May 5-8 Eka Kurniawan and Eliza Vitri Handayani attended Wordstorm 2016, Northern Territories Writers Festival in Darwin, Australia. The theme this year is the fabric of family.

At the festival’s opening ceremony May 5, Eliza read an excerpt from an upcoming work about the violent love between a daughter and her father. Watch the video here. Authors Tony Birch, Mary Anne Butler, Marie Munkara, and Zohab Zee Khan also read and performed at the opening ceremony.

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May 6 Eka Kurniawan and Eliza visited Charles Darwin University. Sandra Thibodeaux facilitated a discussion with them about political change, feminism, and censorship in Indonesia.

May 7 at Brown Marts Theatre, Eka Kurniawan and Eliza once again talked with Sandra Thibodeaux about their novels and the topics discussed in them.

Below is a summary of Eliza’s answers in both sessions:

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The novels are set during some crucial periods in Indonesian history – Eka’s covers Dutch colonial, Japanese occupation, and the anti-Communist purge, Eliza’s covers Reformasi era.

Yes, I chose to situate my story amid 1998 political unrest. That’s the start of Reformasi, or democratization, in Indonesia. Massive student protests led to the fall of the New Order regime, which was authoritarian, 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 effectively silenced its critics.

The years around 1998 offer a unique situation for my characters: young people coming of age in the midst of change. Rizky and Julita are part of a generation brought up to be obedient and uncritical, but with the Reformasi there are all kinds of new freedoms. So they test the waters: Is there equality for women in the workplace, at home, in the dating scene? Can they choose any profession they like? Rizky’s mother is still pushing him to study medicine despite his dreams of becoming an actor. Is there still censorship in the art scene? Julita found out yes.

By having my characters struggle to realize themselves in the midst of Indonesia’s efforts towards democracy, I try to explore what it means to be free.

Wordstorm 6 Paz Tassone
Photo by Paz Tassone

Both novels have strong female protagonists. How do the male characters figure against what appears to be a strong female core?

I imagine Rizky and Julita as foils for each other, so they’re both main characters in the novel. Rizky questions authority and behaves more freely in terms of dating and having sex. But he does it because he believes he cannot say ‘I love you’ to a woman until he has known her mind, body, and soul, not because he wants to overthrow conventions. He’s a very private person, all he wants in the end is a home of his own with a beloved woman who knows who he really is and loves him for it. Julita on the other hand openly defies norms and rules because she feels those things are limiting women. For example, after Reformasi there are some local regulations stipulating that women couldn’t be outside the house after 10 pm, even though many people from journalists to cleaning crew have to be outside the house to make a living.

Being male in Indonesia has its privileges—people listen to you more even if your opinions are clichéd, you’re  more likely to be elected to positions of power. Therefore Rizky has less incentive to be open about his thoughts and behavior, so he decides to lead a double life, showing a conservative facade to family and colleagues. Julita, on the other hand, by defying her parents and living on her own she at least gained more freedom of movement, she could question her religion and pursue her career of choice. I think some part of Rizky wants to do what Julita does—it’s one reason he’s drawn to her, why he wants to be with her.

Rizky has his weakness and Julita has hers as well. Even though I care deeply about the issues presented in my book I’m less interested in presenting role models and more interested in characters who might be your reflection in the mirror.

The men and women I know who are trying to live honestly against so much misunderstanding and rampant sexism, they are not always so strong. They are often conflicted and plagued with self-doubts and even self-hatred. Because if you’re like Rizky and Julita, chances are you’ve heard people telling you all your lives that you’re not a good person, you’re unloveable. And a piece of you starts to believe it. But it was through these men and women that I gained a new appreciation of what it meant to choose their path. And I wanted to write characters like that, who have many weaknesses and struggle to be strong, although sometimes they fail.

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I’m interested in discussing changing ideas on female sexuality in Indonesia, what seems to be fairly liberal ideas on female sexual activity, different to current Western understandings of Indonesian women’s sexual freedom.

If the ideas are changing, they’re changing very slowly. Women still have fight for their space to talk, to perform, to lead, still being viewed mainly as sex objects. Cases of sexual assault and domestic violence are still not taken seriously and are often still blamed on the victims.

In terms of sexual activity, women can be very liberal, women can have control over their body and what they do with it. But there’s a price to pay. I couldn’t get a pap smear or an STD test without a barrage of humiliating questions about why an unmarried women need such procedures. “How many partners have you had?” “Do your parents know what you’re doing?” “You’re not gonna blame the doctor for breaking your hymen because of the pap smear device, are you?”

In Eka’s book there are two Don Juan-esque characters – Shodancho who conquers women by sleeping with them, and Alamanda who gets men to fall in love with her and frustrates them. When these two have their battle with each other, Shodancho drugged and raped Alamanda. You also wrote a story, Eka, about a teenage girl married off to a seventy-year old man. The girl avoided this unwanted marriage by giving herself to four boys. On her wedding night the old man realized that she was not a virgin and threw her out. She succeeded in avoiding a life as the old man’s wife, but she couldn’t return to her parents’ home, she was considered a whore in her village.

In my book Julita dated men from different walks of life to see what life was like for them, to find out unknown sides of herself. By most people she is considered a fallen woman, and the pool of people who would want her as their girlfriend or wife is very small. She taught herself to not want marriage or committed relationships, but she is lonely and it damages her self-esteem. Julita is in the minority, she is more liberal than most, even though the issues, attitudes, and challenges she faces are typical.

So yes, many women can and do take control of their sexuality in daily life, but they’re at risk. Until we view women as equal partners and not primarily as possessions or sexual objects, women are still prone to assault, to shaming, to be outcast.

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Talk to us a little bit about freedom and what it might cost to attain it.

Around the student protests in ’98 there were riots and arson, many women were raped, many activists were disappeared and murdered. After the protests were successful, we gained free elections, freer press, people could express themselves more freely.

The New Order strictly limited the movements of political Islam, but after Reformasi they became freer. The downside to that is now many hard-line political Islam organizations use their freedom to oppress other groups, for example by issuing fatwas against the LGBT community, against the syiah and Ahmadiyah communities.

In his private life, Rizky thought he could only love a woman after knowing her mind and her body—but he had to keep his sexual life hidden because he didn’t want to lose the esteem of his colleagues or the love of his family. That’s important to him, to many Indonesians. Yet, because of that he was never as close to his parents as much as he would like to be.

Julita at first interpreted freedom as being unattached to any lover, to any boss, to any place, to any god. She took many lovers, remained a freelance photographer, paid no mind to religion, and went off to travel the world. But she didn’t have many friends. And she started collecting pins, one for every person she has slept with, and she became obsessed with these pins. She then asked herself if she was still a free agent or had she become a slave to her own game, to her desires?

Rizky and Julita sent many letters to each other, and in them they asked if it was fated for them to be as they were, because of their genes or their upbringing or their environment. If all the factors of a given situation are the same, will the outcome be the same over and over again? If so, does it mean we are not really free?

And there’s this question of breaking patterns—Rizky tried many times to be an actor and failed, he and Julita tried many times to be together and failed. Where’s their freedom in this regard? They are free to keep trying, but maybe that’s madness. Maybe freedom is madness. Julita said she wished she could try every day with no regard to past disappointments, to calculations of risks, to see beyond hope and fear. There’s a little madness there.

Both books contain love stories and true friendships, as perhaps the ultimate form of love?

On some level Rizky and Julita love each other, they can be honest with each other the way they can’t with other people. They also want things from each other, Rizky admires Julita’s living openly and there’s a part of him that wants to possess that quality by possessing her. Julita thinks that because she sleeps with many men then if she sleeps with Rizky it would make him less special, make their relationship less special. She resists the idea of being with him. She wants to keep him around as a confidant, someone she can always turn to without the messy drama and tension of a relationship.

Yes, I guess in their case friendship works better than a romantic, sexual relationship, because in friendship they can be more selfless towards each other. They can love each other better.

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Eka Kurniawan and Eliza Vitri Handayani with festival organizers Cora Diviny and Sally Bothroyd

It would be good to discuss the cancellation your book launch, Eliza, at Ubud Festival, also about censorship in modern Indonesia. What is the situation?

My book launch was among the many events cancelled after the police objected to any discussions at the festival on the topic of the 1965 mass murders. I was outraged when I heard this, and when the organizers told me that my book was among the events cancelled, I got even more concerned because my book barely mentioned 1965. I worried if the police had extended their objection to books on Reformasi and other subjects as well. Later I read that the police didn’t want any discussion on topics that might be harmful to Bali’s image of paradise for tourism, this included discussions on the topic of ethnicity, race, religion, and the massive land reclamation that many Balinese people are rejecting.

The events were cancelled, but it didn’t mean speakers didn’t talk about 1965 in other panels. It became the most talked about topic. This is reflective of the situation of censorship in contemporary Indonesia—with regards to freedom of expression, there is a space, which is open and used by various groups, media, and individuals to express themselves. But the state doesn’t guarantee that space in practice, although it does on paper. And there are various initiatives who work to limit that space.

After the fall of New Order, Indonesia has guaranteed freedom of expression in the human rights law 1999, the second amendment of the constitution in 2000, and since 2010 the Attorney General’s office no longer had authority to ban books. Yet laws have also been passed that contradict the above. The Antipornography Law in 2008 curtails the exploration of sexuality in the media and the arts. The Digital Information and Technology Law 2008 contains many clauses that criminalize citizens’ online expression—people have been charged for defamation after posting a YouTube video of police officers asking for bribes, or mentioning that certain government officials or business owners might be corrupt.

There are also many intolerant, violent, anti-discussion groups that frequently mobilize and attack cultural events that they disapprove of—nowadays the topics are usually 1965, the LGBT cause, female sexuality and feminism. The police often stand by and let this happen, tending to blame the victims for inciting the crowd’s anger.

Because of this, some writers and publishers are cautious about what they put out there and may self-censor. A publisher may feel comfortable publishing material that are critical to the government but does not want to publish anything that is critical to Islam.

Regardless of what we think about the Ubud organizers not fighting the instruction to cancel the events, they managed to direct worldwide attention to the censorship. Since then, many other events have suffered forced cancellations and none received anywhere near the amount of attention that Ubud received.

(And here I read a list of events that had been forcefully disbanded or banned, because more people should know. You can also read the list provided by Safenet: http://id.safenetvoice.org/pelanggaranekspresi/)

I’m interested in devising fresh strategies that are attractive enough to grab the public’s and the media’s attention, thus pushing the cause to the forefront of public awareness and putting pressure on the state to respect and protect the safety and freedom of citizens to be creative and to have dialogues.

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May 7 Eliza was also on a panel called ‘The family recipe’ with Toni Tapp Coutts, Beth Yahp, and Christopher Raja. We talked about how food and how it helps us write about family, about how food is connected to our identity. I talked about the characters in my novel From Now On Everything Will Be Different going to a series of restaurants and discussing their forbidden interfaith, homosexual, and interracial relationships. I also talked about my journey to cooking, from discovering new words such as amaranth, haloumi, salsify, quinoa, injera to finding their embodiment in the market. Because I didn’t like handling raw meat, I found vegetables a blessing. I learned how to turn humdrum items into something new (simple mashed potatoes can become saffron mash), how to add colors to the plate, how to layer flavors with juice and zest and garnish… Suddenly food becomes another thing to experiment with: making egg salad with miso rather than mayonnaise, making ice cream with hazelnut milk rather than regular milk, using polenta rather than bread as pizza base. At first I didn’t want anyone to know about my new hobby, as I’ve always tried to avoid anything that’s too “girly-girly”—in my adolescent I decided that anything too “girly” shouldn’t be a part of my identity. But then I realized: isn’t it silly the way we label certain activities womanly or manly, when in reality cooking is an essential skill that everyone should have? Isn’t it silly how we view cooking as primarily a domestic activity, when it involves much creativity, it has long histories and traditions? Food is also a pressing political and environmental issue, as animal agriculture is the largest contributing factor to climate change, deforestation, water scarcity, and ocean pollution.

Wordstorm 7 Paz Tassone
Photo by Paz Tassone

Thank you to NT Writers Centre for putting up a terrific festival!

Read about  other fascinating events at the festival here: http://www.ntwriters.com.au/blog/.

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