ABUSIVE POWER IN MACBETH AND THE LEGEND OF KEN AROK: A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS OF AN ELIZABETHAN DRAMA AND A JAVANESE FOLKLORE

                    Shakespeare’s plays introduce us to the idea that tyranny is “a perpetual political and human problem rather than a historical curiosity” (McGrail 1). This suggests that the play is only a representation of the real political world around the globe, whether it is in England during Shakespeare’s time or in pre-Indonesian era. With this is mind, it is interesting to note the many similarities between Macbeth, which is just a play, and the legend of Ken Arok during Singosari kingdom in the twelfth century.

                   To begin with, let us take a brief look at the legend of Ken Arok. The legend is found in Pararaton, a chronicle of kings, which was written in the 15th century. Ken Arok was the first king of Singosari in 1222, the founder of Rajasa dynasty, which represents the lineage of the kings of Singosari and Majapahit. Majapahit itself was the first powerful Javanese kingdom whose influence spread around what is nowadays Indonesia.  The story of Ken Arok is a mixture of fantasy and reality <http://www.jawapalace.org/kenarok.html&gt;. This online source will be the reference used in the discussion of the legend, unless mentioned otherwise. To most Indonesian students, Ken Arok is a well-known tragedy of a usurper that remains to be told in history classes. In relation to political situation in Indonesia, he represents a real Machiavelist in Indonesian government. Commenting on the never-ending political instability in Indonesia, Christianto Wibisono, a well-known Indonesian political analyst even uses the term ‘Ken Arokism’ instead of Machiavelism in his criticism of wicked politicians whom he blames being responsible for high rate of corruption <http://www.indomedia.com/bpost/9901/25/ekbis/ekbis7.htm>.

                   The many similarities between Macbeth and Ken Arok start from the prophetic events that drive them to gain power. Both are told about the prophecy or vision of their future sovereignity. Both pursue their power in an illegitimate way, by killing the true ruler. Both stories involve the taking of several lives. Both also need scapegoats to hide their crime. Both have to see their power taken over by the true heir and meet their fate in death.

                   In terms of their reaction to the events prophesying their future power, Macbeth and Ken Arok represent those people who choose to conduct evil deeds to fulfill their ambition. Macbeth is at first a noble fellow. It is not until he listens to evil suggestion that he changes into a brutish and selfish seeker of power and status.

                   First witch : “All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis.

                   Second witch : All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor.

                   Third witch : All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter! (1.3. 46-48).

Meanwhile, Banquo gets a better prophecy. The third witch says, “Thou shalt get kings, though thou shall be none” (1.3. 65).

                   Macbeth’s noble nature is shown as he has mixed feeling about the prophecy.

“This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill, / Why hath it given me earnest of success, … If good, why do I yield to that suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair …Against the use of nature…If chance will make me king, why, chance may crown me / Without my stir” (1.3. 129-136, 143).

                   While Macbeth is basically a noble man, Ken Arok is as notorious as he can be. Raised by a thief, Ken Arok is predestined to be a king and the father of kings. In other words, he is luckier than Macbeth in that he possesses both the prophecy of Macbeth and Banquo. It is told that three gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Syiva claim to be his father. Interestingly enough, Ken Arok identifies himself with Syiva, the god of destruction. There are various stories about the prophecy. One prevailing belief is that Ken Dedes, the wife of Tunggul Ametung, the king of Tumapel, a small kingdom where Ken Arok works as a guard, possesses an aura of wisdom and power, and whoever marries her will be a king and the father of kings.

                   Can we mix prophecy and truth? Those who believe in the prophecy may have found some truth in it, and use the truth to justify their means. Banquo realizes the danger of believing in the prophecy. “And oftentimes to win us to our harm / The instruments of darkness tell us truths, / Win us with honest trifles to betray’s / In deepest consequence.” (1.3.121-24). However, Macbeth falls into the temptation. For Macbeth’s promotion to occur, the current king, Duncan, would have to be kicked out. Macbeth also understands that his crime will not end with Duncan’s death. The matter now is whether one is willing to control his mind to resist the temptation or is ready to bear greater risk for the sake of his goal. Macbeth belongs to the latter category. “If th’assassination / Could trammel up the consequence, and catch / With his surcease success: that but this blow / Might be the be-all and the end-all, here, / But here upon this bank and shoal of time, / We’d jump the life to come” (1.7. 2-7).

                   In terms of the illegitimate way Macbeth gains his power, he can be considered a tyrant, as Macduff defines it. “Bleed, bleed, poor country! /Great tyranny, lay thou thy basis sure, For goodness dare not check thee! wear thou thy wrongs; The title is affeer’d! Fare thee well, Lord: / I would not be the villain that thou think’st / For the whole space that’s in the tyrant’s grasp, And the rich East to boot” (4.3. 32-37). Malcolm’s definition of tyranny is clearer in that Macbeth’s virtues have given way to abusive power. “This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongue, / Was once thought honest…A good and virtuous name may recoil / In an imperial charge” (4.3. 12-13, 20).

                   McGrail argues that Macbeth does not really fit in Malcom’s description of tyranny. His desire is only simple, he wants to be loved and be honored (37). It is not really correct. Although his desire may be as simple as that, the path he takes shows that he is willing to sacrifice everything to achieve his ambition. His demand to have his question answered by the three witches proves his determination.

                   Though you untie the winds and let them fight

                   Against the churches, though the yeasty waves

                   Confound and swallow navigation up,

                   Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down,

                   Though castle topple on their warder’s heads,

                   Though palaces and pyramids do slope

                   Their heads to their foundations, though the treasure

                   Of nature’s germens tumble all together

                   Even till destruction sickens, answer me

                   To what I ask you. (4.1. 68-76).

                   Ken Arok shares Macbeth strong determination. To him, it is apparent that marrying Ken Dedes would open the possibility of gaining the power. As Macbeth does, he also needs to get rid of the true ruler. Here is the most famous part of the legend. First, he has to kill Tunggul Ametung. He then orders a keris, Javanese double-edged sword, to Mpu Gandring, a keris master. At the appointed time, the keris is not finished yet. Enraged, Ken Arok kills Mpu Gandring with the unfinished keris. Just before he dies, Mpu Gandring curses Ken Arok that the keris will take seven lives of kings, including Ken Arok himself. In Javanese history, the keris is known as Keris Mpu Gandring.

                   Different from Macbeth who is controlled by Lady Macbeth, Ken Arok is an expert in political strategy. He has a fellow soldier, Kebo Ijo, as the scapegoat. He lends the keris to Kebo Ijo, who proudly shows the keris in public so that everybody thinks he is the owner. One night, Ken Arok steals the keris and kills Tunggul Ametung, leaving the keris in Tunggul Ametung’s body. The rest is clear; Kebo Ijo is prosecuted while Ken Arok picks the ripe fruit. He becomes the king of Tumapel and marries Ken Dedes.

                   The existence of scapegoat seems to be significant in clearing the path to power. Here we find another difference between Ken Arok and Macbeth. It is never told whether Ken Arok actually suffers from guilt. He carefully plans to put Kebo Ijo as the scapegoat to clear his path without any suspicion. Meanwhile, Macbeth needs scapegoats not only to cover his crime of murdering Duncan, but also to be free from guilty feelings. He does not really plan on killing the guards, but Lady Macbeth warns him of his awkwardness that might reveal his crime. Because Macbeth worships his self-esteem and selfish rights and desires, he eventually forgets his virtue. Macbeth tells the others that he has killed the guards of Duncan’s chamber. “O, yet I do repent me of my fury / That I did kill them” (2.3. 103).

                    That power is abusive is clear as Macbeth wants to prevent Banquo from having his prophecy put into reality. Macbeth wants his descendants, rather than Banquo’s, to be kings. The only way is to get rid of Banquo.

                   Then, prophet-like, / They hailed him father to a line of kings. / Upon my head        they placed a fruitless crown,…No son of mine succeeding. If’t be so, / For          Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind…Given to the common enemy of man / To            make them kings, the seeds of Banquo kings. / Rather than so, come fate into the                    list / And champion me to th’ utterance” (3.1. 60-73).

Banquo’s murder triggers Macbeth’s guilt, yet does not prevent him from taking more life to maintain his throne. The murder of innocent family of Macduff shows that Macbeth puts the security of his reign over honor. He is a Machiavellist, in that he fits to Machiavelli’s political strategy which states that security should be put first in cases in which security is in conflict with honor (Viroli 91).

                   While the successive killing puts Banquo as the third victim with the motive of preventing his prophecy to happen, the successive murder in the legend of Ken Arok is the realization of Mpu Gandring’s curse. This is a story of never-ending revenge that accompanies Ken Arok’s story of success and imperialism. History mentions that he annexed the neighboring kingdom and established a new one, the kingdom of Singosari in 1222. This new kingdom would later produce kings of Majapahit, the most powerful Javanese kingdom in the 13th century. The legend tells that the keris takes Ken Arok’s life in the hands of Tunggul Ametung’s son, Anusapati. Then, Ken Arok’s son’s revenge follows, and so on. After taking so many lives, Ranggawuni, Anusapati’s son, who murdered Tohjaya, Ken Arok’s son, realizes that the keris has brought and will bring more chaos and death. So it is thrown away to Java sea, and becomes a dragon.

                   Both Macbeth and Ken Arok are Machiavellists, and both are defeated by the legitimate power. Anusapati, the true heir of Tunggul Ametung, gains his sovereignity after taking revenge of his father’s death. Malcolm gains the throne he deserves as the true heir of Duncan with the help of Macduff. Macduff himself has his own motive of revenge as well as his intention to fight against a tyrant when he slains Macbeth. “Then yield thee, coward, / And live to be the show and gaze o’th’ time. / We’ll have thee as our rarer monster, Painted upon a pole, and underwrit / ‘Here may you see the tyrant” (5.11. 24-27).     

                   Macduff’s speech suggests that Macbeth serves as an example of tyranny to the world. This works for Ken Arok too. While many interpretations state that the legend of Ken Arok and Ken Dedes is a mere fiction, it is actually a reflection of the mindsets and ideological contestations in Indonesia. The era of Singasari and Majapahit marks the end of Hinduism in East Java and witnesses the beginning of Islamic era in Javanese history.   These can be regarded as palimpsests of Indonesian history, which have continued to give shape and colour to Indonesian cultural and political life to date. Pramudya Ananta Toer, an internationally-recognized Indonesian author, yet the victim of severe political discrimination at home, has a troubling view of the first two presidents of Indonesia. In his writing “My Apologies, in the name of Experience”, translated by Alex G. Bardsley, he puts Ken Arok in the body of Suharto, the second president of Indonesia who ruled for thirty two years, and Mpu Gandring was incarnated in the body of Sukarno, the first president <http://www.radix.net/~bardsley/apolog.html&gt;. 

                   However, Barbara Reibling argues that Macbeth is not really a Machiavelli’s  ideal prince. His biggest flaw is his reluctance to have a total commitment to “the course of wrongdoings, besides his inability to dissimulate” (280). The problem with her interpretation is that she intends to say whether one is an ideal Machiavellist, whereas the concept of Machiavelli itself entails a room for wrongdoings. It is clear that that a Machiavelli should be willing to be a real evil, with no guilt at all. Maurizio Viroli points out that, for Machiavelli, a good citizen should be prepared to do evil, or what is considered to be evil, to save the country. Yet, his writings also imply “the willingness to grand deeds, and even to waste one’s life, one’s soul” (8). Riebling’s case is right in proving Macbeth as a normal human being with conscience, her strict use of Machiavellian standards is debatable. Judging from his strength, courage, and willingness to commit evil, I would argue that Macbeth is a Machiavellist. He understands that power is abusive, knows what is good and evil, but chooses evil anyway. That is why he deserves the destruction at the end of the play. I agree with Macduff and Christianto Wibisono that Macbeth and Ken Arok  are examples of dirty politicians, and that the world  should learn from their fate in order that we can play a clean government.                              

 

                                                           WORKS CITED

“Adu Domba demi Status Quo.” www.indomedia.com/bpost/9901/25/ekbis/ekbis7.htm. 18 April 2003.

Ananta Toer, Pramudya. “My Apologies, in the Name of Experience.” November 1991. 18 April 2003. <http://www.radix.net/~bardsley/apolog.html&gt;.

 “Ken Arok.” 18 April 2003. <http://www.jawapalace.org/kenarok.html>.

McGrail, Mary Ann. Tyranny in Shakespeare. Lanham: Lexington, 2001.

Riebling, Barbara. “Virtues’s Sacrifice: A Machiavellian Reading of Macbeth.” Studies in English Literature (Rice) 31 (1991): 273-87. 

Viroli, Maurizio. Machiavelli. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

Advertisements

Learning from Differences

This is a piece I wrote ten years ago, when I was still studying in Texas. I just thought it would still matter today.

When Katrine, a classmate in my Literary Scholarship class, emailed me and invited me to her book club to talk about Islam, the religion I have known since I was born, I asked myself, “Am I the right person for this, is my knowledge of it sufficient to make me a representative of the its greatness?” I am away from home, and the political situation of the world is not conducive, plus I would have to talk about Islam before an American audience. Would it not be too sensitive? However, I did not give it a second thought, so I said yes.

The book club discussion I was going to attend was scheduled to talk about a book written by Bruce Feiler, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. The book unfolds a journey of a truth seeker, one who has long been troubled by conflicts between groups that use religion to justify their actions. In a very interesting narrative style, the author, an American Jew (or a Jewish American), found the figure of Abraham (the Prophet Ibrahim Allaihissalam in Islam) as the unifying figure in the history of monotheistic traditions, namely Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The thought brought him back to his ancestral place, Jerusalem, which is considered a holy city by the three monotheistic religions. This is a place in which the religious life is colored with harmony and sentiment at the same time. In details, the book is quite troubling to me, and there are a number of points I cannot agree. However, the message is amazingly clear, that it is much better to reach agreement on the commonalities than to let conflicts go on due to the differences we have been arguing for so long.

I drowned myself in books on comparative religions and tried to make full use of the internet for almost a week. To get better prepared, I even carefully checked the Holy Qur’an to find the verses that tell about prophet Ibrahim, Musa (Moses), Isa (Jesus) and Muhammad. I called friends and relatives whom I consider more knowledgeable about the Qur’an, and I really anticipated to get some sensitive questions. But I finally decided to just “speak and act normally” and tried to do my best. So I went, armed with my Qur’an, the interpretation of the Qur’an in English, my praying mat, and praying gown. Katrine told me earlier that the members of the club had never seen what the Qur’an looked like and how a Muslim performed a prayer.

Never imagine that the forum I was about to attend would be an academic forum. It is “simply” a book club of about 35 women, although fewer really attended that afternoon. All of them belong to the high class of the society. Well, I just found out about this when Katrine and I reached the hostess’ residence in the southwestern part of Austin. I would not call it a house, but rather a mansion–Hollywood-like. It is located at side of a cliff, with a stunning view of a forest and luxurious houses, and a creek flowing down the valley. To be honest, I had never been in such a beautiful house before. One by one, the members arrived. They are beautiful ladies, casually yet classy dressed. (This reminded me of those celebrities we often see on TV). I smiled to myself as I looked at what I was wearing that afternoon. Compared to them, I looked so simple in a flowered blouse, a white veil, and black pants I often wore in class to teach, not to mention my sport shoes that did not match at all. Thank God I did not wear a T-shirt, otherwise I would have embarrassed myself.

Deep inside I asked myself. Who are these beautiful ladies? Through our conversation and discussion I began to know who they were. To borrow Katrine’s words, “they come from various walks of life.” I had a chance to speak with Joanne, who earned her PhD in American Studies from UT Austin. I sat next to a lady whose husband is an executive at IBM, and there are some who know President Bush’s family personally. This is really amazing. Don’t get it wrong though. They are very friendly and down-to-earth. Katrine, my classmate, is so friendly, and she drove all the way from Austin to San Marcos, and took me back home. I just knew also that she is a successful businesswoman, and her husband is an executive who takes care of Lake Austin management. I was actually surprised when we dropped by at her husband’s office at the side of Lake Austin. At that point, I was still in the stage of hoping to be able to see the lake. Pak Joko, the chairman of the English Department at Surabaya State University, where I teach, recommended this place before I left for the US, and he himself spent almost 2 years studying at UT. What about the other members? In general, I have to say I really felt comfortable among them. I could feel their sincerity as they were asking me about myself, my family and my beloved country, Indonesia.

The discussion finally started, and Katrine opened the talk and introduced me, and mentioned that Indonesia is a country with the biggest muslim population in the world (I was not really surprised to see that everybody was surprised). Then she invited everybody to ask and comment on the book. Guess what happened? In about an hour I was bombarded with various questions about Islam from the very basic things. There was huge curiosity about my belief in the Hereafter, how a prayer is performed, why there should be a separation between men and women in prayers, whether the Qur’an sets an obligation for Muslim women to wear veils, how we communicate with God, whether Islam believed in reincarnation. There were also questions concerning the book we were discussing, such as how Islam views Ibrahim, Musa, Jesus, and how Muslims believe that prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is the seal of the prophets. Of course, I expected people to ask about terrorism and jihad from Islamic point of view.

An hour was just too short to satisfy everybody, but I tried my best to explain the basic concept of Islam, the Five Pillars of Islam and the Six Beliefs. It was not that easy to explain when it comes to religious differences, but I just thought I had to be frank and honest. For example, Jesus is considered one of Islam’s greatest prophets, but he is not the Son of God. He is just a Messenger of God, just like the other prophets. Also, Muslims believe that it was Ismail, not Isaac, who was sacrificed by prophet Ibrahim. There was also a troubling question: “If I die tomorrow as a non-muslim, will I go to hell?” Hmm, that was tough. I told them that Islam requires not only faith in the Oneness of God, but also the implementation of the faith in everyday lives. We should pray, observe fasting, and maintain good relationship with other people. Or, let’s say that as a Muslim, I believe that Islam is the true path, and the rest of us would see their religion that way too. However, only God can judge whether somebody would go to heaven or hell, and no single person could judge others’ deeds. As a human being, we have an obligation to really seek the truth and follow it steadfastly. That way only can we find peace and hope for eternal happiness in the Afterlife. A lady sitting next to me said, ”Gee, that’s scary to talk about death.” Well, it is just so natural to think of death as a frightening moment. All I can say is that, in relation to the topic of the day, prophet Ibrahim has taught us to submit totally to God and to be willing to sacrifice what we have for God’s cause. As the grandchildren of Ibrahim, we should follow his teaching, and the Qur’an itself says that God commanded prophet Muhammad to teach us to follow the teachings of prophet Ibrahim. This is much better than quarrelling about who was sacrificed, Isaac or Ismail?

Concerning the five-time prayers or shalat, some comments were brought up. “So you don’t get to rest?,” “it is really a good way of teaching about discipline,” “can Muslims leave shalat?,” “do you perform those prayers too?,” and “are there Muslims who do not pray?” Those were common questions, and I totally understand. Even in lectures given in mosques, the ulama (muslim scholars) keep reminding people never to leave shalat. I was even asked to show them an example of shalat performance, what to say during the prayer. I showed them the Qur’an and read the translation of the opening chapter of the Qur’an, Sura Al-Fatihah. When I was performing the prayer, I had to wear my praying gown (mukena), and this invited a question, “do men also wear mukena to pray?,” “if not, why?” At this point too, I was very touched when a lady, who apparently studies the Bible a lot, and whose babysitter is a muslim, said that being close to God and keeping our remembrance of God every day will really bring peace to our life.

Islam, jihad, and terrorism? Why were there people who committed suicide bombing and used religion for justification? This is a question that has been frequently brought up since the 9/11 attack. Yet, this is the world we are living now, and many of us still have problems understanding it. Neither do I. I never intended to take side, and reminded them of the Crusades that took place with more or less the same reason. I personally believe that jihad does not necessarily mean killing others to defend our faith. I happened to bring a book called A brief and illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam. This simple book mentions that Islam condemns terrorism, and those involved in it will be punished in the Afterlife for having killed innocent people, because they have violated Islamic law. I was not sure whether my answer satisfied everybody present in the discussion, but I just tried to make a point that jihad actually means we attempt to spread the message of Islam peacefully and never force others in matters of religion. Chapter two of the Qur’an, Sura Al-Baqarah: 256 mentions that there should be no compulsion in religion. I specifically said this when somebody asked me about the existence of missionaries in Islam.

Our interesting dialog was not a dialog on theology. Somehow, everybody had already anticipated that differences in religious concepts would appear (Unfortunately, we did not have a representative of Judaism). After the discussion was over, some stayed a little longer and continued the discussion. A lady told me about the concept of God in Christianity, and asked whether the Qur’an was written by people just as the Bible was written by some apostles. She found it interesting to know that there is only one Qur’an written in Arabic, revealed by God to Muhammad. The content has remained the same for 14 centuries, since the time it was revealed, and it is the Muslim’s obligation to understand the meaning.

I totally understand that our dialog is nothing compared to those interfaith dialogs conducted by scholars of different religions in the aftermath of 9/11. However, I was glad to know that those present in the discussion felt that they gained more understanding of Islam. I felt their sincerity to accept the fact that, indeed, there are differences. Their enthusiasm has taught me that understanding can be gained through our efforts to know about the differences.

When everybody thanked me, I was really touched. They should have known that I was the one who had to thank them. I was really grateful to have been given such a wonderful opportunity to share ideas with them. As I looked back to my country, I was reminded of our way of life, or rather, my way of life, how we have taken so many things for granted. Have we ever asked ourselves whether we really seek the truth from the main source, our Holy Qur’an? I don’t think so. After all, everybody knows how to pray, and even our non-Muslim neighbors are familiar the adzan, the call to prayer sent from a nearby mosque five times a day. Or, have we grown insensitive and not realized that difference could actually be discussed? We have not really talked about differences, have we, because we tend to avoid conflict? When I can no longer hear the adzan from a nearby mosque, when people begin to give me a lot of “whys” about Islam, I realized that I really have to look inside myself before I can make people understand what I believe.

I am not a public figure. I am just a struggling graduate student, still trying hard to manage my soul and mind. I may not represent the majority of Muslims in my country, and maybe, my new friends I just met in the discussion are not really the representatives of America. But, at least, we have learned to listen to each other, ask each other, and hopefully can understand each other better. The fact that there are differences actually has taught us: we agree to disagree. What a beautiful earth it will be if only differences can bring us close together. Does everybody feel the same way too?

 

San Marcos, TX; January 9, 2003

Themes in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple

The Color Purple voices a theme of the silencing of women’s voice. Celie represents many other women who are forced to keep their voice unheard in the man’s world. The novel unfolds with silence, “You better not tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy” and continues several lines later, “He start to choke me, saying you better shut up and get used to it” (3). These lines suggest that Alphonso, Celie’s stepfather, forbids her to talk about sexual assault.  Moreover, he labels Celie as an ugly girl who “tell lies” (10) and “too dumb to keep going to school” (11), and justifies his opinion by referring to her teacher, Miss Beasley, who runs off at the mouth so much no man would have her” (11). Thus, Alphonso not only thinks that Celie’s voice is not worth listening, but also tries to cut her off from the society she lives in.

Albert takes Alphonso’s place as the agent of silencing as Celie enters his family life. Celie’s calling Albert as Mr. ____ suggests that she is denied access to the man’s world. A more significant example is illustrated by his denial of female network as he prevents Nettie and Celie from corresponding after Nettie rejected his lustful move. This denial of communication is symbolized by Albert’s hiding Nettie’s letters. One of the letters also proves the silencing, as Nettie writes,“He said because of what’d done I’d never heard from you again” (107).

The man’s world which is represented by Alphonso and Albert denies Celie’s voice, and she has to keep herself from insanity by writing to God. Up to a certain point in the story, this is her relief that would later lead her to the breaking of silence to articulation, as she writes, “long as I can spell G-o-d I got somebody along” (18). Yet, reliance to God is not enough, and later Celie learns to fight to make herself heard with the help of female network.

The Color Purple is also a story about women’s network. This network provides Celie with women like Nettie, Sofia, and Shug Avery, from whom she learns to break her silence and to fight. Nettie keeps telling her to fight, “You got to let them know who got the upper hand” (17). One of Nettie’s letter continues telling her “to fight and get away from Albert. He ain’t no good” (107). Yet, Celie only knows how to stay alive. She questions whether Nettie is saying the right thing, while reality tells her differently, and she tries to justify her silence by saying, “I think bout Nettie, dead. She fight, she run awayI don’t fight, But I’m alive” (21).

So far, Celie’s justification is not challenged, for Nettie is no longer around. Yet, the reliance to the Old Maker whenever she is beaten up is now challenged by Sofia’s outspokenness. Sofia thinks differently, probably saying that reliance to God is not enough, “You ought to bash Mr. ___ head open, think about heaven later” (39). Sofia affirms Nettie’s position by providing a real example of a woman has to fight all her life and will not die for love. She says, “ I loves HarpoGod know I do. But I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me” (30).

Shug Avery, whose “mouth just pack with claws” (45), continue threading the network. Shug dares to yell at Albert, “I don’t need no weak little boyI need me a man” (43). Celie knows now that Albert can be defeated only if she dares to open her mouth, and that is how she does her first fight as she talks back to her husband, “You a low downdog is what’s wrong. It’s time to leave you and enter into the Creation. And your dead body just the welcome mat I need” (170).

This female network proves as building support for women in hard times. Only by having a sense of belonging to community can women now grow strong and finally find their own selves, as Celie finds her independence going back to her own house and have a job of her own.

Celie’s struggle to find her whole self with the help of female network is symbolized by sewing, itself representing women’s work. As it functions, sewing involves threading and needling which bring pieces of cloth together to form a union. At the beginning of the story, Celie seems to collect her pieces as she meets a beautiful woman with a little girl who looks like her baby Olivia. Celie introduces us to the first embroidery of stars and flowers she made for the baby and the cloth the woman bought at the store (14). These are the pieces of life that Nettie helps gathering for Celie, as Nettie tries to bring Corrine into her conversation with Celie at the store by finding a quilt that has squares from the dress material Corrine bought that day. She writes, “Do you remember buying this cloth. I asked, pointing to a flowered square. And what about this checkered bird” (159).

In spite of her silence, Celie subconsciously finds her self as she feels just right for the first time when she is quilting. The quilt also builds connection between her and Sofia as they work on it (53), with Shug as she contributes her dress for scraps. At least, there is one thing now that makes her important in front of Shug, because she is the one who shows Shug the art of needlework when she asks, “How you sew this damn thing?” (51).

Celie’s independence is represented by her new occupation as a seamstress, and this suggests that she finally achieves her wholeness. It is interesting to note here that Celie specializes in folkspants, which symbolize mobility. Even the advertisement has a lot to say, “Folkspants, Unlimited /Sugar Avery Drive / Memphis, Tennessee” (182). Celie has turned into a mobile woman, as she starts the business after leaving Albert’s house to a female space. Thus, Celie proves that a woman can be mobile and independent without leaving her female sphere.

GHOSTS, THE HAUNTING PAST AND PRESENT IN MAXINE HONG KINGSTON’S THE WOMAN WARRIOR AND TONI MORRISON’S BELOVED

Not many people want to see ghost, but ironically like to tell ghost stories over and over again. Terrible memories of the past are just like ghost stories, we do not want them to happen, but keep remembering and retell them throughout the present life. This irruption of past into the present is one common theme we can trace in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In these two works, the ghosts of the past entrap the characters’ present life and give them hard times before they can free themselves to enter the future.

The Woman Warrior consists of stories full of ghosts throughout the entire work. The ghosts can be divided into two sets. The first set of ghosts belongs to Chinese legends, folktales and nostalgic events of family life. As early as the first part entitled “No Name Woman”, we have been introduced to the narrator’s aunt who belongs to the invisible world like the world of ghost. The narrator’s mother keeps reminding her, “Don’t tell anybody, what I am about to tell you” (3). As the title suggests, the aunt will not bear any name due to her suspected adultery. She drowns herself and takes the baby with her because she sees no better choice but to commit suicide because her adulterous affair and the baby girl will not be forgiven by her male-dominated society. The narrator recalls the memory about the aunt, who might have been aware of the cloudy future that her child will face. To her, there would be no hope for her child with a “no name” mother, as she would bear no name either. The narrator imagines what her aunt may have thought: “But how would this tiny child without family find her grave when there would be no marker for her anywhere, neither in the earth nor the family hall? …A child with no decent line would not soften her life but only trail after her, ghostlike, begging to give it purpose” (15). Thus, both the aunt and the baby remain as ghosts bearing no names. The narrator knows that “the Chinese are always very frightened of the drowned one, whose weeping ghost, wet hair hanging and skin bloated, waits silently by the water to pull down a substitute” (16). As the narrator is forever haunted by her aunt, so is her life which is entangled with the Chinese past, while trying very hard not to be a ghost to substitute her ghost aunt.

The stories of the aunt, Fa Mu Lan, the Sitting Ghost, and other demons of Chinese legend are repeatedly told by the narrator’s mother, Brave Orchid. In the third section, “Shaman”, Brave Orchid bravely fights against the Sitting Ghost. Alone in the haunted room of her medical school, Brave Orchid speaks to the ghost, “I do not give in…There is no pain you can inflict that I cannot endure. You’re wrong if you think I’m afraid of you. You’re no mystery to me…You kill babies, you cowards. You have no power over a strong woman. You are no more dangerous than a nesting cat” (70). Later, with her medical friends, Brave Orchid conducts a ritual to get rid of the Sitting Ghosts. Brave Orchid chants, “We told you, Ghost, that we would come after you…and we are winning. Run, Ghost, run from this school. Only good medical people belong here. Go back, dark creature, to your native country” (75). This suggests that Brave Orchid understands that a woman should be strong to win the battle with ghosts. This belief in courage also lays the foundation of the way she brings us her children to be strong people as they live in America, the ghost country, as she calls it.

Meanwhile, there is another set of ghosts which have to be encountered in their everyday American life. To the narrator, “America has been full of machines and ghosts-Taxi Ghost, Bust Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts,…One upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the White Ghosts and their cars” (97). To them, the American people they meet everyday are as invisible and therefore mysterious as the ghosts in the Chinese past. While her mother succeeded in her battle against the Sitting ghost, the narrator is frustrated to fight against the present ghost. She has been fed by the invisible world of ghosts, repeatedly told by her mother not tell anybody, so that she grows accustomed with the ghost of silence. Trapped between the past and the present, Chinese tradition and American culture, the narrator has a hard time making herself visible and audible, as she is already a half-ghost to her mother.  Being an American-born Chinese, it is like crossing a bridge of two cultures she is not familiar with but cannot help but being a part of both. The narrator attributes an identity to herself through the modulation of voice: “Normal Chinese women’s voices are strong and bossy. We American-Chinese girls had to whisper to make ourselves American-feminine. Apparently we whispered even more softly than the Americans” (172). She even hates “the ghosts for not letting (them) talk” (183).

Courage is what it takes to fight against the ghost. In contrast to her mother’s expectation of her becoming a slave or a wife, the narrator wants to be a woman warrior like Fa Mu Lan. In the last part of The Woman Warrior, “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe”, the narrator dares to confront her mother for confusing her with Chinese ghost stories, myths, and legends. She screams as her throat bursts open:

…I can do ghost things even better than ghosts can…Even if I am stupid and talk            funny and get sick, I won’t let you turn me into a slave or a wife. I’m getting out          of here. I can’t stand living here anymore. It’s your fault I talk weird…I’m going     to get scholarships, and I’m going away…And I don’t want to listen to any more    of your stories; they have no logic (201-2).

Although this confrontation is painful to Brave Orchid, the narrator manages to move away from the family. Only at this point does the ghost of silence disappear. She tells herself, “I had to leave home in order to see the world logically, logic the new way of seeing. I learned to think that mysteries are for explanation…Shine floodlights into dark corners: no ghost” (204). Through painful mother/daughter relationship which somehow reflects that of love and hate, she eventually tells her mother that she has found “some places in this country that are ghost-free” and it’s where she belongs (108). The narrator grows to be a woman as strong as her mother and finally wins the ghost battle, and she admits now, “I am really a Dragon, as she is a Dragon, both us born in dragon years” (109). Starting as a girl struggling to speak out, now she has become an outspoken woman.

While different sets of ghosts represent the past and the present in The Woman Warrior, the ghosts of past and present are united into one being in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. This is a story of an ex-slavewoman, Sethe, who succeeded in escaping from slavery but had to kill her baby girl. Sethe sees no other reason why she has to cut her baby’s throat. To her, this crime is justified to save her baby from a worse fate. In other words, only death can give freedom when someone like her has to face the institution of slavery. In addition, Sethe’s mother has done the same thing for the same reason to her children, leaving Sethe as the only one alive. Sethe’s grandmother tells her, “She threw them all away but you. The one from the crew she threw away on the island. The others from more whites she also threw away. Without names, she threw them (62). Yet, this brings Sethe to a never-ending haunted life. They have to live in a house which has been haunted for so many years, isolating them from the community, and making Denver suffer from it. As Paul D enters her mother’s life, Denver bursts out,” I can’t live here. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I can’t live here. Nobody speaks to us. Nobody comes by. Boys don’t like me. Girls don’t either” (14).

The ghost that has haunted Sethe and Denver for years may symbolize the guilty feeling Sethe has. Yet, Sethe has no intention to move, as she says to Paul D, “No moving. No leaving. It’s all right the way it is” (15). Her reluctance to move may suggest that while she feels so much intruded, she cannot escape from the past. Meanwhile, Denver, who belongs to the present, is pulled to her mother’s past. When she was seven, Denver chose not to ask for an explanation why her mother killed the baby. This suggests that she cannot escape from the past’s dwelling in her mother. Trapped between her love for and fear of her mother, Denver is victimized for not being able to proceed to the future.

Then there is a teenage girl, Beloved, who comes out of nowhere. Beloved may represent the incarnation of the ghost, which intrudes upon Sethe’s present life. She is the living presence of both Sethe’s love for her children that she could never wholly feel as a slave, and also the guilt she feels for the act of infanticide. Denver is the one who recognizes Beloved as the incarnation of the ghost that has haunted 124 when Beloved tells her, “She (Sethe) left me behind. By myself…She is the one I need. You can go but she is the one I have to have…I belong here” (75-6). Denver feels that Beloved “was (her) secret company until Paul D came” (205). Meanwhile, Sethe also sees in Beloved her reborn baby girl whom she killed and never wants to lose again. Sethe asks Beloved, “Do you forgive me? Will you stay? You safe here now” (215). Later on, Denver is also the one who recognizes the danger of Beloved’s presence to her mother. Denver accuses Beloved of choking her mother, and this scene reminds us of  Sethe’s infanticide. Denver says to Beloved, “You did it, I saw you…I saw you face. You made her choke” (101). Now Denver feels it is her responsibility to save her mother. “When (she) came back to 124, there she was, Beloved…Ready to be taken care of; ready for me to protect her. This time (she has) to keep (her) mother away from (Beloved)…(Denver) thought she was trying to kill (her mother) in the Clearing…” (206). Denver remembers that her grandmother has warned her of the danger of ghost to her mother, but that ghost is a part of her life too. Baby Suggs tells her “that (she) shouldn’t be afraid of the ghost. It wouldn’t harm (her) because (she) tasted its blood when Ma’am nursed (her). Baby Suggs says that “the ghost was after Ma’am…(She) just had to watch out for it because it was a greedy ghost and needed a lot of love…(209)”

Here, we can say that Denver sees the danger of the past’s taking over the present. But to see how the past is successfully dealt with, readers have to follow the process of Denver’s maturity. As she grows more mature, she realizes that the only way to escape from the past is to leave the dwelling and to move to a larger community. This takes a lot of courage as Denver is imprisoned within Sethe’s time, and she steps out only when her grandmother speaks out, “You mean I never told you…nothing about how come I walk the way I do and about your mother’s feet, not to speak of her back? I never told you that? Is that why you can’t walk down the steps?” (244). However, this larger community also presents a wider history of suffering in slavery. This means that Denver must find the justification of her mother’s murder. By visiting her family history, Denver comes to acknowledge the forces of the institution of slavery that compelled her mother’s crime. It is only up to this point that Denver can free herself from the past and return to life. Her “outside life improved, her home life deteriorated” (250), and Denver knows she has to ask for help to save someone or there would be “no one to come home to” (252).

Eventually, as Denver has some sense to step out the door, Sethe manages to be washed clean of her sin and guilt of infanticide by the black community. One neighbor, Ella, sees the need to help Sethe get rid of the occupying ghost in 124. Ella thinks that “whatever Sethe had done, (she) didn’t like the idea of past errors taking possession of the present” (256). The scene of exorcising the ghost of Beloved by the neighboring women shows the supportive community, who share similar past themselves. Their commonly shared will of freedom from the past is represented by the disappearance of the ghost. Their singing “broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash” (261).  Eventually, Sethe also succeeds in handling her past and return to life, after she is able to reclaim and recover herself in Paul D’s life. They finally share a narrative and have hope for the future, when Paul says “Sethe, me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow” (273).

The above analysis shows that the characters in The Woman Warrior and Beloved share similar experiences. Both stories employ ghosts to represent the past which irrupt to the present. The narrator of The Woman Warrior and Denver in Beloved live out the unspeakable for quite a long period of time before finally have the courage to enter a world of verbal exchange. Both recognize the danger of the ghost in intruding their present life, and also see the only way to proceed to the future is to get rid of the ghost, symbolizing their effort to forget the past. The narrator of The Woman Warrior takes her courage to confront her mother, leave the family so that there would be no ghost. In Beloved, Denver has to leave the village to find an explanation of her mother’s past so that she could free herself from it and enter future life. The efforts done by the narrator of The Woman Warrior and Denver entail painful mother/daughter confrontation more or less like a love/hate relationship, but at the end they manage to reconcile. It also takes cooperation of the community to get rid of the ghost. Brave Orchid and her medical friends chant to send the Sitting Ghosts away, while Ella and the neighboring women exorcise the ghost of Beloved to free Sethe from being possessed by her past.

The two novels (if The Woman Warrior can be called such) do not really ask us to judge the characters. What we do have is a development of sympathy which implies acceptance of complexities, contradictions and social influences. We are invited to participate emotionally in how to live in bicultural society, with origins entailing a dark side of the past, and how hard it is to find one’s place to conform into the present life and seek one’s own identity both as an individual and a member of the minorities. What we need to believe is, as the narrator of The Woman Warrior tells her mother, “we belong to the planet now…wherever we happen to be standing, that spot belongs to us as much as any other spot” (107).

WORKS CITED

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior. New York: Vintage, 1975.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved.New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

ANNE TYLER’S BREATHING LESSONS: EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED

Nothing is more troubling than not being able to grasp the main theme of a novel after I finished reading it. Despite the light nature of Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons, it does not provide a clear gist of what lies behind the work. Yet, I told myself that this insight might represent the main idea, that life is what it is. There may be many plans and expectations, but somehow it will lead people to unexpected moments. All we need to do is expect the unexpected.

On their journey to a friend’s funeral, Maggie and Ira Moran keep quarreling about the directions to reach the church, the map that Maggie left at home, the road signs the odometer that Maggie expects to show the same measurement as the road signs, the short-cuts Ira wants to make and some interruptions along the way. We are invited to feel the exhaustion of the journey and to see that it is how the journey goes that matters rather than the destination. Life itself is always a journey. Maps, road signs, and odometer represent all those directions and plans that human being intend to follow. That Ira is more obsessed with maps and short-cuts than Maggie, who cares more about odometer and the given directions, actually show how people interpret the journey of life somewhat differently, in spite of the fact that they are going towards the same destination. Is it not natural that Ira and Maggie’s quarrels over small stuff actually proves that they have grown pretty familiar with each other’s nature over twenty-five years of marriage.? Ira seems to know that Maggie’s clumsiness is irritating, that her spontaneity and white lies often ruin the plans.

Similarly, Maggie seems to mind Ira’s solitude and ignorance of emotional touch that she believes is important to hold the family together. We can see it from Ira’s reaction towards Maggie’s wrong observation of a car’s wheel on the way, which delay the journey to the church, and also her abrupt plan to visit Fiona on the way home. These unexpected interruptions lead to other abrupt plans Maggie sets up, with a grand idea of the reunion of Fiona and Jesse. Maggie herself thinks that Ira is not considerate for endlessly commenting on her white lies. In addition, the set-up plan itself does not work out as Maggie has expected. Have they grown worn out of each other?  Despite their continuous complaints on each other’s nature, this seemingly irreconcilable difference is what makes a relationship unique, as the fire of spirit will be there to keep the room of marriage warm. But what about the unexpected events and abrupt plans which bear the possibility of setting up a fire?

I understand that people might respond differently to this matter, that the fire might burn down the house. Yet, I do believe that this unique difference, if managed carefully, will bring water when the fire becomes too hot, and the fire will warm it up when it gets a little cold. Indeed, we cannot expect to lead a romantic life as we have dreamed of before marriage. Life is what it is, not a fairy tale; the only thing that is predictable is its unpredictability. A way to survive in this short journey is to sit on it and manage to grow along with it. In short, expect the unexpected, and life will become easier to digest. As Ira and Maggie rest to collect energy for the next morning’s journey, so do we need to learn to breathe so as to keep the energy when the unexpected comes. To be honest, what I have written is just the unexpected result which flowed as my fingers were dancing on the keyboards. This short commentary is a journey, not finished yet, but enough to grow a my fondness of the novel as I become more familiar with it.

SOWIYAH AND “DUA IBU”: WRITING IS HEALING

Tuesday, 8 January 2013. I was sitting on a bench, enjoying my breakfast near the fountain at Victoria Park, when Mega Vristian texted me. “Mbak, don’t go anywhere, okay. I’ll bring a friend to see you.” “Who it it?” I asked her. “It’s a surprise. Two pm. Just wait.” Since my arrival to Hong Kong four days earlier, Mega had been tremendously helpful to me. She was the one contacting people and arranging for me to meet them. Being a senior in IDWs’ writing community, she was like a big sister or a mother to many IDWs here. After knowing her for about two years, since before I came to Melbourne, I was finally able to personally meet her. I had no problem recognizing her sunken yet friendly face when she picked me up at the airport.

I decided to cancel my intention to see some places in Hong Kong. I had been here for three days, and spent most of my time following my new friends, IDWs, doing their activities. Yesterday morning I followed Rie Rie doing her groceries at North Point and talked about many things along the way. It turned out to be a good way of knowing more about her. Her day-to-day activities, her favourite spot to get ideas for writing, and her thoughts about IDWs’ literacy activities in general.

It was still around 11 am. I decided to cross the street and go to Hong Kong Central Library, which is just on the opposite side of Victoria Park. I could use two hours working or reading there. Around 2.30 pm, I went down to the lobby. There, I saw Mega standing with a curly-haired, innocent-looking young woman. Her name is Sowiyah. Once we sat down on a bench nearby, Mega took out something from her bag. It was a black-covered book with a big title written DUA IBU (Two Mothers).This was what I meant by the surprise,” Mega said. “And let me present the author.” She held Sowiyah’s shoulder. My new friend just smiled shyly.

Now I had a reason to be surprised. It was a 586-paged novel. Certainly it was no easy job to accomplish such a thick book. Before long, I found myself walking side by side with Sowiyah and Mega. Heading towards Victoria Park, Mega and I looked like two journalists bombarding a celebrity with never-ending questions.

My day with two IDW writers at Victoria Park, HK

My day with two IDW writers at Victoria Park, HK

 

I felt the urge to put my impression of Sowiyah soon after I met her. She was different from other IDW writers I had met the days before.  Sowiyah was not a member of any existing IDWs’ writing communities, and had no time to join any gathering. Her duty was to take care of a sick old lady who could only lie on her bed. Doing practically a 24/7 job, Sowiyah had no days off. Her duty was like a 4-hour cycle, feeding her with nutritional milk through a tube. She would make sure each drop of milk went into the lady’s mouth, while watching over the lady’s hands so as not to pull the tube. She would then change the diaper. It went on that way. Sowiyah’s bed was placed next to the lady’s. When Sowiyah needed to cook for herself, she would have to tie the lady’s hands to the bed metal for precautions.

I couldn’t imagine the boredom filling every minute of Sowiyah’s day. In the same room and on her bed, Sowiyah poured down all she kept in her mind to pages and pages of her notebook. She would read any books she could have when there was some free time.

Sowiyah was very fortunate to have very attentive employers.  They were actually quite established scholars. Her male employer was an Englishman, Prof. Robert Jessop, a sociology professor from Lancaster University. Her female employer, Dr. Ngai-Ling Sum, a Hong Kong lady, was a scholar in political science from the same university. They went home to Hong Kong only during holidays, during which time Sowiyah enjoyed a little more time to go out and meet friends. When I met her this time, it was actually her employers’ Christmas holiday.

The couple knew how much Sowiyah loved reading and writing. Appreciative of her great patience in taking care of Dr. Sum’s mother, they gave Sowiyah a second-hand laptop and taught her simple applications like Microsoft Word and how to use emails for communication. They would ask Sowiyah to write short emails in English everyday to improve her English.

A common question I asked to IDW writers was the reason why they chose to write. To Sowiyah, it was driven by a heartbreak. She felt like she almost got depressed and went insane when she broke up with her childhood sweetheart, who was working in Taiwan at that time. ”I don’t want to get depressed, so I write stories in order that I can drown myself into the characters I create,” she explained. She then changed the media, from notebooks to her laptop. She then took out two bounds of manuscripts and gave them to me. These two were already on the editor’s desk, waiting for publication. One was an anthology of short stories she wrote with her friends, and the other was a children’s story. She imagined her nephews and nieces read it someday.

I took a glance at several pages of Dua Ibu. I had the impression that her use of standard Indonesian was quite good. Anybody who reads it would not believe that the author is just a primary school graduate. Later on I gained more detailed reasons why her writing was fine in terms of language and flow of ideas. While she had no day off to go out or join communities, she was actually active in her virtual writing community. She joined a literary community, in which she met people of various professions. It was a space that had provided her with a lot of friends and knowledge. Aside from that, Sowiyah also had a manual of standard formal Indonesian, with which she could edit her works.

While Sowiyah did not join any writing communities in Hong Kong, she really wanted to be connected to her fellow IDWs. She hoped she would be able to join a writing project in the future. So far, she felt cut off and left behind whenever she learned from Facebook that  new anthologies of stories by IDWs had just been launched.

A couple of days after my encounter with Sowiyah, I had an opportunity to discuss her novel with Pak Junaedi. He was also renting a room in the same apartment. Pak Jun, to call him for short, is  a journalist and would be in Hong Kong for several months. He stayed in this apartment for a couple of days before he moved to a more permanent accommodation.  Having read some pages at random, Pak Jun told me that he sensed an influence of Malay culture from the diction. I frowned my forehead. I did not remember Sowiyah mention that she once worked in Malaysia. I read the foreword again, and found the answer. She used to work in Singapore before she came to Hong Kong.

This was not Pak Jun’s visit to Hong Kong. He had apparently known quite a few people here. Within just one day, I already noticed him busy receiving calls. His open door and loud voice made it very easy for me to overhear the conversation. Somehow I felt that he did it on purpose. I heard him mention Sowiyah’s name several times, and encourage the person on the other side of the phone to learn to write too. “The plot doesn’t have to be chronological. Just start writing. Learn to forget. Forget the pain.” I assumed that an IDW was asking for some words of wisdom to overcome her problem.

I had just been here for less than a week, yet my voice recorder was already full of unexpected stories. And it was only a tiny fraction of IDWs’ lives. I really hope that Sowiyah and other IDW writers would be able to inspire people with their writings. IDWs’ literary accounts are testimonies that writing is in fact healing.

Causeway Bay, HK, 10 January 2013

 

ETIK JUWITA, TULKIYEM, AND BOOKMARK-TURNING CHEQUE

Tuesday, 18 December 2012. This afternoon I had an appointment to meet Etik Juwita, a returning IDW writer.  I took a public bus at Bungurasih bus station in Surabaya. It would take me around 1.5 hours to arrive in Malang, a mountainous city, the second biggest in East Java after Surabaya.

Got a class this morning, mbak?” I asked her, circling my arms around her shoulders, when we met for the first time near the gate of Gajayana University in Malang, East Java. The face in front of me looked chubbier in her short-haired style. Different from her pictures I found on the internet. The face was fresh, her tummy protruding. A baby was going to cheer up her days in the next two months or so.

No class this morning, bu. The lecturer went out of town,” she replied. She called me ‘bu,’ or ma’am. Probably because I’m much older than she is. Or perhaps because she knew my profession as a teacher.

Etik was in her senior year at the English Department at the above private university. She decided to continue her study after working overseas for 9 years. Right after she graduated from high school in Blitar in 2000, Atik began her journey for a better life. She worked as a domestic worker in Singapore for two years. Upon finishing her contract, she found that she had not had enough savings, in addition her reluctance to merely become a shopkeeper, she flew overseas for the second time. This time she headed to Hong Kong, where she managed to finish two work contracts.

No matter how interesting it may be to talk about Etik’s ups and downs of becoming an Indonesian domestic worker (IDW), it is more engaging for me to reveal her creativity in the world of literacy. On a public car that would take us to Malang Town Square, we started conversing about her works that have been translated into English. Her short story “Bukan Yem” (Maybe Not Yem) is one of the first stories I know that were written by IDWs. This story was published in Jawa Pos, a Surabaya-based national leading newspaper, and was eventually selected the 20 best short stories under the category of Anugerah Sastra Pena Kencana 2008 (Golden Pen Literature Award 2008).

Have you ever heard of the gloomy stories about Terminal 4 at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport? This terminus was exclusively used to serve returning IDWs. The story”Bukan Yem” can be considered representing the horror of mafia that attempt to take away dollars, Malaysian ringgits, or Saudi reals earned by IDWs with sweat and tears. The English version, “Maybe Not Yem,” I should say, serves as an indicator of IDWs’achievement in blurring professional divides in the world of literature. This story was placed in the collection  of Tropical Currents: Writings by Indonesian Women, and was considered representing transnational literature at the website of   Words without Borders.

When we search on the internet, we will find some information that the nomination of this short story for the 2008 literary award, was actually polemical. Some judges considered that the language was too plain and straightforward, while the others actually saw this as the strength that represents the story theme. “I heard that Prof. Budi Darma was one of the judges who defended my story,” Etik said. Budi Darma, a well-known Indonesian author, also a professor of  Literature in the university where I work, was indeed one of the judges.

It was not Etik’s first encounter with Budi Darma. Three years back, in 2005, Etik once received a text message from Budi Darma. She had no idea how Budi Darma got her Hong Kong number. “Bu[1] Etik, congratulations. Your short story was published in Jawa Pos. It was very good. (Budi Darma).” That was roughly the message she received about her story “Seharusnya Berjudul Celana Dalam” (It should have been titled an Underwear) appeared on the newspaper.

Pak[2] Bon, who is Budi Darma?” Etik asked her innocent question while forwarding Budi Darma’s message to Bonari Nabonenar, a regional writer who has been mentoring IDWs to write. Bonari is an alumnae of Indonesian literature from IKIP Surabaya, where I also graduated. Etik has known Bonari long enough through Kosa Kata, a literature-oriented mailing list. Etik saw Bonari as a figure who has helped her a lot in commenting on and editing her works. It was Bonari who secretly sent the short story to Jawa Pos. Etik also considered such a mailing list a uniting community, in which all members have the same interest, which is writing.

Receiving such an appreciation from an author of a high caliber like Budi Darma was a strong drive for Etik to keep writing. She spent her holiday and free time sitting in front of a computer at Hong Kong Central Library. This pastime yielded various pieces of writing in the form of opinion articles and short stories which were published in a number of Indonesian media in Indonesia and Hong Kong.

It is also interesting to know that Etik was once a contributor to Suara, a monthly Indonesian newspaper distributed in Hong Kong. She co-authored a serial about Tulkiyem, a fictional IDW in Hong Kong. Etik took this responsibility for about four years, and still continued for sometime after she returned to Indonesia for good and had started her college life. Tulkiyem, a traditional Javanese name often associated with provinciality, soon became a hit within IDWs’ community. Many IDWs looked forward to finding out about what was up with Tulkiyem. They impatiently waited for Tulkiyem’s lives to appear in the serial. Tulki, with all her being provincial and exaggerated bahaviours, was seen as part of most IDWs.

What’s up with Tulki now?,”murmured some of Etik’s friends when they were gathering on their day-off. It brought her satisfaction to know that her stories were anticipated. On one side, her friends had a blurred idea that she was actually the writer. The pen name, Etik Juwita, gave her freedom to become anybody and to say anything. Tulki was figured as an IDW from Banyumas, Central Java. People from this town are known for their ngapak-ngapak, a unique Javanese dialect. When Etik’s friends learned that she was one of the writers, they did not believe it as her East-Javanese dialect was way different from Tulki’s.

During the story publication, Tulkiyem took its readers to current issues of labour migrants. Etik used the character to voice her thoughts. It may have been for its close proximity to IDWs’ real conditions that some IDWs assumed Tulki to be a real figure. She was one of them. There was a creative reception process, when rallies that involved IDWs’ community were coloured by the appearance of figures who said, “It’s me, Tulkiyem, ” along with make-up and costumes that were assumed to best represent the character. It is unfortunate that Tulki had to be ‘sent’ home to Indonesia for good due to contract termination. This sad episode finally appeared as Etik became too preoccupied with her other activities in Indonesia and found it difficult to find time to continue writing. Partly, Etik also admitted that she no longer kept up with the issues of IDWs . She had no choice but to ‘send Tulki home.’

During our conversation at one corner of Malang Town Square food court, I saw Etik as a woman of strong character. Her words were straightforward, her voice firm and full of confidence. In her utterances, I felt a strong convergence with literacy. One of her friends at the training centre in Singosari explained that. As Etik imitated her friend’s statement, “what I remembered most about Etik was there was no day without reading.” Etik admitted that she read practically everything. Paper wrappers, brochures, or notices.

Books have been an important part of Etik’s lives since her childhood. She recalled her mischief  of ‘stealing’ library books that belonged to a school near her house. She would take some books home to read, then secretly return them, then take some others. There came time when she grew upset as she had read all books on the library. Her love of reading and language eventually brought her to Talun High School, Blitar. It was then the only school that ran a Language major.

In terms of opportunities to read, Etik saw herself as a very lucky domestic worker. Her duty as an aged carer in Singapore was quite an easy job. She was able to read most English newspapers and magazines, even before her employer touched them. It would then become one of her tasks, reading the media to her employer.

Unlike most IDWs in Hong Kong, Etik only relied on English as a means of communication. This happened both in her first contract with a Hong Kong employer and in the second one with a Western boss. During that time, Etik enjoyed privacy without  any problem. It was actually her boss who suggested that she spend her day-off in public libraries. As time went by, holiday visit did not satisfy her quest for books. She would steal time to go the library more often, in between her shopping duty. English novels were one of her favourites.

Etik said that her exposure to English literature taught her to write in a more straightforward style. She mentioned Hemingway as an example of an author with simple language. She did not really like works with flowery language. That was why when her short story “Bukan Yem” became polemical, she quite understood that some Indonesian literary figures still paid attention to word play as a quality indicator of a work.

Etik was also one of the few IDWs who were often consulted by non-Indonesian scholars for their researches. This academic interaction had occurred since Etik was still in Hong Kong, and continued after her return to Indonesia. Prof. Ming-Yan Lai, then a Cultural Studies scholar from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, was one of the scholars who profiled Etik in her researches on IDWs’ labour activism. I actually intended to meet Prof. Lai. Unfortunately, she no longer worked for the above university, and left no contact information to her colleagues.

Etik considered creative writing as a long and slow process. Looking at herself, Etik saw their her writings were shaped by her reading habit, even when she was not aware of her love for books. Furthermore, Etik referred to writing as a catharsis. While she did not experience miserable things herself, horror stories happening to her friends went around her. If not a revenge, her writing served as a resistance to the bad conditions happening to many IDWs.

In relation to her existence in Indonesian literature, Etik did not really agree to the use of the term Sastra BMI Indonesian migrant workers’ literature). She questioned the rationale behind the term, whether it was related to their profession or the issues of migrant labour as the underlying themes. Etik also wondered whether her writing would be categorised as such when she no longer held the profession as an IDW. To her, anybody could write without being trapped into categorisation, because literature itself should be liberating.

However, Etik was not really bothered about how readers would receive her works. She was a bit indifferent when I told her that her short story about underpants may have been plagiarised by a fellow IDW in Taiwan. A story with a very similar in plot and title was published in an anthology in 2010. Etik had heard about this rumour from another friend. She only said, “karepmu(as you like it). She actually saw this as another form of appreciation.

Etik’s indifference was even reflected in her reaction to the check she received for a permission to have “Bukan Yem” translated. She was unable to cash it, as her pen name, Etik Juwita, was written on the check. A little bit upset at first, she eventually made fun of it. “I laminated the check, and used it as a bookmark,” she laughed when saying that.

Two fruitful hours with Etik felt just like a blink. It was full of smart statements and deep understanding of the world of creative writing. With her accomplishments, I personally want to see Etik Juwita continue shedding her colour in the world of Indonesian literature. Having two short stories translated into English and discussed in transnational literature scholarship should indicate her great potential.


[1] Bu is similar to Ms. It is commonly used to address a female adult to show respect.

[2] Pak is similar to Mister. It is commonly used to address a male adult to show respect.