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Indonesian travel novel a tribute to open borders

‘The Wandering’ attacks male privilege, but extols a bygone era of nomadic freedom

BANGKOK — More than nine years ago the Indonesian feminist writer Intan Paramaditha began working on her first novel, a structurally ambitious pop fable that aimed primarily at liberating women from traditional roles to take to the roads of the world.

“Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go wandering” was the tagline when the book was published in her homeland in 2017 under the title “Gentayanga,” a name that the author says is often used to “describe ghosts who are not in the world of the living but have not crossed over to the other world. … That state of being neither here nor there.”

This is a state that Paramaditha experienced during a decade of academic studies in the U.S. and three other countries. Yet, she tells the Nikkei Asian Review, “It felt like a really nasty joke to me” when the launch of “The Wandering,” the book’s English edition, was obscured by the pandemic lockdown.

“‘The Wandering,” she states, “is a novel about people who transcend borders and keep encountering walls and barriers in their journeys. It was crushed by a virus that certainly doesn’t respect borders.”

The novel is similarly daring in its escape from the normal conventions of storytelling. In a post-COVID-19 world, though, it may stand less as a declaration of feminist freedom than as a final tribute to an age of unlimited global nomadism in which travel was a presumed right — although Paramaditha points out that this mobility “was shaped by certain economic privileges.”

(Courtesy of Intan Paramaditha) 

In the novel, however, all that is needed to get from Jakarta to New York or Berlin is a pair of magical red shoes, bestowed by a horny devil-figure after some feverish sexual encounters. As such, Paramaditha’s tale is a self-conscious, self-reflexive affair, combining a modern-day “Faust” (the mythic German figure who gains worldly knowledge by selling his soul) with “The Wizard of Oz” — the Hollywood film where a dazed Kansan girl travels through imaginary worlds thanks to similarly empowered footwear.

At the same time, she has drawn on an interactive structure that allows readers to jump at will between chapters to experience 15 different itineraries, a play on both the Argentine surrealist Julio Cortazar’s “Hopscotch” — a pioneering novel that invited readers to skip playfully around the narrative — and her love of “choose your own adventure” children’s stories. In print, it is child’s play to follow the author’s instructions about which pages to flip back toward, if not to keep track of all the storylines, but the electronic Kindle version sometimes does not cooperate in traveling backward or forward.

The author in 2018 in her recent home of Sydney. (Courtesy of Intan Paramaditha) 

“Travel is about making choices, and often … we don’t really have the freedom to choose,” says Paramaditha. “A lot of it involves the roads not taken — what would have happened if we’d gone on another path.” While the author admits that this can make for a difficult read, she hopes those “willing to follow the whole thread can explore a multiplicity of identities.”

Oddly enough, what most gives the tale its contemporary feel is that few great dangers or revelations occur along the way. Of course, there are detours into magical realism, a train that makes no stops, and various Persian folk tales are thrown in. Yet a trip to the supermarket seems the same in Germany as in Java, and oddball neighbors seem no more than a nuisance.

Some of those she encounters are scrounging refugees, and some are smug landlords, in varying degrees of assimilation. There is a lot of failed romance, a lot of walking around, a lot of, as she puts it, “feeling the First World in your entire body.” This is deliberate, to reflect her view that, “Many Third World women have these ‘Cinderella’ dreams of travel. But for most, the biggest adventure turns out to be just going.”

A scene from the gender-bending Jakarta production of “Obsession.” (Courtesy of Intan Paramaditha) 

Now that she has ended up in Australia as a lecturer in film and media studies, with an emphasis on feminism and gender, Paramaditha tries to return often to Indonesia to encourage Muslim feminists in their ongoing face-off with rising fundamentalism. In the past, she worked on theater pieces and performance art to support the movement — including the controversial “Obsession,” which mixes village storytelling through traditional dangdut music with a tale of a dangerous woman beyond male control, in this case played by a transgender actress.

“I consider her first literary anthology (some stories of which are translated into the English anthology called “Apple and Knife”) as one of the finest collections of Indonesian literature, and a masterpiece of feminist writing,” says professor Melani Budianta of the University of Indonesia. “She turns horror and mystery, a popular genre generally known for the damsel-in-distress patriarchal plot, into a feminist genre, ingeniously twisting and mixing local as well as world-known myths.”

Paramaditha also helped to create the organization Cipta Media Ekspresi, which translates roughly as Media Expression Permitted, to support women in the arts with grants and a festival. “There are lots of women authors back in Indonesia,” she says, “but the gatekeepers for recognition and awards are all men.” According to Budianta, though, Paramaditha has “a charisma and appeal for the younger generation, and a generous sensibility to share her knowledge and literary vision.”

An event organized by Paramaditha to help increase women’s visibility in the arts. (Courtesy of Intan Paramaditha) 

Paramaditha cites influences as disparate as Mary Shelley, the author of “Frankenstein” and numerous African-American writers. “Some think of me as a horror writer,” she says. But she does not think it matters which genre Asians write in, so long as they are aware of power relations when they tell stories, especially about the underprivileged. “Who is being represented?” she says. “For whom? Who benefits most from that representation?”

This is ironic because the restless heroine of “The Wandering” is among the privileged. And while Paramaditha believes that travel will return in new forms, she says the only hope for global connection is the internet, which allows people to engage in virtual cosmopolitanism. “But not everyone has access … not everyone has the option of staying at home in a comfortable situation for a long time.”

And what of the future of travel writing, male or female, in a world where travel is limited? What have Paramaditha’s readers learned, from all the airline mileage and the identity-stripping sense of being a blur? Maybe just the cliche that the freedom to go away can indeed bring the world closer.

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