Family Room is a dynamic collection of short stories by Indonesian author Lily Yulianti Farid, with whom I will be ‘in conversation’ at the forthcoming Bendigo Writing Festival. (If you haven’t got your tickets yet, here’s the link: you can buy a session ticket, or a festival pass which gets you into multiple events). I’m looking forward to it because – as I said in a review of a different collection, Lily is wrestling with the remarkable social and political changes of the post-Suharto era while also interrogating feminist issues in a patriarchal society. And it’s not often that we in Australia get the opportunity to hear authors from Indonesia, sharing their distinctive view of the world.
What makes this collection so different to any collection of Australian short stories is the political and social context in which they were first published in 2008-9. Until the resignation of the military dictator Suharto (1967-1998), dissent was very firmly suppressed in Indonesia and publications which offended those in power were very promptly shut down. Stories which satirise corruption would never have seen the light of day during Suharto’s 31-year grip on power…
The first story in the collection is called Makkunrai and it features the confrontation between a girl and her grandfather, a powerful patriarch who expects to have total control over his family. This includes arranging the marriages of his granddaughters to useful cronies whether they like it or not. No one may dare openly challenge his authority, not even his son, as easily crushed as a fragile peanut cracker:
This is what my father told me: ‘It’s not good to be insolent to your grandfather.’
‘But someone has to fight back!’
‘Who would ever dare?’
‘All of us! Why not!’
‘Who would contradict your grandfather?’
‘All of us!’
‘You’re not afraid of disobeying your elders’ wishes?’ (p. 3)
When the corruption becomes too great to bear, this tame father thinks that the only possible solution is for his rebellious daughter to leave, and it’s the old man’s young third wife who surreptitiously encourages the girl to flee before it is too late. Too often, a hasty departure is the only solution for dissenters in repressive regimes…
(I did wonder if this was a veiled attack on Suharto as ‘father of the nation’ but the President’s children, also known as Suharto Inc don’t at this distance seem to have rebelled against his rule, on ethical or any other grounds.)
There’s an international flavour to the collection, reflecting Lily’s experience as a journalist. Many of the characters represent Indonesia’s growing middle-class who travel freely or work as expats around the globe; some are refugees. Stories which feature characters far from home exude a sense of grief and loss, obsession with unresolved family trauma, or a nostalgia for small-scale commerce and farming which is being lost under globalisation and development. In ‘Fire’ a daughter in Singapore realises too late that she should have listened to her mother’s stories: the family fled Jakarta after her Chinese father’s electrical store was burnt down in the 1998 anti-Chinese riots fomented by Suharto when he was courting the Islamic vote. In ‘Day and Moon’ while their servants luxuriate in the abandoned home, a loving couple are separated when they cannot decide whether a husband should follow a wife, or a wife her husband, in pursuit of their ambitions in Japan and the Pacific Islands. In ‘Lake’ an environmental scientist who studies lakes knows that international travel is not as dangerous as her activist sister Fayza naïvely believed it to be…
While Fayza went to the street to clench her fists and unfurl banners, Zara flew to Montana to join an expedition team. For years, she immersed herself in research, travelling thousands of miles in the process of visiting lakes in the northern hemisphere that froze in the winter and sparkled in the summer.
‘Be careful, Fayza.’
‘You’re the one that should be careful, living in a foreign country.‘ (p.89)
It is Fayza, believing herself safe at home in Indonesia, who is in peril…
Lily sets her stories in a variety of homes housing families that rarely conform to the traditional stereotype. It is an adopted son who sacrifices his ambitions to care for an ageing parent when the biological daughter doesn’t care; grandmothers and servants raise fatherless children or the unwanted. And homes are not safe at all when sectarian violence flares, as it did in Ambon – identifiable in the heartbreaking story ‘Your Father is the Moon, You are the Sun’ by the presence of proselytising Dutch nuns. They offer the only education available to a child who can never celebrate her birthday because it’s the day her father disappeared fighting the enemy. His unknown fate inspires mythmaking, but all three versions show him taking risks in order to get home to see his newborn daughter.
In the title story ‘Family Room’ the mother brags to the magazine ‘Homes Today’ that their house has been designed around a central family room to foster intimacy – but it’s a sham. It’s a tense, miserable home, where the narrator is on tranquilisers and her parents’ relationship has broken down in the face of her father’s token gaol sentence for tax fraud and her mother’s career in environmental politics. All three siblings have embarrassing secrets that must be hushed up to meet the middle-class norm of respectability. And there’s a sad and lonely child called Raf whose pleas for mother love are dismissed as whining…
The translation by John H. McGlynn is seamless, though there are a couple of untranslatable words where a knowledge of Indonesian adds to enjoyment. The story Kue Lapis is translated as layer cake, but you have to have seen it (and tasted it!) to appreciate the complexity of the layers of deceit and moral ambiguities that the cake symbolises in the family depicted in the story!
This is a thought-provoking collection so it’s a pity it’s hard to come by in Australia. One of our largest online stores is selling it for a whopping $47, and according to Booko Fishpond isn’t much better – though they had a second-hand copy on the day I looked so it’s worth checking there. Readings, however, who are not listed at Booko for this title, and who didn’t have it in stock on the day I viewed it, will order it in for $16.95 and if you spend more than $19.95 delivery is free.
Author: Lily Yulianti Farid
Title: Family Room
Translated by John H. McGlynn
Publisher: Modern Library of Indonesia, Lontar, 2010
Review copy courtesy of Lily Yulianti Farid and the Bendigo Writers’ Festival