(First published in bahasa Indonesia in Sastra Digital, September 2013. Here presented with revisions.)
My Javanese father gave me the Javanese name ‘Handayani’—he dislikes going out and likes to eat only Indonesian food; he believes that as a man it is his right and obligation to be the head of the family; as his parents couldn’t afford to send him to college, he got a job in a bank and shifted his dreams to raising a family; he loves cars and explosive action films. My Madurese mother gave me the Western name ‘Eliza’—she likes traveling and trying cuisines from around the world; she believes in the values her parents taught her: obedience to husband, submission to God; she loves Italian League football, Meryl Streep, and Sydney Sheldon’s novels; she worked, cooked, and wrote poems in secret. Fate decided my middle name: I was born on Idul Fitri, but, horrified at the thought of her first-born named like every other baby girl born on that day, my mother swapped the F in ‘Fitri’ for a V. ‘Vitri’: fate tweaked by free will.
In our family communication was practical and simplistic. Whenever I told my parents that I couldn’t see myself marrying or having children, they would reply, “Of course you will, that’s every woman’s destiny”; whenever I asked why we troubled ourselves so much with our relatives’ opinions, my father would say, “If you don’t want to care about other people’s opinions, go live in the jungle.” Except for school and family outings, I was seldom allowed outside.
At school every Monday we recited Pancasila, the five national principles full of big words that the teachers never explained. We read nothing except government-approved schoolbooks. Every student knew that Kartini, a thinker on women’s emancipation, wrote letters that were collected in the book Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang, but we never saw even an excerpt of her letter.
Instead of writing papers students were assigned to gather news clippings, but the media then was monitored by the now defunct Ministry of Information whose minister all the grown-ups nicknamed Mr. Talking-Bullshit-Everyday. I sensed there was a gulf between what was reported and what actually took place, just as there was one between what they taught us at school and what I saw in life. The one time I was assigned to write an essay on a political event, my mother censored the essay before letting me submit it. We cursed our government but did as those we cursed.
What then did I read while growing up? The first book I remember was a choose-your-own-adventure illustrated Disney version of Alice in Wonderland, translated into Indonesian as Elisa di Negeri Ajaib. Having torn the gift-wrap, I saw my almost name emblazoned on the cover of a book, and felt enthralled to be turned from a confined four-year old into a heroine of magical adventures. How fascinating—by the act of translation Alice could become Elisa, and by the act of reading Eliza could become Alice.
I also remembered a book of stories about fairies living inside lilies, and toys coming to life while their owners were sleeping, and then several installments of Johanna Spyri’s Heidi (translated and illustrated). I kept asking my mother to grill cheese the way the grandfather in the books did, but we only had Kraft cheese then, which never grilled well.
Did I read anything written originally in Indonesian? I remember sitting in bed with my mother reading comic strips in Ayahbunda, a parenting magazine, and short stories with touching scenes and obvious morals in Bobo, a children’s magazine. I also collected Sanggar Cerita tapes—audio plays about heroes, giants, and magical kingdoms. In addition, my mother would tell me her own tales before bed, about witches and princes metamorphosing into rivers or flowers—and the world acquired another dimension: every tree, every animal had a story.
In middle school my Indonesian teacher assigned my class to read any two classical Indonesian novels and write reading reports (the only titles I managed to find were Azab dan Sengsara, Anak Perawan di Sarang Penyamun, and Harimau! Harimau!). I savored the assignment—it was the only time a teacher ever assigned my class to read and write about books—but then my poor teacher announced to the class that he had almost been fired for assigning us to read ‘adult’ books.
My high school Indonesian teacher assigned students to perform plays, but then the students’ grades in the national final examination dropped; the teacher then apologized to the next class (my class) and said he would only drill us with topics that would come up on the national exam.
Throughout elementary school I was reading Famous Five and Three Investigators series, but I would superimpose my own original characters and settings over the books’. The famous five became characters based on four of my cousins and myself, and the three investigators became characters based on myself and my two best pals from school. In this period books to me were like portals to escape my own life and enter a more exciting one where I was free to go places and outsmart grown-ups. I was still choosing my own adventures, translating Eliza into Alyssa—my alter ego who was tough and sharp, and had blue eyes and long blond hair.
Was I already fleeing myself, by projecting myself not only as heroine of stories, as children often do, but as someone from another race? Was it because I was fed up with the people around me and their fear of anything slightly out of the ordinary? Or was it because the stories took place abroad that I had to transform myself into someone from abroad?
Even though I altered the characters, I didn’t localize the settings. I invented new settings in made-up places that looked similar to those I’d seen in American TV shows or movies. I can understand if I had thought crime-solving children could only exist in make-believe cities, but why did I insist that those cities had to be foreign? Our family took several road trips around Java, but other parts of Indonesia I knew only through schoolbooks that listed each region’s traditional costume, house, and dances. The Indonesian stories I’d read never had any characters that went on great adventures overcoming slick criminals and created their own secret high-tech underground base camp, instead they obediently went to school or to the market, and played and fought with other children. I didn’t want that everyday life, I wanted to be one of the adventurers. Thus, I identified with the children in the translated books—foreign in origin, but closer to my desires. Or perhaps I didn’t think Indonesians could be leading characters in books? As my father used to say, “Don’t get your head up in the clouds, we’re just sand on the shore.”
Whereas there were no discussions in our home, in Western movies and TV shows characters were pouring out their hearts and having intimate conversations, which I first understood by subtitles. I especially loved films and TV shows whose main characters were oddballs or underdogs, yet they turned out to be heroes in the end. I used to feel lonely, but Matilda showed me how to be my own friend; “Tomorrow is another day” played in my ear whenever I was feeling discouraged; a Jackson Five biopic made me see how one could become a diamond even though born as sand on the shore. What’s more, they showed me that there were places and people who could understand me, and someday I could find those places, those people.
Nevertheless, I managed to grow up insulated in a provincialism of the big city—my cultural environment was limited to Western popular culture. Our family never went to the theater, concerts, or dances, let alone literary events. We watched television and saw blockbuster movies.
Now that I know where to look, I would come across an Indonesian book or film that made me think, ‘If only I had discovered this while I was growing up, I would not have felt so lonely, so out of place, all the time.’ I lived in Indonesia until I was eighteen, but I had given up on Indonesians long before that. Based on what I encountered in my family, relatives, and schools I’d concluded that all Indonesians were the same. I stopped reading the news (“politics were all a sham and the media were full of lies”), the magazines (“the stories were all about boring moral lessons”), and stopped watching Indonesian films and TV shows (“the quality was so bad anyway”). I barricaded myself inside my own misery.
Accompanied only by Alyssa—who, although had fair skin and blue eyes, was never white. She was an Indonesian with a borrowed image. After all, Elisa spoke Indonesian to the white rabbit, but was never Indonesian. While I doubted that great societal change could happen around me, I did believe that individuals could achieve great things. That was why the setting of the books remained far away, but the characters became me and my two friends from school. Yet Eliza became Alyssa, and Anggi became Angie. To take part in adventures we had to be translated. Someone who pretended he was someone else to take part in adventures—wasn’t that Don Quixote? Whoever he had been before, he became Don Quixote, and as Don Quixote he was himself, and he was free.
Alyssa—my ambition, my confusion, my freedom.
Around twelve I began to abandon my childhood way of reading, and from the Blyton and Hitchcock series I switched to Goosebumps. Even though I lost variety by being faithful to a series, it had made it easier for me to notice an author’s style, their ways to create expectations or conclude a story. After about a dozen books, the series started to feel repetitive. I asked my mother for her Sydney Sheldon and Jacqueline Susann novels, the only novels we had in the house, but she said I couldn’t read them until I turned seventeen. While she was at work, though, I picked the lock to the cabinet where she hid those books.
By then I had become aware that the books were products of translation. Before reading I would guess their original title. Sometimes I realized the translator had taken liberty: Valley of the Dolls became Lembah Kehancuran (Valley of Destruction); I sensed what was lost and gained when Master of the Game became Ratu Berlian (Queen of Diamonds).
At eight years old I would write stories out of my night-time dreams in a notebook with the word “Creations” on its cover. I was writing in Indonesian, but my characters had ‘international’ names like Eliza. I gave my stories English titles and set them in imagined places that resembled the places portrayed in the books and films I was reading and watching. I had understood that ‘creations’ meant works of creativity, because when I had been teaching myself English since I was five or six years old. I’d liked the song “Especially for You” so much that I’d transcribed and memorized the lyrics phonetically. I did this with other popular songs, and then I learned to spell by looking at texts of oldies songs on my parents’ karaoke laser discs. Two or three years later I began to understand their meaning, and I filled a second notebook with English song lyrics, but modified to suit my situations.
In middle school I began writing longer pieces—a short story about twelve-year-olds who were sent to war because the government had run out of adult soldiers, a novella featuring fourteen-year-old celebrities living on their own in Hollywood, three novels about teen secret agents, a courtroom story, a mystery-comedy about a ghost who wore flip-flops, and others. I never edited these ‘pieces’ and sometimes I even borrowed from movies and books, as I had no intention of showing them to anyone. My question now: why not?
I think I just wanted to have fun—writing was the most fun I could do without any friends—and lots of fun I did have. It wasn’t my intention to learn to write or to become a writer, and I sensed that the people around me wouldn’t appreciate my writing or the fact that I liked to write. I just needed to rest on paper the scenes that were flashing in my mind, and it wasn’t anyone else’s business. I wanted to escape deeper into made-up wonderlands where my new alter ego, Lizzy, who had hot black eyes and shiny black hair and wore leather jackets and chain necklaces, could have cool adventures with the cool boys I had hopeless crushes on.
Still, I was serious enough to try out a wide range of genres, figure out ways to create grabbing first sentences, to make my paragraphs more dynamic by varying the length and tenses of my sentences, and to employ on paper techniques derived from films, such as crosscutting (alternate short segments of two scenes happening at the same time but in different places) and lap dissolve (close a segment on a specific image such as a bonfire and open the next segment with a similar image such as a fireplace).
One night my mother chanced upon one of my stories—she read it and laughed. She said the plot and characters were weird, and that if I wanted to send them out they had to be about Indonesian people with Indonesian names and Indonesian problems. Once I did submit a story for my school’s monthly student magazine—it was about the usual teenage infatuation, modeled after short stories printed in teen magazines. Even though I mostly wrote about incredible things, that humdrum story was the only one I had let other people read. So nonexistent was my confidence in what made me unique.
After it came out, I enjoyed watching my classmates sighed and cried when they read my story. A classmate pointed out that the school in my story had the same name as the school where all the troubled kids were sent. That was not my intention. I was embarrassed to the core. Rather than trying to improve future stories by getting to know my surroundings, I drowned myself deeper into made-up wonderlands.
It was true that I wasn’t interested in writing teen-magazine stories about generically named characters (Rina, Ani, Nita), but I suspect I resorted to foreign names also to avoid using names with Indonesian cultural connection, such as Ajeng or Butet or Handayani, as I was uncomfortable attaching any Indonesian cultural identity to my characters. It didn’t matter to me that Estelle sounded French or McKnight Scottish; I could use those names without making my characters French or Scottish (although it mattered that Dmitry sounded Russian). Was this influenced by the New Order’s SARA doctrine that warned us against raising any issues related to ethnicity, religion, race, and other identity groups? (Once again in Indonesia potential problems were avoided by imposing silence.) Was it the influence of popular culture, which mostly portrayed contemporary white people with little other cultural background? Was it another symptom of my rootlessness, my fear of giving my characters a degree of sociocultural reality I wasn’t yet able to grasp?
Those days I kept life and fiction neatly fenced off. Even though the stuff of life could be transmuted into fiction, fiction could never resemble life. One day a group of boys from my middle school was involved in a verbal fight with a more dangerous gang from some high school. They threatened to burn down our school if the leader of our school’s gang didn’t apologize (and, according to what I heard, submit to a beating). On the day the threat was supposed to be carried out our school was shut down. That day the leader of our school’s gang apologized.
In the mid ‘90s many high and middle school boys formed ‘gangs;’ one insult to these gangs could provoke a whole-school clash against another school. The boys demanded ‘solidarity’ from their schoolmates—anyone who refused to join in was scorned as cowards and traitors. Curiously, sometimes the insult was not even directed at the gangs, but at the school—the institution they despised—yet they still threw rocks across a crowded road and spilled blood. So illusory yet brittle this sense of honor, so pervasive this rage (it wasn’t just poor neighborhood schools that were involved, my school was private and expensive), yet so simply the adults around me dismissed it: “Teenage delinquency.”
I wanted to tell that story, but I turned it into a Mission: Impossible adventure with a hallucinated zombie twist at the end. An interesting choice, but unfortunately it ended up touching only the surface of the boys’ story. Why did I have to riddle it with gunshots and explosions, especially since there was enough material for a realistic novel?
I wanted to be different. I wanted to do the opposite of following guidelines—what adults around me seemed bent on doing, first by expelling the gang’s leader and then telling me to stay away from the boys. However animated the goings-on around me, they were still my day-to-day life, and I wanted to rebel against the stranglehold of normalcy, go crazy, and write like no one around me wrote.
Was I afraid that by writing what really happened I would discover certain truths that I wasn’t ready to face? But I was interested in what really happened! I dropped my grades so I could hang out with the boys at make-up tests, I beat up a girl enemy of the boys so they would trust me and let me hear their story. After all that, why didn’t I write their story as it was?
One could say that realism simply wasn’t my style then. I had considered that telling their story realistically was not a good way to write. I don’t remember having read at that time a realistic novel that I admired. I often told myself to learn only from the best. How did I determine what was best? By seeing which books and films were the best selling and the highest grossing. It had seem the more action, the more romance, the better.
After reading my assignments, my Indonesian teacher—the one who almost got fired—pressed to see more of my writing. I considered giving him the one about the boys. First I showed it to a close friend and together we decided that, in order to avoid problems, we had to alter the parts that alluded too plainly to the boys, the teachers, or incidents at school. What I hated in the government and in my mother, I did myself.
It seemed in the past, I wrote to chase a high, I was satisfied with the truths I knew and didn’t wish to search further by writing about them. Writing was about seeing if I could—describe in words a gripping scene I saw in a film, make the rustling of leaves sound ominous, or spell out everything I wanted to say to my parents but never could tell them in person. Maybe I was trying to say what I needed to say without having to actually say it.
At thirteen I decided I couldn’t live at home anymore—my parents’ constant fighting, among others, had become too much for me to bear. I considered running away, but I didn’t want to drop out of school. I didn’t want to have to prostitute myself. So I searched for boarding schools away from home, which also offered scholarships, so my parents wouldn’t be able to keep me from enrolling by not paying the tuition.
After several grueling tests, including a mandatory virginity testing, I was admitted to a semi-military high school in Magelang, Central Java. There teachers monitored our every action, from what we talked about in the dining room to how well we made our bed. One wrinkle in the sheets would earn us ten push-ups or sit-ups. A teacher sentenced me to a hundred lines of ‘I will not write my stories during Physics;’ a roommate stole a notebook from under my mattress and soon classmates began calling me Lizzie after the heroine of the stories; one of the vice principals asked to see the books classmates said I had been writing. I panicked, but also felt validated.
Among wannabe generals, doctors, and engineers, I was ridiculed for wanting to be a film director (I thought it was a profession that would allow me to tell stories and make enough money to afford my independence). I couldn’t keep up with school and social rules (girls were forbidden from leaving the dorms after dinner and must always behave proper and prudish), and I was bullied a lot. So, when the vice principal asked me if I had indeed written novels in Indonesian and poems in English—knowing that those novels wouldn’t make sense to anyone but me and those ‘poems’ were really modified song lyrics—I said yes.
The vice principal ordered me to write two more novels in one month—one in Indonesian and one in English. He gave me dispensation from classes and permission to use the computer lab at all times. I had thought the vice principal clearly didn’t know how one writes a novel, but the temptation to skip classes for a whole month to write was too great to resist. The project also allowed me to be the only female in the computer lab after dinnertime, I typed as my male classmates surfed porn.
After I’d completed the books—the one in Indonesian was inspired by The X Files, and the one in English was about a group of Indonesian students abroad who got involved with the mafia—the vice principal printed them. It boosted my confidence so much that, after spotting an announcement for a national writing competition held by the National Center for Film, I submitted the X-Files-inspired novella. It won first prize for action category, beating the works of seasoned screenwriters. At the award ceremony I donned a little black dress and posed as if I were receiving an Oscar.
A year later a band of writers visited our school. Concerned that since the New Order took over students were only required to read government-approved schoolbooks, these writers visited schools across Indonesia to promote literature. Leftover copies of my writing frenzy were displayed in the guesthouse. Later that day, the leader of the writers’ group, a senior poet, called me.
When I met him, the poet asked me if it was true that I had written novels and poems. Once again I said yes.
The poet, who was also editor of a literary journal, arranged to serialize the X-Files-inspired novella. He said nobody had written science fiction in Indonesia before. He said he’d finally found an example of “smart literature.” He wanted to run my profile along with the first installment.
He asked me which authors had inspired me—I thought to mention the ones I read as a child, but it seemed better to list some more serious, Indonesian authors. I mentioned Chairil Anwar, whose poems I liked. I thought of Rendra, a well-known Indonesian dramatist; it seemed everyone was reading him, so even though I hadn’t read him I added his name to my list.
My lies undiscovered, the novella was serialized. I graduated high school and got to mention the award and the publication on my scholarship application. They got me my ticket to study film, with full scholarship, in one of the best liberal arts colleges, which had one of the best film majors, in America. From ‘that weird girl’ I became ‘the girl who had everything.’ For a while I thought everything I ever wanted was coming true.
So began Eliza’s adventures in her newfound, English-speaking wonderland. Immediately I noticed differences: the film major was considered one of the toughest majors on campus (in Indonesia it was usually for those who couldn’t get into the sciences), everyone was so impressed to hear that I had a novella published (my family and schoolmates didn’t think much of it back home), and I found much criticism on those popular books and movies that I used to think were the best. What I loved most was people saying things like, “Just because it suits many people doesn’t mean it will suit you,” and “You need to find out for yourself what works for you.” So I experimented.
Sure, I tried wearing tube tops and dying my hair red, but the most exciting experiments were not about being naughty. I wore skirts to see if I actually hated them or only wished to rebel against traditional femininity. I allowed myself to cry because I realized I didn’t have to act so tough all the time just to show girls could be tough too—there were already many tough women around me. Now that my every action didn’t have to prove a point anymore, I could start figuring out who I really was. On campus people called me Ee-lie-za.
I sent two more stories to the poet for his magazine—one was about a city girl who learned to appreciate nature, the other about a racer who refused to stop racing even though he’d learned that he had a bad heart. But the poet didn’t want to see pieces about ordinary people living ordinary lives. “Give me more smart literature, something like the novella.”
It occurred to me then that anyone could write about chasing aliens, but would it automatically be good? And I strongly disagreed if he thought for a work of fiction to be intelligent it had to talk about science or politics and so on. I didn’t submit any more stories.
A few months into my first semester, the poet requested my permission to include an excerpt of the novella in his anthology of notable Indonesian writing from the seventeenth century, a collection that would not only bear my name on the title, but also link it to one of the first great Indonesian (Malay) writers: Dari Fansuri ke Handayani (From Fansuri to Handayani).
I had my reservations: the writing was so rushed, and the poet kept telling me he needed to publish my story to prove that one could write well without touching on taboo issues. Moreover, without asking my opinion, he had illustrated the main character as a woman wearing a hijab, whereas I had specifically wanted her to have no discernible religious identity. In the end I told myself: I was just an insecure kid who should trust the opinion of a famous poet.
Meanwhile, I applied to write for the campus newspaper and was sent to cover a senior thesis play. After the play I went back to my room and froze. I had absolutely no idea on how to write a review. As the night wore on, my bewilderment turned into panic, and when morning broke my panic had become despair. When my editor called I told her I had broken a thumb when trying to lift a thick dictionary from under a pile of other thick books, and had to spend the night at the emergency room. I never got another assignment.
The university employed tutors to help students with their writing. I don’t remember why I didn’t go to one and ask, “How do I go about writing a review?” Maybe I felt it was embarrassing for me, after being included in Dari Fansuri ke Handayani, to ask such a question. “It’s okay,” I told myself. “You’re going to be a novelist. Novelists don’t need to write reviews.”
Arrogantly I often said I’d raised myself. Having rejected my parents’ teachings I made my own principles: learn only from the best, don’t let anyone teach you how to write, because then you’ll just write like everybody else, let others have boyfriends, you will get awards, you need to be good at only one thing, but be exceptionally good at it. Perhaps because of these principles, I thought concocting a clumsy lie was better than submitting a standard article. Looking back I realized this was my biggest mistake. I took self-sufficiency to the extreme, and I rotted in isolation.
Perhaps those principles were also the reason I didn’t take writing classes in college. Granted, my writing skills in English were far lower then. I was also worried, however, that my writing would not live to the standards of my professors and classmates. It was easier to keep hiding behind the persona of a published and award-winning author who wrote in a language that nobody around her could read. Whenever someone asked if I shouldn’t try to get my work translated, I would answer unequivocally, “It’s not a good idea.”
Toward the end of my second semester the poet asked me to expand the novella into a novel. There was the temptation of having a book published and the need to try out new techniques. I thought I could treat the chase for alien technology as an umbrella metaphor for the search of the life spirit that the characters had lacked. The female character was professionally driven but had given up on love, whereas the male character wanted to find love but had no idea what to do with his life. That simple reversal of gender expectations worked for me then. But a problem remained about how to bring this technologically advanced adventure to Indonesia. That was when I dug my own grave. I opened the novel with a montage of laughably impossible world events that in the end made Indonesia advanced enough to allow for this adventure. Not because I disliked research (I read dozens of ufology books), but because imagining future political events didn’t interest me. The montage became the most embarrassing part of the book.
No matter what I think of that book now, I will always remember fondly the routine that produced it. Throughout summer 2002 I wrote from 9 PM to 5 AM in the computer lab, slept until noon, and worked on campus until 5 PM. Sometimes when I was stuck, my mother would email me paragraphs. I finished the manuscript, submitted it to the poet, who then delivered it to an editor and friend of his. The following summer the editor offered me a contract, which I gladly signed.
By this time I had heard how difficult it was in the US to get an agent or an editor who would pay such a close attention to your first book, so when my editor showered me with attention, I was smitten and grateful. But then they showed me the proof with so many sections slashed with large Xs. Their explanation: scenes where a man and a woman were as much as holding hands were against the company’s morality policy. I wanted to protest, but couldn’t. I thought all Indonesian editors behaved this way. I asked my mother to protest for me—just as I always asked her to speak to Dad for me. She did call the publisher, but they insisted that the changes didn’t alter the essence of the book. I thought of calling everything off. My mother insisted that I needed this—the benefits of getting published would outweigh the hurt of censorship. At one point I snapped, “If you want to get published so much, go write your own books!”
My poor mother. I always screamed at her just because I couldn’t scream at anyone else in this world. In the end I gave in.
The poet hailed the book as “a monument in Indonesian literature”; a reviewer said it was great for a book for teenagers; the Association of Indonesian Publishers gave me an award for best young-adult book in 2004. The feedback I cherished the most was activist, astronomer, philosopher Karlina Supelli’s: “The book showed the author’s potential to be developed further.”
I realize that many writers would kill to get the attention I was getting, but in my case perhaps the attention was premature. I also realize that by repudiating this book I am hurting my readers, there are many who until now still tell me that they liked the book, but I can no longer forgive its compromises or bad style.
I still sympathize with the characters’ fight to protect everyone’s freedom to think for themselves. And I was pleased that some critics thought I could really make scenes move and my sentences were very vivid or even “cinematic.” In that regard I felt I had been successful, but I had nothing else to be proud of.
After the book’s launch, the poet arranged a discussion of my book at the den of a literary community. Right then I discovered that the poet’s community (Islam-oriented, morality above literature) was in rivalry with this other community (secular, literature independent of morality). “Usually I would never hold events in this place,” the poet told me, “but this time it’s different.”
After the discussion I smoked on the courtyard, because I couldn’t stand his constant portrayal of me as this goody-goody writer. That was the opposite of how I saw myself in the inside. I thought the cigarettes would say what I still lacked the voice to say out loud. But no one noticed.
Thankfully I didn’t have to do anything else to promote the book, because I had to start my semester in France. I had become depressed, I felt like an exhibited zoo animal, my work had been used to peddle other people’s values, and I couldn’t say anything. I spent that summer in Bordeaux staring from high balconies, talking to an imaginary little boy who was waving at me to jump to him all the way down. What revived me was a chance encounter at a nightclub with a tall green-eyed boy whose name I never learned, who infused my body with desire—the desire to feel pleasures through the body, thus the desire to remain in a body, the desire to keep on living.
After finishing French course in Bordeaux, I moved to Paris to start my semester. Since I was a child I had been dreaming of going to Paris, but the city exceeded my imagination. Everywhere I looked Paris displayed its proud tradition in the arts, and it humbled me. For the first time I was living as an adult alone in a city, not sheltered at home or on campus. I was far away from the poet and anyone who knew of my book. I started reading books by writers by who had lived in Paris—Hemingway, Beckett, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Kundera.
Most of my free time I spent going to art museums—I began with the ancient Egyptian collection at the Louvre and moved chronologically to the contemporary arts in Beaubourg. I could visit the museums for free because according to my student ID I was studying art history. After a while I began to see stories of innovation and reinvention, I learned about how details told stories, and I was beginning to have my own opinions about what I think was good, what a work meant to me. What I learned strengthened my suspicion: it was not so much subject matter or its scientific, political, or social relevance that made a work worthy of attention, but more what it added to that story of innovation and reinvention. My discovery excited me tremendously. I planned to read great books from the beginning as well, to glimpse literature’s own stories of innovation and reinvention.
After returning to my American university I took theater history classes and read books on the history of music. To cover literature and philosophy, I took European intellectual history classes, where we read Homer, Augustine to Goethe, Marx, Freud. We read two books a week and wrote a detailed reading response on each. I knew I was missing so much by skimming, but the classes gave me the reading list I needed and forced me to come up with my own opinions. Then I discovered Kundera’s Art of the Novel—a revelation for me. There was no turning back. I wanted to read novels from Rabelais to Cervantes onward to figure out how I myself should write and perhaps someday have my own vision on the art of the novel.
In the end I completed my Film Studies major, but decided to shelve my filmmaking dreams. Worried that I might not find Kafka’s or Nabokov’s books in Indonesian libraries, after graduation I stayed on campus as a research assistant and continued to read.
Faced with centuries of novels before me, I tried to read as fast as possible. Once again I was demanding impossible things of myself: read two novels a week, produce reading responses, work full time, write my own fiction. By the weekend I would feel defeated because of the many things I didn’t manage to do, and depression pulled me down.
The cure was once again a lover.
In the semester before my book was published, an Indonesian boy knocked at my door.
“You’ve written a book, yeah?” he said.
“I wrote that.” I pointed to the manuscript on my desk.
“So you must be smart, yeah? Tell me, what is God?”
Growing up I had been taught that eventually God would forgive all sins except the sins of questioning God. Hence I told myself that I could question anything but God, because I could withstand 10,000 lifetimes in hell if eventually I would get to heaven. While I was deciding whether to explore my notions of God at all, I kept seeing myself on a grey shore before an expanse of green icy water. To explore God I had to enter the water, but just approaching the shoreline gave me such chills. It would mean that I had to question everything I believed in, my formative teachings, my way of interpreting the world.
Yet there seemed to be nothing behind me but fog. Yet I knew if I entered the water I could freeze or drown. I walked around with this image in my mind for weeks.
In the end I decided that if God were true, exploring Him would only lead me back to Him. Trembling, I dipped my feet.
Together we read the Koran, the Bible, and ransacked the library for existential philosophy books. I stated my objections to the teachings that seemed unfair, thus ungodly, to me; we discussed the idea that maybe God was not an entity to be worshiped, but our name for the things that we couldn’t explain, the interplay of forces beyond our control. We discussed if we could know death and if suicide could be a logical choice. The semester was ending, so we stopped at the simple solution that we could not be sure if death was better than life, because we didn’t know yet what death was, therefore the logical choice was to go on living.
As for God, I let it remain a question mark. One night I traveled out of town to meet an old flame as we both had agreed, but our relationship had been so complicated that he might have changed his mind and decided that it was better for us to never see each other again. That night, pacing around alone in my hotel room, I called him and sent him text messages. No response. It was late, my family was surely sleeping, my friends did not know of my relationship with this boy and I didn’t want to betray our secret. In situations like this I used to reach out to God. But that night I couldn’t call out to a question mark. I never felt as alone as I did that night. I wasn’t sure anything could hear me anymore, but I screamed anyway.
Reading in a lonely corner of the library I often heard that warm, seductive voice calling from somewhere in the stacks behind me, “I know what your books can never teach you. You will never understand a thing about adult human interactions if you don’t come with me.”
I knew the voice was right, but only after there was zero doubt in my mind, could I surrender to that honey-voiced Mephisto.
To me the first time was not about pleasure or emotional connection. Like Don Quixote—who wanted to launch himself into battles as knight-errants did in the chivalry romances he loved, but could not do so until he himself was knighted—I also felt in order to embark on the search for pleasures or romantic connections, I had to pass an initiation. Don Quixote didn’t care who knighted him, I didn’t care either who ‘initiated’ me. The first time I slept with someone was with a senior art major who had just completed his thesis project. It was two months shy of his graduation, we were both going to get on with our separate lives, and therefore I thought we would not be hurting each other.
The day after I walked home through the golden haze of morning savoring how every tree and house and stone seemed new and mysterious—just as after my mother had told me her Ovidian tales. My body seemed to gain another dimension—it was no longer only a shell to my brain and soul, no longer only an anchor to my dreams and desires—it was speaking, singing, asking questions.
Charming folk passed me with their dogs and their “Good mornings,” and I wondered what they smelled like up close and what they concealed behind the layers of their clothes and their gestures, for I knew that this one must be different from that one, and I want to uncover all those different mysteries under all those different layers.
Having sex opened my eyes to how sexual desire colored human behavior. I’ve noticed how different relationships brought out different sides of myself. Having sexual adventures was my way to get out of my comfort zone and meet strangers that would never intersect my life in any other way and try, even if only for one night, to get under their skin. It was my way of to challenge myself to experience whatever the night—or life—held for me.
The summer after graduation I discovered a whole new way to read and write. I was working in a publishing house where I read manuscripts and paid attention to which ones were accepted or rejected and why. I also wrote several articles for a local newspaper—this time I wasn’t too proud to consult guidebooks on how to write articles. Slowly I became aware of a text’s intrinsic beauty, which could result from an apposite word choice in a surprising context, pregnant paragraph breaks, or carefully selected details.
I also hung out a lot with friends—from Asia, Africa, America—who were also writing. In a café near campus I told a boy that I had feelings for him; he looked shocked and said, “From your past history—I’m sorry, history must be past. From your history, I’m not really your type, am I?”
Looking at my past writings I became embarrassed. I would have gladly cut many portions of the X-Files-inspired novel if only my editor had shown me that I repeated basically the same speech several times, and that many expositions were unnecessary because the actions already told readers what they needed to know. Soon I developed a hobby of editing: crossing out words and paragraphs that were not useful to the story, rephrasing sentences, laboring for the most fitting metaphor.
I observed people around me, trying to discern little things that revealed their character and hidden feelings. I noted the development of events and compared my notes to what other people said about those events. I started seeing more nuances in people’s interactions. I was changing, so were my writing goals. I became less interested in writing about highly dramatized adventures with characters that had clearly defined psychology and ambitions, and much more interested in exploring the mystery behind people’s words and actions. And I felt up for the challenge.
A year after graduation I decided to return to Jakarta. Indonesia was my answer to the question “Where do you come from?” But the meaning of that identity I didn’t really know. In it I felt a sense of pride: Indonesia instilled in the minds of her children her image fighting with sharpened bamboo sticks against her enemies’ machine guns and bomber planes; she insisted that she won her independence and refused to acknowledge the date conceded by her former colonist. A sense of pity: a country with boundless riches and potentials had to watch those riches plundered and corrupted. I felt I could empathize with her joys and pains. I wanted to get to know her better. I told my lover then that I missed the musicality of my native language, the creative jokes Jakarta streets produced every day, and the feeling that when people spoke I could understand many layers of meaning beneath what they said. Most of all, I wanted to start a new chapter of my life in a new place.
I made a wager with myself: I had to be able to make a life for myself in Jakarta without giving up my personality, values, or way of life. “Jakarta is a big city, very big city,” I told myself as the plane lifted off and again as it was landing, “there has to be people who can appreciate me, there has to be one neighborhood that allows single girls living on their own, there has to be one gynecologist who will not refuse me care just because I have had sex without being married.”
My parents insisted that I live with them, but I knew in order to have a life of my own I absolutely had to have my own place—just as I always had in other countries. I rented a room in a ‘liberal’ building (they had no curfew and let tenants have overnight guests), I memorized bus routes and learned how to open a bank account. I went to every cultural and literary event, always having read the relevant books so that I could ask questions and get people to notice me. I heard a group discussing a philosopher at a table after one such event and asked to join the conversation. How I got the courage to do all that I still had no clue. I got a job as acquisitions editor at a publishing house, published a short story about burning myself down in a house on fire so that I could recreate myself anew, and politely kept my distance from the poet.
On weekends I explored Jakarta’s nightlife with a group of former high school classmates who had lived in the city since college. On our first outing we went for karaoke. At one point I returned from the bathroom to find two ‘bad boys’ waiting for me by the door. They asked if I would like to join them for drinks at the bar. I sensed they were testing me.
“Great. There will be a second girl in our group.”
By watching this group I gained the radar to identify likeminded people. Gradually I found that what my dad told me about this big bad city was too narrow-minded. I grew the courage to go anywhere at any time. I discovered sanctuaries where I could discuss controversial matters candidly. I started to feel as if I belonged to a secret society, and it made me cherish the handful of friends I had all the more.
Still, something separated me from my Indonesian friends. With them I was always a girl who had to be accompanied and protected. We would go for karaoke or to dinners where people threw around creative jokes, but most of the questions we asked each other were about facts: “Are you married?” “Are you still working at that company?” Otherwise, they would revolve around having children or getting a mortgage, and I wasn’t interested in those things.
When I was kicked out of my rented room for bringing home a boy for twenty minutes in sweltering daylight (I thought the building was liberal, but wasn’t), I protested on grounds of privacy. The landlady said, “We’re Eastern people, we don’t know privacy.” She was right. Indonesian doesn’t have a word for privacy except the one derived from English: privasi, and it is poorly defined in the dictionary:
privasi n Kebebasan, keleluasaan pribadi
Privasi (noun): freedom, personal privilege or leeway.
Indeed the divide between my Indonesian friends and me was not only cultural, but also linguistic. A young man asked me if I wouldn’t mind going down on him: “Kamu mau ngoralin aku?” The forced marriage between the formal and imported word ‘oral’ with the slang and very Jakartan prefix and suffix ng-in sounded noxious to my ear. And when they asked me to talk dirty, I was mortified. Kundera said that obscenity was the root that tied us most deeply to our homeland, because dirty words pronounced with an accent became comic, but I found it more ridiculous to speak dirty with my Indonesian lovers because in the sexual realm my native language was English.
I flitted back and forth between two social groups and two nicknames—Lizzie with the Indonesians, Ee-lie-za with the internationals.
My Indonesian friends looked down on the bules they met at seedy nightclubs, and they thought my international friends were the same, but they lived in sparsely decorated houses, their choice method of transportation was the motorbike taxi, unlike the posers with their chauffeured Jaguars. When I quit my editorial job so I would have more time to write, they understood that I had different priorities, whereas my Indonesian friends considered it irresponsible. Whenever I asked, “What have you been up to?” the answers were always colorful: opening their first art exhibit, investigating trafficking in Papuan brothels, getting certified to teach yoga. My international friends opened my eyes to the excitement of trying new things.
Sometimes their money and the special treatment they received as foreigners did make them forget themselves. Yes, there were foreigners who came to Jakarta for business only, never showing an appreciation for the people and the culture; yes, there were those who came for cheap sex, but my friends and I had made this filter so that only people we approved of could enter our social grid—although sometimes first impressions were deceiving.
Yet I never entirely belonged to that group either. Once in a while a friend of a friend would speak English very slowly to me as if she were addressing a child; another friend of a friend would take one look at me and decide I was someone’s hanger-on. Sometimes it was my fault—I was still the same awkward, nervous person. Sometimes it was the money—my friends rarely asked me to go on outings or vacations with them, maybe because they knew I couldn’t afford it. Some of us had the same level of education, and in some cases the same degree of professional responsibility, and yet there was a huge gap between our salaries. I was chief acquisitions editor of a mid-size publishing house making US$400 a month and a friend was a project officer at an NGO making US$3,000 a month.
Maybe home is just wherever I have a place and a life of my own. It has been Middletown, Paris, Jakarta, and Oslo. Still, I was happy to know that I could indeed live in Indonesia (Jakarta) and maintain everything that I was. The more I discovered Indonesia, especially its arts and literature, the more I affirmed that part of my identity. I said to my beloved, “I wouldn’t have chosen someone who doesn’t speak Indonesian fluently.”
Who is to say anyway that my past is only Sriwijaya and Majapahit? Who is to say that Indonesian literary heritage were only Balai Pustaka and Pujangga Baru? My literary heritage is also the ancient Greek theater, Renaissance poetry, the modern novel. I want my work to belong to that transnational web of discovery, I want to create myself out of whatever I believe would bring me closer to “the self I seek”, as Octavio Paz puts it. To my ideal Eliza Vitri Handayani.
That leaves the question of what language to write in. In college I translated my stories into English to get feedback from professors and classmates. Since then I often wrote in English.
Most of the things I learned as an adult, including new ways to read and write, I learned in English, but the subjects that most interested me were about Indonesia. While working as an editor in Jakarta I realized just how poor, in general, the quality of literary translation was in Indonesia. While writing I need to find inspirations from the best books written in many different languages—but those books aren’t available in good Indonesian translation.
Furthermore, there was the problem of dialogue. I wrote a story about a girl who froze her aspirations in a box so that she could come back to them when she was ready. I showed it to an editor, and after reading it, he told me the piece didn’t read well, mainly because I insisted too much in transcribing everyday Jakarta speech, which made the dialogues look messy. I agreed; still, “if my characters were to speak correct Indonesian, the dialogues would sound false,” I said. “It is a problem for Jakarta writers,” the editor conceded.
Until I could solve this problem I decided to write in English. I didn’t mind that characters in translated novels spoke correct Indonesian, because I understood that they were not really speaking Indonesian. It should work the other way around too, I thought. As time went by I learned to recreate the atmosphere and rhythm of everyday conversation without having to misspell every word. Yet writing in English has become a habit, after all there are at least five English-language books for every Indonesian-language book I read.
Who is it I’m writing for? If the themes that occupy me are Indonesian, why not write primarily for Indonesian readers? Afraid of running into censorship again and again? I will have to find a way to explore my themes in such a way that the work’s potential for controversy does not overshadow its literary value.
But am I really writing for Indonesian readers? Didn’t I say that it was important to me that readers could understand my work without being familiar with Indonesia, although I hoped those who were indeed familiar would get something more?
Many friends complain that Indonesian is simplistic in grammar and poor in vocabulary. I wonder if their experiences with the language were similar to mine—superficial family communication, learning by rote memorization at school, and repressed or low quality media. I can tell them now that the grammar is not simplistic, but subtle, and the dictionary contains hidden treasures of words. And I feel invited to explore the many yet unrealized potentials of the language.
Nevertheless, translating my work into English proves to be an effective editing tool, it is an opportunity for me to reconsider every one of my words. I am living with both languages everyday—each lets me live a different continent of my life, physically and psychologically.
I don’t write in the same way anymore, I am not even the same person anymore. I used to be interested only in writing—one form of writing—and I considered everything else mere distraction. Now I open my horizon and make time for other activities—supporting a good cause, exploring the outdoors. I need to stop and reflect, research and edit, compare my work with what has been written before, I need to embrace my beloved. Who can guarantee my new ways will work half as well as my old?
It seems I still have some faith after all.