Indonesian writer Eliza Vitri Handayani talks to Sarah Malik about the challenges of censorship, writing about sex in a conservative society and being a young female writer in a male-dominated literary landscape.
By
Sarah Malik

19 Jan 2018 - 10:42 AM  UPDATED 23 Jan 2018 - 9:04 AM

Eliza Vitri Handayani is the author of 'From Now On Everything Will Be Different' , a novel exploring the lives of young people navigating love, sexuality and freedom in contemporary Indonesian society.

Handayani opens up about the challenges of censorship and tackling taboo themes in Indonesia after the cancellation of her 2015 book launch in a police crackdown on political discussion. She also shares her experiences of harassment in the publishing industry, finding courage as a writer and developing her own voice.   

What's it like being a young female writer in Indonesia? How has the #metoo movement resonated with you? 

It’s a flourishing scene with writers writing about themes and in styles that you couldn’t find just ten years ago. Since democratic reforms in ‘98 we’ve had much more freedom in thinking, writing, and publishing. Thanks to the internet we’ve also been exposed to more work and authors from around the world. Unfortunately in the past several years, censorship is on the rise, with hard-line groups attacking books and events they dislike, sometimes with the support of the police. This fear of attack have led some writers, publishers, and organisations to self-censor or be cautious about what they publish, talk about, or what events they put up.

Censorship is on the rise, with hard-line groups attacking books and events they dislike, sometimes with the support of the police

Many great books from Indonesia are written by women, so on one hand I’m proud to be in the company of really cool female writers. On the other hand, there is a lot of harassment and discrimination.

 When I was starting out, I felt not only did I have to learn how to write, edit my work, submit to various publications. I also had to learn to protect myself against unwanted sexual advances, learn how to say no without offending the ego of the older male writers, and how not to lose heart because the older writers I was supposed to look up to treat me first as a pretty face and only second or third as a writer.

Just because someone is perceptive about a certain subject matter, it doesn’t always mean that they know how to respect women. For example, several times I had to explain the difference between a woman expressing her own sexuality and others using that expression against her.

During research interviews I had been groped or solicited several times. The physical act angered me as much as the realisation that these people didn’t see me as a respectable colleague and didn’t care if they lost my respect. It made me feel less.

Just because someone is perceptive about a certain subject matter, it doesn’t always mean that they know how to respect women.

The rumour mill can also be mean, so mean that at some point I promised to never date anyone connected to the literary scene in Indonesia. It wasn’t a matter of pride, it’s a matter of survival.

 

 

How important is diversity and the role of post-colonial literature in shaping new narratives about our world? Do you see yourself as part of this tradition? 

Diversity is very important, not just in terms of ethnicity or beliefs, but also thoughts, ways of life, and experiences. In publishing and in the media, certain (white, male) perspectives and narratives are still being privileged and others are being ignored and marginalised. The world has not paid enough attention to the voices of minorities.

Our world is so saturated by popular culture, created by nations who have become prosperous thanks to colonialism and now have more means to produce and distribute their cultural products worldwide. It has been like this for a long time, with certain views or narratives normalised so we think something or someone is weird or wrong or unacceptable if they don’t conform to situations portrayed in dominant culture—even though those situations may be specifically Western, hetero-normative, or otherwise biased.

Relationships have more chance of working if the people involved are really honest with themselves in terms of what they want and what fulfills them, instead of being too busy squeezing themselves to conform to the models created by the popular entertainment industry.

Diversity affects something as intimate as our love life, and of course our social and political life. I’d like to think of myself as contributing to more diversity. I guess the narratives I make can be called post-colonial.

I tell myself to be honest, brave, and smart. There are ways to sidestep or overcome censorship – independent publishing, write in English and get published abroad, publish online, perform our work.

 Some time ago I understand you were questioned by Indonesian police and your book launch cancelled. How challenging is it for writers in Indonesia talking about sensitive themes? 

 Balinese police objected to several sessions at Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2015, the year I was supposed to launch my novel. The police objected to political sessions, especially those on the mass murders of 1965 , they wanted all the panels on that theme to be cancelled and they pressed the organisers to do it. The organisers felt they had no choice but to cancel the sessions, including my book launch, which was not about 1965, but was set during and after the student movements in ‘98 which brought down the dictator Soeharto and started the  (post- 1998 political liberalisation of the)  Reformasi era. 

My novel is about a young man and a young woman searching for freedom, not just political freedom, but also freedom from social rules and personal freedom.

I was disappointed that the book launch was cancelled, especially since (Australian writer) Sofie Laguna was going to launch my book and I really admired her writing. I protested the cancellation by printing excerpts of my book on T-shirts and wearing the T-shirts to the festival. 

After ’98 there was a period of euphoria, for a while people were writing and publishing about every subject matter that used to be forbidden, about ’65, about Soeharto and his family’s corruption, sexuality, queer issues. 

Recently some of the progress has been rolled back, because of hardline organisations terrorising publishers, writers, artists, and cultural events. They have large following and very close connections to the police and several politicians, especially those who are keen on bringing back the old structures of power.

On paper we have laws guaranteeing freedom of expression, but there are also laws that restrict free expression, for example the anti-pornography law, blasphemy law, defamation laws and the information and technology law.

 There are also stigma and taboos in society that keep some people from talking about mental health or questioning religious teachings. There are also concerns of angering people in positions of power when writing something that criticises those people, or for example writing about sexual harassment in the community.

 I do have my worries, but I try not to decide what to write based on whether it’s controversial or publishable.

I tell myself to be honest, brave, and smart. There are ways to sidestep or overcome censorship – independent publishing, write in English and get published abroad, publish online, perform our work.

 You talk a lot about sexuality and how it is linked to freedom - how controversial has this been in a Muslim-majority country like Indonesia?

The reactions have been mixed. I’ve heard from people who love the novel, who understand the struggle of the characters, and I really appreciate that. I’ve also heard from others who don’t like it so well.

The publisher of the book that I wrote as a teenager wanted to portray me as a good Muslim girl who wouldn’t go out at night or write about sex, even though that was not me.

They censored scenes where the main female and male characters were holding hands or talking in a room alone. So when FNOEWBD came out, some people thought that I had lost my way or that I was being hypocritical before, but it was because I failed to challenge the censorship then. Now I’m just much more comfortable in speaking up my mind.

It’s also unfortunate that because of the Reformasi setting, many people expected FNOEWBD to be a strictly political novel and were disappointed when they learned that it’s not, but I never intended it to be.

It’s a novel about searching for freedom, and Reformasi is one way for the characters to realise their dreams of living in a free nation, but even after the authoritarian regime fell, we still aren’t free to be who we want to be. How do we get there? Can we ever be? 

So FNOEWBD talks a lot about sex and has a female protagonist who is very free in her sexual life, she’s not craving for love or a stable relationship, and she’s not like men’s plaything, but she’s not a kick-ass femme fatale either.

When people tell you all your life that you’re a source of shame, you’re not a good person, you start to internalise it, so Julita has a lot of self-doubt and self-hatred, and she struggles to overcome that.

Many people here divide women into good girls or bad girls. You make the good girls your girlfriends or wives, who should remain virgins for them to stay good, which means you can only explore your sexual desires with the bad girls.

When people tell you all your life that you’re a source of shame, you’re not a good person, you start to internalise it, so Julita has a lot of self-doubt and self-hatred, and she struggles to overcome that.

Cheating is very common, it’s almost not even cheating, it’s just how we explore our sexual side. Some readers don’t believe me, they actually buy that their boyfriends go home after they drive their girlfriends to their parents’ at 10pm. But it’s true, we go to elaborate lengths to hide our sexual behaviour from our girlfriends, parents, employers, co-workers, or friends from outside the group. We know what’s at stake if we were to be found out—we could destroy relationships, get fired or ostracised. I’ve been thrown out by a landlady or two for bringing a boy home.

Anyway, in the book Julita, the ‘bad’ girl, is not an antagonist, not portrayed as an immoral homewrecker or anything, she’s the protagonist. She represents one way someone can try to break free, Rizky the male protagonist represents another. He gains his freedom by lying to his parents and everyone else, and Julita gains her freedom by leaving her parents’ house and living openly. I think more people are like Rizky than Julita.

We talked about how coming to Bali for UWRF is an odd experience for you - what's it like watching your country become a kind of neo-colonial playground for westerners? 

I know there are places we go to so we can get away from our cares, from ourselves, but we shouldn't be oblivious to the reality around us. Just because we want to forget our troubles, it doesn’t mean there isn’t trouble in the places we visit.

I wish people would be more mindful. Remember that when everything has to be presented nicely and beautifully to outsiders, then it’s harder to see or speak about the things that are not nice and beautiful, such as the hardships suffered by Balinese women. 

I also try to be aware that I come from Jakarta and it has its own privileges. To the outside world we’re just Indonesians, but Indonesians are diverse and some groups, especially the middle-class in Jakarta and Java, are much more privileged than others.

Sometimes we think we can go to Sumba or Kalimantan and tell the stories of the people there, because we’re all Indonesians, but it’s complicated and requires sensitivity.

I didn’t come from a wealthy family, and I’ve been living on my own since 14, but I managed to get a decent education through scholarships, even college scholarship in the US. Now I can join groups of Westerners if I feel like it, and I tell myself I can listen to both worlds, talk to both worlds, and maybe I can use my in-betweenness for something good.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer? 

A part of me always wanted to be a writer, I started writing short stories when I was about eight. I had vivid dreams at night and when I woke up I wrote them down—about being child detectives in cities I’d never been to, going diving or climbing clouds. I wrote longer pieces and novellas in middle school and high school, about ghosts and vampires and gangs and teen secret agents and breaking into secret alien facilities.

I also wanted to be a filmmaker, I even majored in film studies in college. But something happened and I lost faith in myself and didn’t think I had the wherewithal to command an army of film cast and crew, so I concentrated on being a writer, something I can do on my own. But now that I feel stronger I’m putting that filmmaking dream back on the table.

What are your favourite books?

 Mary Gaitskill’s short story collections, Milan Kundera’s novels, Octavio Paz’s The Double Flame, Chairil Anwar’s poems, Anne Sexton’s poems. Don Quixote, Lolita, The Year of Magical Thinking, The Old Man and the Sea.

Recent favourites that come to mind include Mary MacLane’s I Await the Devil’s Coming, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Deborah Emmanuel’s Rebel Rites, Sofie Laguna’s One Foot Wrong, Tupelo Hassman’s Girlchild, and Molly Crabapple’s Drawing Blood.

What’s your writing process like?

I read in the morning and write after lunch. But when I’m really into it, the hours blur and I can be writing all day and all night until I fall asleep. I’d wake up late and do it all again.

Favourite quote? 

 “Force discipline upon madness!” Anne Sexton

 “… the history of love is inseparable from the history of the freedom of women.” Octavio Paz, The Double Flame

What are you working on right now?

A novel about a teenage girl who takes to stalking her father's ex in the search for a powerful role model. She finds no role models in her silent, submissive mother or her womanising, violent father.   

Sarah Malik was a guest of the Ubud Writers and Readers festival 2017.