It’s Your Turn to (Re)Write the Story

How can experimental fiction help to democratize storytelling?

You wake up disoriented. You’re in a New York City taxi, speeding toward JFK airport. In your hand is a one-way ticket to Berlin. But you look down and find you’re missing a shoe—only one foot is ensconced in a precious, ruby-red slipper. They were a gift from an infatuated devil—your Demon Lover, as you refer to him—in a far-off metropolis, one with the sounds of the call to prayer, motorbike traffic, and meatball vendors echoing across skyscrapers.

Your deal with the devil allowed you to travel freely but without purpose around the world, carried away from home by the curse of these scarlet high heels. Going back to Jakarta is not an option. But you, dear reader, do have three choices: Will you ask the cab driver to turn around and take you back home, to the New York apartment about which you recall nothing? Will you focus on your lost valuables and file a report with the authorities? Or will you continue onward, a hobbling heroine unfazed by a bit of imbalance, and get on that plane to your next destination?

This is the first decision readers are confronted with in The Wandering, Intan Paramaditha’s playful, experimental novel, which was released earlier this year in Stephen J. Epstein’s English translation. The novel’s most attention-grabbing quality is that it is a “choose your own adventure” book, of the kind many of us traversed as children.

The central feature of the CYOA form is that it calls upon the reader to help shape the plot. This quality teaches readers at a young age that their interpretations matter—not just to the meaning of the text overall, but to how the narrative unfolds. In Paramaditha’s hands, the CYOA form becomes especially powerful, given the political and literary context of Jakarta in the mid-2000s, when Paramaditha began her career as a writer. Suharto’s US-backed, anticommunist New Order dictatorship fell in 1998; Paramaditha started writing fiction in the wake of three long decades of authoritarianism and censorship.

Against this backdrop, it is significant that Paramaditha’s choice of form rejects the very possibility of a single narrative. Like many authoritarian regimes during the Cold War era, Suharto’s dictatorship justified mass violence against Indonesian citizens by constructing a narrative that cast communists, activists, and even women’s movements as threats. On a political level, The Wandering suggests a new approach to narrative that is far more radical than simply revising state histories. Drawing on an idea from Indonesian writer and political prisoner Putu Oka Sukanta, The Wandering could be understood as an effort to democratize storytelling.1

Alongside its surprising CYOA form, The Wandering’s democratic impulse can be found in its fusion of pop and literary styles, of canonical references and social critique. The book is layered with allusions: the loss of one ruby-red slipper in the opening pages brings to mind The Wizard of Oz and Cinderella. Depending on which adventure you choose, you’ll explore a chapter framed around Umar Kayam’s short-story collection Fireflies in Manhattan, or wander through fragments from a fictional Indonesian play that draws on Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Request Concert, or wade through a series of remarks on Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children. Through these multifarious references, Paramaditha’s CYOA novel insists that writing—and reading—stories involves engaging with and reinterpreting existing narratives.

Though CYOA is a new style for Paramaditha, this intertextual dimension is present in her previous work. Revisiting Apple and Knife, her collection of short fiction published in Epstein’s translation in 2018, helps situate the CYOA novel within Paramaditha’s broader literary project.

In the collection, nearly every story approaches a canonical narrative from a fresh angle. “The Blind Woman without a Toe” retells the classic fairy tale of Cinderella from the perspective of one of the infamous stepsisters. By giving voice to a traditionally vilified woman (usually framed as greedy and conniving) and calling our supposedly virtuous heroine “Sin” (short for Sinderelat), Paramaditha challenges the moralistic binary of good and bad women that appears in much of the Western canon.

Another story takes aim at how the Western male gaze has represented women in colonial contexts, by offering the opposite perspective. In “Kuchuk Hanem,” Paramaditha crafts a new version of Gustave Flaubert’s writings from his trip to Egypt, in which he encounters and orientalizes a dancer named Kuchuk Hanem. In Paramaditha’s version, we see the story from Kuchuk Hanem’s perspective; Flaubert becomes the subject of analysis rather than the author of the narrative. Paramaditha uses fiction as a platform to rewrite foundational Orientalist narratives from a feminist perspective. The short-story form counters the amalgam of social myths that influence women’s perceptions of their own bodies.

On a political level, “The Wandering” suggests an approach to narrative that is far more radical than simply revising state histories.

In these stories, Paramaditha writes counternarratives to the portrayals of women that have been dominant for centuries. One way to understand this project of counternarrative is to identify its relationship to Suharto’s New Order dictatorship and that regime’s authoritarian messaging.

“Interrogating the New Order discourse, at the time, was the norm,” Paramaditha says, of the context in which she began writing. We spoke over Skype at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. The author had just returned to her home in Sydney, where she teaches media and film studies at Macquarie University. I had just returned to the US, after an untimely end to a fellowship year in Jakarta.

Suharto’s 1965 coup d’état sought to eliminate a supposed communist threat. Before the coup, the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) was a significant political force—a legal, democratic political party, associated with cultural groups and with the Indonesian Women’s Movement (Gerwani). On September 30, 1965, a group of generals were murdered, and the slaughter was deemed an attempted communist coup. In response, there was a “countercoup,” one that led to Suharto’s long-lasting military regime and the mass murder of perceived leftists.2 Throughout its time in power, the dictatorship strictly enforced the historical narrative of a PKI threat, to justify the violence.3

For Paramaditha, interrogating national myths does not simply mean discussing politics. The regime’s foundational narratives also involve gender constructions, and Paramaditha analyzes gendered components of this official narrative in her academic research as well. In one journal article, for example, she focuses on Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI, a film commissioned by Suharto and shown annually in schools throughout Indonesia. Paramaditha discusses the state’s representation of women, whom she argues were associated with “dangerous sexuality”: “Gerwani members were reported to have performed an erotic dance for the PKI members and their allies before mutilating the generals,” Paramaditha writes. “The images of Gerwani women dancing are juxtaposed with images of generals being tortured and buried, creating an alignment between PKI’s violence and Gerwani’s indecent sexuality.”4


Queer Your Own Adventure

By Alexandra Valint

Some of the most well-known literature published during Reformasi, the period in which Indonesia returned to democracy, questioned gendered New Order fictions. Weeks before Suharto fell from power, in 1998, Ayu Utami released her novel Saman, which explicitly celebrated sex—a clear challenge to the stigmatization around sexuality canonized in Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI. However, as much as Saman has come to represent a new kind of openness in Indonesian society, literary critics such as Katrin Bandel have argued that the book’s representations of sex, though direct, still prioritize male pleasure.5

As part of the next generation of Indonesian feminist authors, Paramaditha credits writers including Ayu Utami and Djenar Maesa Ayu for diverging from New Order narratives and celebrating the body. But she wanted to do something markedly different. “I was thinking of shifting the focus,” Paramaditha told me. “I want to talk about blood. I want to talk about the abject, the bodies that are not sexual or sexualized.”

Apple and Knife does not include sensual stories. Rather, it is filled with grotesque reworkings of typical depictions of women’s bodies. In “Blood,” Paramaditha explores the stigma around periods by revisiting a cautionary tale that a Quran teacher told her about a ghost that licks menstrual blood. The story is told from the perspective of a weed-smoking copywriter living in Jakarta. Relatable and not-at-all-evil female characters confront, through the grotesque, the dark yet everyday narratives that exist around their bodies. Paramaditha challenges the morality upheld in fairy tales and the New Order dichotomy of the virtuous mother versus “the beast that is Gerwani”—by writing her own beasts into a new kind of bedtime story.

Apple and Knife is made up of a series of alternative bedtime stories. The Wandering, drawing on a different childhood genre—the CYOA novel—also comments on and rewrites the gendered social truths we have learned since childhood.

However, because CYOA novels invite the reader to participate in shaping the text, the form has its own implications for counternarrative—and for reading counternarrative in translation. The reader’s decisions and interpretations affect the way a story is told, and Paramaditha plays with that concept in The Wandering’s form and content.

Paramaditha’s CYOA novel insists that writing—and reading—stories involves engaging with and reinterpreting existing narratives.

At one point, we are confronted with the mysterious fragments of an experimental documentary made by unknown (fictional) Indonesian filmmaker Juwita Padmadivya. An equally mysterious, anonymous first-person narrator—perhaps Paramaditha herself—enters our story to present us with Juwita’s letters to an American film editor, and to draw our attention to the layers of rewriting intrinsic to the stories in her novel: “In building a narrative about Juwita through two mediums, I myself invariably play the role of another editor. I need not stress that based on the character of this work, with its cutting, pasting and rearranging, you are unlikely to ever locate Juwita.”

A pristine, original version of Juwita’s work is inaccessible. Instead, we have a depiction of an Indonesian woman rife with rewritings, filtered first through the choices of a fictional Western editor, then back through a meta, authorial voice in the Indonesian original. Indeed, we could see The Wandering as a whole in a similar light. English-language readers encounter the text not just through Paramaditha’s narration, but also through the stylistic approach of an Australian translator and the choices that the readers make, themselves.

All the while, the identity and location of Juwita remains elusive. Later, after trying and failing to find her, we—the “you” that doubles as the protagonist—speculate as to what might have happened to this inaccessible figure. We come up with five possibilities: that Juwita committed suicide; that Juwita didn’t commit suicide but instead married rich and spends her time traveling the world; that Juwita is simply a fictional character; that the film entitled Juwita was made by someone other than Juwita; and, lastly, a blank line, which we can fill in with our own interpretation. We, too, have a significant role in rewriting the narratives we encounter.


The Enduring City: Jakarta, Indonesia

By Spencer Cunningham

The Wandering thus resists a single narrative and gives the reader agency over what happens in the plot. In this sense, the book democratizes Paramaditha’s practice of rewriting stories. Given the author’s long-standing engagement with national myths about power and gender, this work allows us to imagine the possibility of democratizing history, too. Democratizing history would require us to accept the presence of myriad, contradictory, and overlapping perspectives—to accept the lack of a single true story and to acknowledge the role of our own subjectivities in making meaning.

Indeed, one of the CYOA’s most interesting contributions is its ability to function as a mirror for the reader. In yet another clever meta flourish, literal mirrors appear throughout The Wandering. These mirrors, both metaphorical and physical, force us to reflect on the biases we bring to the text and the interpretative choices we make while reading and—to the extent that CYOA allows—helping to author it. This dynamic is central to the meaning embedded in the text itself.

The first time I read The Wandering, I took the shortest path to death. (Spoilers to come.) As a white woman from Colorado placed in the subjectivity of a woman of color newly arrived in New York City, I decided to put my trust in the authorities and report the missing red slipper. I was quickly shepherded to JFK’s lost-and-found office, which turned out to be a sinister retro-futurist space terminal. There, I faced a discussion of my country’s neocolonial enterprises, past and present. After a few short pages, I was confronted with the word FINIS.

Typically, the questions that a translation raises center on how translators affect the meaning of the original text. But Paramaditha succeeds in reframing the conversation: I, as a reader and now a reviewer, merit as much analysis as the text itself.

And I will leave you, dear readers, with your own set of choices:

  1. If you want to learn more about Suharto-era state violence or, better yet, how US Cold War foreign policy has affected Indonesian literature and culture, read John Roosa’s Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’État in Indonesia (2006) or Wijaya Herlambang’s Cultural Violence: Its Practice and Challenge in Indonesia (2011).
  2. If you want to analyze The Wandering from an entirely different perspective and discuss globalization, bureaucracy, and immigration intersectionally, return to the beginning of the novel and choose a different path.
  3. If you’re interested in other literary works that allow for readers’ participation in narrative, check out Multiple Choice (2016), by Chilean author Alejandro Zambra.
  4. If you would simply like to enjoy a whimsical, grotesque CYOA novel with strong female characters, close this tab on your browser and return to wherever you paused in The Wandering.
  5. ____________________________________________________________________
  1. Putu Oka Sukanta, “Bridge of Light,” translated from the Indonesian by Keith Foulcher, in Lies, Loss, and Longing (Lontar, 2013), p. 48.
  2. Due to an absence of accessible state records related to the mass killings in Indonesia, most of which took place in 1965–66, the official number of deaths is debated. However, 500,000 is a commonly cited estimate. The term “mass killings” is also questioned, as some scholars argue that the violence of this period should be considered a genocide, given the concerted effort by the state to completely annihilate an entire social group. See The Contours of Mass Violence in Indonesia, 1965–68, edited by Douglas Kammen and Katherine McGregor (National University of Singapore Press, 2012), especially its introduction; and Jess Melvin, The Army and the Indonesian Genocide: Mechanics of Mass Murder (Routledge, 2018).
  3. “During the 32 years of the Suharto dictatorship, one history lesson drilled into all students, from the elementary grades to the university level, was that the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI) had masterminded the September 30th movement in 1965.” John Roosa, “The September 30th Movement: The Aporias of the Official Narratives,” in Kammen and McGregor, Contours of Mass Violence in Indonesia, p. 25.
  4. Intan Paramaditha, “Contesting Indonesian Nationalism and Masculinity in Cinema,” Asian Cinema, vol. 18, no. 2 (2007).
  5. See Katrin Bandel, Sastra, Perempuan, Seks (Jalasutra, 2006), p. 88.
Featured-image photograph by Ashim D’Silva / Unsplash