Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 24, 2019

My Pain, My Country (2017), Dewi Anggraeni

My Pain, My Country is a fictional response to true events that happened in Indonesia in 1998. In May of that year there was widespread civil unrest attributed to food shortages and mass unemployment, and the riots ultimately led to the resignation of President Suharto and the emergence of democracy in Indonesia.  The main targets of the violence were Indonesians of ethnic Chinese descent, and it is this aspect of what is now often referred to as Tragedi 1998 which forms the focus of Dewi Anggraeni’s novel.

Dewi Anggraeni is an Indonesian journalist now based in Melbourne, and the book is written in English, not translated. I infer from the numerous explanations of traditions and cultural mores, that it is intended for an audience beyond Indonesia, to expand on the headlines that surfaced briefly and were then lost again in the 24/7 news cycle. Anggraeni has four significant concerns:

  • Ethnic divisions, and anti-Chinese sentiment in particular persist in Indonesia, and violence may recur;
  • Neither the instigators or the perpetrators have been brought to justice, which increases the prospect of future violence;
  • The widespread rape of Chinese-Indonesian women was under-reported and hushed up, and is still denied by many; and
  • The refusal to look back and investigate exacerbates the ongoing distress of the victims and their families.

Anggraeni was previously the Melbourne-based correspondent for Tempo and other Indonesian media, and from her profile at Goodreads, it can be seen that she has previously written a non-fiction account of the riots: it’s called Tragedi Mei 1998 dan Lahirnya Komnas Perempuan (Buku Kompas, 2014) which translates as The May 1998 Tragedy and Birth of the National Commission on Women, a body that was set up by President Habibi (briefly in office in the transitional period from Suharto to democracy, from 1998 to 1999):

The KP deals with basic human rights of women in Indonesia, notably all sorts of violence against women, in conflict as well as peace situations. Together with social organisations, the KP develops concepts, standards, instruments and mechanisms intended to prevent, handle, and abolish all forms of violence against women. The Commission has initiated advocacy activities and has been involved in several processes of human rights investigations. The major achievements have been the establishment of one-stop crisis centres for women in several places in the country and the set-up of special departments for female victims of violence in police hospitals.

Whatever the good intentions of this commission, it would appear from Anggraeni’s novel, that the 1998 rapes are outside its remit.  Characters in the novel are disappointed by the inaction of Indonesia’s first female president (Megawati Sukarnoputri, 1999-2001) and by the novel’s end in 2013, nothing much has changed.  Like the issue of the so-called Comfort Women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese occupation forces in WW2, it seems that the use of rape as a weapon is a taboo that some cultures would rather deny.  So it takes some courage for an Indonesian author to broach this topic.

However, it is not an easy novel to read: it’s confusing. The central characters, the mother and sister of the rape victim, are still traumatised many years after the event, and they still don’t know exactly what happened to Nina. To depict this and to create narrative tension culminating in the final revelation about Nina’s heroism, the novel travels back and forth across many settings and time periods.  At the same time, to depict the ongoing impact on the extended family and other members of the community, there are so many characters that I found myself wanting a family tree.  These problems could have been resolved with better editing, but the publisher Austin Macauley is not noted for that.

My Pain, My Country is the August choice for my Indonesian bookgroup.

The name of the designer who created the exquisite cover art unfortunately isn’t provided.

Author: Dewi Anggraeni
Title: My Pain, My Country
Publisher: Austin Macauley London, 2017, 252 pages
ISBN: 9781787104228
Source: On loan from Jo, in my Indonesian book group. (I had a Kindle edition of the book, but much preferred to read it in print, thanks, Jo!)


  1. Greetings,

    I admire writers that shed light on social and political events that have been omitted or obscured by ‘official’ versions of history. Dewi Anggraeni’s novel- My Pain, My Country, is an urgent and relevant narrative to read. In some countries and regions, the exploitation and oppression of women is often dismissed due to the lack of policies to protect them or sanctioned punishment for those who victimize them.

    This is the first time I’ve learned about these incidents of social and political arrest in Indonesia. I also wasn’t aware of the Chinese population in the country. I’m very discouraging to learn that the Chinese Indonesian women who were raped and physically abused received no semblance of justice from the Indonesian government.

    I’ve had the notion that journalists who write fiction have the ability to capture the nuances of plot, characterization, setting, and action because of the attention to structure and detail prevalent in their journalistic work. Its too bad Lisa that your experience reading Anggraeni’s novel was a little bewildering. But I take note of the central concerns explored in the narrative as well as the historical connections you made with the subject matter in the novel with the Comfort Women in World War II. I have to find out if this novel was released in the United States.

    Your review Lisa reminds me of similar issues addressed in the following texts:
     The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings & Islamic Militancy in Nigeria by Helon Habila
     Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao (novel set in the United States & India)
     The Stone Virgins by Yvonne Vera (novel of the colonial unrest in Rhodesia 1980s)
     An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (U.S. & Haiti)
     Comfort Woman by Nora Okja Keller (present-day Hawaii & “recreation camps” of World War II)
     The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti & U.S.)
     In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez (Dominican Republic)
     The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leon)



  2. That’s a great set of recommendations, thanks:) (I’ve read The Memory of Love, Forna is a great writer who tackles important issues).
    I think this one is available from Amazon for a kindle, so you should be able to get a copy.


  3. Interesting I can’t remember this at the time in the news


    • No, sadly, I don’t imagine it would have made the news in the UK.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Our tv news is terrible these days years ago it would have a lot of world news now just about uk mainly


        • Same here. We get more news about the US – and at the moment, because of #Shudder Boris, the UK – than we do about our own local region in southeast Asia.


          • Oh yes it’s a nightmare but if they lose the by-election on 1st August that throws will loss to lib dem means a hung parliament


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