Interview: Indonesian Women Writers



by Yvonne Michalik and Melani Budianta (regiospectra 2015).


How would you describe the status of women in Indonesian society? Do you see any changes since Suharto’s fall in 1998?

It’s hard to make a generalization about Indonesia due to its size and diversity. The politics of decentralization after the fall of Suharto makes it even more difficult to contain frictions and discrepancies. There are more women in the cabinet in President Jokowi’s administration, but discrimination against women’s bodies and sexuality at the policy and cultural levels is still very strong. Women’s sexuality is policed (this is an ironic use of the word ‘police’ since Indonesia forces its female police to do a virginity test, which is very degrading). It is constantly deployed to assert political power, as one could see in the cases of discrimination and violence against women by authorities in the sharia-enforced province of Aceh.

On the less frustrating side, women activists, artists, and scholars are more visible, and they largely contribute in circulating gender and sexuality issues in public discourses. In post- authoritarian Indonesia, however, everything is visible. So on the one hand we have women ceaselessly protesting discriminatory laws such as the 2008 Pornography Law, and on the other hand we also have vigilante groups who demonize women’s sexuality. It’s a fierce visibility contest. And the challenge for women activists is to constantly explore new modes of articulation for gender and sexuality issues in order to expand their public.


Who and what inspire you the most? Do you have any literary models?

My early works were inspired by women writers whose works could be considered ‘gothic,’ such as Mary Shelley, Margaret Atwood, and Anne Sexton. I read Poe, Stoker, O Henry, Guy de Maupassant, and Roald Dahl in high school, and I think their traces are all over my fiction. I learned a lot about characterization and narrative structure from Shakespeare – and also plays by Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams. The two Indonesian works that influenced me the most in terms of tone, mood, and character are Malam Jahanam (Night of the Accursed), a play by Motinggo Boesye, and Orang-orang Bloomington (The People of Bloomington), a collection of short stories by Budi Darma. There are so many literary models that I have not mentioned, but in general I am drawn to the combination of a dark quality in the story (e.g. a dark atmosphere or state of mind) and subtlety in storytelling.


How would you describe your creative process? Do you need a specific environment in order to write?

I am interested in strong visual images, and I love creating stories to frame, twist, and recontextualize those images. I am a slave to narrative. I grew up with it. For instance, the Quranic/Biblical story of Yusuf/Joseph lingers in my mind because I am fascinated by the image of women cutting their flesh instead of apples as they see a very beautiful man in front of them. I created the short story “Apple and Knife” to provide a new narrative to reframe the image.

And yes, I do need a specific environment to write. People always thought I’d stay up late, working under a dim light, to find inspiration for all those dark stories. Contrary to the expectation, I am a morning person. My ideal time for writing is between 7 and 11 am.

Read the full interview in Indonesian Women Writers by Yvonne Michalik and Melani Budianta (regiospectra 2015). Available at