Introduction by Norman Erikson Pasaribu
Last year in Brussels, I spent a week living under the same roof with Intan Paramaditha. I have been a long-time admirer and observer of her work ever since I read her first short story collection in 2005, Sihir Perempuan (Black Magic Woman, 2005).
One of my favorite stories from the book is “Sejak Porselen Berpipi Merah itu Pecah” [trans. by Stephen Epstein as “The Porcelain Doll”]. It's about Yin Yin, a porcelain doll who gets shattered after an obedient cat called Sweetie nudges her. The story speaks of a complicated Indonesian obsession with being “unscathed”, “pristine”, but also perhaps all the more: “virgin.” The story subverts those realities by making that allegorical comparison literal. It asks us: what if the porcelain vase really goes shattered?
I’m happy that these stories finally come into its English-speaking readers. It’s also quite timely, considering that in 2019 Indonesia will have a presidential election that might change everything. Recently there has also been a growing discussion about the return of the New Order, slowly rising up from its wide-open grave. And its "state ibuism," its glorified version of motherhood, which has domesticated Indonesian women for over 50 years now, is its most enduring "legacy".
We all should be grateful for subversive writers like Intan Paramaditha. It’s a privilege to be able to talk with her.
Norman: You grew up in the middle and the twilight of Soeharto's New Order. How did it influence your upbringing?
Intan: I was shaped by all the keywords thrown in the public sphere as soon as the authoritarian regime ended and the age of Reformasi (political reform) began in 1998: Freedom of expression; resistance; critical thinking. These were the mantras of the student movement, and it coincided with a lot of things. There was music (we all grew up listening to Cobain, so having a super optimistic view in life was not the norm), an oppressive father (whom I later made peace with), and my formal education, which played a big part. I was lucky to have been educated as a student of the English Department at the University of Indonesia. My advisor was feminist professor and activist Melani Budianta, and it was in college that I studied feminism, postcolonialism, and critical theory. Many of my generation in the late 90s did not have this luxury. Some programs would avoid teaching Marxist theories because the 1966 ban on Marxism and communism had not been lifted. A lot of university students would create independent study groups because schools in general were useless. My case was different. It was only a few years after Melani returned from her Ph.D at Cornell, so she introduced all the debates in the 90s – Judith Butler, Cultural Studies… We read Arundhati Roy and Jhumpa Lahiri, not just dead white male authors.
My first collection of short stories, Sihir Perempuan (2005) – from which many stories of Apple and Knife are drawn – was shaped by all these contexts. I thought it was important to resist. That’s why I wanted to tell stories about bad women. Feminism, though, was much less appealing than in today's conservative Indonesia. Even progressive male thinkers tend to see feminism in Indonesia as irrelevant, disruptive, or merely a copycat of Western feminism.
Norman: Writers often describe childhood as the most influential time of their writing life. What’s about you?
Intan: There were moments in my childhood when we only had one television channel, the National Television of the Indonesian Republic (TVRI), and they would show programs that mainly promote ideas of nationalism, militarism, and developmentalism of the Suharto regime. Very few kid-related shows. Thanks to the emergence of the satellite TV in the mid 90s, MTV made my middle school less miserable. But in the elementary school, books were the main source of happiness. My mother pampered me with books – my favorites were H.C. Andersen and Grimm. I started reading Agatha Christie when I was 10 because my mother asked me to read mystery novels with her. I don’t know if 10 is an appropriate age for this but my mom, just like me now, could be quite weird.
My mother knew that I loved creating stories through writing and drawing, so when I was in the 4th grade, she bought me a typewriter to write stories. I was really good at typing (which does not even matter now, haha). Two year later, I started using our home computer and sent my short story to a children’s magazine called Bobo. As an 11-year old, I was really happy because I thought Bobo would only accept submissions from adults.
Norman: You are known for your gothic feminist short fictions. What is your conception of feminist horror?
Intan: Horror disrupts our assumptions of reality and what we believe as ‘normal.’ Feminism is a perspective that interrogates the structures of patriarchy and how they are intertwined state politics, capitalism and religion. I do believe that the juxtaposition of both could be really exciting because of their tendencies to challenge and disturb. We see this in the works of Mary Shelley, Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Flannery O’Connor – all writers I admire. However, in stating that there’s a lot of potentials in horror, I do acknowledge that horror can be deployed to voice conservative concerns. In a lot of horror movies and books, women are often sexualized and demonized, and the narrative ends with the restoration of order through the death/ punishment/ and redemption of women. I guess that’s where feminist horror intervenes -- it questions and redefines such conservative framings.
Norman: In past interviews, you often mention western classics as influences, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, or the more contemporary Margaret Atwood's and Angela Carter's stories. How about your eastern influences?
Intan: In the late 90s I read Toeti Heraty’s long poem about the Balinese sorceress Calon Arang, and it really inspired me to rewrite stories about bad women from a feminist perspective. Calon Arang is known as a cold-blooded witch who is furious because no one would marry her daughter, and she takes revenge by killing villagers and use their organs as jewellry. Toeti Heraty’s version places Calon Arang as a victim of patriarchal powers – the king and the priest – and she recontextualizes the legend in contemporary Indonesia. Calon Arang was also incorporated in Ayu Utami’s novel, Larung, which I really liked.
My fiction is also influenced by women intellectuals such as Melani Budianta and Julia Suryakusuma. I love the works of male writers such as Asrul Sani, Budi Darma’s Orang-orang Bloomington (The People of Bloomington), and Moetinggo Boesje’s play Malam Jahanam (The Night of the Accursed), but my priority now is to learn more about writings by women. Just like in many Western countries, the practice of defining literature has often excluded or ignored women’s writings and their contexts.
Norman: Most the stories in Apple and Knife came from your mid-twenties, a version of yourself that you once mentioned as "angry, rebellious, and withdrawn." How do you see those stories now?
Intan: Oh God, looking at something you wrote 12-13 years ago is hard! When Stephen and I discussed which stories we wanted to include in the collection, I felt that I was confronted with my own past crimes. “How about this story?” he would ask, and I would go, “Oh, no, no. Not that one. That’s horrible.” I wish these stories had been written with more subtlety by my more mature self. Rereading an old piece of work can be an exercise of humiliation. On the other hand, it also allows you to look at things with a different perspective. Some stories will never be perfect according to your standard now, but there is something that people take from them – and that something could be surprising, and perhaps productive.
I hated the story “Blood” as soon as Sihir Perempuan came out in 2005. I thought it was just too honest and naïve – it made me feel very vulnerable. But the process of translation and collaboration with Stephen and my editor Elizabeth Bryer helped me see a different side of each story. “Blood” is still naïve and still gross, but it is my favorite piece to read at book events.
Norman: You often recycle fairy tales or even Quranic narratives and reframing them with a feminist perspective. They mostly speak of Indonesian women’s lives. How do you gather these stories? Can you tell us more about your creative practice?
Intan: It often starts with strong images. I studied cinema, and it helped me see the specificity of the medium and the values of telling a story visually. But I am also a narrative person through and through. I love Hitchcock and David Lynch, who are both strong in images and narrative. I am always drawn to the questions: In what way are the events/ images structured, and why? Who’s telling the story? Writing for me is often about creating a new narrative that frames a familiar image.
The story “Apple and Knife” begins with my fascination with an unforgettable image from my childhood years. Growing up in a Muslim family, reading stories of the prophets was part of my upbringing. I think the Bible has more wacky stories but maybe the Islamic stories I grew up with were sanitized. My favorite prophet story was that of Zulaikha (Potiphar’s wife) seducing Yusuf/ Joseph. I loved stories of seduction, but what lingered in my mind was the images of women slicing their hands instead of apples when they discovered the beauty of Yusuf. Since then, I have always been fascinated with images of red apples – especially the juxtaposition of apple and knife. Indonesian poet Sapardi Djoko Damono also works with apple and knife in a very haunting poem called “Mata Pisau.” In fact, “Apple and Knife” was influenced by the Joseph story and Sapardi’s poem.
Norman: You have lived in an English-speaking world for more than a decade. You also have a master degree in English Literature. Did this affect the translation process?
Intan: Yes, this has greatly affected the translation process. It became more of a collaboration between the translator and the writer. Stephen would pass a rough draft for me to look at and then make 2nd and 3rd revisions in response to my comments. He was brilliant and creative, and he came up with a lot of interesting suggestions – some did not work, some actually made the sentence sharper. I am glad that I could really appreciate his ideas and interpretation because I understand the nuances in the language. But for me, Indonesian language is my first language in fiction. I think of academic concepts in English because I have been trained for years in this language, but stories come to my mind in Indonesian.
Norman: In a review from The Saturday Paper, there is a comparison between your work and Haruki Murakami's. How do you see this notion?
Intan: Most of these stories were written before I read Murakami, but that's okay -- I really liked Kafka on the Shore! Murakami has become the shorthand for anything weird or a style of writing that’s more straightforward. What's more interesting to me is the practice of comparison in the tradition of writing about books -- it's so Murakami, or so Marquez, or so Angela Carter, or what have you. I guess it's inevitable. There’s always this need to tap into something that is familiar for the reader especially when you are talking about a work that comes from a different cultural context.
Norman: I am really interested in the story "Kuchuk Hanem," the only story in the book that speaks of a non-Indonesian woman. How do you find her? How do you take the western idea about eastern women?
Intan: When I was a PhD student at NYU, I took a graduate seminar called “Imaging Israel and Palestine" with Ella Shohat, who is an expert in the studies of the Middle East, media, and gender. One of the issues we discussed was how the practice of imaging a place – through photography, paintings, and the creation of maps – was interwoven within imperialist discourses and justified colonialism. One of the cases we studied was the photographs of Maxime Ducamp, who went to Egypt on a scientific mission with Gustave Flaubert. This inspired me to learn more about that trip via Flaubert outside the class. Through Flaubert's letters, I discovered his Orientalist description of Egypt, the landscape, the party scenes, and the famous courtesan Kuchuk Hanem. She was depicted as a wild and exotic being, very much in contrast with Flaubert’s girlfriend Louise Colet, who is highly intelligent and cultured. I tried to recreate the scenes of encounter between Flaubert/ Ducamp and Kuchuk Hanem through Flaubert’s biography and letters, emphasizing that Kuchuk Hanem is much more clever and sly than just – in Flaubert’s words – “a machine.”
Norman: What’s after Apple and Knife?
Intan: I published my new book in October last year in Indonesia, and currently I am taking a break from fiction while working on my academic project. The book, Gentayangan (The Wandering), is a choose-your-own-adventure novel that engage with the issues of travel, mobility, and displacement in our global world today. It is currently being translated by Stephen Epstein and will be published in English by Harvill Secker in the UK and Commonwealth countries in 2020.
Intan Paramaditha is an Indonesian author and a lecturer in Media and Film Studies at Macquarie University, Sydney. She is the author of the short story collection Apple and Knife (Brow Books 2018; translated by Stephen Epstein) and novel Gentayangan: Pilih Sendiri Petualangan Sepatu Merahmu (The Wandering: Choose Your Own Red Shoes Adventure, Jakarta, GPU 2017).
Norman Erikson Pasaribu is an Indonesian writer based in Jakarta. He recently picked up kakigōri as one of his favorite desserts.