Mekong Review: “Disobedient Women”


Mekong Review, Issue 10, February 2018


Intan Paramaditha
Brow Books: 2018

By Norman Erikson Pasaribu


When you hear the term “Indonesian woman”, what comes to mind?

When Sihir Perempuan was published in 2005, Intan Paramaditha was only twenty-five and on the verge of leaving Indonesia for graduate studies in the United States. She has been wandering ever since. However, her debut collection of short stories, whose title can be translated as “Black Magic Woman”, has left its mark on many Indonesian readers. It has influenced a handful of younger writers, like Guntur Alam and Eve Shi, and turned Paramaditha’s work into a sort of gothic, feminist cult.

Sihir Perempuan investigates ideas about Indonesian women. Enduring years of dictatorship under Suharto’s New Order, the country underwent heavy ideological changes, including those around womanhood. Gerwani, the first Indonesian leftist feminist movement, was wiped out in the 1965 genocide. The New Order then spread a glorified concept of motherhood, in effect domesticating Indonesian women. In 1988, Julia Suryakusuma, a noted feminist, coined a term for this propaganda: “state ibuism”, or “state motherism”. In Paramaditha’s essay “A Feminist Trajectory of Literary Influences”, she identifies this state construction as one of the fundamental questions in Sihir Perempuan.

Thirteen years after the book’s publication, several stories from it have made their way into English, through translator Stephen Epstein. Published as Apple and Knife, those stories are included with four of Paramaditha’s stories from Kumpulan Budak Setan, or, roughly, “The Devil’s Slaves Club” (an anthology of horror stories she co-published with Eka Kurniawan and Ugoran Prasad) and a new short story about Kuchuk Hanem, the Egyptian muse of Gustave Flaubert.

Like its Indonesian half-sister, Apple and Knife challenges contemporary national ideas about womanhood. All the stories in this book speak of distinctive aspects of women’s lives, like virginity, menstruation, abortion and marriage, and peel off the myths surrounding them. At a glance, the women in the stories — be they a mother, a daughter, a sister, a blue-collar worker, a white-collar worker or even a fiction writer — could be seen as disobedient. In an interview with Whiteboard Journal, Paramaditha admits she wants to reclaim the word bandel, or “disobedient”. Her idea of disobedience, however, is not a conventional gesture, like smoking or having a tattoo, but the inclination to break through, to cross borders, to resist.

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