Highland Tales in the Heart of Borneo: At the Intersection of Survivance, Postcolonial Capitalism, and Multiculturalism

  • Sheela Jane Menon Dickinson College
Keywords: Malaysia, Orang Asal literature, multiculturalism, development, survivance


Highland Tales in the Heart of Borneo (2015) documents Indigenous oral histories and mythologies which span half a dozen Orang Asal communities across East Malaysia and Indonesia. In this article, Sheela Jane Menon proposes two interconnected readings of Highland Tales, demonstrating how the text is entwined with postcolonial capitalism and Malaysian multiculturalism. First, Menon argues that Highland Tales is a form of capitalist survivance that employs the very systems which exploit Indigenous peoples in order to celebrate Indigenous culture. Analyzing the form, production, and circulation of the text, Menon demonstrates how Highland Tales serves as a unique example of what Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor terms “survivance” – Indigenous “stories that mediate and undermine the literature of dominance” (Manifest Manners, 12). In Highland Tales, capitalist survivance is both transindigenous and transnational, employing a strategic partnership with state ecotourism. Second, Menon suggests that Highland Tales functions as a critique of state multiculturalism and postcolonial capitalism. The government persistently markets Malaysia as a uniquely diverse nation where racial harmony is bolstered by rapid development. Postcolonial capitalism in Malaysia is thus structured according to a narrative of multiculturalism and modernization which, as Menon illustrates, relies on the exploitation of Indigenous peoples, lands, and resources. Employing the tools of postcolonial capitalism, Highland Tales disrupts narratives of racial harmony and development by amplifying Orang Asal narratives and advancing Indigenous cultural and economic interests. 


Author Biography

Sheela Jane Menon, Dickinson College
Sheela Jane Menon is an Assistant Professor of English at Dickinson College. Her research centers on questions of race and identity in Malaysian literature and culture and her teaching spans Asian American, Postcolonial, and World Literature. Her current book project maps the contradictions of Malaysian multiculturalism through integrated readings of Indigenous activism alongside Malaysian literature, film, theatre, and political rhetoric. Her writing on Malaysian politics has been published by The Conversation and The Malaysian Insider. Sheela Jane's research and teaching are informed by her upbringing in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Honolulu.