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

William L Gibson
Courtesy Eliza Vitri Handayani

"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.

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