From Now On Everything Will Be Different by Eliza Vitri Handayani Vagabond Press, 2015
Julita, a feisty photo-journalist, strains against mainstream society’s strictures, occasionally using her tee-shirt as the page on which she expresses her revolt. Eliza Handayani, creator of the character Julita, felt impelled six months ago to have her own tee-shirt printed with text from her recent novel, in order to protest the official blocking of its launch at a writers festival in Indonesia. The authorities’ action alone would make this book of interest, but it is well worth reading on its own merits as an engaging novel from a new talent.
From Now On Everything Will Be Different traces the relationship between two young spirits yearning to be free. We are introduced to Rizky as a thirty-something doctor as he prepares to catch up with Julita for the first time after a period of years; he has just received at letter from her, asking to meet. The twin threads of Rizky preparing/travelling to meet Julita and vice versa comprise a core strand of the novel.
We next see them as high-schoolers in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, getting into strife because of their unconventional values. Their story is picked up again in 1998, a time of groundswell unrest against the government and the established order – and the last year I lived there, as it happened. Here the themes of their resistance to social and political norms, together with their individual struggles to find freedom and identity in their personal lives, are more firmly established, forming the double motif that provides the book’s focus. The novel progressively delves back into different periods of the pair’s lives, so that we gradually learn more about them and their evolving relationship.
The characters of Julita and Rizky are well drawn, both being likeable but with flaws and foibles. Their efforts to achieve workable lifestyles, ones that somehow reconcile their Bohemian beliefs with mundane realities, are for the most part pursued separately, and circumstances dictate that their relationship is expressed mainly through phone calls, text messages and letters. Rizky is the comparatively less assertive of the two in terms of breaking free and wears the cost of that, while Julita takes a more non-conformist route, with its own attendant price. She is far more adventurous in her love life than middle-class Javanese women are expected to be.
Perhaps reflective of the pair’s personalities are the boxes each keeps. Rizky keeps a ‘Box of Essential Memories’ (backward-looking), whereas Julita maintains her ‘Box of Unfinished Projects’ (forward-looking, to an extent). Whatever, their pains are palpable and one aches for them. Julita, especially, suffers from a sense of enduring disappointment in life until achieving a degree of perspective.
Their personal struggles take place against the backdrop of the Indonesian nation’s own struggle to forge a reformed society after the easing out of the quasi-dictator, Suharto, and the social order that went with him. This process was accompanied by acts of mass violence that could break out at any time; these occur ‘off-stage’ in From Now On, but add an element of edginess to the story. This backcloth is in no way intrusive, and it won’t harm your enjoyment of the novel if you have no knowledge of the politics or culture of the place.
This leads us to the blocking of the book-launch at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Bali. It wasn’t literally a banning: the local police simply told the festival organiser that the whole show would be shut down if she didn’t cancel any functions that mentioned the government-sanctioned mass killings of 1965 (which had over a million allegedly communist victims). The organizer put up a brave resistance before complying, but then publicised the incident to draw attention to the very thing the authorities didn’t want in the limelight.
What exactly had Eliza written in From Now On Everything Will Be Different to incur official displeasure? Here’s the relevant extract: “The actors asked him what new plays he wanted them to mount, now they could perform whatever they want – perhaps something about the ’65 mass murders…” And that’s it; there’s not another mention in the whole novel. Maybe Eliza is correct in suggesting that her book was “dragged into the 1965 paranoia wave”. Undaunted, she continues to promote her book, saying that it’s important to never be afraid.
Back to the novel as literary work. It is longer than the Indonesian-language version published in two years ago, as Eliza added more background to aid the understanding of foreign readers, plus modifications based on feedback from the earlier version. This is not the author’s first novel. As a teenager she wrote a book, but was so unhappy with it she didn’t tackle another novel for a decade. What we have now is the work of a more mature talent.
There are two minor issues I’d raise about the book. First, there are a few slips of grammar, but not to any distracting extent. More of a bother is occasional lack of clarity about exactly where we are time-wise, as the jumps forward or back in time are not always clearly indicated. Editorial guidance could have easily fixed this, using double-line breaks or centred asterisks.
That said, From Now On Everything Will Be Different is an intriguing novel with two endearing main characters, even when you feel like giving them a slap to wake up to themselves. Though they are probably not people I’d want to be besties with, as they edged slowly closer to their rendezvous, I couldn’t help feeling the tension and had to resist flipping to the end to see what happens. You should resist, too.
I recommend this novel to anyone who likes a well-written read about characters you can care about, and especially commend it to those with an interest in new writing coming out of Southeast Asia. Whether, as Manneke Budiman suggests, it represents “a new dawn of the Indonesian novel” is – I suspect – too early to call. It is, however, a real advance on a lot of literature from that country in that it enters deeply inside the hearts and minds of its protagonists, and in that it explores moral issues more fearlessly than her compatriot writers usually do. Perhaps that was another reason Eliza incurred the wrath of the authorities.
Now just short of thirty, Eliza is married to a Norwegian and divides her time between Oslo and Jakarta, where she is involved with InterSastra, an organisation she set up to promote literary translation. She’s definitely one to watch and I look forward to her next offering.
Postscript: I have followed the Indonesian custom of referring to a person by their first name rather than their last.
– Mike Coppin.
Mike Coppin is the author of Shadow Chase, a novel set in Java, where he taught English for five years. He has had articles and book reviews printed in Inside Indonesia, Rural Society and other publications. He can be found at www.mikecoppin.wordpress.com
From Now On Everything Will Be Different is available from http://vagabondpress.net/products/eliza-vitri-handayani-from-now-on-everything-will-be-different