On Scars and Flying Horses: Lara Norgaard in Conversation with Linda Christanty
On Scars and Flying Horses:
Linda Christanty is an Indonesian author and journalist. Her writing has been recognized by various awards including the national literary award in Indonesia (Khatulistiwa Literary Award 2004 and 2010), award from the Language Center of the Ministry of National Education (2010 and 2013), and The Best Short Stories version by Kompas daily (1989). Her essay “Militarism and Violence in East Timor” won a Human Rights Award for Best Essay in 1998. She has also written script for plays on conflict, disaster and peace transformation in Aceh. It was performed in the World P.E.N Forum (P.E.N Japan and P.E.N International Forum) in Tokyo, Japan (2008). She received the Southeast Asian writers award, S.E.A Write Award, in 2013.
Linda Christanty begins her short story “The Flying House of Maria Pinto” with a seemingly mundane encounter: an Indonesian soldier gets on a train, sits down next to a young woman reading a Stephen King novel, and tells her a story. The story he recounts is that of Maria Pinto:
“Maria Pinto was originally just an ordinary young girl who had once studied literature at a renowned university in Jakarta, and held out until the third semester before returning to the land of oranges and coffee. The people in that land died too early; they disappeared, committed suicide, went mad or plunged into the forest to unite the wild boar and the reindeer.”
Maria Pinto’s people give her ancient weapons and a flying horse, choosing her as their protector and commander.
“As of that moment, Maria Pinto had become the leader of treacherous troops, trapping the enemy in every zone, deterring those who only relied on tangible things; those who shunted aside fairytales and dreams.”
We as readers will not be able to set aside so easily the fairytale aspects of this short story; the soldier’s dreamlike narrative comes to overtake the rest of the plot. The woman on the train tries to ignore the overly chatty soldier, returning to her book until finally arriving at her destination. But after parting, the soldier is tasked with killing the enemy rebel target. He shoots at a figure on the street from a neighboring skyscraper and, when he goes to recover the body, discovers that this rebel is actually woman on the train who had listened to his story. Is the woman from the train the same enemy rebel from the soldier’s tale, Maria Pinto? That question remains unanswered, but what becomes clear is how political conflict finds its articulation in close, personal encounters and everyday stories.
Christanty is an Indonesian author known for approaching social and political issues in her writing. A student activist who participated in the movement that forced Indonesian dictator Suharto from power in 1998, Christanty has long dedicated her life to activism as well as the written word. After Indonesia’s return to democracy, she worked as a journalist and human rights advocate for women’s issues. For her activism, she was nominated for the N-Peace Award in 2012 in the Asia Pacific category and won the Kartini Award in 2014. Meanwhile, her fiction has won a range of national awards as well as Thailand’s prestigious Southeast Asian Writers Award in 2013.
According to the introduction to her collection, Final Party and Other Stories, in which the short story “The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto” was published in Debra Yatim’s English translation, “[Christanty’s] political activism is reflected in her prose . . . It is as if she feels the need to tell these things in order for us not to forget, and also maybe not to flinch when facing the demons of history.”
“The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto” is no exception. Though more implicit than her other stories in its political content, this narrative encodes questions of military violence and resistance. In fact, it is the inclusion of a second narrative plane–the mythical tale integrated into the direct encounter between the representative of the state (the soldier) and the representative of resistance (the woman)–that comes to command our attention and the progression of events itself. Indeed, the soldier’s story could be understood as a meta-narrative that reveals how this figure understands his own pursuit of this so-called “enemy.” The fascinating quality of “The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto,” and of Linda Christanty’s fiction more generally, lies not in literal depictions of conflict, but rather in the socially constructed narratives of conflict she interrogates through multiple layers of storytelling.
I spoke with Linda Christanty in Jakarta in 2019 as part of a series of interviews with contemporary Indonesian writers who represent Suharto’s New Order dictatorship in their work. The project is an effort to understand how authors construct counter-histories about an authoritarian past that the Indonesian state refuses to recognize for its brutality. As a U.S. American, I recognize the role my country played in supporting the anti-communist Suharto regime and turning a blind eye to the gross violations of human rights that took place. This traumatic past is not bounded by Indonesia’s nation-state boundaries; it is a history that incorporates global actors and that remains relevant beyond Indonesia. For foreigners, exploring how Indonesian writers revise and reconstruct narratives of the past can be a way to revisit questions of post-colonial, transnational leftism, which found its initial articulation through the 1955 Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung before the Suharto era ruptured bourgeoning international solidarity between recently independent nations.
Christanty is well positioned to reflect on politically committed writing in Indonesia, both in terms of her role in her generation and independently, as an author. As a key figure in a literary movement that used words first for liberation against an authoritarian regime and then for the project of reckoning with that authoritarian past, Christanty has witnessed marked shifts in Indonesia’s literary scene. And, in her own short fiction, the question of how characters invent narratives to understand their own experiences of social upheaval remains central, whether in “The Wild-cherry Tree,” where we find ourselves immersed in the imaginative perspective of a young girl processing assault, or in “The Final Party,” where an informant who sent friends to prison copes with his choices while arranging his birthday party.
When Linda joined me in a bustling café in central Jakarta, we spoke about free expression under dictatorship, continuities in violence, literary categories, and the Western gaze on socially committed Southeast Asian fiction. Much in the line of “The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto,” the question that spanned each topic was narrative itself, and how the language we use to tell stories frames history.
Lara Norgaard (LN): The memory of Suharto’s New Order dictatorship is a near-constant feature of your short fiction. Almost all of your short stories in the English-language collection Final Party and Other Stories relate in some way to that period’s violence, though sometimes that connection is not immediately apparent. Some of the moments that I found especially interesting are ones in which this history is implied in language rather than made explicit. For example, in “The Final Party,” when a man who had worked as a state informant recounts how he explained his job to his daughter for her school project:
“One day, little Alma asked about his work.
‘What do you actually do, Papa?’
‘I’m a note-maker.’
‘Note-maker?’ Little Alma laughed.
‘Yes,’ he answered firmly.
But in his daughter’s report book, he wrote down: entrepreneur.”
On a level of language, how would you say Indonesian either contains the memory of Suharto-era state violence or actually obscures the history of that period?
Linda Christanty (LC): There are a few expressions that people would use in the Suharto era, and especially language used by Suharto’s government. For example, most people, including any member of the military or the police, would very rarely say, “that person was arrested” or “that person was taken to prison.” Instead, they would usually use the phrase, orang itu diamankan – “that person was secured.” As all of us who were alive in that era, secured means that someone was arrested. It immediately had that connotation, conjuring up an image of someone who confronted the state apparatus and had to be “secured.”
It was also unusual, or taboo, to use the word buruh in the Suharto era. Worker, working class, labor. The government preferred that people use the word – employee – so that power relations would disappear. As a result, there wouldn’t be any apparent power dynamic between higher-ups and subordinates, bosses and workers, or in fact any oppressive relationship at all. That’s because the term karyawan in Indonesian relates to the term berkarya, someone who creates, someone who says something in the world. Buruh, on the other hand, means laborer, someone who only has the power to work. That person does not have authority over anything else; for example, they do not control the means of production. In that sense, when we use the word labor, it means resistance, because it means that oppression is present. When Suharto was in power, if a person used the word buruh it meant that they were also radical. Buruh is a word that collects or contains radical social movements and a long history of struggle. That was erased. So you would use more neutral terms: karyawan, which means employee, and kerja, which means work or job.
Then there’s one more example from when I was little. One day, I was talking to my grandfather in our house on Bangka Island. A man passed by out front, the father of a friend of mine from elementary school. My grandfather told me that this person, my friend’s father, wouldn’t ever be able work again at his company because he was terlibat – involved. In the Indonesian of Suharto’s New Order, the word terlibat always connoted being involved with the Indonesian Communist Party. ‘That person was involved,’ and people immediately or automatically knew that they had connections to communism.
There were so many euphemisms back then, you would hear the word terlibat and diamankan, and then the word buruh was erased, it never appeared.
LN: After the Reformasi period in 1998, when Suharto was removed from power and Indonesia returned to democracy, did these euphemisms continue?
LC: When Reformasi took place, or even before Reformasi when social movements were growing stronger and labor strikes and student actions were more and more frequent, people did start using the term labor, buruh, again. For example, when they would talk about labor or factory movements. And progressive students, the ones concerned about labor, would also use the term. Indeed the intellectuals at the time became a kind of driving force for change, recuperating this language that had been banned.
LN: For you, specifically, how has this influenced your writing?
LC: I started writing fiction when the New Order regime was still in power. Back then, if you wanted to write something or send a short story to print media, like a newspaper, the government had established rules. You couldn’t break the rules, so your story couldn’t contain any elements related to politics, religion, race, or anything that was seen as going against Indonesian society. The point is, you couldn’t have critical thought in your stories. But you could package it with something other than what you meant.
In fact, in the early 1990s I was writing fiction and news stories about the lives of marginalized peoples. And I also wrote stories about factory life. Usually, I wouldn’t write those for mainstream media, but instead for student magazines. At the University of Indonesia, which was my university, and also at other schools in Solo or Yogya, a subset of the student body was involved in the student movement. And some students who were quite forward-thinking, brave, and critical would publish work more freely, allowing people to write relatively unfettered by censorship, at least in comparison to mainstream media.
LN: In an interview with the online publication Arsip Publik, you stated that you don’t like the term “Reformasi literature.”1 I see your argument that this label makes it seem as though no one was openly writing critical texts before the transition to democracy took place. At the same time, I imagine that the experience of writing was indeed different before, during, and after the transition from authoritarianism to democracy.
If you don’t like the term “Reformasi literature,” how would you reframe shifts in the Indonesian literary world since the early 1990s?
LC: There are differences, of course, especially in what I was telling you about how certain words changed in their use. I still remember how, before Reformasi, right around 1997, we would usually use the term wanita (lady) when talking about perempuan (woman). The word for lady was seen as carrying more respect than the word for woman, as though the term perempuan had a certain negative connotation. But then, the Indonesian women’s movement was active at that time, and I still remember how in one issue of the magazine Kalyanamitra, they began to use the word perempuan to bring awareness to readers, to define the concept of perempuan and how it could in fact be emancipatory. The word perempuan, or woman, has something that could be understood as equality, a kind of strength. And so they began to use that term.
Writing under Suharto’s New Order is like what I already described. If you wrote for mainstream media, you would worry that they wouldn’t publish certain things. That wasn’t just about specific terms but also about certain topics. For example, it would of course be difficult to write realistic stories about Timor-Leste or disappearances. So writers like Seno Gumira Ajidarma, when he wrote about Timor-Leste, had to make the incident occur somewhere else, and make the characters from somewhere else so readers could maybe imagine this had happened in Latin America, for example.
I felt some of that myself, but I usually sent my stories to student publications because I wrote critically and said what I thought without allowing sensors to limit my work.
For literature after Reformasi, what’s actually very interesting is how varied the subject matter became. So many authors chose to write openly about their bodies after Reformasi. In the period before Reformasi, women were not free to write about their bodies. There are some personal aspects to that, but it also relates to how women’s bodies were associated with the leftist women’s organization Gerwani. During the Lubang Buaya incident2, these women allegedly danced naked and cut off the generals’ genitals. So, women’s bodies under the New Order regime were always associated with something evil, something immoral, something violent. And as a result, women could not easily speak openly about sex or sexuality.
But men could write exotic stories under New Order regime. No woman writer could so easily discuss the sorts of things that men wrote when they described women’s bodies or sex so openly. While men wouldn’t get any social pushback, women felt like it might be incriminating if they wrote about the same things. So, later, Reformasi was also marked by the appearance of novels that were more explicit because women were free to talk about their bodies, to write about eroticism and other aspects of their own experiences.
Of course, it was also during Reformasi that stories from the Suharto era—stories that people had been too afraid to talk about– started to be told. That includes political issues, injustices, and human rights violations that people hadn’t been brave enough to discuss.
LN: How about in the present?
LC: Actually, these problems from the New Order continue today. That includes, for example, human rights violations and gendered violence, which have continued since the New Order. Over the course of 50 years, not much has changed. Take women’s issues. Rates of sexual assault are still very high, violence is still very common. In 2019, the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) published a report3 stating that violence against women increased by 14% from 2018. It’s unclear if that’s actually because there are more victims or because survivors are more and more likely to come forward, but regardless, the rates are high and the numbers haven’t dropped. Now, in terms of human rights violations or the criminalization of environmental activism, those are things that happened during the New Order and that still happen today.
Today, when people defend their land, or defend land that companies want to seize from communities, or when they defend the environment and try to prevent heavy metals from destroying rivers and fish, that’s considered a political act. That’s taking a stand, not just against companies, but also against a sector of the elite within our government. During the Suharto era, a political act was understood only as speaking out against the state and the military. Now, activists who don’t want companies on their land are also taking a stance against the state. Environmental issues are very crucial, on the same level as other human rights issues.
I see myself, along with Leila Chudori and Ayu Utami, as writers who grew up under the New Order and who were already in our twenties when Reformasi began. So we were born into that regime and lived under it through our early adult lives. That means our way of thinking, our memory, is very tied to that period. We are motivated to write about things like the 1965 Tragedy4 because that period, or stories about that period, are so strong in our memories. We write about what took place a bit later on, too, like activism under Suharto. That’s a common narrative in our lived experience. When we write about these topics, we’re also writing as witnesses, or maybe as people who grew up hearing these stories, as people who knew about or who may have been affected by the disappearances.
After us, there is a group that is far more distant from these stories. For some, their writing does touch on themes from our generation. But a different group has already moved on to write about other topics, which are not any less interesting but that also don’t necessarily depict authoritarian regimes or imagined dystopias.
For instance, Ziggy Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie is one writer from the current generation that’s very interesting, in my opinion. She writes about a completely different world, and politics come through in her selection of symbols. Her novel, Semua Ikan di Langit (All Fish in the Sky) really impressed me. It takes place in a huge trash heap. Her main character is the corpse of a little boy. Her other characters are a cockroach and some fish, and they all ride together in a broken city bus that had been dumped in the trash heap. It turns out that the corpse becomes a certain kind of god or idol for these strange creatures. So the bus is flying along in this universe of trash, and one day it stops and a little girl gets on. The girl, who is actually the boy’s sister, is a Holocaust survivor. In this sense, Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie writes about an event from the past, but her approach is very different from the one that my generation takes when we talk about similar topics.
LN: I’d like to hear more about your own approach. You’re a journalist as well as an author of fiction, and a lot of your stories have direct connections to real political issues. Your writing is far less surreal than Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie’s, for example. When you write fiction, are your stories grounded in the kinds of events you yourself witnessed or in reportage about specific events?
LC: Well, let’s look at one of my stories, “Fourth Grave”. It’s about a young girl who is disappeared. Actually, I never say that she is based on someone real because she and her family are not real at all. In the story, there is an old married couple of Chinese descent, and their daughter is involved in politics. Up to this point, it’s all fiction. But were the disappearances real? Yes, they were. So I imagined a situation in which the daughter is kidnapped, like what happened to so many people who really were disappeared.
The story is about what I don’t know, like how a family would react if their child is disappeared. How does that affect the relationship between husband and wife? How do they remember their daughter? What is most painful in day-to-day life? It turns out what hurts are the little things, like when the wife wants to cook fish, but then all of sudden the husband says, don’t, our daughter might have been thrown in the sea. Memories arise, and they imagine what it might be like if their daughter had ended up in the ocean and then was eaten by a shark. And then they saw the fish in a totally different light, and they can’t eat it again.
LN: There are readers who say your stories are very sad.
LC: That’s true.
LN: I agree that they’re dark, but at the same time you include some whimsical elements. “Fourth Grave” actually has a lot of fantastical references to comics like Kho Ping Hoo, and “The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto” involves a supernatural flying horse, for instance. Could you comment on these dimensions of your work that are less realistic? What role does whimsy and fantasy play in political storytelling for you?
LC: Perhaps these elements, which many people would label magical or fantastical, are actually very everyday aspects of Southeast Asian societies. People believe that in addition to what we see in this dimension, there are also creatures alive in a different dimension. In belief systems or cultures around Southeast Asia, these elements are understood as ghosts or creatures on the threshold.
For example, where I was born on Bangka Island, people believe in 20 different kinds of ghosts. There’s a ghost that appears just as a head, for instance, called Anton, like the name for a little boy. Another one is called Hantu Burung Kuak, or Kuak Ghost Bird. If that one releases a specific kind of noise, it means something bad will happen. The ghost Menjadin can tear people apart. Aside from those, there are ghosts from Java that are pretty well known, like Kuntilanak, which is also called Pontianak in areas near Kalimantan. That means that in Malaysia, it’s also not uncommon to also hear about a ghost called Pontianak. Then there’s a snake ghost named Paul, like a white man. And there’s one called Mawang, too.
People who live on Bangka Island, in Sumatra, and even in the eastern islands of Indonesia, like Maluku or the Nusantara region, they take it for granted that these creatures are a part of their everyday lives. So when someone writes a story set in a society like ours, non-human characters are just normal. They aren’t strange. They just describe what’s going on in that other dimension.
When I wrote “The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto”, for instance, it was inspired by a trip I took by train. It was just one very brief moment. While I was in the train, I met a soldier. And during the New Order I really didn’t like soldiers, you know. I thought, oh no, a soldier is sitting next to me, how should I act? This was maybe five years before the New Order ended. Since I didn’t want to talk to him, I started reading some novel, I don’t remember which one.
That soldier wouldn’t stop talking to me, and then I noticed that he had a scar. From there, I started to imagine what I would end up writing in the short story.
1. Sastra Reformasi, or Reformasi literature, is a term used in Indonesian literature to refer to an outpouring of openly critical literary production in the wake of the country’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy in 1998. Linda Christanty’s argument as to how this literary category obscures the tradition of critical writing before Suharto’s fall from power can be found in her interview with Arsip Publik: http://arsippublik.blogspot.com/2015/01/wawancara-linda-christanty-2.html.
2. Lubang Buaya is an area on the outskirts of Jakarta where seven Indonesian generals were murdered in 1965 in an incident that came to be known as the 30 of September Movement. The incident became the justification for Suharto’s military coup d’état and the ensuing mass killings, imprisonment, and persecution of members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and affiliate organizations (including the Indonesian Women’s Movement (Gerwani) and the Institute for the People’s Culture (Lekra)), as well as people with any perceived connection to the aforementioned groups. For more information on Lubang Buaya and its role in the foundational myth of Suharto’s authoritarian regime, see John Roosa’s Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’État in Indonesia (https://uwpress.wisc.edu/books/3938.htm).
3. The full annual report can be accessed online here: https://www.komnasperempuan.go.id/read-news-siaran-pers-catatan-tahunan-catahu-komnas-perempuan-2019%20.
4.The 1965 Tragedy refers to the mass killings of 1965-1966 that took place in the wake of Suharto’s coup d’état. Estimates on the number killed range from 500,000 to three million people, and researchers have made the argument that the killings should be considered genocide. For more, see The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres by Geoffrey Robinson
and The Army and the Indonesian Genocide: Mechanics of Mass Murder by Jess Melvin (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/15/killing-season-geoffrey-robinson-army-indonesian-genocide-jess-melvinreviews).
This interview, translated from the Indonesian by Lara Norgaard, was edited and condensed for clarity.
Lara Norgaard is an editor, essayist, and literary translator from Colorado. After graduating from Princeton University in 2017, she served as Editor-at-Large for Brazil for Asymptote Journal and directed Artememoria, a free-access arts magazine focused on the memory of Brazil’s civil-military dictatorship. Her essays, literary criticism, and translations can be found in publications such as the Mekong Review, the Jakarta Post, Asymtptoe Journal, Peixe-elétrico, and Agência Pública. Currently, she is a Henry Luce Foundation Scholar at the Lontar Foundation in Jakarta, Indonesia and will begin her Ph.D. in comparative literature at Harvard University in September 2020.