Courtesy Eliza Vitri Handayani

Indonesian Author Eliza Vitri Handayani on Her Novel of Freedom Set in a Repressed Society

"We were taught what we should aspire to: excelling in math and the sciences were all good because those things have almost nothing to do with politics, but if you had artistic aspirations, if you had the need to examine life…"

From Now On Everything Will Be Different
Eliza Vitri Handayani
Vagabond Press
Jul 2015 (US)

Indonesian writer Eliza Vitri Handayani’s short works have appeared in the Griffith Review, Asia Literary Review, Exchanges Journal, Magdalene, Jakarta Post, Koran Tempo, Words Without Borders, Inside Indonesia, and Index on Censorship. In 2012 she launched InterSastra, an initiative to improve literary translation in Indonesia. In 2016 Eliza was selected as a WrICE fellow and participated in residencies in China and Australia.

Her controversial novel From Now On Everything Will Be Different (Vagabond Press) was published in 2015. Told in a series of deftly deployed flashbacks, the story revolves around two lovers who participated in the student protest movement that helped to oust Suharto in 1998, who had ruled Indonesia under his repressive New Order regime since 1967.

Handayani spoke to us about her novel, the difficulties of being a female artist in conservative Indonesia, and her reflections on the current political and social state of the country.

In my experience in Indonesia, the Suharto regime is still a very recent and vivid subject and people often are often reluctant to even discuss it. Yet in your book, you call Suharto a dictator within the first few pages. How has the novel been received in Indonesia? Has there been any political backlash?

I feel the novel has been better received abroad than at home. Some people told me they were disappointed that the book wasn’t a straight-up political novel, but I didn’t plan it to be one. Others thought it was going to be a romance because the plot involves a young man and a young woman exploring the romantic possibilities of their friendship. I don’t know why some people expect novels to fit into easy categories—life defies easy categories, people defy easy categories. Just because you protested in the streets as a student it doesn’t mean you grow up to be an activist or a politician. The novel is about the struggle to break free—from a repressive regime, from other people’s expectations, from your own fears, even from ‘fate’, which is what seems to be your life’s pattern. You don’t have to be an activist to fight for freedom in your country.

I don’t see myself as a political writer, and I don’t shape my work to carry political messages. I write what I write because that’s the reality that I see. I call Suharto a dictator because that’s how I see him and his legacy. His reign pervaded not only the public but also the most intimate parts of our lives—our family life, our love life. As children we were told what to say and what not to say outside the house, we were told not to trust the media or the government or the lessons in school. There was a huge gap between what was reported and what really happened, and you shouldn’t talk about what really happened. You should be quiet and fall in line because you don’t want to attract attention to yourself, attention could be dangerous. Besides, it felt like there was nothing you could do to change things.

It was like you were born into a world where everyone knows that everything is a lie, but the moment you try to pull down the curtains you will be taken out. So we learned to hide ourselves, we learned to suppress our powers, and find joys in simple things. The lessons they taught you in school had little relevance to real life, but memorize them and regurgitate them so you’d get good grades and a good job, and that was all you could expect out of life: a good job and someone nice to marry and have a family with.

To have that good life I was taught to avoid talking about life—just live, don’t talk, don’t examine. Real life was separate from politics or the media, even from entertainment—at that time my cultural environment was made up of action movies, Disney princesses (with whom I shared dreams about great adventures in the great world out there), sci-fi and horror stories. Real life was always a mystery. Therefore, to me, real life was a cita-cita—something I aspired to grasp: to break the walls of this silenced theater we all had to live in.

I don’t want to live in a silenced theater ever again. That was why my novel is not just a political novel or a romance or any one thing, because life is not just about politics or romantic relationships. To examine only one aspect is like limiting your view on what life is.

Nowadays I hear a lot of talk about ‘being yourself’, to dare to stand out, to do your own thing. You couldn’t do that back then. There was a lot of forced uniformity, a strange thing for a country as diverse as Indonesia: women’s political power was dismantled and women’s roles were domesticated—you have to be an “ibu“, a mother or a domestic matron, or you’re a bad woman; Javanese leadership was installed in the provinces, Javanese values became the norm, issues around race relations and differences were ignored and silenced.

Part of it is culture. There was, and is still, much aversion in revealing things that could bring shame to the family or community—like you shouldn’t speak out if your husband’s hitting you, or if your child has mental health problems, or you shouldn’t acknowledge that teenagers are having sex. It’s not only in Indonesia, I know, but to me it’s all part of the same atmosphere of repression (and self-repression) that the Suharto’s New Order regime cultivated. And it trickled down to schools and families.

We were taught what we should aspire to: excelling in math and the sciences were all good because those things have almost nothing to do with politics, but if you had artistic aspirations, if you had the need to examine life… First of all, you were strange because artistic professions are economically undependable; second, you were in the minority because most children wanted to get stable jobs; and third, you could be putting yourself in danger. The film industry was dying, TV was rubbish, and the artists who were getting attention were often attacked or banned. If you were a student, you could be putting your institution in danger or exposing them to shame, so schools and universities also suppressed students from performing politically critical plays or publishing data that could tarnish their reputation.

In researching the novel, I read periodicals from the 1990s to 2000s, and I encountered articles about students protesting a regional regulation or protesting the expulsion of a classmate, and they were expelled from school, too. The government taught us to address dissenting voices with silencing, cracking down, and getting rid of them, and we’ve learned that lesson well. So well we are still doing it today. It’s like the poet Wiji Thukul said, “being yourself is a subversive act in this country”.

The worst backlash the novel has seen was the cancellation of the book launch in the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Bali. It was in 2015, the Balinese police objected to events on the theme of the 1965 mass murders and wished to have all politically themed panels and discussions cancelled. The novel’s launch was one of the events cancelled. Since then, though, it’s been launched in Jakarta, Bandung, and Makassar, and it’s still being sold. The Indonesian version of the book was published by a small publisher, I didn’t approach the bigger publishing houses because my juvenile novel was censored by a big publisher and I didn’t want From Now On…, a novel about freedom, to suffer the same fate. So I decided to go with a small press who would let me see the proofs before it went to print. But the downside is I don’t think the book gets strong distribution.

Are people more upset about politics or morality… do they object to depictions of sexuality and feminine freedom as much as they do your discussing the uncomfortable past?

I’ve had some members of the audience at launches objected to the bits about sexuality, they used the word “vulgar” (also “vulgar” in Indonesian). We use that word a lot to refer to any discussion of sex or sexuality, but what do we mean? Explicit? In bad taste? Sexy? Offensive? Lacking in morality? “Vulgar” has become one of those meaningless shortcut words, words that people throw without questioning what it means or what they really mean, a word to sound their discomfort that ironically obscures rather than explains that feeling. Are you uncomfortable because it’s unusual to read about women freely having sex, because someone was talking about what you yourself had worked so hard to repress, or because you feel scandalized? Not everything that is sexy or explicit is in bad taste—fiction’s morality is truth, unfortunately in Indonesia many people still view morality in terms of religion and sex. Many of us get our understanding of religion from very bad, mostly male, teachers. There is so much of our sex life that is examined and undiscussed, especially among girls and women, and we’re left to navigate such wild seas alone.

NEXT PAGE (Link below): Breaching the Line

Breaching the Line

What is different now from the late ’90s?

It is now possible to challenge laws and regulations that we deem unfair, to protest on the streets and mount a campaign for our causes and to expect large support. It is now possible to publish our writings uncensored, we have recourses to take if we’re experiencing oppression. It’s far from perfect, corruption is still everywhere, the police often let hardline groups attack discussions and cultural events, but now we have the possibility to fight back.

I feel, however, there is now deeper division between the economic classes—each has their own concerns and politics. I think it’s more difficult now to breach the line between the upper/middle and lower/middle classes. On one hand we have creative, critical, and hardworking young people who are politically and socially aware, on the other hand sometimes I wonder if those conversations and ideas are getting through outside the privileged, urban bubble.

Now we fear hard-line groups the way feared the authorities under Suharto’s regime, especially on issues surrounding religion. Many people are becoming more rigid in viewing and performing religion, more out of touch with local wisdom as we are also more overwhelmed with globalization. There is much more politicization of religion, especially Islam. It is now easier to rally crowd and voters by manipulating religious issues, which can also be race/ethnicity issues.

I don’t know if we have some kind of inferiority complex, we don’t appreciate local wisdom, and some people looked to the West and wanted to be western, some people looked to the Middle East and wanted to be more Arabic, which some people confuse as being Islamic. I don’t know if some people find refuge in religion (with its clear rules and promises of peace and happiness) from the increasingly confusing, global world. We becoming more and more rootless and need something to hold on to. Perhaps some people find less and less meaning in working for faceless machines amid hated politicians in a world that don’t seem to give a fuck about you, so you find meaning in working for the afterlife. There is much social pressure, too, to be or seem more devout. It’s more crucial than ever now to have a critical mind, but it’s hard, it’s easier to follow a leader or hallowed ideas.

Given recent events in Indonesia, such as the 2017 jailing of the Chinese and Christian governor of Jakarta, do you see Indonesia sliding back into an oppressive regime?

Recent political developments do worry me, but it’s not only our leaders that will determine whether we, as you say, slide back into an oppressive regime, but also our willingness to criticize and stand up to the leaders we favor.

We need to stop the fanatic, hero-worship around our leaders (and religious leaders, too). We need to be able to recognize the faults in our leaders and hold them accountable. It was wrong to jail Governor Ahok for blasphemy (it ‘s wrong to still have blasphemy laws), it was wrong to attack him based on his ethnicity, but Ahok did terrible mistakes: forcibly evicting tens of thousands of urban poor people, using the military to silence protesters. Not only did those decisions bring much suffering and illness to many people, tear children from schools, but many of those people are now prone to extremism and manipulation by politicians who are taking advantage of their misery. Those mistakes will have effects that reach far beyond Jakarta’s urban poor and will haunt this country. When you have nothing you strike with what you have and sometimes it’s race or religion. I’m not excusing it, I’m sad that it happened.

Why did you decide to publish in English?

It’s a human story set in Indonesia, to some extent it’s an Indonesian story, but it’s also a universal story. Why shouldn’t it be read by people outside Indonesia? If you ask an American writer why they decide to publish their books in Indonesian or Chinese translation, they’ll tell you it means their story resonates with peoples that are different from them. It’s an achievement.

I wrote some scenes first in Indonesian and others first in English. I live in both worlds, I am a creature of both worlds, I need to communicate and be a part of the conversation in both Indonesia and abroad, specifically the English-speaking world. I grew up in Indonesia and came of age in the US.

My novel is about two young people seeking freedom, how much can they build their own life free from family expectations, can they find it within themselves to stop repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Are you missing the great love of your life or should you be grateful for the one beside you, should you keep going despite repeated failures or find a new dream? Sure, it has elements that may be new to readers unfamiliar with Indonesia, but why shy away from new things? Sometimes we need something different to reinvigorate our life. You may not know what you’re missing until you find it. People say the magic happens outside your comfort zone.

There’s been a wave of recent feminist action against institutional sexism, such as the #MeToo movement. Do you think such a social movement can be effective in conservative and traditional Indonesia?

There have been social movements that were successful in Indonesia—the 1998 student protests is the obvious example. And there have been campaigns against sexual harassment and abuse in Indonesia, recently #NyalaUntukYY, One Billion Rising Indonesia, #TidakMemperkosa, #SayaJuga, or the more general Women’s March Indonesia. Still, gender roles are much stricter here than in some Western countries, the tendency to blame victims is also stronger, stigma for victims and survivors are still harsh, and the imbalance in power and economic relations between perpetrators and victims are often so great that there isn’t much room, benefit, or support for the victims to speak up. Still, #MeToo is a campaign that can help draw some attention to the issues.

I put forward some suggestions on what we can do after #MeToo to combat sexual harassment and abuse in the Indonesian art and literary scene in an article in Magdalene. Not to say that the problem is limited to those environments, but there I feel I can propose some useful ideas. I wish many arts and literary organizations and communities, big and small, would sit together, devise and commit to a plan of action that shows their commitment to battling this problem.

Let’s talk a little about craft. Are you more comfortable writing in Indonesian or English? Tell me more about your interest in translation.

Sometimes it depends on the subject matter. I feel more comfortable exploring certain topics in English and others in Indonesian, sometimes it also depends on where I got the idea in the first place, where I started writing it.

Growing up I didn’t find what I needed around me so I looked in other places, other cultures, I wanted to get away and I did, but being away made me want to examine where I came from. I was about to say home, but I didn’t really have a home, I don’t have a tribe or a place I feel I truly belong to, home has always been something I have to create for myself and I create that home from the stuff I love wherever it comes from, and translation enables me to do that. Reading books from other languages and cultures is like having intense conversation with great minds from diverse places, and I want to share that feeling of richness.

Is your work autobiographical?

Like the character of Julita says in the novel, she wants her work—and I want my work—to contain something about everyone’s life and be a biography of no one. I infused some parts from my life into my fiction, and my life imitates some parts from my fiction. The Map of International Affairs, I came up with the idea for Julita and then I bought one and filled one, too. Short answer, my work is autobiographical in the same way my life is fictional. Sometimes I live different personas with different lovers. My life can be a trial ground for my fiction, and the other way around. I live out my art and I turn my life into fiction.

On your website, you note that you sometimes struggle with expressing yourself. How does the process of writing help you to overcome those difficulties?

Writing was an outlet for me to express the things I couldn’t say to people’s faces or in public. For example I had a meeting with an old friend who said demeaning things about me and I sat there and smiled, and at home I wrote and sent him an email. It may sound pitiable to outspoken people, but at least I ‘said’ something. I was often afraid I didn’t communicate myself well, and in writing I could work out what I really wanted to say, edit, or make sure I addressed a topic from many sides. I guess I had a high standard for expressing myself, or maybe it was insecurity justifying itself as high standards. By writing, I trained myself to be clear, to be fair, and to find the courage to speak up—first in writing and now in person too. I’m glad I’m that way, though, because now it’s too easy to comment before understanding an issue or finish reading or viewing something. Getting recognition for my writing and my opinions has gone a long way to make me feel safe and secure in being who I am.

How do you help other people who want to write fiction that addresses wider political themes? Tell me about your InterSastra project.

InterSastra is a website I manage which promotes literary exchange. Currently we are publishing two exciting collections.

Defiant Voices, now titled Unrepressed, is a bilingual, online series of short literary works to promote and encourage writing about themes that may be considered taboo or controversial, such as sexuality and sexual violence, environmental concerns, challenging religious dogma, mental health, race and class relations, and many more. Some of the writings we publish in this series may have been challenged or banned, some of the authors may have experienced harassment, attacks, or persecution. This space, however, is open to any work that we think in some way offers new possibilities to talk about such themes.

We also publish a series called Literary Souvenirs, which are works by extraordinary writers or translators that we meet in our travels. We invite contributors and will pay for the published pieces. Writers are expected to do so very many things for free, expected to have another job to support their writership, which I think is unfair. I’m happy to have the grant to pay our contributors this year.

What are your current projects? Can we expect any new novels in the near future?

I’m writing a novel about a teenaged girl who stalks her father’s ex-girlfriend in a quest to find a powerful role model. She finds no such role model in her silent, obedient mother and her womanizing, violent father.

Also, I’m trying different means of expression. I’m preparing an art project and taking an acting class, because, yeah, I’m crazy like that.

This article is the first in a series of articles showcasing new writers from Southeast Asia.