14 Dec 2012

How To Write About Indonesia

By Tim Hannigan
Planning a trip to Indonesia to write your next novel or do a spot of freelance journalism but don't know where to start? Tim Hannigan has a few helpful tips for the aspiring writer - no Indonesian required!
There must be a volcano. This is a good way to create a title for your book about Indonesia. Between the Volcanoes, Beneath the Volcano, Inside the Volcano — these all work. The volcano is a symbol of how Indonesia is exotic, mysterious, and threatening. Putting it in the title of your book will convey this very clearly.

There should be a quote from Pramoedya on the frontispiece. Don't worry if you've never read Pramoedya — just pick one at random.

Make sure that you mention that Indonesia is vast, sprawling and diverse. Mention that it has 17,000 islands on the first page. Having done this you are free to write only about Java for the rest of the book.

Your Indonesian characters are warm hearted and artistic, or they are thin, dangerous people with black eyes. They must all inhale deeply from a clove cigarette after every line of dialogue. It is important to give them generic universal Muslim names. Achmad is an excellent choice but Muhammad is a bit too strong. If you must include a Balinese character make sure he/she is called Weigh-Anne.

Indonesians do not have Facebook accounts. They enjoy cockfights and have an intimate connection to the world of spirits.

Your book must contain white people if it is to appeal to readers. If the book is non-fiction the white person is you. If you are writing fiction, then the white person should be a decent but tormented aid worker. The book should also contain a white journalist. If you are writing non-fiction the journalist is probably you. If you are writing fiction he is an alcoholic with a good heart.

Even if your book is set in the 21st century your journalist should be based on a Graham Greene character. He works in a small office with a ceiling fan up a flight of cracked concrete steps in Glodok. He does not have a smart phone. His local assistant is an inscrutable communist. He files only one story a month and never writes about business or the economy. This is important.

Your book should also contain a fat, sleazy American who works for the CIA.

These white people are essential. They give your book depth. Concentrate on developing their characters; leave the Indonesian bit players inhaling deeply on their clove cigarettes in the background.

There should be plenty of prostitutes (though they don't need names) and at least one homosexual. If the homosexual is white, hint at paedophilia without being too disapproving. If the homosexual is Indonesian he is tormented and in love with a white man. He most certainly does not have a successful television career.

You must — repeat must — make regular mention of the wayang kulit shadow puppets. This and clove cigarettes are vital to convey the appropriate sense of exoticism. You can also use the wayang kulit as a symbol for all Indonesia. You don't need to develop this concept very thoroughly — just mention something vague about dalangs and screens. Becak rickshaws are also good for atmosphere.

If you are writing non-fiction make yourself wise and all-knowing despite the fact that you speak no Indonesian. Use the terms Pak and Ibu liberally.

When describing the Indonesians you meet make an allusion to a wayang kulit character. It will make you seem incredibly authoritative. Don't worry if you don't actually know anything about the wayang kulit character in question; the name is good enough: "Achmad — who, like many Indonesians, had only one name — inhaled deeply on his clove cigarette and smiled. I realised that his wry inscrutability reminded me of the character of Bima/Arjuna/Gatokaca from the wayang kulit".

If you are a journalist then Indonesia is a dark, violent place on the brink of succumbing to Islamist chaos. The country is about to become the next Somalia. Inter-ethnic tensions are bubbling constantly below the surface. The young men you see on the street are ready to run amok at any moment.

If you are a travel writer, however, there is unity in diversity and all Indonesians have ready smiles and pray fervently to the Rice Goddess between inhaling deeply on their clove cigarettes.

If you must write about anywhere other than Java, write about Sumatra (a place inhabited by Sumatrans). In Sumatra corruption, transmigration and the palm oil industry are raping mother earth. Develop the characters of any orang-utans you write about. They do not need to inhale deeply on clove cigarettes, but you can compare them to wayang kulit characters: "Watching the great creature moving with slow dignity through the undergrowth I thought at once of Semar/Bima/Arjuna".

It is best not to write about Bali at all. It is not part of Indonesia, and mentioning it will detract from the threatening atmosphere conveyed in your book. If you must mention Bali, when writing non-fiction use it for an epilogue as a place to which you go to reflect on the horrors you have experienced in Java and Sumatra while a delicate sarong-wearing girl called Weigh-Anne scatters frangipani petals at your feet. The Balinese are a beautiful people (but definitely not in a sexual way). All you need to do is inhale that fragrant smoke, note how beautiful the people are, press your palms together, and plan which organic restaurant to have lunch in. If you are writing fiction you can use Bali for an anachronistic flashback in which Walter Spies has a cameo.

For fiction the past is a good place. The present is complicated. You will make terrible mistakes and people will laugh at you. Dealing with all those modern political parties will be impossible. In the 1960s there were only the Communists and the Army, which makes for much easier background. If you write about the 1960s you can give Sukarno a cameo. He is charismatic but a little overweight. Your white characters can get to meet him very easily. Don't confuse Sukarno with Suharto. You cannot give a cameo to Suharto.

It is not only permissible but also essential to plagiarise The Year of Living Dangerously. Other important books are those by Joseph Conrad. You should be influenced by Conrad. Don't worry if you've never read him; just include a river and a Bugis schooner and reviewers will comment favourably on the Conrad influence. Despite the quote on the frontispiece you do not, under any circumstances, want to be influenced by Pramoedya.

At the end of your book make sure that your protagonist leaves. This is essential. You/he will always understand Indonesia, and will always be marked by your/his experiences there, but you wouldn't want actually to live there!

If the main character in your book doesn't leave Indonesia at the end your readers will be slightly uncomfortable and will wonder if perhaps he has a thing for ladyboys. Make sure you mention clove cigarettes and the wayang kulit during the final passage: "The immigration official — who, like many Indonesians, had only one name — paused and held my passport up to the light. His smooth coffee-coloured face was inscrutable, unreadable. He drew deeply on his clove cigarette. His refined self-control made me think of Bima/Semar/Gatokaca from the wayang kulit..." Something like that should work very well indeed.

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Dr Dog
Posted Friday, December 14, 2012 - 13:50

As I read the article by Tim Hanningan I could feel the discomfort growing until it met and matched the oily heat radiating from the wall opposite my hotel room. It would be two hours until the sun went down and three before I could take my usual position at the bar.

'Who is this Hanningan?' I asked myself. On the surface his advice seemed sound, yet I found myself wondering about his motivations. Had he recently been exposed to a particular piece of literature that made him, in the local language, a 'hater'?

'Are there a lot of spurious books about Indonesia?'. I spoke aloud, knowing that the office staff would pay me no heed. Their understanding of English was sufficient for ordering at McDonalds but hardly useful in a discussion about post-colonial cultural production and the role of 'the exotic' in modern literature.

Hannigan's distaste for Greene was particularly disingenuous, given that he gave an overwhelming impression that he himself was a world weary writer.

I conjured an image of him at the bar in Ujung Pandang wearing a cream suit and screwing, or screwing with, a series of expatriate executive's wives. How they would eat up his stories of Indonesians using Facebook, working in a sandwich shop or watching Two and a Half Men.

I sighed and signed out of newmatilda. Christ, if they are having a go at Conrad now then anyone could be next, including Eltham or Pobjie. It was hard to shake my feeling that the forces of literary criticism were brewing like a tropical afternoon storm.

If only I had some idea how many Indonesia based books were out there, or who was reading them. Certainly no-one I knew, but then I knew no-one.

O. Puhleez
Posted Friday, December 14, 2012 - 20:44

Hannigan neglects to mention the significance of Lady MacBeth in the whole project: she who famously took to compulsive washing: "Will these hands never come clean?"

The Indonesian state will never be clean until it has dealt satisfactorily with the tens of thousands of war criminals who put in service time in the TNI, Kopassus etc, reducing their forces to the level of the Waffen SS and the like in the eyes of the world. They never lost a battle against civilians, in Indonesia itself, or East Timor, or West Papua. But against people who could shoot back it has always been another matter entirely.

Indonesia will never be clean while these bastards are still free to walk the streets.

They have made it a pariah among the nations.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. DrGideonPolya
Posted Sunday, December 16, 2012 - 11:35

The small, critically endangered Sumatran Elephant is now numbered in the hundreds as opposed to the thousands of several decades ago (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumatran_elephant ). However there are some huge Indonesian Elephants in the Room that are effectively ignored by Australian media.

1. Indonesia has a population of 240 million, a GNI of US$2,580, and a life expectancy at birth of 69 years, whereas Australia has a population of 23 million, a GNI of US$43,740 and a life expectancy at birth of 82 years (see UNICEF: http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/ ) .

2. In Indonesia annual per capita total health expenditure is US$112 and under-5 infant deaths per 1,000 births total 32 as compared to the values of these parameters for Australia of US$ 3,441 and 5, respectively (see WHO: http://www.who.int/countries/en/ ).

3. A further legacy of European racism, European colonialism, post-war US hegemony and the US-backed Suharto military regime is that Indonesian annual avoidable deaths from deprivation and deprivation-exacerbated disease total 0.7 million (2003) or 0.33% as a percentage of the population. While avoidable deaths on the same calculation basis for White Australia are zero (0) there are 9,000 Indigenous Australian deaths annually out of an Indigenous population of 500,000 i.e. an avoidable death rate of 1.8% per year (one of the highest in the world) (see "Aboriginal Genocide": https://sites.google.com/site/aboriginalgenocide/ and Gideon Polya , "Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950", now available for free perusal on the Web: http://globalbodycount.blogspot.com.au/2012/01/body-count-global-avoidab... ).

4. While Indonesia is an Asian country and an overwhelmingly Muslim country, pro-war, pro-Zionist, Palestinian Genocide-complicit, Apartheid Israel-supporting, US lackey Australia has been militarily involved in all post-1950 US Asian wars (38 million Asian deaths from violence or violently-imposed deprivation), in the Zionist-backed US War on Muslims (12 million Muslim deaths since 1990 violence or violently-imposed deprivation). During WW2 Australian was complicit in the 1942-1945 Bengali Holocaust in which 6-7 million Indians, substantially Muslims, were deliberately starved to death by the British for strategic reasons, this being associated with large-scale military and civilian sexual abuse of starving women and girls (Australia withheld grain from starving India from its huge wheat stocks; see "Bengal Famine. Australia & UK killed 6-7 million Indians in WW2", MWC News: http://mwcnews.net/focus/editorial/13742-bengal-famine.html " and Gideon Polya, "Jane Austen and the Black Of Hole of British History", now available for free perusal on the Web: http://janeaustenand.blogspot.com.au/ ). Expert advice is that our best defence strategy is to be nice to people.

5. The deadly, 0.8-million-victim 1965 atrocity was an "anti-communist coup" according to US and US lackey propaganda, but in addition to being anti-socialist was also a massacre of Chinese Indonesians.

6. Extensive family ties and extensive trading links between Indonesia and Northern Australia were terminated by the racist psychopaths running newly-independent White Australia.

7. And as for those "clove-flavoured cigarettes", smoking is a disaster for Indonesia (as it is for Indigenous Australians, 20% of whom are diabetics and for whom smoking is a cardiovascular disaster, noting that 50% of adult Aborigines smoke). Thus of Indonesian people, 63% of men and 5% of women are reported to be smokers, a total of 34% of the population, and at a cost of 0.2 million lives each year (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smoking_in_Indonesia ).

Peace is the only way but Silence kills and Silence is complicity.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. ErikH
Posted Sunday, December 16, 2012 - 13:26

What a great way to start my day here in Kota Pahlawan - thank you, Tim and Dr Dog. Brilliant.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. ErikH
Posted Sunday, December 16, 2012 - 13:27

PS Every Indonesian I know has a Facebook account, including those who don't even have a computer!

Posted Tuesday, December 18, 2012 - 16:34

er... right. I didn't realise there were enough bad 'romantic exoticism' novels featuring Indonesia to distill into a 'guide'? Unless we're talking about travel writing maybe. What am I missing?

Posted Tuesday, December 18, 2012 - 21:36

What brought on this bitter contribution? The frustrations of writer's block? A dig at "creative writers" of his acquaintance who want to create pearls without getting to know oysters? A lack of recognition? From what I have read online, Tim does travel writing well, and appears to have some interesting non-fiction books in print and in the pipeline. If the (likely) meagre rewards of his vocation have propelled him towards fiction, then I wish him luck!

I guess he knows that Christopher Koch was not the last bule to produce worthy historical fiction about Indonesia. In the post-Suharto Reformasi period, Kerry M Collison's adventure novels in the Le Carre style (Sid Harta Publishers) are not everyone's tehbotol, but do reflect wide knowledge, and are well constructed IMHO. "The Spice Garden" by Michael Vatikiotis (Equinox Publishing 2002) is a gripping novel set in the sectarian conflict in southern Sulawesi after Suharto fell. These probably haven't had the commercial success they deserve, but with one million Aussies visiting Bali this year (but tiny numbers going anywhere else), additional well-written fiction can only hope to improve the abysmal state of connection we have with our most important neighbour.

Posted Wednesday, December 19, 2012 - 09:15

"Doctor" Gideon HAS no sense of humor. Its a LibTard failing.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. DrGideonPolya
Posted Wednesday, December 19, 2012 - 10:00

I agree seajay23, sometimes you just have to laugh. Thus I laughed myself stupid when I saw "Keating" notwithstanding the horrible reality that under his friend, US-backed military dictator Suharto (1965-1999), 0.8 million socialists, intellectuals and Chinese were butchered in 1965 and 200,000 were imprisoned, 200,000 East Timorese died under Occupation (1/3 of the population), and avoidable deaths of Indonesians from deprivation and deprivation-exacerbated disease totalled 33 million (see Chapter 6, Gideon Polya, "Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950", now available for free perusal on the Web: http://globalbodycount.blogspot.com.au/ ) .

En passant, Christopher "The Year of Living Dangerously" Koch was a very accurate writer. Thus in the middle of his novel "The Doubleman", just before he leaves Tasmania for the Mainland, his hero goes up to his "sacred spot", a special albeit intrinsically unremarkable spot hidden in the bush on Knocklofty above Mount Stuart in Hobart, that he writes about in detail. It is also my "sacred spot" and probably of others because you can see so many mountains and hills through the trees. I painted a picture from memory of this "sacred spot" and a visiting expat seeing it in my home declared that it was his "sacred spot" too.

My most amusing Indonesian experiences occurred at Australian universities e.g. an Indonesian general who spoke interminably in Indonesian at an International Students' function in the middle 60s - his most regularly repeated and unforgettable words that introduced the bemused Aussies to Indonesian were "saudara, saudara" (brothers and sisters), merdeka (freedom ) and imperialisme (imperialism). And in circa 2000 a beautiful student dancing the role of Sita in a performance relating to the Ramayana whose costume began to slip and then finally slipped to reveal a very shapely breast - no doubt immensely embarrassed, she declined to stop and re-adjust but soldiered on with dignity to the end of her dance.

Peace is the only way but Silence kills and Silence is complicity.

Posted Tuesday, July 30, 2013 - 17:02

Lunettes de soleil, d'abord pour vérifier la qualité de la lentille peuvent être placés dans les lunettes de soleil des yeux à 40 ~ 45cm, observer des objets à travers la lentille, si la déformation linéaire trouvé ou d'une situation balancer montre qu'il existe une déformation de la lentille, de ne pas acheter, et aussi face à la lentille face à la lampe, et faire tourner doucement avec une gêne quand ils ne devraient pas acheter. Par ailleurs, il faut lunettes de soleil pas cher noter que la couleur de la lentille. Gris, vert, brun est meilleur; brun foncé, noir, suivie, bleu, violet pire. La couleur ne doit pas être trop faible, car il ne peut pas résister à une forte lumière. Une bonne Louis Vuitton lunettes de soleil doivent porter la mention "UV-400" mots, et indiquent la production de la marque, taille, adresse, etc, ne convient que sous le chaud soleil des lunettes de soleil, coucher du soleil, nuageux, pluvieux, l'intérieur ne doit pas porter.