DOMINIC AMERENA THE AUSTRALIAN 12:00AM April 28, 2018
The double review can present particular challenges for a critic. There can be the temptation to draw false equivalencies; to compare and contrast books that have little in common, save for some generic similarities, or the subject positions of their authors.
But I’ve seldom come across two recent titles that pair together quite as well as Apple and Knife, the English-language debut of Indonesian author Intan Paramaditha, and Ponti, the debut from Singaporean writer Sharlene Teo.
Described as “two of Southeast Asia’s most exciting literary talents”, Paramaditha and Teo have both created darkly funny, deeply feminist books that savagely skewer the conservatism and hypocrisies of their respective societies.
Apple and Knife is a collection of short stories that blends the generic conventions of horror and folk tales with snapshots of contemporary Indonesian life. They are short, sharp and peppered with scenes of bloody violence.
A philandering businessman is brought undone in his search for a mythical goddess. A young researcher encounters a “sorceress aligned with the devil” who bottles people’s screams. A woman, living alone with her overbearing father, discovers a mysterious world through a red door. Fans of recent Man Booker International Prize nominee Eka Kurniawan will find much to enjoy in Paramaditha’s tales, as will Angela Carter acolytes.
“What I want to do is correct history. History has killed me off in favour of her, who people say lived happily ever after,” says Cinderella’s wicked stepsister, the bitter narrator of the opening story, The Blind Woman Without a Toe. It’s clear that Paramaditha is attempting a kind of feminist revisionism, one that places the experience of Indonesian women at the forefront of most of the narratives.
Throughout the collection Paramaditha uses incarnations of female anger and marginalisation — often in a supernatural guise — to puncture the conservative pieties of Indonesian life, where women are told to: “Bow your head at the sight of men. Have a sense of modesty. Don’t speak loudly.”
In the fearsome Blood, a copywriter is brainstorming a slogan for “Free Maxi Pads” when she remembers a woman from her childhood who feasted on teenagers’ menstrual blood. She begins to reconsider her relationship with her body, and as she does, Paramaditha’s prose becomes looser, more strident, revelling in its corporeality: “And now I lose a lot of blood each month. Dogs sniff after me, follow along, their tongues hanging out.”
Paramaditha’s sense of inventiveness never falters, but the brevity of the stories — the longest is only 20 pages — means many of the characters have a tendency to blend together. Some of the stories, such as Vampire and The Porcelain Doll, seem little more that set-piece sketches.
Recently writers such as Carmen Maria Machado, Samanta Schweblin and Mariana Enriquez have shown how genre conventions can be used to meditate on the body, politics and gender. At its best, Apple and Knife does this exceedingly well, especially when Paramaditha allows her readers a deeper immersion into her characters’ perspectives, as in Beauty and the Seventh Dwarf, which pairs a Faustian pact with illicit desire, and a wonderful moment reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado.
Credit must also go to Paramaditha’s publisher, Brow Books, which seems to have found another winner in Apple and Knife. From talent identification to cover design and promotion, Brow Books is fast establishing itself as Australia’s most interesting and effective independent publisher.
And indeed Apple and Knife has secured a British distribution contract, meaning this macabre and often marvellous book will get the international audience it deserves.