Eliza Vitri Handayani in conversation with Lasse Tømte at the Oslo Launch of From Now On Everything Will Be Different, at Eldorado bookstore, 25 September 2015.
Lasse: Eliza, before we start talking about your recent novel, it would be nice to know a little more about you. This is not your first book. Can you say something about your literary work up until now?
Eliza: This is my first book in English. An Indonesian version of this book came out last year, and I’ve had short pieces published in literary magazines in Australia and Asia, most notably in the Griffith Review New Asia Now edition, featuring 49 writers from Asia Pacific under 45 years of age. I also run a translation initiative called InterSastra and translated pieces from and into Indonesian. As a teenager I published a science fiction novel called Hymne Angkasa Raya, which won a national award and became a best seller.
Lasse: When we talked yesterday, preparing for this interview, you gave the impression that you were not quite happy with how your first novel was handled by the publishing house. Passages were altered without your permission. Would you say this was a kind of censorship? Can you say something about censorship in Indonesia today?
Eliza: Yes, it was censorship, because the reason for the deletion of passages was the publisher objected to scenes where a man and woman as much as held hands. The story went like this. After my novella won a national writing contest, a famous poet serialized it in a literary magazine where he was editor. The novella wasn’t that good, but my point is he told me he wanted to showcase a writer who could write well without having to explore taboo issues. This was around 2000, a time when Indonesian writers were embracing our hard-won freedom to write about whatever we want after the fall of the authoritarian New Order regime. The poet thought I could be his poster girl. Yet instead of trying to get to know me and make sure that I was what he was looking for, he tried to make me into the “nice girl” he wanted me to be. He illustrated my story with a picture of a woman wearing a hijab, even though I wanted the female lead to have no identifying religious associations. In 2003 he delivered my novel to a conservative publisher who censored passages from my book to make the protagonists seem virginal.
In terms of censorship in Indonesia, it was a small case, but to me personally it was a hard blow. As I was growing up I was told that I was odd, I was not the same as the other children, and I had to hide who I was in order to be accepted. The censorship of my novel reaffirmed that message: there was no place for me unless I became what they wanted me to be. In 2003 I was still a teenager who didn’t know how to stand up for herself and her work. I’ve since grown up and now I’m not afraid to speak up.
About censorship in Indonesia, while there is not much state censorship since Reformasi, there is still a lot of self-censorship, done by publishing houses and the media due to threats from hard-line Islamic groups or thugs hired by corporations to protect their interests. Usually the reasons for censorship involve politics, religion, morality, sexuality, and business interests. There are laws often used to curb freedom of speech: the law on defamation of religion, anti-pornography law that criminalizes erotic content in the arts, and the digital information and transaction law, under which one can be arrested and jailed for suggesting online that someone was corrupt or involved in a crime.
Lasse: Unity and diversity is Indonesia’s national motto. The distance between Indonesia’s easternmost and westernmost points is greater than the distance between London and New York – I’ve been told, I didn’t measure it. On one hand we have Jakarta, a modern cosmopolitan city, and on the other hand in remote areas in Kalimantan (that we know as Borneo) there are indigenous people living more or less outside of modern civilization. (When I was a kid, I read a book about head-hunters in Borneo that ate the flesh of their enemies.) Indonesia has people living in different stages of modernity, hundreds of ethnicities and languages, many religions. How do all these different peoples, with their different creeds, manage to live together? What is it that holds Indonesia as a nation?
Eliza: I often wonder that myself. I’m still figuring out what Indonesia is and my place within in. Some people say it’s our imagination, our will to be one nation, is what binds us together. Practically, our education system tells us that we are of one nation, regardless of whether we feel like it or believe it. Historically, in 1928 students organizations from many islands got together and proclaimed that we were of one nation, and Indonesian was to be our national language. Many writers are re-examining Indonesia’s history, people want to find out other narratives other than the official one fed to us under New Order. Writing is my way to participate in that effort, to find out more about Indonesia and who I am as an Indonesian.
Lasse: In your recent novel, From now on everything will be different, the two main characters, Julita and Rizky desire freedom and a better life for themselves on a very personal level. The Reformasi movement, with its political aims, forms the backdrop for a more personal drama. Even the title expresses not only hopes for a political change, but also the hopes and aspirations of the two main characters. How do politics interfere with personal choices? Did the Reformasi movement promote changes on a broader cultural level? Do young people in Indonesia today have more freedom than they had under Suharto regime?
Eliza: There are many challenges to our freedom, but I’d say yes we are freer compared to we were under Suharto. When I was growing up, whenever people wanted to say something critical of the government, they would look around and make sure strangers wouldn’t overhear. Now generally we can be express our critical views openly.
As I wrote in the novel, the reforms ushered in much more than political changes. The publishing industry boomed with titles exploring unofficial versions of history, sexuality and homosexuality, Marxism, even questioning religion. Suddenly we’re questioning things that we’ve simply accepted for so long—such as is it okay for seniors to haze first-year students.
Because of Reformasi it is now possible for us to fight for our dignity, to fight for a more just and inclusive Indonesia. The fight is far from over. Nowadays, conservative Islam is gaining ground, influencing people quite strongly in the way they think. There are local regulations that prohibit women from going out at night or obligates women to wear the hijab. There’s a fatwa against homosexuals. People are freer and more empowered in the sense that now we have legal channels to challenge such rules, but our freedom is fragile and we must continue to fight to protect it. And fight harder – our former enemy was authoritarianism, it was easier to get behind the struggle to topple New Order; but if you criticize religion, you can easily be demonized, and your fundamentalist opponents might not care so much about logic, state laws, and reason.
Lasse: I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, when at least some of us experienced a profound gap between the generations, conflict and distrust between students and teachers, children and parents, youth and the established society, which went very deep. Was the Reformasi movement marked or influenced by such generation conflicts, of young against old?
Eliza: Most of the protesters in ’98 were students, the protests were largely student protests. I remember an article interviewing Trisakti students, who were mostly from the upper class. They said the best thing they could do to support the protests was not to go to the streets, but to go home and talk to their parents about not being corrupt. I do believe my generation is more open to changes, to intermarriage, to accepting differences. Perhaps it was also because my generation was largely ignorant about what happened in ’65 that we were brave enough to protest in ’98.
Lasse: Both Julita and Rizky are pursuing freedom through art, Julita as a photographer, Rizky is dreaming of a career as an actor and a playwright. Is art the only escape? Is it only through artistic and creative work you can gain freedom on a personal level?
Eliza: That’s a very good question. To Julita yes, working independently as an artist gives her the freedom that she desires. She wants to question everything and doesn’t want to be tied down by any god, boss, or lover. She doesn’t want to have to hold her tongue because her employer might not like what she had to say. Whereas Rizky… In the beginning I imagined Rizky and Julita to be quite similar, but their gender took them to completely different directions. Rizky doesn’t see himself as a rebel, for example to him having sex is a natural part of dating. To Julita it was a part of her rebellion. Rizky doesn’t feel the need to challenge things, he simply wants his private space where he can live as he pleases. Julita is more concerned with questions of morals and norms. Because she’s a woman, to be able to live as she does she needs to have a place of her own, she needs to find ways so that people will still respect her, so Julita chooses to openly rebel against society’s rules. They take different ways, but they both pay a price for their choices. So… yes, Julita and Rizky search for freedom through creative work, but also through love.
Lasse: Love, sex, and relationships – these themes seem very important to the two main characters of your novel.
Eliza: The theme of love ties very closely with the theme of seeking freedom and identity. Reading Kundera’s Identity I became convinced that it is a lover who truly knows the essence of who we are. It is in the eyes of our lover we are free to simply be. Yet people think that if we commit to someone, then we are surrendering our freedom. Octavio Paz explored this question marvelously in the Double Flame. To me love, freedom, and identity are all connected. If we have freed ourselves from a repressive regime, from unfair social norms, can we be free to be who we are? Can we break free from our own fears, from our own past? Are we free to choose what kind of person we want to be, or are we destined to be a certain way because of our genes, our upbringing, and other forces beyond our control? All these questions I try to explore a little bit in my novel.
Lasse: I’ll now invite questions from the audience.
Audience: Tell us about your dress. Did you make it yourself?
Eliza: Thanks for asking! Yes, I made it myself with the proofs of my novel. There are about eighty pages here, double sided. It took me two days, no sewing, just lots of adhesives. I had fun making it. I wore it from home, on the train to Central Station, and all the way here to Eldorado. Good thing it didn’t rain.
Audience: How did you do your research? Did you interview victims of the 1998 riots? I know there are still many victims who need to get their stories heard.
Eliza: Mostly I did research at the National Library, Jakarta, reading periodicals from the ‘90s and 2000s. I conducted several interviews, about photography, Indonesian theater, Jakarta, and 1998. The excerpt I read was based on a survivor’s story.
Audience: Do you ever think of re-publishing your censored first novel?
Eliza: If you asked me last year, I’d say absolutely not, because I was a teenager when I wrote the novel and I’ve moved on to a new direction. Now, however, I’m more open to the idea. No matter how much I distance myself from it, the book will always be there. Maybe it’s better to publish a version that I can be proud of. We’ll see.
Audience: I’m curious about how writers name their characters. Can you tell me how you chose the names for your characters?
Eliza: Yes. Each of my characters springs from piece of myself, so sometimes I name them with a piece of my name – Elly or Vita. I was born in July, and I imagined Juli was too. Her parents wanted a boy, they had prepared boys’ names, so when she came out a girl they didn’t know what to call her. So they called her after the month she was born. Rizky means blessing. I imagined his parents had waited a long time for him, so for them his arrival was a blessing. In Indonesian it’s a recognizable Muslim name, religion is important to his family. And he likes to engage in risky behavior (laughs).
Lasse: Any other questions? If not, then we’ll enjoy some more music from Even and Tone. A round of applause for Eliza.
Eliza: Thank you to Lasse for leading the discussion and for the Norwegian translation. Thank you to Torgrim for reading it. Thank you to Tone and Even for your performance. And thank you, everyone, for coming.