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Young tech-savvy poets in Sarawak and Britain come together to spread hope and love - The Star

The ‘Lingua Franca’ virtual poetry event on July 17 features (clockwise, standing from left): Matt Miller, Neyna Radzuan, Tahmina Ali, Bethany Balan, Maclean Patrick, Angelina Bong and AJ McKenna. Photo: Borneo Bengkel

A group of young Sarawak-based tech savvy poets are pushing back the gloom surrounding the pandemic and finding creative ways to get back on stage... virtually.

Lingua Franca, a cross-cultural poetry slam featuring seven poets from Sarawak and Britain, will stream for free this Saturday (July 17) at 6pm via video streaming platform Crowdcast.

“For over a year now we have been unable to meet people, to travel, to talk with strangers on the street, to share moments that allow us to see different perspectives and lived experiences. Lingua Franca gives the audience the opportunity to do all this, from the comfort of their own home,” says Catriona Maddocks, one of the curators from Kuching-based cultural arts outfit Borneo Bengkel.

“It’s a chance to listen to voices that aren’t often heard,” she adds.

Borneo Bengkel, put together in 2017 by Kuching creative arts hub HAUS KCH and social enterprise Catama Borneo, has been steadily gaining prominence abroad and building connections with arts communities in Malaysia.

Maddocks, who lived in Sarawak for 11 years, returned to Britain at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, but is still actively working on Borneo Bengkel’s programmes.

The word society

Lingua Franca’s line-up includes Angelina Bong, Bethany Balan, Neyna Radzuan and Maclean Patrick, all local talent associated with poetry collective Wordsmiths of Kuching. The British performers are Tahmina Ali, AJ McKenna and Matt Miller.

An experiment in solidarity, the event will explore two vastly different, yet parallel national and cultural identities through spoken word, and hopes to spark a conversation in Britain and Malaysia on identity, marginalisation, dualism, and otherness.

The virtual event will be performed live simultaneously at HAUS KCH and the Alphabetti Theatre in Newcastle.

Lingua Franca is the result of a collaborative poetry gathering organised by Borneo Bengkel and Wordsmiths of Kuching.

“This event came from the realisation last year, that while we were all so separated from one another, the digital world gives us so many opportunities to connect with people from distant places, ” says Maddocks.

Lingua Franca will also explore the intersections that artists can meet to share words, stories and experiences.

“We want to try to encourage conversation between people who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to speak to one another.

“How exciting to be able to bring creatives from Newcastle and Sarawak together to learn more about one another’s lives, perspectives and through the medium of poetry talk openly about race, gender, religion, sexuality and identity,” says Maddocks.

Going beyond borders

This spoken word event also launches the GemArts Masala Festival (a British festival celebrating South Asian arts and culture).

It is part of Borneo Bengkel’s cross-border programme Bor(neo): North + East, which is supported by British Council’s Connections Through Culture grant programme.

The programme will feature virtual gatherings for musicians and poets from both regions, a spoken word performance, and an open call photography exhibition.

With the pandemic, Borneo Bengkel, had to pivot online instead of organising art residencies and live gatherings for creatives in Sarawak and beyond.

“We’ve organised a number of online talks, workshops and sharing sessions. Working online has allowed us to reach beyond borders and build networks with people far away from Malaysia, and given us new exciting opportunities which we wouldn’t have had previously.

“While individually we are all struggling with the challenges the pandemic has brought, as a collective Borneo Bengkel has continued to grow and build solidarity, support and friendships with those near and far,” concludes Maddocks.

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