FEDERATION OF ASIAN STORYTELLERS // ISSUE 009 // DECEMBER 2020
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So, I joined the first storytelling community I found on Instagram. Unfortunately, in that community, there are certain standards that the newbies strictly needed to comply with, which I found a little bit absurd. One of the many is, they specifically determine what animals’ sounds should be like. If the leader of the community told us that a chicken should sound like “Cock a doodle doo!”, then everybody should say “Cock a doodle doo!” every time they become a chicken character. And nobody was allowed to improvise with the movements too. That was unacceptable in my head because, in my opinion, every storyteller should have their own signature and interpretation about everything in their story, and really, a chicken could sound like “Cock a doodle doo!” or “Cackle! Cackle!” or “Pak! Pak! Pak! Pak!”
I was back to square one, scrolling my Instagram search feed to find another storytelling community I could join. And my thumb stopped when I read about Ayo Dongeng Indonesia. They held a storytelling class near my house, and I thought, why not. Aio was the mentor in my class. The first thing he taught us was that we needed to tell a story our way, using our own voice, counting on our own facial expressions and body language. I instantly smiled, realizing that I chose the right place to learn. After the first class, Aio asked us to join the Ayo Dongeng Indonesia WhatsApp Group and from there, I entered my oral storytelling wonderland. I was introduced to a social life I never encountered before. Pre-school teachers, homemakers, professionals, students, parents, grandparents, children book writers, musicians, even scientists, all gather in one group to achieve the same goal, using stories to create a good vibe for Indonesian children, teachers, and parents.
After just one class, Aio asked the newbies to perform for the public at Suropati Park, Menteng, Jakarta, on a certain Sunday morning. Impromptu. I was really nervous. I didn't like strangers staring at me. When I delivered my ideas to my teammates or clients at work, I already know my audience. Or at least I have Googled them. This time, I must tell stories to people I never met before. Total complete strangers. I didn't know why it was a big problem for me, but it was, and I needed to overcome it. I asked Aio for advice, and he said, “Just believe in your story and tell it.” And that’s it. The guy didn't give me any other clue. I was panicking the night before because I still didn't know how to get over myself. So I sat down and wrote, as I always do every time anxiety attacks come knocking at my door. I wrote the story that I would tell the day after, over and over again, until it crawled inside my heart. Until I believed in it. What Aio said reverbed in my ears, “Just believe in your story and tell it.”
The next morning, I did. And I had a really good time.
After that, Ayo Dongeng Indonesia brought me to tell stories in places where I learn a gazillion things about life. We told stories for orphans, kids with cancers at the hospitals, the abandoned grandparents at the retirement houses, kids at underprivileged areas, and some of us even went further to tell stories to kids at rural villages in some corner of untouchable places in the country, and victims of natural disasters. It’s not just about telling happy and imaginative stories anymore. It’s about listening to people’s stories. Continuing to realize how privileged we are in life really brought a new perspective. How we need to give more, without asking for anything in return. I guess joining Ayo Dongeng Indonesia for me is not only about creating a theatre of the mind and elevating the audience’s imagination. It’s also about creating a space to learn to be a human being, each and every day.
At Ayo Dongeng Indonesia, we are encouraged to listen to each other better. Especially every time we create events, such as the monthly pop-up storytelling session, or the yearly National Children’s Day event, and the annual Indonesian International Storytelling Festival. Our events involve so many volunteers because day by day, our audience number grows larger. It was not always sugar and spice within the organizer team, but everybody always tries to give their best. And everybody is learning. Some egos would appear from time to time, but at the end of every event, everyone always ended up forgiving each other and went home happy. Because that’s the goal, our event should make both the audience and the organizing community happy.
Then, I found it impossible to detach myself from Ayo Dongeng Indonesia. It brought me to meet so many storytellers from around the world at the annual storytelling festival and also at the FEAST conferences or online sessions. I studied different storytelling skills as well as different stories from different cultures, and I ended up gaining more than that. There’s one thing in common I found from every great storyteller I met. Purify your heart and get out of your ego. It would make you a better listener. Hence, it would make you a better storyteller. Storytelling methods and technicalities are just tools for us to connect as human beings with one another, even with the animals, plants, and the environment around us. I believe this is the ultimate way to cure the earth, literally and figuratively.
And when Aio invited me to tell a story at Connected: Virtual Storytelling Conference & Festival, held by the National Storytelling Network from the United States last June, I couldn't get more excited because introducing Indonesian traditional stories to the global audience has always been one of my goals in life. I went to my drawing board and concentrated on several things. The first one is to choose the right story. I was briefed to tell a story from Minangkabau, the place where my ancestors came from. It was a big responsibility. I wanted to find the right story to paint an accurate picture of the real Minangkabau people. My parents advised me to tell the story of Kawa Daun, a traditional Minangkabau beverage made from coffee leaves. It was a true story that actually happened during the Dutch colonization in the country. I converted it into a fictional story using fictitious characters. The point of view of the true story is sad because the beverage was found by oppressed people who weren’t allowed to drink coffee from coffee beans. I didn't want to create a negative vibe, especially in our current global situation, so I emphasized on the creativity and positive mindset of the Minangkabau people who were able to invent a new drink, even in the middle of oppression.
The second thing I focused on is delivery. Starting from wearing the right costume to show a glimpse of Minangkabau traditional attires, using traditional chant and Minangkabau language to open and close the story, speaking in modern English in the narration, using Minangkabau accent in the dialogues to introduce the Minangkabau dialect, and repeating a Minangkabau gimmick throughout the story. The gimmick I chose was “Onde Mande!” which means “Oh, Mother!” The term has a similar effect as “Oh, My God!” in the English language.
The whole concept worked effectively. The audience happened to relate with the headpiece and necklaces I wore, the dialogues and narrative, as well as the gimmick. Most importantly, the story was successfully delivered. A man in the audience told me that he didn't realize how hard it is for some people in the world just to get a cup of coffee until he heard my story. Others told me that after the pandemic would be over, they would book a flight just to drink Kawa Daun on top of a hill in Minangkabau. All the audience’s feedback was exactly what I wanted as the aftermath. To me, the mission was accomplished. And my whole experience with Ayo Dongeng Indonesia became the fuel that ignited the fire to the performance I built in that story.
But then again, I have to return to my first notion. It’s never about me. It’s about delivering a story to convey a message that makes both the storyteller and the audience realize what it means to be a human being. One person is just a speck of dust in this whole universe. With stories, we engage with other humans, with other beings, even with inanimate objects, to reach the same page on how we could make this world a better place. Corny, I know. But that’s my truth. And I wish that you, the reader of this article, whoever you are, I wish that you realize that even as a speck of dust, you are capable of making a big difference and a positive change as a human being, using “only” your story. Now, can you imagine if the whole world is doing it together, simply by starting to tell stories in the comfort of their own homes, to their family?
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Federation of Asian Storytellers is a Non Profit organization established in Singapore in 2018.