(A write-up of Eliza Vitri Handayani’s conversation with Eric Abrahamsen at the launch of From Now On Everything Will Be Different, the Bookworm, Beijing, 4 September 2015.)
Eliza, your book takes place in Indonesia in the ‘90s when there was a lot of political turmoil. I imagine all that is unfamiliar to most people here. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Yes, the book takes place from early ‘90s until late 2000s. Maybe first a little bit about Indonesia. It’s a country as diverse as the colors that you see. It has thousands of islands, hundreds of ethnicities and languages, many religions and beliefs, although the majority are Muslims. It’s a country of contradictions—for example one can be a Muslim and still practice local traditional rites. Yet amid all the diversity it is possible that life feels monotonous and suffocating, especially if you belong to an exclusive and strict group, and if your influences are limited. That was how I felt while I was growing up, I hated Indonesia. I felt there was no room for me, and all I wanted was to get out. I grew up under Soeharto’s regime, the New Order regime, which was an authoritarian regime, very corrupt, and closely linked with the military. It told you one version of history that you had to believe in and suppressed all the other versions, it held elections but you already knew which party was going to win and who was going to be elected president even before the campaigns began. It didn’t tolerate dissenting voices and protests, and it effectively silenced its critics.
In 1998 the country’s economy was in a shambles and people were desperate. They wanted economic and democratic reforms. So students marched to government buildings and highways to protest. As their number grew bigger and bigger, the media showed stronger and stronger support. At first there were activists kidnapped and disappeared, but in the end the military let the protests go on until the students overtook the parliament building and the president agreed to step down.
A few years after this change of regime, I got a scholarship to study abroad. There I gained the perspective that my country and my hometown were much wider and more diverse than my family and schools had made me believe, so I decided to return to see if this time I could make room for myself. So now being Indonesian for me is more than a fact of citizenship, it’s a commitment to find out more about its history, literature, to get to know its people, and figure out my place within it. Writing this book is one of the ways I try to do that.
Reading some excerpts from your book, I feel that it’s very much a story of youth rebellion, love and rebellion, youthful love against the political backdrop. Are young people in Indonesia interested in what happened in the ‘90s? Are you hoping to connect with the younger generation?
Rebellion and finding love are about defining your identity. When you love someone, you want them to love you for who you are. When you are rebelling against an environment that you disagree with, that doesn’t represent you, you want to show who you are. I think young people respond to this very well, this theme of defining yourself.
There are also parts of the novel that discuss dating scene in Jakarta, for example boys often take “nice” girls out for a meal or a movie, and then take them home to their parents’ house at ten. The girls think their “nice” boyfriends will be going home too, but they continue the night-out with their other friends, the “bad” boys and girls, going to bars and nightclubs until morning. Because sexual repression is the norm, I’ve seen many relationships based on dishonesty. And my characters want to have an honest relationship, which proves to be difficult for them. I think young people will be very interested in this as well.
After ’98 many writers were digging out alternative versions of history and exploring subjects that used to be taboos, many female writers were writing about being independent women, claiming sexual freedom and equality in all aspects. I consider them my most direct predecessors, and as much as I admire them for paving the way for us who are writing today, I think they tend to write about female characters who are very strong, purposeful, and celebrated for those qualities. Maybe that’s what we needed at that time: role models for a revolution. But now, fifteen years after, I’m trying to connect with the next generation of readers who need portraits of everyday men and women struggling not only for political goals, but to be accepted for who they are, with all their flaws and strangeness.
The women I know in life who are trying to live as themselves against so much misunderstanding and rampant sexism, they are not always so strong. They are often conflicted and plagued with self-doubts and self-hatred even. Because if people tell you everyday that you’re not a good person, then a piece of you starts to believe it. But it was through these women that I gained a new appreciation of what it meant to choose their path. And I wanted to write a character like that, who has many weaknesses and tries to be strong, although sometimes fails. So I’m trying to connect with Indonesia’s young generation in this way, by presenting characters that I hope they can relate to.
In a sense both of you are trying to put forward what it might mean to be a woman. In very different ways. In both your cases you may be pushing forward a feminine identity that society may not be ready for. Do people resist how you portray yourself as a woman? Do people fight back? Criticize or censor?
I know my family disapproves of my choices, living on my own as then an unmarried woman and trying to live by considering whether something is good for us and others, not just because our holy book says that it’s good. I know I am making them sad and ashamed, even though they support my writing. But I want them to love me as who I am, not because I pretend to be a “good” daughter in front of them. So I do feel the pressure to be better than the average person, with my family and in public in general. Many religious people put so much emphasis on following rules and commandments, sometimes to the point that they don’t care if by following those rules they are hurting and ruining others. So I try to show why I think my choices are moral and responsible. But it’s not easy. Often people just brush you aside or label you “crazy”, or “un-Indonesian”, or cast you as “those others” so that they don’t have to deal with you.
What do you consider your native language? Indonesian? OK. So my question is about identity and language. Your book came out in Indonesian first, and then you translated it yourself, basically, into English. Why is it necessary to have the book in English? And in this English version, are you still the same you?
At first it had something to do with the way publishing industry works in Indonesia. Most editors don’t offer editorial suggestions or suggest structural edits, they reject or accept a book, make changes, often without informing the authors, and then the book goes to the printer. I needed feedback and I wanted to have the experience of working with an editor. So I translated the book into English and I sent it to several readers, and then I developed the book from there. Also I find translating my own work a very useful editing tool—I get to reconsider each and every one of my words, it’s a chance to see my work with as fresh pair of eyes as I can get.
The English version is longer than the Indonesian version, mostly because I delved deeper into the political and cultural background in the English version. My editor and I assumed that English-speaking readers would not be as familiar as Indonesian readers with the events that took place in the background of the story.
What else is different? Oh, the excerpt I read (“Us + Them”), it’s not in the Indonesian version. Not because I was afraid it couldn’t be published—I took care to make sure that my book wouldn’t get censored this time. After ’98, we don’t have state censorship anymore, but publishing houses and the media sometimes practice self-censorship. They would delete passages that they considered obscene, vulgar, or controversial. But if you’re a famous writer known for controversial subjects, they may not touch you. If they hope to make a lot of money from your sexploitation novel, they may publish it without fuss. So it depends on who you are and whom you approach. But if the publisher is pressured by hard-line groups, they may pull the book out of circulation or worse. If the organizer of a book event receives similar pressures, they may cancel the event. And often the police lets it happen, placing the blame on the organizers for inciting people’s anger. See, that’s the real test of freedom of expression in Indonesia—sure you can criticize the government or write about past atrocities, but as soon as you focus on a particular person or a particular corporation, when you hurt someone’s specific interests or you offend a vocal group’s doctrines, that’s when it can get really dangerous. Will the publishing houses and the media stand behind their authors and journalists?
So there are similarities between censorship in China and Indonesia…
From reading your article in the New York Times, I think so. The excerpt I read is not in the Indonesian version, but I’ve translated it into Indonesian and sent it to all kinds of media. I haven’t managed to publish it. Of course there may be other reasons, but I think it’s hard to publish something like that. We have this SARA “doctrine”, which says that you shouldn’t say or do things that may cause rifts between various ethnicities, religions, races, and other identity groups. It’s teaching against hate speech, but very often it is written and understood as ‘you shouldn’t bring up anything related to races, religions, ethnicity, and other identity groups.’ So people are scared of talking about these things. For a country as diverse as Indonesia, this is a big problem. There are groups who are mobilizing people based on religions and ethnicity to push their own agenda at all costs, often with violence. So to understand more about how to relate with one another, how to build a stronger society, we need to talk about our identities, our differences and connections, in a way that is honest, sensitive, and uncensored. And literature can play an important role here.
Do you have any work that is very personal? Or is all your work political?
My work is personal. I write things that are very personal to me. In the beginning I wanted to write about a man and woman who had a lot of lovers but shared only with each other their deepest thoughts and secrets. And they had artistic aspirations and they wanted to be together, but they kept coming up against external as well as psychological obstacles. So the story was about how they were going to break out of the cycle of failing and starting over, the pattern of disappointments. And then I thought of the ’98 student protests, that’s also about breaking free from decades of obedience and conformity… and I realized it presented the perfect setting for these characters. To my characters, and to me, the reforms are not just about toppling a corrupt government, it’s our chance to come out of hiding, to take control of our lives. When I was small, my parents would tell me how the elections were a sham and that the information minister was a liar, but as soon as we stepped out of the house they became these silent, compliant people, and I was embarrassed, and I thought to myself I had to do this too when I grew up and how my children would also be embarrassed of me. I don’t want that. I want people to be able to live their truth wherever they are. You see, it’s not just political, it’s very personal.
After growing up with enforced uniformity, as just my characters were graduating college and it was time for them to enter the real world, there were all these new freedoms. Suddenly they could be different, and if they wanted to become artists it meant they didn’t have to fear censorship or persecution anymore. But then as the euphoria passed, they realized there was still a lot of work to be done. There were still corrupt people in government, there was still sexism and racism all around, and they still had to face their own fears and self-destructive habits. Trying to overcome my fears, that’s something I struggle with everyday. So by drawing parallel between the character’s endeavors to realize themselves and Indonesia’s efforts towards democracy, I want to write a story about how to break free, how to reach for freedom, and be loved for who you are.
At the event, Hong Ying read the poems “I Too Am Salammbo”, “Illegitimate Child”, and “The Story of You and Me”. She talked about life as a poet and a novelist, and making a living from writing. Also about the experience of being translated and published outside China, if she felt she was different within and outside China. She mentioned how people think because she is a Chinese woman and came from a very poor area, then she can only write Chinese stories, and if she writes, for example, English stories then people don’t want to buy her books. She revealed a little bit about her process of writing poems: “Each time big things happen, and I feel I don’t want to live, I want to die, I want to choose, in that moment I just pick a pen and paper and I just write, and miracle comes, and it makes me feel better. This is why I write poems.”
Hong Ying then talked about her books coming up against censorship, the ones about Tiananmen, the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, and sex, and how publishers often cut off sections. And she talked about being obligated to apologize and pay a large fine, which she did because it was the only way she could keep publishing books in China.
Overall it was a special evening, many people showed up despite the rain, and I learned many new things and made new friends. ~EVH