How To Write About Indonesia


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.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.