Deryn Mansell: An Adventure of a Multilinguist
The Jakarta Post
It maybe feels a little bit odd to learn that author Deryn Mansell, whose novel Tiger Stone is set in Indonesia's historical past, is not an Indonesian.
The Australian writer said she had developed an interest in Indonesia's history as well as its diverse local languages when staying in the country over a decade ago.
The novel centers on the adventure of a teenage girl, named Kancil, in the 14th century during the reign of the Majapahit Kingdom. Her father and brother are guards of the Pasundan Kingdom, now West Java, while her mother is from the neighboring kingdom, Majapahit.
At that time, Majapahit was enjoying its golden age under the rule of King Hayam Wuruk and his second-in-command, Gajah Mada. The kingdom controlled most kingdoms but Pasundan.
Mansell said that in 1357 Hayam Wuruk was supposed to marry Princess Dyah Pitaloka of Pasundan. The princess' family was excited with the plan since the marriage to the powerful king would bring her kingdom greater influence.
'But Gajah Mada didn't not approve of Pitaloka becoming the queen so he manipulated the situation,' she says.
She said instead of solving the matter diplomatically, all of the princess' family and people who attended the wedding were murdered, including Kancil's father and brother.
Left on their own, Kancil and her mother then left their hometown to Prambanan and in the process she remained silent to hide her Sundanese accent from Pasundan, which would have disclosed her origin among the Javanese-speaking people in her new home.
The battle between Majapahit and Pasundan erupted, known as the Battle of Bubat.
Mansell said the war was recorded in the history books of Pasundan, which cited that Hayam Wuruk was embarrassed with the tragedy. '[Maybe that's why] the Majapahit record, Nagarakertagama, does not mention it,' she says.
She said her novel's main character speaks many languages.
'She has a special talent that other people don't have to solve a mystery and since she knows many languages, she's able to solve the mystery in the story,' said Mansell during the launch of her novel at the recent Ubud Readers and Writers Festival in Bali.
She said her inspiration to write the story came from her time living in a boarding house when studying in Yogyakarta in 1995 and the friends she met while there. Mansell received a scholarship to study Indonesian language for six months at Yogyakarta's Gadjah Mada University (UGM).
In the boarding house, she met many women from across Indonesia who studied at different universities.
She recalled that the Indonesian students all spoke the Indonesian language when speaking with Mansell and other students ' but when they were in the market or when talking to the boarding house's lady owner, they switched to Javanese and when they returned home they talked in their respective local languages.
In 2001, she came once again to Indonesia to voluntarily teach English at SMK Perikanan fishery vocational school in Cirebon, West Java. It was a pilot project jointly organized by the Indonesian and Australian governments to introduce native English speakers into vocational schools.
But she said the project was stopped as a result of the 9/11 attack, allied invasion of Afghanistan and the Bali bombing.
After Cirebon, Mansell took a job teaching Indonesian language at a high school in Australia until 2010. The next year, she took a job working for the Asia Education Foundation, an organization which supports schools attempting to increase the understanding of Asia among their students, until now.
Her work included helping the schools through curriculum resources, organizing study tours to Indonesia and connecting people who work in different industries with the schools as well as helping the students understand how learning Indonesian can help them find jobs.
Previously, she had contributed non-fiction pieces for magazines and newspapers, but the story about Kancil stayed in the back of her mind ' until four years ago when she found a publisher interested in publishing a book set in Asia for teenagers.
'In Australia, we have a new curriculum which is trying to encourage students to focus more on Asia because our education culture tends to be very European/Western focused. So there's an attempt to get students to understand more about Asia,' said Mansell, who lives in Castlemaine in Victoria, Melbourne.
'I think it's important for Australian young people to understand Indonesian history and culture, and for young people in Indonesia to understand Australian culture because there's been a lot of misunderstanding lately. That comes down from the lack of the understanding of other people's feelings.'
Mansell plans to create a series that is set in significant time in Indonesia history. The characters in some ways will inherit the spirit of her first character, Kancil, and may have similar experiences, but will be set in different historical periods.
With her series, she hopes she can raise more interest from young people in Australia to learn and visit historical places in Indonesia like the Prambanan or the Borobudur temples, and to get them learning Bahasa Indonesia.
'The message I want to deliver is that being able to listen is a very important skill; everybody should listen to other people. So that is one message,' Mansell says.
'The other message is about being interested and being curious about the languages of another culture because that was what Kancil represents. That was my main inspiration, how being multilingual is a great asset.'
' Photos by Intan Tanjung
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