Storytelling in Borneo – Eric Trules – Malaysia 2002

Storytelling goes back to the dawn of mankind. One of the things that distinguishes humans from the “lower” species is their ability to think, conceptualize, remember, write, collect and organize information, and consequently remember, create, and tell stories. My field of expertise, both as an artist and as an academic, is as an autobiographic storyteller. I have written and performed solo and autobiographic theatrical shows on stage since the 1980s. In 1990, I started teaching an original course in “Solo Performance” at USC (University of Southern California), perhaps the first of its kind in the United States.

When I was an American Fulbright Scholar in East Malaysia in 2002, I had further validation of my belief in this work. I travelled to primarily Islamic Malaysia shortly after 9/11 with most of my family and friends strongly discouraged me from going. They worried about my safety, having strongly bought into the American media’s inflammatory harping on world-wide, anti-American terror. Yet, when in fact, I did go to Kota Kinabalu on the island of Borneo for four months and found I had a very positive and enlightening experience. Sure, I had to get used to, and understand, why images of Osama Bin Laden were on my colleagues’ screen savers, but I also saw that I had many more things in common with people in this culture than I had differences. I also saw that even in an Islamic, East Asian culture that did not teach or encourage individual self-expression, that once encouraged, students had powerful and unique stories to tell.

Of course, I had to find new techniques to teach storytelling because many of my students didn’t speak English as their primary language. But with the help of one talented and reliable Chinese-Malay student, we found a way to communicate – and to discover the stories that lay hidden within each student. It took time and trust but after working with students for weeks orally, I finally had the students write their stories in Bahasa, their native language. I then had them e-mail me the stories then I had them translated to English. I worked on them dramaturgically (the craft of developing and re-writing work in the theatre), and I had them re-translated to Bahasa. We went back and forth many times to get the stories as clear and effective as possible. Then we rehearsed for many more weeks. The same kind of language barriers and problems happened all over again. But at the end of the term, all the students performed their pieces in front of a full audience. The audience stood and cheered.

And now especially, during this time of isolation and quarantine, while we are frustratingly waiting for this magical vaccine to be delivered to us, waiting to get ourselves back on economic track to healthy recovery, it is once again – a time that -stories can bring us together, can bridge the gap between nations and cultures and religions and borders. Can bring us together… one story at a time.

Eric Trules – Fulbright to Malaysia 2002

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