Mirandi Riwoe chats with Intan Paramaditha about disobedient women, life and myth, and her forthcoming novel in translation, The Wandering.
Intan Paramaditha is an Indonesian writer now based in Sydney. She is the acclaimed author of the two short story collections, Sihir Perempuan (2005) and Kumpulan Budak Setan (2010, with Eka Kurniawan and Ugoran Prasad), from which the stories of Apple and Knife are drawn, as well as the novel Gentayangan (2017). She is a lecturer in film and media studies at Macquarie University.
Read her short story, ‘The Blind Woman Without a Toe’, republished from her collection Apple & Knife with permissions from Brow Books here.
Mirandi: In Apple and Knife I noticed that you often write of women who have to distract and deflect to survive their worlds. At other times, your female characters are depicted as fearful, or as a threat. Do you feel that you, or your characters, have ‘skin in the game’ when you write of these themes?
Intan: In general I have always been interested in stories of resistance. As an academic, I am less interested in focusing on electoral politics or political parties than on citizens who explore ways to interrogate and create political intervention. And, perhaps due to my background as a woman writer and a feminist, I find it important to tell stories about women who resist structures of power that confine them.
Most of the stories in Apple and Knife were drawn from Sihir Perempuan (Black Magic Woman), a short story collection that I published in Indonesia in 2005. I see Apple and Knife, like Sihir Perempuan, as a collection of stories about disobedient women. Resistance and disobedience are shaped by many factors, including one’s location and the privilege—or a lack thereof—that comes with it, and therefore they cannot be reduced to a monolithic expression.
Some women experience more pressure than others, and they might resort to small, almost invisible tactics, while others might resist in monstrous ways. I do not know whether I have successfully articulated women’s resistance and its complexities in a compelling way in Apple and Knife, but I can say that my personal and political stakes are embedded within each story.
Mirandi: Many of your stories address or are based upon certain fairytales and Javanese myths. What compels you to write back to these stories?
Intan: I grew up reading fairytales and I loved the ones that featured wicked women, blood and gore, like ‘The Red Shoes’, ‘Snow White’ and ‘The Robber Bridegroom’. In many of these stories, good women are rewarded with heterosexual romance and marriage, and bad women are punished, often in the most horrible ways, such as the Evil Queen in ‘Snow White’ being forced to dance with hot iron shoes.
When I was young I could easily identify with the evil women because I was angry with a lot of things. I started to ask further questions: How have these women turned into monsters, and who defines them as such? What kind of social structure gave birth to such monstrosity?
In the patriarchal world, where women are easily replaced and disposed of, cruelty is a survival tool. Stories of evil women must be told as a way of disrupting the system. In the late nineties I read a long narrative poem by Indonesian poet Toety Herati. She offers a feminist interpretation of the wicked witch Calon Arang in the Balinese legend. In her poem, instead of merely reproducing the demonisation, Toety Herati writes how Calon Arang poses a threat to male power, in this case the king and the priest, and therefore must be destroyed. This poem was one of the early texts that inspired me to see feminist rewriting as a political strategy.
A few comments about Javanese myths—I think I have explored urban legends, Western fairytales, and stories from the Quran and the Bible much more than Javanese myths. Indonesian literature is packed with references to myths and Indian-influenced wayang stories from central Java, which testifies for the cultural hegemony of central Javanese culture that was so entrenched during the Suharto regime. The rereading of Javanese myths could be very interesting and subversive, and some writers—such as poet Gunawan Maryanto—do it very distinctively, but it is an area that I have not really ventured into. In Apple and Knife, however, there is one story about the Queen of the South Sea, a powerful supernatural figure in the Javanese mythology.
Mirandi: Can you tell me what interested you in writing the Queen of the South Sea?
Intan: Queen of the South Sea or Nyi Roro Kidul is such a badass woman, but has often been framed within a patriarchal perspective, whether as a catalyst for power or as the source of male sexual fantasy in popular culture. In the Javanese story, all kings had a sexual intercourse with the Queen (metaphorically or literally – I think the boundary was left unclear) to preserve the political stability of the Mataram Kingdom.
It is a story, passed down from generation to generation, about sex as a political tool to assert and maintain power. On the other hand, in a number of feature films and TV series about the Queen of the South Sea, she is portrayed as a dangerous seductress, played by beautiful and sexy actresses that cater to the male gaze. I am not Javanese, and my first encounter with the story of Nyi Roro Kidul was through horror B-movies, such as Queen of the South Sea, The Revenge of the Queen of the South Sea, and so on. There is also Lady Terminator, which was quite famous internationally among cult B-movie fans. In short, the queen is highly sexualised in popular culture. In my short story, I explore the image of the Queen as the source of male fantasies about sex and power by presenting how she is dreamed, defined, and dissected by male characters. These fantasies are of course, in the end, violated.
Mirandi: Your stories often explore connections between the mystical and modern. Could you speak about how this might be a useful way of exploring certain issues?
Intan: The mystical and the supernatural are fascinating because they often reveal what we desire and fear most. The Queen of the South Sea legend, for instance, tells a lot about the fear of women’s authority, and therefore in the mainstream narratives she must be constantly sexually objectified or tamed.
In my stories the supernatural often appears as a disruption to the normal, or things we perceive as reality. I am also interested in exploring how the desire and fear that we consider ‘archaic’ creep into our modern lives. The fear of highly ambitious and powerful women is very much part of our daily lives, the media, and even our office politics, not just within the stories of Snow White or Queen of the South Sea.
Mirandi: What are you working on at the moment? We can’t wait to read more!
Intan: I am currently working on an academic manuscript that is long overdue. I am also working closely with Stephen J. Epstein, who is translating my novel from Indonesian into English. Titled The Wandering, it is a choose-your-own-adventure style novel about travel and displacement in our globalised world. It still has some fairytale elements, using the trope of ‘The Red Shoes’ to explore the desire for mobility and barriers that we encounter as we cross borders. The novel will be published in 2020.