Falling asleep
to the sound of rain
waking up to the sound of voices
just outside my bedroom door
I take a shower
the water feels softer here
"it's the clay, from the river"
I don't know if that's true
But after my hair dries
It doesn't frizz or wave
It behaves itself for a change
I head to the kitchen
There's always people in the kitchen
the smell of coffee and Milo
the sizzling sound of food in oil
the smell of bunga kantan
petai, belacan, black pepper
the sound of chopping, pounding
plucking, mixing
dishes on the table, dishes on the floor
where a gaggle of aunties sit in a circle
cross-legged, laughing with their heads thrown back
busy and loud in their natural habitat
the sound of water running
dishes in the sink
the younger girls are always on cleaning up duty
the younger boys are always making messes
cooking is an event,
and everyone is invited
there's always food in the house
they make too much
and yet
nothing is wasted.

I hear dogs barking in the distance
I see them lounging on the verandah, just outside the kitchen door.
On the ground, under the long planks of wood, under the floor,
under our feet, in the shadow of the elevated longhouse
the roosters crow, hens chuckle and cluck
they scratch and peck at the cool dirt
I can see them from the window
I hear my grandmother
asking me if I have eaten
telling me to eat
eat your fill
“kuman, besoh”

Kayan and Iban voices on the radio
they play dangdut and sape songs
beads and feathers adorn the walls
dirt under my fingernails
mud on the soles of my feet
my people always build our longhouses to face the river
but because of this,
visitors who come from the asphalt road
are greeted by our back door
we turn our backs on tarmac and timber trucks
preferring to gaze wistfully
at the original highway of Borneo
snaking through the green and brown jungle
beating and pulsing a rhythm as old as time itself
we make jokes about it
we say
"it's a bit rude, but at least it's memorable!"
Uma Belun Leodian: the only longhouse of our kind in Sarawak

from ground level,
where a fleet of pick up trucks are haphazardly parked,
wooden steps lead up to the verandah
lined with dirty shoes of all sizes
huge basins of water hug the wall
for us to wash our feet before we enter the kitchen
for the young cousins to bathe
for us to host water fights
for us to wash up after a party
because the kitchen sink is too small
to accommodate the mountain of dishes left over
no one throws a party like the Kayan do
the Kayan word for rice wine is “burak”
Sungai Asap must be made from it
it flows so freely here
like the food
the music
the laughter
the poco-poco
more feathers
more beads

we sleep late but rise early
we keep longhouse hours
the aunties are always busy
their hands are never idle
they have pepper to farm
livestock to feed
food to prepare
clothes to wash
floors to sweep
my Dad told me, half jokingly, half earnestly
there's a reason why Kayan people point with their mouths
their lips puckered
towards the object in question
it's because their hands
are always full

feet running on the wooden floors
the entire longhouse reverberates
when the children play
cousins laughing and rough housing
uncles and aunties scolding
"don't be so noisy," they yell
“asum nyawen!”
but it's always noisy
even the nights aren't quiet
the sound of cicadas
fill the gaps in conversation
the smell of asap jakok*
dried tobacco, betel nut, mosquito repellant
the smell of coffee
the smell of burak
glasses clinking on the floor
the sound of gossip
fading out as the night grows darker
falling asleep
to the sound of rain

* Note: “jakok” refers to the traditional hand-rolled Kayan cigarettes, smoked by most of the older people

Photograph by Afnan Omar

I know you're not okay
From the look upon your face
I can see the dark circles under your eyes
Even though you try to cover it up with a smile 
I wish you'd open up and talk to me 
I know you have a lot of pain inside
You can't remember the last time you cried 
You don't have to be strong in front of me 
Please let me in so I can ease the pain 
This mask of strength that you put on everyday 
Is wearing you down
When you think no one is looking at you 
I can see your hidden frown 
Please let me in so I can ease your pain 
Put your broken pieces together again
Let me be your strength for once
Your arms are tired, let them rest
Go to sleep, find some peace 
With me you can find shelter, With me you'll find refuge.

A disheveled man walks into a restaurant,
His eyes shined as he saw his family at the table,
It’s been a year of cheap dinners and eating alone,
Now he’s exchanging stories, passing the ladle

The meal ends and so was the blissfulness,
You thought he’d be fine by the end of the night
But he didn’t find a cure to homesickness,
All he found out was that everyone’s time was finite


She forces her cigarette butt down into the ash tray,
It was a few seconds of relief from hours into screens,
She took some mints before her colleagues have their say,
But she knows they all move to a different fault; from sins to sins,

The clock struck six and everyone’s eager to meet their wives,
She could hear echoes, saying she’s feisty and will put up a fight,
Joking through, while shaming others for living their lives,
All she found out was that her patience was finite


He reaches home, tired and all out of breathe,
Salt from late night dinners weren’t doing any favours,
He stares at his paycheck to do his monthly math,
Computing the numbers, both blessing and a curse,

A little bit extra this month for the flight home,
His empty suitcase seems to be emitting a light,
Guiding a path far from where he roamed,
At least he knows that the struggle was finite 

Photograph by LANCE VUN

I am a man, who does not need to fear,
The possibility of rape down a dark alley,
I am a man, whose world has been shaped by my gender,
That I just need to be present to be taken seriously

I am comfortable with the gender I was born with,
That I don’t need to fear which restroom I need to use,
I don’t have to wonder about operations, every time I breathe,
I can dress however I want without having anything to lose,

I am able to express in an understandable language,
I could speak the preferred language of culture and commerce,
When given the opportunity, people could get the nuance in my rage,
The people who listen or read this poem need not translate this verse

I am lucky that I was born as a bumiputera,
From education, banking and housing policies,
I am given the opportunity to access quotas,
I am more likely to have my forms dealt in a breeze,

I can eat in public and be the person you-know-who won’t arrest,
I am fortunate that religious laws don’t apply to me,
I have the freedom to choose what deity I could confess
Be it Jesus, Allah or a monster made of flying spaghetti,

Do I really want to take a peek And see how you are doing this week Should I really take a look By scrolling through your Facebook You seem to be doing well Bitterness cracking out of its shell They should be your new friends Here I pray in silence making amends Still so beautiful after all these years Stones unturned cruelly milking tears Apparently you were in town Obviously he had a good time Probably in the hopes that I'll be found Curiously cold wind blows the chime On the perch where we once climbed Just to see the sun come crashing down Oh look you're on my suggested friends list You shook your head right after we kissed It's stupid, why would I even add your profile Yet more bullshit you spun to make me cry Dammit I clicked "add friend" by accident Amping my heartbeat by ten frets a second Flatly you told me about your paramour That's why I don't do this shit anymore

Ask me my dreams and hopes; I’ll present my tragedies,
Ask me my tragedies; I’ll present my dreams and hopes,
Look for what fuels my passion; you’ll see the void in me,
Look for the void in me; you’ll see what fuels my passion,

Force me to recall paradise; I could only imagine hell,
Force me to imagine hell; I could only recall paradise,
Trap me in a room with people, I wish to be alone,
Trap me in a room alone, I wish to be with people

Tell me to write my problems, I’ll show my fantasies,
Tell me to write my fantasies, I’ll show my problems,
Talk to me about my emotions, I’ll talk about my poetry,
Talk to me about my poetry, I’ll talk about my emotions,

Go round the corner, you might see another alley
A unique angle you missed, despite passing daily,
A new perspective, a new interpretation,
Challenge your belief, thwart dissertation,

Go flip a page, read multiple op-eds,
Go ahead, read what your opponents said,
Be calm, be civil, and just be more open,
Question what’s real, to know what’s broken

Go ask the views of an outsider,
There’s no excuse, as an insider,
Get shocked once in a while, sing the blues
Maybe strangers can help reconcile your values,

Go ahead and explore I tell other people,
But I fear I’m the pot calling the kettle,
That I didn’t flip enough pages or talk to the smarter ones,
I’m in a Russian nest doll of cages, still succumbing to my wants,

Go ahead and tell me if you see me left behind,
I’m a messed up rubic’s cube, a disjointed mind,
Yes, I bless those who trust the matured but
I confess, I sometimes never adjust the aperture,