Jakarta. Indonesian author Eliza Vitri Handayani has had mixed experiences of the local literary scene, from bitter – like having her book launch cancelled by authorities – to sweet and rewarding ones like organizing a much-lauded art exhibition called "House of the Unsilenced" that offered a safe space for sexual violence survivors to speak up and tell their stories.
Like Julita, the main character in her novel "Mulai Sekarang Semuanya Akan Berubah" ("From Now On Everything Will Be Different," published by Australia's Vagabond Press in 2015), Eliza has found that to find the courage to make radical choices in her career, she has to go through a lot of struggle to overcome her fears.
Eliza has been writing since she was a teenager and won the National Film Center screenwriting competition in 1999 when she was still in high school.
She told the Jakarta Globe in an interview on Thursday (04/10) that her writing is very personal and that her main motivation is simple: to write with honesty.
"Whatever you write, it should be honest and has a purpose. We write because we know something in society that has to be uncovered. But we can’t control what other people will think or do about it. We have to prepare for backlash or protest, but that’s after the writing’s done. When we're writing, we shouldn’t have to think about that, or anything else. The only thing we have to pay attention to is why we write. If you think what you write is necessary, and that you can be completely honest with yourself, then write," she said.
Eliza's aforementioned novel is a love story about Julita and Rizky, two young people who were raised to be the typical New Order-era conformists.
As young adults in 1998 – the beginning of Reformasi and when the story is set, Julita and Rizky find their newfound freedom doesn’t actually make any difference in their lives, since they still have to live beholden to their families and society.
Julia is a rebellious woman who works as a photographer. Her artistic photos are often criticized for being vulgar.
Rizky wants to be an actor, but doesn’t dare pursue his dream because it goes against his parents' wishes.
Eliza said she's used to backlash against her work. In 2015, the novel's launch at Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) was cancelled by local authorities, who said the book "contained references to real events that could cause controversy."
This is despite the book having enjoyed a successful international launch at the Frankfurt Book Fair a year before that.
"The challenge with writing about a woman who is, shall we say, 'untraditional,' is that some people will always disagree with you. Maybe your own family would think you were writing about yourself and they'd feel embarrassed. That’s just par for the course for a writer," Eliza said.
Spiritual, but Not Religious
Eliza’s short stories and essays have appeared in many national and international publications, including the Griffith Review, Asia Literary Review, Words Without Borders, Exchanges Journal, Inside Indonesia, Index on Censorship, The Jakarta Post and Koran Tempo.
One of her essays in local online feminist website Magdalene, "Islam dan Aku" ("Islam and Me") – part of Magdalene’s "Menjadi Perempuan" ("Becoming a Woman") essay collection, openly questioned religious teachings, many of which Eliza herself experienced.
The article is labelled non-fiction, but sometimes reads like a coming-of-age short story.
It follows the tale of a girl who critically questions the religious teachings she received from her family and teachers.
For example, the girl brought up the subject of a possible political subtext in Moses' struggle against the Pharaoh.
Religious teachers usually say the Pharaoh’s death was just dessert for his obsession to become God himself.
But the girl in Eliza's essay suggested his drowning in the Red Sea was punishment for enslaving millions of his own people.
Eliza said writing always gives us "a room to ask questions we may not be ready to talk to others about."
"Sometimes we're afraid to ask those questions ourselves, since some people might consider them heresy. We've become afraid of even thinking [about questioning religion], let alone to write about it. That’s part of what I'm trying to do. Part of the writer's honesty I was talking about. We question what we see, and we also have to question our own stance, how we see things from our own perspectives," Eliza said.
She said her own relationship with religion has evolved over the years, having grown up in a Muslim family that's used to practicing the religion in different ways.
"When I was about 18 or 19, in college, I started to rethink everything about myself, including my faith. That included questioning God and religion because I started to realize I had been exposed to concepts that were unfair. I mean, is it right for women to have to always follow men? Why? Aren’t we all equal in front of God?," said Eliza, who received a Freeman Asian Scholarship to study at Wesleyan University in the United States after she graduated from high school.
At some point, Eliza decided to detach herself from religious rituals.
"We can believe in a nameless God, something bigger than us. There was a time I believed that God didn’t exist. We die and that’s it, so I thought. I wrote about it in 'Between Languages, Between Worlds,'" she said.
However, recently she noticed that people have been getting "more serious, more rigid in practicing religion" and that some religious tenets are now being "interpreted in a very patriarchal" way.
This has led to people suggesting that Muslims should never pick a non-Muslim leader, or that Muslims should get married early to avoid adultery.
This prompted Eliza to rediscover her Muslim roots. She recently started re-reading the Koran but "trying to be critical with the translation and interpretation."
Eliza said even though she isn’t practicing a specific religion at the moment, she feels "spiritual, sometimes more than others."
“I try to listen when I need something bigger than myself. I try to tap into that presence by keeping to myself or reflecting on nature," she said.
Empowered, and Empowering Others
As a literary activist, Eliza is known for her many initiatives, including a literary translation program that she managed until 2009 in partnership with the Jakarta Arts Council.
In 2012, she launched InterSastra, a literary translation website where we can read English translations of Indonesian works and vice versa.
Two months ago, she organized "House of the Unsilenced," an art exhibition featuring works by sexual assault survivors.
Inspired by the #MeToo movement, the exhibition let women speak up against sexual violence by telling survivors' stories.
"Hopefully we can bring House of the Unsilenced to other cities. The most important thing is the survivors' voices. We don’t only speak for them, we speak with them. That’s important to show that survivors don't have to feel embarrassed or powerless to speak. They can turn their stories into art works as well, and get appreciated not only for their courage but also for their artistic skills," she said.
Eliza herself once wrote "Being a Writer While Young and Female in Indonesia" for Magdalene, an essay that exposes senior male Indonesian writers (though not by name) for taking advantage of young female writers by pretending to be their "mentors" but then make them the target of sexual conquests later on.
"Many [female writers] experienced the same thing. After the article was published, I heard many stories from other writers who went through the same ordeal, even worse. I didn’t want the article to accuse certain individuals. The point was to show how the act [of denigrating women] has become a culture. The question now is how we can find a way to address a problem that's considered normal in our literary scene," Eliza said.
She said an exhibition like House of the Unsilenced can help expose the problem of sexual harassment against female writers. But first, the writers must band together to come forward with their experiences, Eliza said.
"There’s been much backlash against us. We get accused of lying. People call us witches. The problem is the unequal power relations between male and female writers. If we want to do something like #MeToo, which exposed someone as powerful as Harvey Weinstein, first we need courage from the writers. Everyone must speak up and must feel she's supported by her fellow survivors, her sisters," Eliza said.
She pointed out that the #MeToo movement succeeded because high-profile names joined in the action and inspired many others.
If Indonesian female writers want to follow suit, they must sport the same solidarity toward their colleagues.
"We have to show them that speaking up won’t ruin your career," Eliza said.