Our emcee and spoken word artist Elaine Foster says “I can’t speak for you! Which is why I want other people to speak for themselves. And [when we] put together their stories, it becomes our collective story.”

We’re at The Big Fish, a storytelling event Elaine regularly organises at NeroFico. It’s a likeable event, and we’ve heard many gems from various storytellers over the months. The Big Fish audience gets a more personal experience here than at any other regular event in KL. This is largely thanks to the tendency of those onstage to default to confessional tales, though occasionally the introductions have felt invasive and exploitative (which is not to say the audience resisted the juicy details). Nevertheless, most storytellers bare their souls quite willingly of their own accord.

Elaine Foster is wearing the official Women:Girls T-shirt. Presumably, there is no official The Big Fish T-shirt.

Elaine Foster is wearing the official Women:Girls T-shirt.

Allowing someone else to tell their own story is especially significant for this night. In conjunction with International Womens’ Day, and for The Big Fish’s first anniversary, Elaine has teamed up with Women:Girls — whose project Ikal Mayang allows 15 women tell their stories through short film.

Like Ikal Mayang, the stories tonight are not necessarily about women, they are stories told by women. Especially in Malaysia, where the mainstream narrative leaves little room for others, spaces still need to be created to hear what women have to say.

What were the stories we heard that night? Well, Big Fish always begins with a collective story — told by reluctant participants pulled onstage. This time, it’s a crazy horror-scifi story based on sexually frustrated and barren Klingons in Earth’s Kyrgyzstan. In under two minutes, we arrive at the moral of the story: don’t live in Kyrgyzstan, women never die, and always boil your water. It’s hilarious and fun, but also shows how the imagination allows stories to rapidly go out of control.

The audience is suitably primed for the night’s line-up. Where Elaine refrained from introducing others, resident storyteller Abby Latif stepped in with her offering for the night: five romanticised stories of how she met every storyteller who would come onstage after her. Abby has been onstage at most Big Fish events (if not all), and has grown tremendously in her storytelling skills. It helps to have a wealth of interesting personal stories, and the heart of a romantic poet — but experience has certainly improved the delivery.

Perception was a theme that frequently arose in the following stories. We had storytellers who were judged after studying abroad and returning home too vocal on issues (and voicing their opinions in a ‘foreign’ accent no less); did not seem “Melayu” or local enough; were shamed for being seen as fat or looking a certain way.

Take TV3 producer Marini Ramlan’s example. She has been back for 13 years and is still referred to as “Marini yang cakap Mat Salleh tu ya?”. As Marini asks, “I am a Malay woman, and I speak fluent English. What is the problem?”

If there is a moral to be learnt from the stories, it is to not judge the character of a person based on appearances. The success of poet Michelle Lee’s performance reminded everyone to keep their assumptions about appearances in check. Even her poem to a refugee child specifically addresses the problem with being “sexy”.

Amongst the line-up of storytellers, mostly working in television, advertising and artsy jobs — Michelle is a lawyer. And she came for the event dressed like she has an office job. Evidently, clothes and looking straight-laced are enough to make you seem like an underdog in an arts event. We frequently hear these days that we shouldn’t pass moral judgement on a woman for dressing sexily — but the idea is to not judge a woman based on her clothes at all, conservative or otherwise.

A while back, Michelle caught everyone off guard by participating in her first poetry slam competition — and winning it. At The Big Fish, Michelle did not disappoint, proving to be an empowered and capable addition to the local spoken word scene.

A last-minute addition to the line-up, spoken word performer Melizarani is perhaps the neatest way to end the night. Melizarani described the racism she encountered trying to get a broadcasting job because she is not a “lighter shade” of brown. It was a reminder that while women are still not equal in this country, some are even further marginalised than others; by age, race, sexuality, shape, language and in other subtle ways.

After tonight, it seems The Big Fish has matured — in the stories it found; in better respecting and further collaborating with storytellers; and providing a welcoming space for its audience. As mentioned, don’t judge things by their appearances, do come and see for yourself what The Big Fish has to offer the next time. Who knows, you may be brought onstage and discover stories hidden within yourself.

If you would like to attend the next Big Fish event, follow Poetry Cafe KL on Facebook. To see all performers for The Big Fish: Telling Women Stories, the videos are in the playlist below:

Disclaimer: Women:Girls and our parent company Kakiseni are both headed by Low Ngai Yuen.