Three words: Indonesian. Feminist. Horror. Do these words excite you? Because they should.
Here’s why: avenging Javanese Goddesses, revenant dangdut dancers and fleets of rats populate—or rather spill, scratch and crawl from—the pages of Apple and Knife, Indonesian writer Intan Paramaditha’s first collection of short stories to be translated into English (by Stephen J Epstein). Sacrifice, fairy tale and orgiastic butchery are the abundant tributaries which converge into the rivers of blood meandering through these stories. Catalogued here are powerful, disobedient women who misbehave, following their own desires over the dictates of society. These are women with swagger, and as such this is a collection for Lilith, not for Eve.
Rather than stories of redemption and restoration, of the goodly justice usually served up in folktales, these are stories of righteous vengeance wrought and lust slaked, of sacrifice given freely and forcefully taken. With sexy monsters and the monstrously sexy, these stories map the ranges of female desire, rage and transformation. So be warned: here be empowered monsters. And they are hungry.
“Fairy tales give women a place from which to speak, but they sometimes speak of speechlessness as a weapon, a last resort ... beginning with gossip as a woman’s derided instrument of self-assertion, closes with muteness, as another stratagem of influence.” (Marina Warner, The Beast and the Blonde (1994), p. xxi)
These stories reverberate with women's voices, voicelessness, and silence. In the tradition of many fairy-tale collections, the first story, “The Blind Woman Without a Toe,” begins with the enticements of an old crone storyteller, beckoning us to “Come. Come, child. Sit by me. Are you sure you want to hear how I became blind?” (p. 9)
This is a promise of gore to which we giddily squeal “Yes, yes, tell us all! Leave no stone, or indeed toe, unturned ... ”
The crone is one of the Ugly Sisters from the Grimms’ ”Cinderella,” who were allegedly punished for their jealousy by having their eyes gored out by a flock of snarky birds. Here, though, the story of “Sin or ’Sindelarat’” (the Bahasa Indonesia equivalent of “Cinderella”) is recounted from the perspective of one of these nameless sisters, to craft an old story with new claws. This change in speaker flips the script on the original story, revealing the formerly unimpeachable Sindelarat to be in fact an unscrupulous go-getter capable of vast cruelties—someone, this sister claims, who was “no less calculating than we were” (p. 14). Here, storytelling becomes a means for the Ugly Sister to speak back to those that have previously had the power to speak for, and over, her experience. Thus, instead of being traduced within someone else’s narrative and agenda, this sister’s act of articulation shows a woman seizing the power of the voice for herself, enabling her to become the architect of her own stories. This switch in orator, and her direct (re)addressing of fairy-tale tropes around gender construction, does call to mind the microfictions of Suniti Namjoshi’s Feminist Fables (1981), in which a “wicked’ women” is:
Generally known as Whore, Bitch, Slut, Sow.... She asked that the labels she bore be changed to some others that would more accurately express her wickedness as a person, rather than, as they did at present, merely as a women. (p. 23)
In “Cinderella” (and as a prevalent trope within fairy tale more broadly), female ugliness is an index for internal moral corruption, whereas physical beauty is an emanation of innate goodness. Paramaditha inverts this equation, making beauty a sanctuary for vice. Rather than originating from pure maliciousness and nefarious glee, the behaviour of the Ugly Sisters is thus instead positioned as a response to societal demands. Where “we were merchandise in the market and Prince Charming was the sole customer” (p. 13), eliminating competition becomes a survival strategy.
The actions of the Ugly Sisters are thus contextualised within a capitalist system which prioritises competition; in which the economy of female flesh is attributed value based on its proximity to an abstract ideal of beauty and compliance. Within this system, the Ugly Sisters’ self-inflicted toe amputations are attempts to sculpt their bodies into the predetermined parameters of a glass slipper, becoming a logical means of meeting the market specifications for female bodies.
In “Scream in a Bottle,” another crone tells her account of capturing, collecting, and guarding women's screams, claiming that this service allows women to remain in society. She also contends that unbottled screams eventually result in the death of the untamed screamer. Making me wonder: what does it mean to scream in these pages? Whence and to where does this sound travel?
In the collection, screams, shouts, and wails are the progeny of frustration, ecstasy, and spite; screaming is about elemental excess; screaming is what Bertha, Jane Eyre’s famous “woman-in-the-attic,” is fond of and punished for. Screaming comes from disobedient bodies in pain and rails against commands to be quiescent. Women are to be seen but not heard. The fact that Bertha is heard signals that she is not sufficiently controlled, and therefore must not be seen.
To curtail and suspend the release of such utterances, therefore, bespeaks the need to hide, discredit, and ”unvoice” female suffering. Capturing screams is a form of wing-clipping, a control and gentrification of women’s bodies enacted through the abbreviation of their lived experiences, fury, and battlecries. It is the corseting of such screaming that allows women to function and abide within the very set of societal conditions that are the cause of such screams in the first place. This is because screaming, and the submission it shatters, unsettles and threatens the viability of current social formations. With this story, I cannot help but think of Anne Carson’s Antigonick (2012), with its promise to “Dear Antigone” that “I take it as the task of the translator to forbid you should ever lose your scream.” (p. 6)
“Kuchuk Hamen” is a story in which speech is both unfairly distributed and perpetually preempted, where a tongue becomes a totem of unjust silence and a mechanism for silencing the unjust. The character of Kuchuk Hamen, based on the real-life Egyptian dancer, is a famous courtesan whose “foreignness” becomes the source of fetishisation for the modernist European artists Maxime Du Camp and Gustave Flaubert (a fetishisation of “exotic” female otherness exemplified by Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings). Flaubert’s orientalising gaze is swiftly punctured, undercut, and truncated, however, as while Gustave waxes lyrical about the “mystique of the transient and the profane ... Prostitutes are poetry. Kuchuk Hanem snored loudly” (p. 58).
The story showcases both these artists’ insufficiency as lovers, and demonstrates how coloniality empowers European men to narrativise and define others in accordance with the coordinates of their own desires. Kuchuk’s usage of honorifics for these artists, such as Khawajah (meaning “lord” or “master” in Persian), becomes an ironic display of faux respect, and preempts the story's sharp turn in oration, from European “adventure” to local revolt. At one point Mehmet, a mendicant for Kuchuk’s love, disappears, leaving only his deracinated tongue as a souvenir and keepsake. Which is convenient considering that:
She would never trade Mehmet’s tongue for the tongue of any of her white lovers. His was not a tongue that took possession of the earth, but a tongue so gentle as to thrill the bones. (p. 59)
Here, then, is another kind of shout, one where bottles are replaced with a single jar and screams are replaced by an individual tongue. Speech and tongues are very clearly placed in “conversation” with techniques of coloniality—where other cultures are overwritten by the reductive gaze of occidental “exploration.” Hamen wields Mehmet’s tongue like a weapon and an accusation, revealing colonial narrativising techniques as a means of mastering fear of otherness. Thus, when she confronts her subsequent white lovers with this embalmed artefact, it:
Mocked them. Because it held up a mirror, and that mirror revealed a hideous face. Because it revived the memories of a thousand other tongues they didn’t comprehend, of guttural sounds from the back of the throat, savage and mischievous. (p. 62)
Sometimes, speaking in tongues is a silent activity, more haunting than actual words.
It is not just voices that escape the restrictive bonds allotted to them, but also the bodies from which they issue. Untamed female bodies haunt and terrorise this collection, with their excesses in form and fluid threatening the pre-established social order within which they are inscribed. These are bodies stretched by desire and birth, pulled by the gravity of judgement and a need for revenge. These characters open, exhibit, and flaunt the female body, revealing what “should” be concealed, to smash the idea of women as passive surfaces, on the rocks of empowered abjection. In the end, these are bodies rendered chimeric and liminal through their abundance, and they have a nasty habit of transformation.
Unsurprisingly for a book placed squarely in the feminist fairy-tales tradition, a central motif in the collection is blood. Blood—symbolising female rage, desire and bodily conditions—appears throughout, giving the collection greater overall thematic and aesthetic cohesion. So this is not blood flowing exclusively as a result of physical violence; rather this is the blood of burst hymens and menstruation, the blood of engorgement and gorging, blood as life; swelling, bursting, leaking, soaking, leaching. The story ”Blood” covers how, with the onset of menstruation, the female body purportedly becomes a location which “Many desire.... It is a source of disaster” (p. 24). Our story’s protagonist wonders, “has women’s bleeding ever been the subject of poetry?” (p. 26), before being confronted with another crone-come-ghost who is “licking her blood-soaked pad” (p. 24). Here, menstrual blood emblemises the leaky horror, excess vitality, and sloshy tendency to transformation with which the female body is generally framed.
The collocation of blood and excess vitality is further explored in the collection’s title story, “Apple and Knife.” Here, a woman named Juli exposes the hypocrisy of a group of judgemental women who ostracised her for perceived sexual transgressions. Juli gathers these women together and introduces them to man of angelic beauty. Overcome with desire for this man, the women collectively melt into an orgiastic festival of delight, where apples and knives commingle with flesh and want, resulting in an orgasmic bloodbath. “Eventually everything blurred; it was no longer clear who was victim, who was tormentor, who enjoyed pleasure, who suffered pain” (p. 174). These women have been incited to the same wanton activities for which they previously accused and hectored Juli. Watching over this bacchanalia with a satisfied smile, Juli now has her revenge.
“The Queen” is the story which most clearly and powerfully draws on Javanese and Sundanese folkloric traditions, to become the collection’s most elegant depiction of desire, revenge, and transformation. Kanjeng Kidul, also known as the Queen of the South Sea, is a fearsome spirit goddess who controls the Indian Ocean. In the Kraton mythologies of Yogyakarta and Surakarta, so enamoured was Kanjeng Kidul with the beauty of Panembahan Senopati (the founder of the Mataram kingdom) that she swore to protect the Sultanates, on the condition that he and his descendants became her consorts. She is known for her shapeshifting abilities, appearing sometimes as an astonishingly beautiful maiden. As controller of the south seas, she is a powerful force of nature, fearsome and not to be played with.
In “The Queen,” corrupt businessman Herjuno dramatically underestimates both his wife Dewi (meaning Goddess) and Kanjeng Kidul. Herjuno’s company is responsible for the illegal dumping of chemical waste into local waters. Believing he has met the infamous Queen of the South Sea in her human, incarnated form, Herjuno arranges a romantic liaison with her, hoping to gain her help and protection for his business. Instead of sexual gratification and blessings however, the Queen enacts a twofold punishment upon Herjuno for both his marital infidelity and his infidelity to the local environment. Thus, commercial exploitation of natural resources is contrasted with the spiritual rage of the local area, instantiated in the figure of Queen.
I would like to propose that the syncretic splicing of supernatural spirits with the human body is an important component within the Indonesian fantastic. In Eka Kurniawan’s Man Booker International-longlisted ”Man Tiger” (translated by Labodalih Sembiring), a young man has the spirit of a female white tiger residing within him, an incorporeal consort which has been passed down the family line. In Ayu Utami’s controversial “Saman” (translated by Pamela Allen), the mother of the eponymous character has a secret second family in the spirit world, giving birth to hybrid children as a result. Rather than demonic possessions where an individual’s body is invaded by an unwelcome entity of dubious intentions, these Indonesian spirit-human interactions are often mutually beneficial and negotiated co-habitations. Alongside Paramaditha’s treatment of the Kanjeng Kidul myth, then, these texts exhibit a shared aesthetic in contemporary Indonesian literature—which intermingles desire, spectrality, and inhabitations of the human body, as a means of breaching societal credos.
Paramaditha’s nimble work ducks and dives, weaving the campy, gothic, and visceral into the weft of societally-conditioned expectations of femininity in order to create warped tapestries of female deviance, going some way towards queer depictions of women in all their transforming, glitchy glory. As a result, Paramaditha’s stories illustrate the threat to embattled order which ensues when the denizens of the margins burst into the centre and make a bloody mess. As such, this collection is a vivid and important addition to the corpora of both Indonesian translated fiction and feminist speculative fiction.
Female monsters are here to claim the earth. Long may they reign.