In 'Apple and Knife', Indonesian women fight for their rightful place in a patriarchal society and taboos such as sex, death and violence meet incisive critique.
By
Shirley Le

4 Apr 2018 - 1:46 PM  UPDATED 19 Apr 2018 - 11:00 AM

As a second generation, Vietnamese-Australian woman from Western Sydney, I grew up watching bootleg Disney movies on VHS and played with bootleg Barbie Dolls that my parents bought from the Hot Dollar store in Bankstown.

The heroines that I saw on stages, screens and in books were mostly white and they lived in European castles awaiting their prince charming. I longed to be one of them so much that one Christmas, I sticky-taped strips of gold tinsel into my hair and sung to the grotty pigeons at Yagoona Station. I imagined that I was Aurora in Sleeping Beauty with long blonde curls cascading down my back.

South-East Asian women like the women in my family with strong shoulders, caramel skin and muscular legs were nowhere to be seen. Stories written by South-East Asian women did not make it onto the bookshelves in my local library and the reading lists prescribed at school. And yet, in a suburb in Western Sydney called Yagoona, I was living among Wogs, Lebs, Fobs and Gooks. The only time I saw us on TV was in 2006, when a fellow Gook got stabbed at the illegal brothel named ‘Purple Rain’ across the road. 

This is why Indonesian author Intan Paramaditha’s collection of short stories Apple and Knife (Brow Books, 2018), which was recently launched in Sydney, is a much needed contribution to Australian literature.

Cinderella or should I say, Sinderelat, is no longer the soft spoken ingénue waiting to be rescued and her sisters are no longer the ugly, two-dimensional villains that we have been taught to revile. 

As a woman of colour, Intan subverts the white fairytales that dominated my childhood and warped my consciousness as an adolescent. In the first story of the collection, ‘The Blind Woman Without a Toe’, the well-known storyline of Cinderella is turned on its head. Cinderella or should I say, Sinderelat, is no longer the soft spoken ingénue waiting to be rescued and her sisters are no longer the ugly, two-dimensional villains that we have been taught to revile. 

There are eleven stories in Apple and Knife that were published in Indonesia between 2005-2010 and one unpublished story. The stories are set in the Indonesian everyday, in urban cities with modern aspirations, in villages and on dangdut stages. Each story is a snapshot of what it is like to live as an Indonesian woman in a fast moving global Indonesia from 2005 onwards.  

The women in these stories are not to be silenced or taken for granted. Their anger, passion and agency is startling, provocative and complex. They evade the reductive labels of mother, wife, virgin, whore placed on them by the patriarchy that surrounds them and threatens to suffocate them.  

There’s Mara in the story titled ‘Blood’, she is an office worker at an advertising agency, trying to brainstorm ideas on how to sell menstruation pads. On the surface, she appears to be a ‘modern’ career woman who is sitting alongside male colleagues. However, during a meeting where ideas are brainstormed, her colleagues speak of periods as if they are a disgusting, unnatural condition. Intan writes, ‘But I am a fish trapped in an aquarium. My gaze penetrates the glass, but keeps getting refracted in the process.’ 

This shift in the feminist movement highlights the importance of championing literature by women from Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse communities in Australia. 

The stories of feminist power are still relevant in 2018, particularly at a time when we are witnessing women around the world express their hurt, anger and hope for change through campaigns such as #MeToo, which was started by Tarana Burke, a woman of colour.

We are also witnessing a call for feminism to be intersectional by including women of colour in the cause. The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, another woman of colour. In a 2017 interview with Huffington Post, Professor Crenshaw stated, ‘We might have to broaden our scope of how we think about where women are vulnerable, because different things make different women vulnerable.’ This shift in the feminist movement highlights the importance of championing literature by women from Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse communities in Australia. 

In Apple and Knife, Indonesian women fight for their rightful place in a patriarchal society. Taboos such as sex, death and violence meet incisive critique. Norms are subverted and at times, we are not sure who is the predator and who is the prey. Australian readers will have the opportunity to understand a country that we are so geographically close to, yet we only hear about in news reports that are curated by a predominantly white media culture.  

Shirley Le is a Vietnamese-Australian writer from Yagoona. She is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and is the recipient of a 2017 WestWords CAL Western Sydney Writers' Fellowship.

The article is part of a collaborative series by SBS Life and Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement which is devoted to empowering groups and individuals from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds through training and employment in creative and critical writing initiatives. Sweatshop is directed by Michael Mohammed Ahmad.