Authors Leila S Chudori and Intan Paramaditha Discuss Writing and Historical Violence

Leila S Chudori is one of Indonesia’s most prominent and outspoken authors. She is also a senior editor at Tempo Magazine, where she is responsible for the column on language and film reviews. Her widely acclaimed first novel, Pulang (‘Home’), won the Khatulistiwa Literary Award in 2013, and has been translated into English, French, Dutch, German and Italian. Pulang focused on Indonesians in exile following the 1965 violence. Her new novel, Laut Bercerita (‘The Sea Speaks His Name’), tells the story of activists disappeared during the Soeharto regime, and the loss felt by their friends and families. It was released at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in 2017. Leila spoke to fellow writer and academic Intan Paramaditha at the University of Melbourne on 9 November. Intan’s latest book, Gentayangan: Pilih Sendiri Petualangan Sepatu Merahmu (‘The Wandering: Choose Your Own Red-Shoes Adventure’) was published in October. Excerpts of their conversation are repeated below.

Intan Paramaditha: Pulang and Laut Bercerita both engage with historical violence. What motivates you to have such a strong focus on these dark events in Indonesian history?
Leila S Chudori: Like any other author, I start with the characters first, I don’t start with a specific event or message in mind. My novels have been inspired by real events, of course, but I need to be interested in the characters. With Pulang, for example, I met a group of exiled activists in 1988, but only began conducting research for the book in 2006, and then the book was finally released six years later. Everything had to build up, I had to create a universe. The Soeharto regime was part of the universe I created but I don’t think people should view it as a historical novel. It was the same with Laut Bercerita. I met kidnapped activist Nezar Patria at Tempo, where he was a reporter. He had already spoken publicly about his experience but I was interested to know more, to know what he felt. Nezar wrote about his experiences for Tempo and it was much more than a dry testimony. A lot of people were inspired to write about the issue, people didn’t know about the inhumane and cruel treatment the kidnapped activists had to endure. I was inspired, too, but I was still writing Pulang. After Pulang was published in 2012, I started interviewing more people. My interview subjects understand that I am writing a novel, I am not going to write about them as individuals, but I am interviewing them to learn about their experiences. It was a long, scarring research process because I saw the events of 1998, I was there, I was an adult.

Pulang was so influential among young generation, it opened the eyes of many young readers to the events of 1965. When do you believe initiatives to talk about 1965 and bring justice for the victims began? Did you have any expectations for the political impact of your work?
After 1998, many books were published on issues that had previously been forbidden. Several former political prisoners wrote about their experiences. Tempo wrote a cover story about Omar Dhani’s tell-all book. A wave of people who used to be silent were now willing to speak out. But not everybody read these stories. Many activists and members of the public were preoccupied by issues of corruption – government officials were finally being arrested for corruption and the Corruption Eradication Commission was being established. There wasn’t much room for 1965. From 2005, Tempo included a story on 1965 every 30 September but it wasn’t until August 2012, and the release of Joshua Oppenheimer’s film, The Act of Killing, that the world’s eyes were opened. In October of that year, Laksmi Pamuntjak published Amba (‘The Question of Red’), and in December, I published Pulang. It was just a coincidence that these things all happened at the same time. Yes, my book and these other works sparked a discussion among young people. But I don’t think any author has a plan for the political impact of their work. If you start with a plan in mind, it will sound contrived. You have to write because you believe in the characters, not because you have a plan.

Over the past couple of years, however, we are seeing a backlash against efforts to discuss 1965, from both military and Islamist groups. Countering the official version of history no longer seems possible. How do we talk about 1965 in this climate, is reconciliation still possible?
It is very bleak. Indonesia has become much more conservative. This trend has been happening over the past 20 years, not only now under President Joko Widodo. It is a worrying development and it is happening across the world. It is sad because Indonesia used to pride itself on being a moderate Muslim nation. Not anymore. Now we are afraid about talking about religion openly because people might accuse us of blasphemy. After 1998, Indonesians were always proud to say that we had the freest press in Southeast Asia, that we don’t believe in banning publications. But we still have laws like the Blasphemy Law, the Information and Electronic Transactions Law, and the Pornography Law. Conservatives hold these laws tight and will use them against their opponents. Could we ever conduct a process like the truth and reconciliation process in Cambodia? That’s too far away now. You can’t even talk about 1965 anymore. After the Jakarta Gubernatorial Election and the jailing of former Governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama it is going to be really difficult.

To write Laut Bercerita you interviewed kidnapped activists who were released. Can you describe your writing process? How did you incorporate their stories?
I am a journalist, so I interviewed the activists myself. It also helped that Tempo did a special edition on [disappeared poet and activist] Widji Thukul. I started the research process in 2013, and interviewed Nezar Patria and many other activists. I also interviewed family members that I met through the group IKOHI [Indonesian Association of Families of the Disappeared] and activists from Kontras [Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence]. It was from these activists that I knew that there was a possibility that some were thrown into the sea. That’s why I divided the story into two-parts: 1998 stories and post-1998 stories. After I completed my research, I kept these stories and started creating a new universe. It was no longer the stories of Nezar or the other activists. I added a female character, even though in reality the environment was very male. I don’t know if the activists I interviewed had sisters, this was entirely fictional. I always interviewed the parents but not the extended family. I couldn’t conduct too many interviews because it was often such a traumatic experience for the families.