When God Saves Our Lives Through Poetry: Interviewing Malaysian Poet Ezra Jalin

Editor’s Note: this interview conducted via email has been edited for length and clarity, and does not necessarily reflect the views of this website. Content Notice: discussion of suicide ideation.

Rojak; Image by Jason Goh from Pixabay

1) I love that Malaysia is a country known for its diversity of cultures and languages such as Bahasa, Mandarin, Tamil, and English. What does this look like in the spoken word and poetry slam scene in Malaysia?

The scene here is often done in both English and Malay, but on rare occasions, it can be rojak (a staple food in Malaysia; often used as an analogy for a mixture of languages in one sentence or stanzas). At one particular event where I performed, a poet performed her poem in Cantonese, English and Malay at the same time. That is Malaysia – diversity influences our rhetoric and imagination.

On a personal note, I’ve written in both English and Malay, but have only performed in English. That is because I’m proficient in four different languages (namely Iban, a language from Malaysia Borneo, and Indonesian, apart from English and Malay), and I’m very comfortable with speaking English on a day-to-day basis. However, I look for the day where I can perform in all four languages on the same stage (God willing!).

2) The pantoum is now a popular poetry form in the US, and my understanding is we received it from Malaysia, where it’s a traditional form for storytelling and poetry. What is the role of the pantoum in contemporary Malaysian society and poetry today? 

Pantoum (often spelled “pantun” here) is generally popular amongst the Malay and the Bornean communities, however it isn’t widely promoted for the general audience. I’ve heard pantoum recited in weddings and other formal occasions as a way to strengthen social ties and to pass down knowledge. Perhaps because of its formality, contemporary Malaysian society finds it comfortable to have pantoum remain upon a piece of paper or in blogs rather than recited in an open mic or a poetry slam. I’d like to believe that it’s done so out of respect for the traditional heritage of pantoum (written and recited with strong formality), but I don’t see any reason to limit the promotion of pantoum.

3) You’ve titled your self-published poetry zine Nephesh, which your preface translates as the Hebrew word for “soul.” Yet this Bible Project video highlights how “nephesh” has additional meanings: as embodied beings, or more literally as “throats” (such as Numbers 11:6, when the Israelites complain in the desert that their nephesh has dried up). Tell me about a recent time when you knew God in your throat.

You’re right when you mention that “nephesh” highlights embodiment or perhaps “throat” in the context of Numbers 11:6. The word “nephesh” in general has a relation to the Arabic/Malay word “nafas” and the Greek counterpart “psyche,” which seems relatable to the words of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels [i.e. the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke]: it’s all about what comes out of your mouth, and not what goes inside it. Nephesh, as a zine, seeks to help people look within themselves, since what comes out determines what is inside of us. As a big believer of total depravity, I believe that all of us are incapable to be righteous or emotionally perfect on our own accord. We need the Savior to heal, to resurrect, and to restore us.

My recent “God in the throat” moment is the sojourning to moderate Calvinism. Prior to that, I hated how one would argue for predestination. I even cringed at the phrase “God’s will” because it’s been abused openly by Christians to advocate fatalism. When the pandemic struck, and we had to stay home at all times, I began to dive deeper into the subject of theodicy (God’s justice) and divine providence (God’s governance). [I found that] God decreed the greater things in the [lives of David and Job], yet, as a prerequisite, God would have to shape them through the thorns and bushes.

Personally, my sojourning to Calvinism provides me the assurance of His irresistible grace and presence in my life without me working for it. It also fuels the heart of worship and devotion, and helps me to exert grace even more to others without prejudice.

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4) In your apostrophe poem, “Dear Trauma,” you address trauma directly by saying, “There you are, staying / Like a grandparent / Sharing stories of the past glory / To instill the fear of the future.” Tell me more about these “stories of the past glory,” and how they “instill the fear of the future?” How has poetry helped you to be freed from this fear, as well as respond to the “stories of the past glory?”

When I wrote “Dear Trauma,” I reminisced about the agoraphobia and fear of failure that I once held to myself. I was raised in the threefold tension among my liberal Christian parents, my religiously conservative relatives, and the conservative Asian society. Although it is a blessing to be a diverse community, it was still tough for me to endure the tensions.

The older generation would often talk about their old glorious days: how they endured many circumstances, and how strong they’ve become. [Yet they would] just remain in their ways, without looking into how things have changed since then. The younger ones, like me, would ask many questions [because] we want to develop our society and ourselves. This is where we create tensions with the older generation. The result [of their ideology] is obvious in Malaysia Borneo, especially in Sarawak, where underdevelopment is rampant, and the older generation is still in charge of the Bornean politics.

The older generation tries to keep their tight grip with legalism (whether secular or religious). I managed to get out of their grip because I saw many damages it imposed to myself and to others. Poetry was my channel of activism. To my surprise, however, I can sit well with conservatives without showing how much I despise their views. I’d say it’s because I knew what grace and truth mean.

Performing “Dear Trauma” at If Walls Could Talk Poetry Open Mic vol. 54 (2018) – credit: FlatLined Photography

5) In Nephesh, you talk about a pivotal moment when you sat down in a cafe after a dangerous episode of suicide ideation, determined to express your pain. You note that to your surprise, the thoughts you typed on your laptop in that cafe became a poem. Tell me more about this moment. Please also tell me about the poem you wrote then. What role does that poem from that memorable day play in your life now?

I recall the café: it was serene, [with] red-painted wall, partially dimmed lights, and the smell of scented candles. I enjoyed sipping my coffee there, but was cussing deep inside. I was like, “what the hell, God? Why don’t you just end my life? I’m done being a burden to people around me.” Somehow I realized I had a lot of things to say to God, and I sensed that He wanted me to say more to Him. Coincidentally, I was listening to a mellowed rap song by a Korean-Canadian rapper/poet named Tablo, and the music itself inspired me to write something. I turned on the notepad on my laptop, and the first thing that popped to me was the first four verses from Psalm 23:

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want

The things of the world, the faults and the wrongs

Like a dead meat sent for slaughter

So, is this man being tried to suffer

But, yea, I walk through the valley of doom

I fear no evil for He is with me

Like a sheep felt astray, He sent me calamity

To show me how f***ed up I was

That His Son was sent to give His life

That I may find abundance

So, Lord, let Your Kingdom come

Your will be done, on Earth

As it is in Heaven, but lead me away

From temptation, deliver me from evil

For Yours is the Kingdom, the Power

The Glory, I’m tired of rebellion

Now and always, be my God forever

Amen and amen

From that poem, I began to feel like writing more, and within an hour, I wrote 6-10 pieces of poetry. Within two months, I had written more than 80 poems! I learned that each time I write poems, I’m enlightened to the goodness and the love of God. He uses poetry as a way to speak His Word and promises but also, I sensed that it was a ministry platform for me when I realized how my poems blessed those who read them. Fast forward to in 2014 [when] I wrote a poem with a renowned South East Asian poet, Deborah Wong for International Friendship Day, [then] wrote and narrated for B-grade films. [I] took opportunities to perform, and later was recognized as one of the best young poets when I participated in Malaysia National Poetry Slam 2018, and landed Top 15 nationwide.

Speaking on the differences between now and then, I’d say that my content has found its maturity: back then, it was more spiritual laments and boundless expressions, but now, my primary focus is to relate the reality of mental health, organized religion, and social justice with my passion to preach the Gospel. Prior to the breakthrough, I [only] wrote occasionally. The reason why I consider 2013 to be my first breakthrough into poetry was because of how poetry impacted my life towards understanding God and the purpose that He has for me.

6) On the dedication page of Nephesh, you give thanks to your fellow “pen martyrs and mic-jackers.” I love these terms! Tell me more about a particular pen martyr and mic-jacker that inspires you. What are they like, and how do they inspire you?

Shout out to [the pen martyrs and mic-jackers] for inspiring my journey as a poet and spoken word artist! I made up those terms in recognition of their dedication to their poetic talents, and the causes they raised through poetry. It’s hard to name one person, but allow me to point out a couple names. First is Deborah Wong, [who] has a graceful firmness in her character that [I attribute to] women-led metal bands such as Within Temptation, Evanescence and Nightwish (hah!). We’ve exchanged ideas, wrote a poem together in 2014, and when she was appointed as an editor for Eastlit (a poetry magazine that covers South East Asian poetry), she relentlessly approached me to publish my poems in the magazine. I thought if an editor of a poetry magazine could appreciate what I write, [then] I should keep writing regardless of the amount of readers.

The other person I’d like to highlight here would be Mochi: someone I met during one of the poetry slams. She openly advocates for women’s rights, and rejects misogyny and patriarchy, while throwing explicit narrations of non-consensual or manipulative advances towards women in Malaysian society. I, on the other hand, had been dubbed “the Jesus poet,” and she referred to me as “pastor.” To her, [however], I was a compassionate, non-judgmental religious person who shares her egalitarian values. We clicked instantly, and supported each other as poets. If it weren’t because of our friendship, I wouldn’t know how to navigate myself through the scene.

Thank you for your time, Ezra!

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Ezra Jalin juggles life as a theologian, media maverick, podcaster, activist, poet, and postgraduate seminary student. He’s based in Kuala Lumpur, and writes on random hours at any given day, as long as he has a cup of coffee or a glass of red wine in a cozy location playing indie rock, jazz and neo-soul music to complement his laptop, a Bible, a notebook, and a pen. Plus point: Ezra has many tattoos, and like his poems, they’re inspired by occasions, reflections, debates, conversations and readings. To request a copy of Nephesh, and/or for any other inquiries (i.e. speaking engagements, invitation to perform/recite), feel free to connect with Ezra at his website: http://ezjalin.com. Also check out Ezra’s podcast, Teh-O-logy, about the crazies around Malaysia and the local church; Teh-O-logy is on Spotify, Apple, and Google, and is also where he’ll announce once his personal website is completed.  

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