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)


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.

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