Saturday, 2 February 2019

Elaine Chiew Converses with Indonesian Feminist Gothic Writer Intan Paramaditha

Intan Paramaditha. Courtesy of the Author.

If you haven't yet heard of Indonesian writer Intan Paramaditha, I am convinced you soon will. 

Intan Paramaditha is an Indonesian fiction writer and academic based in Sydney. Her short story collection Apple and Knife, translated into English by Stephen J. Epstein was published by Brow Books (Australia) and Harvill Secker (UK) in 2018. Gentayangan (The Wandering), her debut novel on travel and displacement where readers choose their own narrative path, was selected as Tempo Best Literary Work for Prose Fiction in 2017. The novel received the PEN Translates Award from English PEN and the PEN/ Heim Translation Fund Grant from PEN America, and it will be also be published by Harvill Secker in 2020. She holds a Ph.D. from New York University and teaches Media and Film Studies at Macquarie University.

EC:   Welcome to AsianBooksBlog, Intan. A real pleasure to have you.

IP:     My pleasure! Thank you for having me, Elaine.

EC:   First, congratulations on the publication of your wonderful short story collection, Apple and Knife, full of fable-like and allegoric energy, a celebration of the transgressive and mysterious darkness of womanhood.

I’d like to start with your background. What were your favourite reads in childhood? Did you always know you’d be a writer?

IP:   As a child, I loved reading fairy tales of H.C. Andersen and Grimm. Growing up in a Muslim family, I was also familiar with stories of the prophets and I enjoyed reading them.

The story Apple and Knife which became the title of the collection, was inspired by the story of Yusuf (Joseph) in the Quran. I have always been fascinated with these tales because the moral messages tend to co-exist with violence, often in weird, uncomfortable ways. The “what if” question has always triggered me. What if we told the stories, maintaining all the elements including fantasy, darkness, and violence, but from a different perspective?

I starting writing when I was nine, and I knew that I wanted to be a writer. I sent my stories to a children’s magazine when I was in elementary school. So being a writer is quite predictable. But I did not expect that I would become an academic, which made things more complicated!

U.K./Europe Cover by Harvill Secker

EC: Oh, tell us more. In what ways complicated? I am so impressed at the dual worlds you navigate daily: the academic world of lecturing in media and film studies at Macquarie University, Sydney and the world of gothic fiction. 

IP:  For one thing, finding time to write fiction is a real challenge. Moving back and forth between different modes of writing is a challenge too, but for me, they are interconnected rather than separate realms. My academic work informs my fiction writing and vice versa. The questions I engage with in fiction are shaped by the academic readings that I am exposed to. On the other hand, even though academic writing is built on evidence and analysis, there is also creativity involved in how ideas are structured. There are stories of people and their work that I care about in my academic work, and perhaps because I write fiction, I think more consciously about narrative when I present my research findings.

EC:  You’ve been called a “gothic feminist writer” by certain reviewers. First, do you identify as a feminist writer? 

IP:   Yes, of course. It’s a political stance. I work with feminist activists in the field of arts and culture in Indonesia, and all the struggles and the mess I witness in the field have influenced my position as a scholar and a writer and shaped me. I am part of a larger movement.

EC:  Are there pros and cons to the label though, particularly in Indonesia? 

IP:  When I started publishing my work, feminism was a bad word. People used the label 'women writers' a lot and many writers I know refused being called 'women writers', let alone 'feminist'. Indonesian media and critics framed 'women writers' as writers who focused on ‘women’s issues’ –  God knows what. As a result, women’s works were discussed only within specific discourses, such as the body, experience, or autobiography, whereas men’s works were framed as ‘experiments'. 

Interestingly, now, with a stronger alliance between neoliberalism and progressive social movements, 'feminist' has become a brand. This raises difficult questions. When feminism is capitalized, are we complicit to it? 

For me personally, identifying myself as a feminist writer is still important and still a political stance, but I need to be constantly aware of the implications, power relations, and more importantly, the responsibility that comes with it.

EC:  Feminism is indeed a fraught issue in Indonesia, also different from how we might understand global feminism. You invoke particular incidents related to Indonesian feminist activism in your stories: e.g. the 1998 Suara Ibu Peduli’s activist ‘mothers protesting the price of milk’ in Beauty and the Seventh Dwarf and the deliberate tarnishing of the Indonesian feminist movement by power groups, linking them to depictions of sexual debauchery, in The Obsessive Twist.  In invoking this contextual history and weight, how do you perceive the collection negotiating this crossroads (or perhaps tension is a better word) between the collective global sense of feminism and the particular form that feminism has evolved in Indonesia? 

IP:  Indonesia has a long history of women’s movement, and Indonesian women’s groups have strategically used seemingly ‘domestic’ terms such as 'wives' or 'mothers', but for me the concerns are feminist. As you said, Indonesia – as elsewhere – has distinct forms of feminism. There are, of course, some shared agenda, such as the struggle against oppression. Whether you are reading a book by a white liberal feminist writer or a Third World Muslim writer, you will see this global, universal theme. Apple and Knife picks up on this theme of oppression as well. 

But I believe in feminisms instead of feminism because women’s experiences are shaped by different histories and social structures. We are living with the history of erasure and demonization of women’s movement in Indonesia. 

When one talks about patriarchal structures in the Indonesian context, it is impossible to leave Islam out of the picture.  Especially now, with Islamic resurgence, whether you are pious Muslim, Chinese Christian, or agnostic, Islam structures your experience as a citizen. 

There are other things as well, for instance, the traces of colonial-feudal tradition complicates our version of capitalism, and therefore, the position of women. Forms of resistance are shaped by global feminism, but they are also unique due to the intersection of local, national, and transnational forces. Articulations of individual resistance, shaped by these many forces, are what I am trying to capture in my stories. 

In early 2000, I was inspired to write about women because I read feminist theories. Some readings are specifically about representations of women and the act of writing, such as Hélène Cixous’ essay “The Laugh of the Medusa” or Gilbert’s and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic.  Some others delve into the relation between gender and power in different fields. They spark imagination because they complicate ways of seeing, and this is important in the process of asking questions – both in fiction and in academic writing.

Brow Books cover, Australia

EC:  Let’s talk translation. The stories in Apple and Knife, as I understand, were written in Indonesian and first published as Sihir Perempuan (Black Magic Woman, 2005). It was then published by Brow Books in Australia, before being republished by Harvill Secker. What was the process of working and preparing them for translation like? 

IP:   I work closely with Stephen J. Epstein in preparing the translation. Collaborating with Stephen is very exciting as he is very creative and adventurous. He picks up all the clues and breadcrumbs from my writing and gathers them to create an interesting interpretation. Sometimes the connection he makes is unexpected, and I didn’t think of it before. This has really enriched the translation process.

The process goes like this: Stephen would send a rough draft of the translation with comments and questions, and I would respond to those comments. We would give suggestions to each other. And this process of reading and revising can take months or years. When the editor jumps in, we would get another perspective. A book, at the end, is a collaborative process – yes, I am the author of the book, but the translator, editor, publisher – they all played an important part in making sure that the book is in the best shape.

EC:  Have you ever toyed with the idea of writing fictionally in English? 

IP:  Yes, I have, and I have done some experiments as well. Indonesian is very young compared to English, and often the vocabularies feel limiting, but I grew up and breathe within those limits and the creativity resulting from them. 

EC:  I have to say, I can’t help being reminded of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, especially your story The Blind Woman Without A Toe, which recasts Cinderella as Indonesian (Sindalarat) and retells it from the POV of the ugly stepsister. But it also has an incantatory, prophetic and dream-like voice that’s unique, even when telling something quite macabre or grotesque.  What writers (Indonesian or Western) were early influences? 

IP:  My early influences were Mary Shelley, Margaret Atwood, Edgar Allan Poe, Anne Sexton, and Indonesian poet Toeti Heraty. Later I discovered Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson, Arundhati Roy. I loved theatre, and I learned a lot from Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and Indonesian playwright Motinggo Busye. I was mostly influenced by women writers.

In term of achievements and recognition, I am really nothing next to Angela Carter or other women writers I admire. But I have my own stories to tell, just like their stories are distinctive because they are shaped by specific time, culture, and socio-political contexts. 

If we use Harold Bloom’s definition of ‘anxiety of influence', we will measure writers based on the mastery of their predecessors and whether or not they engage with a literary battle against those influences and prove that their writings are valid. But as Gilbert and Gubar have pointed out, this is a masculine logic. I propose a feminist ethics that highlights the importance of acknowledging the footprints of women writers before us, developing what I call a ‘feminist trajectory of literary influences,’ and at the same time, appreciates that all stories are valid in their own terms.

EC:  I love that, ‘a feminist trajectory of literary influences’. I especially value the idea of cherishing a literary lineage of  'foremothers', as you say, especially for writers who write from alterity perspectives, as this can be particularly challenging in terms of locating our foremothers. Being a bit tongue in cheek here, do you dream in Bahasa or English?

IP:  I dream in both languages! But it wasn’t until I went to grad school in the U.S. that I started dreaming in English. Now the languages often get mixed. I often speak Indonesian to English-speaking characters in my dream and the other way around.

EC: Talk us through the use of horror as a genre for this collection. What draws you to this genre and is there a difference between ‘horror’ and ‘gothic’ in your estimation?

IP:  I wrote my first collection of short stories, which served as the basis of Apple and Knife, around 2003-2004. At that time, I knew that I wanted to write about women in Indonesia, particularly disobedient women. At first, my inclination towards horror was because I loved Poe, Shelley, and weird tales by Roald Dahl. Later, when I looked at my stories as a whole, I saw that horror was a subversive device to address the experience and resistance of Indonesian women. There’s a shared quality between horror and feminism. Both disturb.

In terms of ‘horror’ versus ‘gothic’, I incorporate elements of both in my stories. 

I understand horror as anything that produces fear, shock, disgust, and it can take various forms across different cultures. 

Gothic fiction can be more subtle but unsettling, and I must say that it is hard for me to separate the word 'gothic' from gothic literature in the 18thcentury. The Brontë sisters wrote gothic novels with all the elements of dread, mystery, forbidden desire, isolation, and alienation, but they do not necessarily evoke shock or repulsion as compared to the horror tales of Lovecraft, for instance. 

To me, there is a distance between Indonesian horror and the Western gothic tradition, though not irreconcilable. Indonesian folk-tales are not characterized by gothic tropes such as vast mountains, ruins, castles, and claustrophobic attics, all the elements of space and atmosphere that contribute to the feeling of isolation and disintegration of the self. 

Horror in our folk tales is often about the inexplicable Other as the source of terror that people must collectively deal with because it disturbs order in the kampung. Thus, often the stories revolve around a community hunting supernatural creatures such as 'manusia harimau' (tiger men) or blood-hunger female ghosts such as kuntilanak. Of course, in modern Indonesian fiction from writers such as Abdullah Harahap to Eka Kurniawan, we can see all elements – the gothic and the local horror – blend in exciting ways.

EC: Intan, I particularly appreciated the invocation of the ‘male gaze’ in your story The Obsessive Twist, the fact that the protagonist is a provocative dangdut dancer and how she’s then punished for it. The story weaves in religious elements, implicating this notion of ‘kodrat wanita’ – women’s predestined fates for marriage and motherhood, thus intersecting religion, politics and feminism in an Indonesian context.  Do you find that your stories written in your thirties, as opposed to your twenties, are increasingly of this heady complexity? 

IP: Yes, I believe our stories become more complex as we grow older. My evolution as a writer coincided with a more complicated landscape of sexual politics in Indonesia. In early 2000, the public sphere was populated with keywords such as 'democracy' and 'freedom of expression'. However, in 2008, when I wrote The Obsessive Twist, the Pornography Law had just been passed despite protests from various groups, including feminist groups, who argued that the law was discriminatory towards women and non-normative sexual practices. People had also become more aware of the heightened politicization and commodification of Islam. The Obsessive Twist was inspired by an actual dangdut singer, Inul, who was attacked by Muslim male leaders for her sexy dance moves. 

EC:  I have to mention my favourite in your collection: Kuchuk Hanem. I have a soft spot for literary figures wandering through short stories: in this case, Gustave Flaubert and Maxime Duchamp, on a scientific mission to Egypt. The story critiques Orientalism and imperialism and exotification of the native, but what pained me was the mutilation at the end, so significant and evocative of many different messages (no giving away of endings here!) What inspired this story and how difficult was it to write?

IP:  Thank you! I am glad that you enjoyed the story. The idea came to me after I read about Duchamp’s photographs of Egypt and the Middle East. It was required reading for a graduate seminar  I took at NYU about Israel and Palestine. Taught by Ella Shohat, it was about the practice of imaging a place and imperialist discourses -- Duchamp went to Egypt with Flaubert, and I decided to do more research about the trip and read Flaubert’s letters edited by Francis Steegmuller. Flaubert wrote about his encounter with Kuchuk Hanem in his letters. To respond to his mistress’s jealousy, Flaubert wrote: “The oriental woman is no more than a machine: she makes no distinction between one man and another man.” Edward Said mentioned Kuchuk Hanem as a representation of an Oriental woman unable to speak for herself in Orientalism. I decided to write a piece from the perspective of Kuchuk Hanem, incorporating themes about the colonial gaze, writing as the act of muting, and mutilation as a form of subversion.

EC:  It seems next year we may look forward to a translation of your novel Gentayangan (2017), a choose-your-own-adventure type of story. What is it about and what drew you to this experimental, interactive and playful format? 

IP:  Gentayangan or The Wandering is a reflection on travel and displacement in our globalized world. It asks questions about identities, belonging, access, and inequalities as we transcend national boundaries. The reader assumes the role of the protagonist, an English teacher who never sets foot in an English-speaking country and who has never had the privilege of traveling until she receives a pair of magical red shoes as a result of bargaining with her demon lover.  

I grew up reading the Choose Your Own Adventure series. I had always wanted to write a book in which the reader chooses his or her own narrative path, but I couldn’t find a reason to do so until I started writing and structuring my novel in 2008. I think the format fits the theme of travel because you always have questions about the path you choose. What if you have chosen a different path? What if you have gone somewhere else, or what if you have stayed instead?   

EC:  Thank you so much for generously giving us your insights and your time! I really enjoyed our deep, intense conversation. 

IP:  You’re very welcome. Thank you for these very thoughtful questions!

Intan's Desk. Courtesy of the author.

NB:  Apple and Knife  is available worldwide and as an ebook, at local currencies.