Jakarta. "Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go wandering," is a recurring line in Intan Paramaditha's latest book, "Gentayangan: Pilih Sendiri Petualangan Sepatu Merahmu" ("The Wandering: Choose Your Own Red-Shoe Adventure").
The book was launched during the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) in Bali during October and in Jakarta last month.
"Gentayangan" is an Indonesian term referring to the dead who, instead of proceeding to the hereafter, haunt the living. In Intan's book, the word points to women tempted to cross geographical and social boundaries.
Intan's wandering experience influenced the book, for she has trotted the globe all her life. After getting a doctorate from New York University in 2014, she started teaching at Sydney's Macquarie University, returning to Jakarta occasionally.
Told from the second-person point of view, the story starts with an Indonesian woman in Jakarta who sleeps with the Devil in exchange for a favor. This nameless character wishes to travel, so the Devil leaves her a pair of red shoes, inspired by "The Wizard of Oz," Hans Christian Andersen's "The Red Shoes," and Anne Sexton's poem of the same title.
Intan has a knack for infusing horror in her work, like in her short-story collection "Sihir Perempuan" ("Black Magic Woman") and "Kumpulan Budak Setan" ("The Devil's Slave Club"), an anthology co-written by Ugoran Prasad and Eka Kurniawan. What is interesting, is that she often retells existing legends and fairytales from a feminist perspective.
In "Gentayangan," the role of the Devil is not just to make the story subversive, or attach literal meaning to the idiom of "selling one's soul to the Devil."
The Devil provides a way for the main character to escape her mundane life. With a dead-end job as an English teacher, she can have neither physical, nor social mobility.
"The Devil is a way for her to cross her boundaries. Come to think of it; not everybody has a 'devil.' There are people who cannot get away from their physical or geographical location, so his existence represents the main character's desperation for mobility," Intan told the Jakarta Globe in a recent interview.
The book comes in a "choose-your-own-adventure" format, enabling readers to explore different paths and endings. Readers stand in the main character's shoes and take her to cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Berlin and Tijuana.
The format provides space to address many issues.
The main character begins as a naive, opportunistic girl with wanderlust, but her adventures challenge her understanding of life. For example, she is an apolitical woman from a Muslim family. She never cared about what happened during the 1998 riots in Jakarta, which resulted in many ethnic Chinese people being tortured, raped and killed.
In one storyline, she meets a Chinese-Indonesian woman in Los Angeles who brings up the subject. Then the character remembers that her father hung a prayer mat over their front gate, implying that they were not the "enemy."
"She realizes that there are many things in her past she never questioned. Problematic things. Hanging out a prayer mat basically meant excluding certain people," Intan said.
After a visit to the Holocaust Museum, she also starts thinking about the 1965 mass killings and the demonization of Gerwani, the women's organization of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).
Besides history, social status and the "American Dream" are also tackled here. The character originally aims to marry a rich American man who can help her obtain a green card, and she does get it in one storyline.
On the other hand, she marries Fernando, an illegal immigrant from Peru, who has been successful. When Donald Trump wins the election, she and Fernando decide to leave America for good instead of having a president known for his hostility towards immigrants.
"She and her husband shatter every idea of the American Dream. They decide they don't have to be there to be happy and fulfilled," Intan said.
Sometimes Intan blurs the line of the real and supernatural, as well as life and death. After visiting the grave of the shoemaker, the main character boards a train filled with famous dead people, such as Gertrude Stein, Josephine Baker and Amelia Earhart – women who traveled far from home.
Good vs. Bad?
Through the layers, the book invites readers to ponder the meaning of home and identity. In that case, what does it take to be a bad girl who goes wandering?
At a glance, the book seems to say that a bad girl does not conform to social and religious norms. The main character is often contrasted with her older sister, who owns a modest-wear business, actively shares religious content, and is married to a Muslim man who is the manager of a celebrity preacher.
Her sister is financially independent, yet she has to ask for her husband's permission before making any decisions.
Intan admitted that she wanted to comment on the wave of conservatism and commodification of religion through the sister, but that does not mean that she is one-dimensional. The sister is opposed to polygamy and started wearing a hijab when it was still banned at schools during former President Suharto's era, indicating her rebellious streak.
"I didn't want to make a dichotomy or draw a bold line [between the main character and her sister], which says that the sister is normative and boring. She is willing to negotiate. These characters constantly negotiate with their surroundings and there are some points where the two agree with each other," Intan said.
Wandering girls can be anyone, married or not, religious or not. The main character is not politically conscious at first. She uses marriage to elevate her socioeconomic status but learns about love and loss in each one. In another storyline, she rethinks her sexuality after encountering a female filmmaker.
This way, the book shows that such girls do not have to be conscious of what they are looking for, as long as they are brave enough to take the first step.
"The most important is the process itself, which leads you to be more critical. I think the main character represents many Indonesian women who just want to travel and not be bored. But all these adventures show her that there are things to be questioned, or lines to be crossed," Intan said.