GOING TO PRINT
On the business side, Sarah and her husband Fabian Joseph set up a publishing company to keep business matters transparent.
“I did not want any funds coming to me personally, it’s supposed to be for the community, hence the separation,” she remarked.
All of this was taking place during a hectic time, as Sarah was also preparing for postgraduate studies in the United Kingdom, working on the final text versions with her cousin and mother.
“Once the state funding came through, I had to engage three artists to work on each book simultaneously and book the printers as well, which is why the art styles look so different,” she laughed.
The books were launched in December, with an initial print run of 500 for each book.
“We have had Kelabits who have migrated, or married and gone to West Malaysia and beyond, using our online form to order the books, to help their kids keep in touch with their heritage,” Sarah said.
Mr Gerawat Gala, a deputy minister in the Sarawak state cabinet and himself a Kelabit, also helped sponsor 100 sets to be donated to all the schools in the Bario highlands.
As for similar publications in the future, Sarah said she aimed to build up a collection of 30 such primers, with a target of three books published every year to help build a simple Kelabit glossary.
And from there, her authors and her would attempt to do more advanced work, like recounting simple stories and folktales in the language.
“I want to collaborate with other Kelabit authors, so that it’s not just a family project, but a community one too,” she added.
For Sarah, there is now a tangible legacy and asset which future Kelabit children can inherit and use to preserve their culture.
Sarah recounted how her late aunt was among the first generation in the family to receive formal education.
“When she left for further education, my grandparents reminded her to come back and help uplift her people. This is one way to do it, and at least, these books go to the people that they were made for,” Sarah added.