The Jakarta Post
In Dorothy’s footsteps: Intan Paramaditha's 'The Wandering' was translated by Stephen Epstein and published by Harvill Secker in February 2020. (Courtesy of Intan Paramaditha/=)
In the novel The Wandering, the protagonist gives into temptation and makes a deal with the devil. He gives her a pair of magical red shoes that allows her to fulfill her greatest desire: to travel the world.
The devil’s gift, however, comes with a stern warning: “Adventure, or more precisely, wandering, will be your eternal lot. You will find shelter, but never home.” So begins the protagonist’s – and the reader’s – journey.
Written in an interactive format similar to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” children’s series, The Wandering, which was first published in 2017 in the original Indonesian as Gentayangan, moves from one place to the next, be it Berlin, New York, Lima or Amsterdam.
“I wanted to write about this feeling of gentayangan, of being in between, everywhere and nowhere,” explains the novel’s 40-year-old author, Intan Paramaditha.
“It’s a novel about travel, and therefore it made sense to use a forking-path narrative structure, because when we travel we always ask: what if I had chosen that path? What about the road not taken? This structure allows the reader to see different versions of themselves on different paths, meeting different characters.”
The novel, she continues, is also a commentary on choice: While it may look like we have options, these options are predetermined. It is the author who has decided exactly what is option A or B.
“In real life, options A or B are shaped by so many factors, including your class, gender, race and nationality,” Intan says. “In other words, what is the freedom to choose when everything has been structured?”
She also shares thoughts on the ideas of travel and privilege. In the global age, Intan says, the world seems small and connected, but for whom?
“Not everyone has the privilege to perceive the world that way,” she says. “For some, even domestic travel is a luxury. For undocumented migrants who have traveled, the world still feels disconnected and their mobility is limited because they cannot go abroad or return home.”
Ironically enough, the English version of The Wandering was launched shortly before the coronavirus wrought havoc across the world and turned travel into a distant memory or a dream for a distant future.
“It’s really interesting. The Wandering is a novel about border crossings. It is critical of national borders and it celebrates what I call ‘cosmopolitanism of the common people’– travelers who are far from privilege, poor international students on scholarship, undocumented migrants – and it was crushed by COVID-19, a super wandering virus,” says Intan. “And now we see that countries everywhere agree that to minimize the risks, they have to close borders. [The] coronavirus is really against the ‘gentayangan’ spirit.”
Intan was in London when the repercussions of the pandemic started to become real. As a visiting scholar at SOAS University of London, she had planned a book tour to promote The Wandering, but could only hold the first event – the rest had to be cancelled.
“My publisher [Harvill Secker] told me we should keep our expectations low, not only in terms of events but also media reviews and coverage,” Intan recalls. She adds that the media is focusing predominantly on the coronavirus. Even before the pandemic, the media reserved little space for literature, and this only became smaller when the virus spread around the world.
In addition, Intan couldn’t continue her research at SOAS because the university closed the library. So she decided to cut short her two-month residency and return to Sydney, Australia, where she lives with her partner and daughter.
This wasn’t easy, because many flights had been cancelled, several borders were closed and she couldn’t transit in Singapore, Hong Kong or Bangkok. In the end, she flew via Doha and was extremely relieved when she arrived home after a journey that had turned into an odyssey.
Extending roots: In addition to being a writer and lecturer, Intan Paramaditha is involved in feminist arts and culture projects in Indonesia. (Courtesy of Ugoran Prasad/-)
Like the protagonist in her book, Intan is something of a wanderer herself. She was born in Bandung and in kindergarten moved to Jakarta, where she spent her university years.
“There are three things from the years when I was growing up that shaped me: my location, education and feminism,” Intan says.
“As an Indonesian kid I was quite privileged at being in the ‘center’. I went to schools in Central Jakarta and my mother would buy me many books, but I didn’t come from a rich family. My parents were doing OK financially, but travel was not something that we could afford.”
As a child, she read fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. She decided in elementary school that she wanted to become a writer and create her own stories. It was at that time that she was introduced to Agatha Christie. Later, she studied English literature at the University of Indonesia (UI), and then at the University of California San Diego (UCSD).
“I was very much influenced by English lit. My preference for the Gothic, for instance, was shaped by my early interest in 18th century British Romanticism. Whenever I think about structure, characters and imagery, I think about Shakespeare,” says Intan. “I ended up studying cinema and using an ethnographic approach in my research, but I think and operate like a former English major.”
As an UI undergrad, she studied under feminist professor and activist Melani Budianta. It was from her lectures that Intan first learned about feminist theories.
“I started to connect the patriarchal reality around me and feminism as a tool of analysis. I had a turbulent time as an angry young woman. I fought against my authoritarian father and his patriarchal standards. I thought cultural and religious norms were unfair towards women. I became interested in disobedient women – first my mom, then other models, mostly from literature,” she recounts.
“Feminism was helpful for me to understand what was going on. As a framework, it remains central in my fiction and academic work until today.”
Intan eventually became a traveler herself on the scholarships she received: a Fulbright scholarship in 2005 for a master degree at UCSD, a full fellowship from New York University to pursue a doctorate on Indonesian cinema. During this period, she also spent some time in the Netherlands.
Intan was then offered a position as a media and film studies lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney.
“It took me a long time to decide, because at that time I had been in the United States for a decade, and the thought of moving to another country was daunting. I finally accepted the offer because the position allowed me to do research, although I also had to teach,” she says. “I guess it all happened organically – I wanted more opportunities to write and do research, things that are quite difficult to do in Indonesia.”
Even though Intan has been away from Indonesia for a long time, she is still very much connected to the country’s arts and culture scene, working on different projects with feminist organizations like Cipta Media Ekspresi, which provides grants and education for women artists. Intan also works on Period, a writing workshop she founded with fellow writer Lily Yulianti Farid.
“In a way, it gives me the sense that I never really left the country,” she says.
In the present, all travel plans have had to be halted until further notice, as people all around the world follow their governments’ guidelines to stay at home during the health crisis. While many are trying to stay productive and creative during self-isolation, Intan suggests that perhaps not everyone will be able to do so.
“We need to remember that it’s also OK if you don’t want to read or spend your time productively, because it’s not a normal situation,” she says.
“I am [also] still worried about many things, for instance, the wellbeing of our parents in Indonesia. I think we need to accept that making mental adjustments is not easy. Again, this is not a normal situation, and even if we survive this, life will never be the same.” (ste)
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