Bincang Buku (Talking Books) is a series of interviews with authors and translators working in or writing about our close neighbour Indonesia, discussing both their writing practice and issues that matter to Indonesian literature as a whole.Alberta Natasia Adji is currently a doctoral creative writing student at Edith Cowan University, Australia. Her novel and exegesis are concerned with complex ethnic relations in Indonesia, therapeutic and reflective writing. Many of her fiction and scholarly works are concerned with representations of being “the other”. She has published two novels, Youth Adagio (2013) and Dante: The Faery and the Wizard (2014), some short stories in Jawa Pos, an Indonesian national daily newspaper based in Surabaya, and refereed articles in various journals including Atavisme, Paradigma, JAS (Journal of ASEAN Studies), and others. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature and a master’s degree in cultural studies from Universitas Airlangga, Surabaya, Indonesia. Her interests are English literature, cultural studies, film studies, Chinese Indonesian studies, and creative writing studies.Tell me about your early reading life. What were the stories which captured your imagination?
I was 6 years old when I received my very first storybook. It was about Karna, a Wayang (Indonesian puppet) character from the Mahabharata, famous for his status as an illegitimate child of Kunti (the mother of the Pandavas) and close bond with Duryodhana, who makes him king to join the Kauravas (the enemies of the Pandavas). The book was a bonus from a children’s milk brand, and my mother used it to teach me how to read. Although I was really young at that time, I was immediately captivated by the world of Wayang and its complex representations of real life. Growing up, my mother bought me some book series that she liked: The Famous Five by Enid Blyton, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators by Robert Arthur, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and my first comic, Doraemon (by Fujiko Fujio). During my teenage years, I read tons of Japanese coming-of-age mangas (comics) like Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya), Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba, Detective School Q by Fumiya Sato) and contemporary Indonesian comics like Garudayana and Knights of Apocalypse by Is Yuniarto. I read fantasy books: the Harry Potter series, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan, The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale, Dracula, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, and dozens of Agatha Christie’s crime novels.
Later, in the library at Airlangga University in Surabaya, I stumbled upon diaspora literature, such as Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye, Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, and Karma and Other Stories by Rishi Reddi. I also read the classics: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, Anna Karenina, A Farewell to Arms ,The Great Gatsby, Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk by Ahmad Tohari, Nadira and Pulang by Leila Chudori, A Life Beyond Boundaries: A Memoir by Benedict Anderson, The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, and the three memoirs by Chinese Indonesian author Audrey Yu Jia Hui: Patriot, Mellow Yellow Drama, and Mencari Sila Kelima, which prompted my Master’s thesis. There were other books that I read, but all in all, these works practically taught me everything about people and life.
How about your writing journey – was there a certain point when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
I wrote some short stories when I was 6 or 7 (my mother still kept them), but it was the tenth grade that changed everything. The choice was either to take the science or social program. I knew I wanted to study literature at university, but my father wanted me to have a safety net, so I chose science. It was two years of torture in high school (I hate trigonometry and algorithms!), but during those two years, my father challenged me to write stories to get published. My fifth attempt at short stories succeeded; it was entitled Delman Pak Kusno (“Mr Kusno’s Buggy”) published by Jawa Pos, and another one by the same newspaper, Jangan Semudah itu Menyerah (“Don’t You Give Up that Easily”). During the four months of waiting for high school graduation and university acceptance in 2012, I wrote my first coming-of-age novel, Youth Adagio, which was published the next year. And, during my fourth semester when I was struggling with bullying, I turned to write a fantasy novel, Dante: The Faery and the Wizard for comfort, which was published the following year. To escape the daily pressures of university, I also composed short stories, with 6 either winning or being nominated in the annual English department short story competition. I was also twice appointed to be the scriptwriter for the annual English department drama performance at the Faculty of Humanities, Universitas Airlangga, in 2014 and 2015.
You seem to have long had a remarkable drive to write. You are in the process of writing an autobiographical work. Can you tell me about the experiences you are examining in this, and your motivations for revisiting them through writing?
It focuses mostly on the representation of three generations of a middle-class Chinese Indonesian family, which is my family on my mother’s side, starting from 1960 to 2018, when my late grandmother opened up a small restaurant and having had to struggle in balancing life in Surabaya, then my mother’s struggle in raising the children, and then my own experience of studying at a public university and interacting with peers and colleagues with different cultural and religious background for over six years. My motivations for writing it are, first, to remember the ups and downs that we have gone through – so it is a tribute to my family – and second, as for myself, I only wish to tell my side of the story.
The experience of the Chinese diaspora in Indonesia is a complex one, in parts troubled and traumatic. As a Chinese-Indonesian woman, how do you view and relate to your country of birth in light of this history?
I’m certainly going to talk about this in my work, and I would like to create a narrative that shows an intersection between personal and collective history, filled with the complex situations in Indonesia. I recently stumbled upon Rani Pramesti’s (a Chinese-Indonesian actor and performance maker who lives in Melbourne) online graphic novel The Chinese Whispers, which she made as a remembrance and prayer of the May 1998 Riots. Her graphic novel includes interview excerpts with Dewi Anggraeni, a Chinese-Indonesian writer and scholar who also lives in Melbourne, who interestingly says that despite being traumatised and troubled following the 1998 riot, many Chinese-Indonesians still behave in a manner that undermines the pribumi or Native Indonesians, thus reinforcing the old stereotypes. That’s why the hatred still exists, and it is still used to incite fear and resentment in the majority Muslim and non-Chinese populations. I’ve always been aware of this, given my intense interaction with my friends during my undergraduate and postgraduate studies. Thus, I’ve been trying to be really mindful with my words and attitude everywhere I go. I’ve sincerely wanted to befriend them and learn about their cultural and religious traditions, since I find them to be really humbling. My six years of intensely studying and working in a public university were a rare privilege for any Chinese-Indonesian woman; after observing and interacting with a lot of people who were different from me, I finally have had a very clear idea of why all the violence and prejudice are still there. These are the things that I am trying to address in my novel.
That’s an excellent point you highlight about the nuanced nature of ethnic dynamics, and the importance of being respectful, open-minded and curious in bridging divides and breaking down stereotypes. You are now living and writing right here in Perth. How has living abroad, and more specifically in Perth, influenced your creative practice?
So far, it has been adventurous and life-changing. In a way, the quiet nature of Perth allows me to have more freedom to think and talk about things that are probably too sensitive back home. My supervisors, lecturers, and friends have been really understanding and accommodating; they provide me with a lot of brand new ideas, books, and other creative input on how to improve my writing voice and style. They give me room to think about my work at such a deep level. I think I have become a bit more fluid in creating a nice flow of narrative writing, and more open to new possibilities. I’m currently in the process of experimenting with my narrative voice.
I’m really glad to hear you’ve had a positive experience here in that sense. Beyond what we’ve touched on in terms of your work and practice, what does the future hold for you as an author and member of the Western Australian community?
I would like to become an academic and an author in the immediate future. I enjoy writing and teaching, so I can educate and share knowledge with people, particularly through literature and critical thinking. I’m also very curious by nature, thus I easily find things to study and pursue.
Iven Manning is a scholar of Indonesian studies and linguistics. He is interested in language, ikat textiles, meaningful engagement between Australians and Indonesians and, last but not least, sport.