As I commented in a previous post, Eka Kurniawan was one of the writers I (unfortunately) didn’t get to see at this year’s Melbourne Writer’s Festival. In 2014, though, I did attend a session with a couple of other Indonesian authors, one of whom was Lily Yulianti Farid, a writer and journalist living and studying in Melbourne. It was from her that I first learned of The Lontar Foundation, the Indonesian organisation promoting the country’s literature abroad, so it seems only fitting that one of the ebooks I received from Lontar for review recently happened to be one of hers🙂
Family Room (translated by John H. McGlynn) is a collection of fifteen contemporary stories. Most are set in Indonesia, with a few taking the reader overseas, but the thread running through all the pieces is family, and its importance in Indonesian society. This is stated plainly near the start of the first story:
“Time continued to plait the lives of the family in our large house.”
‘Makkunrai’, p.5 (Lontar Foundation, 2010)
While family has been a theme of the other Indonesian books I’ve read (e.g. Leila S. Chudori’s Home), Family Room focuses even more sharply on the topic.
Several stories touch on the concept of the patriarchal society, none more so than the opening tale, ‘Makkunrai’. The titular sixth (grand)daughter grows to be a woman who refuses to submit to her grandfather’s domination, angry at the weakness of the rest of the family. However, when confrontation looms, brought about by a possible arranged marriage, she discovers that this passivity hides a real concern for, and sympathy with, the headstrong young woman.
On the whole, though, the families featured in the collection are slightly more modern, with many coming from the burgeoning Indonesian middle classes. One of these stories of rather more bourgeois issues is ‘One dash Nine,’, in which a bright girl from a poor family is gradually corrupted by contact with the rich. ‘Camera’ takes this idea of a woman tainted by the company she keeps to a new level, when a man’s reminiscences about his sister turn into a sad story about the price, and consequences, of success.
Despite these modern touches, however, the country’s recent past is never too far away. ‘Your Father is the Moon, You are the Sun’ is narrated by a woman who never knew her father, a man killed on the day of her birth. His body is never found, just one of many who vanished during the dark days of the twentieth century. Two later stories, ‘Soy Sauce’ and ‘Fire’, have as their background anti-Chinese riots, with the protagonists remembering days spent in hiding from gangs roaming the streets, setting fire to Chinese business and lynching anyone they can find…
Another story with a sad undertone, and one of the better pieces of the collection, is ‘Lake’. In a series of short scenes stitched together, a woman in Europe researching lakes begins to gather stories for a book she wants to write:
One of the group stops stirring his coffee to hear what Zara is saying. Others continue spreading peanut butter on warm pieces of toast, as Zara begins a conversation about their pending departure with the question, “Do any of you have an interesting story about love or life? I want to write a novel in memory of my sister…”
The reason for her wish is all too clear. We eventually learn that the sister is sadly another victim of injustice back home, disappearing during a protest against the government.
The fifteen stories in Family Room are all fairly short, and enjoyable to read, with plenty of interesting passages which ask to be jotted down:
The bread and doughnut dough that Ruth produced in the kitchen while watching the horrible scenes of destruction in Ambon became the most pliable dough she had ever produced. But don’t ask about its taste! On the tongue of my imagination, the strawberry jellyrolls that Ruth made had a rancid taste of blood which turned my stomach.”
‘The Kitchen’, p.27
The writer has an idiosyncratic style, and what I noticed as I progressed through the collection was that she uses a rather oral type of storytelling. With a host of personal reminiscences, the stories sound as if they should be spoken, rather than read, and each one starts off by drawing the reader into the circle of listeners.
The final story, ‘Family Room’, again looks at a middle-class family and is a tale of miscommunication in a family growing apart. The living room designed to enhance family life is instead the scene of ‘bombshells’, with everyone hiding behind their own doors, only venturing out when an argument needs to be had. In some ways, the story can be seen as showing the first signs of the end of the traditional family unit, each of the members preferring to keep to their own space, leaving the traditional shared area empty…
With fifteen short, thought-provoking stories, there’s a lot to admire about Family Room, and if you’d like a more in-depth (and far better informed) reading of the collection, have a look at Lisa’s review (her background in Indonesian studies makes her a far better judge of what’s going on here). In any case, with the archipelago nation one of our closest neighbours, there’s definitely a need for more of its literature on our shores, and I’m happy to have tried this collection. That makes a grand total of six Indonesian books for me this year; it’s not as much as it might have been, but I’d say it’s a good start, anyway🙂