The truth about Kitchen Boy

I’m feeling guilty. The sequel to Tiger Stone has taken longer than expected. I’m working on it though, I promise. In the meantime, I thought I’d try to answer a question I get asked a lot: who is Kitchen Boy really? The short answer is that I don’t really know. He just appeared one day and wormed his way into my story. Of course, there is a longer answer…

When I was researching Tiger Stone, I found a folk tale from Kerinci, a part of Sumatra where people have always lived close to tigers. The story goes like this:

Tandang and Delima live in the forest. When Delima goes into labour with their first child, Tandang runs to the nearest village to get help but while he is gone an old woman appears and helps Delima give birth to a son, Linjo. The old woman is a rather unconventional midwife; when she has finished helping she licks up the blood and amniotic fluid then does a somersault and vanishes. Delima catches a glimpse of a striped body and a tail disappearing into the forest.

When Linjo is seven years old he goes. Tandang and Delima are distraught, convinced that he has been eaten by a tiger or lured away by a forest spirit, but the next day he returns with a fantastic tale to tell. He says he was walking at the forest edge when he saw an old woman who invited him to go into the forest with her to play. The woman said ‘climb on my back’ then did a somersault and vanished. In her place stood a huge tiger. Linjo climbed on the tiger’s back and she carried him away over mountains and through valleys as if in a dream.

Tandang and Delima take their son to a dukun (a traditional healer) who says that Linjo is an orang bakung, a human who can befriend the tiger. Later in life, the tiger teachers Linjo martial arts (silat harimau or tiger silat, the highest form of pencak silat). The tiger always protects Linjo from harm and helps him acquire magical power.

Kerinci is in Sumatra, not Java where Tiger Stone is set. Yet I wonder if similar tiger tales exist in Java but are less well known because the Javan tiger has long been extinct. In any case, I hope the people of Kerinci don’t mind me borrowing Linjo.

The anthropologist who recounted the story of Linjo, Jet Bakels, conducted field work in Keluru, a village in Kerinci where it is not uncommon for a person to have a sahabat harimau or ‘tiger friend’ inherited from an ancestor or actively sought out through magic. This doesn’t mean the person has an actual tiger friend. the sahabat is a spirit that helps and protects her human kin.

The tiger is also an ancestral spirit for the whole village. Bakels writes: “During my fieldwork, Keluru’s football team ascribed their victory over a neighbouring team to the help of their ancestral tiger. They had seen his eyes glowing in the dark and had been given mystical powers in the game.” Bakels has some interesting things to say about how animal spirit beliefs have influenced the way Kerinci villagers live with the natural world but that’s a story for another post. I’d better get back to writing a book.

If you would like to read Bakel’s account for yourself, you will find it in Framing Indonesian realities: essays in symbolic anthropology in honour of Reimer Schefold edited by Peter Nas, Gerard Persoon and Rivke Jaffe. Jet Bakel’s chapter is titled ‘Friend or foe: the perception of the tiger as a wild animal’.

Pondok procrastination

Today, I spent a bit of time in a pondok. Not literally. Literally, I spent my time at the kitchen table staring at a computer screen. But in my imagination, I was walking through a forest and rice fields towards a pondok where I was looking forward to having a bit of a lie down. Oh, and it’s the end of the sixteenth century.

You’re probably wondering what a pondok is. You might be wondering what I’m doing in the sixteenth century too, but that’s a conversation for another day.

pondok is a small shelter in a rice field that farmers use to rest in and, sometimes, to keep their buffalo in. You see them in Java and Bali and probably in other places as well. Here’s one I found on the internet:

pondokpadidesignAnd the internet is where the trouble begins. To make sure my memory was serving me correctly, I did an image search for ‘pondok in rice field’.

Most of the images were of tastefully decorated bedrooms with French doors opening out to lush gardens and infinity pools. The term ‘pondok‘ is evocative of the open-air simplicity that appeals to tourists who don’t want to have a resort-style holiday in Bali. Obviously, Google assumed I was in need of a holiday.

Once I had got past the distraction of the infinity pools, I found the image above and it was pretty much exactly what I had been imagining . I could, of course, have just had a good look at the image and gone back to what I was writing but…. I was intrigued by the little logo that said ‘pondok padi design’ so I clicked on ‘view page’.

Twenty minutes later, I was still in the rice field but I could see the pondok up ahead. And I did get there in the end.

The moral of this story is that internet access is a mixed blessing for the writer, but we all knew that already.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the image at the top of this post is of wedang uwuh (a drink made with cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon) and tempeh kemul at Omah Kecebong on the outskirts of Yogyakarta: It is my dream writer’s retreat.

Farming, puppeteers and treating children like plants

After reading Tiger Stone, my friend Helen gave me a biography of Nyi Njatatjarita, a female dalang (puppeteer) who was born in Java in 1909. Helen saw something of Kancil’s spirit in the dalang, who had a difficult childhood but through determination and charm became a highly sought after performer.

As a child, the future dalang Nyi Njatatjarita was known as Sudiyem. She suffered from a debilitating skin condition and couldn’t walk. A sickly child did not fit into the busy performance schedule of her parents (her father was a dalang and her mother was a musician) so they left her in the care of neighbours who worked as farmers. Although this sounds, on the surface, like abandonment, the biographers point out that there is a tradition that some Javanese hold that says parents who lose three babies in a row should adopt the next born out, even if the adoption is in name only. Presumably, this is a way to protect the child from bad spirits who have it in for the parents. Sudiyem’s parents had lost seven babies in a row before Sudiyem was born.

My main creative projects right now are writing a sequel to Tiger Stone and coaxing a fruit and vegetable garden into good health in an environment better suited for growing gold. So when I opened Nyi Njatatjarita’s biography last night to do some research, my attention was diverted by this little snippet about Sudiyem’s adoptive parents:

“As farmers, they did not have the minds for educating, but they did have the minds for caring. They treated the sickly Sudiyem like a plant that was under pest attack, and thanks to their patience, Sudiyem’s health improved and she was able to walk by herself.”

Ok, it’s a little demeaning to farmers’ intellects but leaving the Javanese class system aside for a moment, it’s a sweet image. And it’s lucky for Sudiyem that she was born before the green revolution so her adoptive parents used patience rather than insecticides to fight pests.

Biography of Nyi Njatatjarita: a group report by Suratno (chair), Harijadi Tri Putranto, Sukardi Samihardjo and Sudarko (members), Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia, Surakarta, 1993

Book Talks

“What’s the worst thing about being a writer?”

“What’s the best thing about being a writer?”

“Are we going to find out what happened to Kancil’s brother in the next book?”

“What’s the deal with Kitchen Boy and the tiger?”

“Have you started writing the next book yet?”

These are just some of the questions I’ve been asked in the past week on visits to Ringwood North Primary School and Serpell Primary School. Both schools have Grade 6 reading groups that have read Tiger Stone so it was great to talk to (and be grilled by!) people who had read my book. At Ringwood North I also got to give a little pep talk to all the Grade 5s an 6s about being a writer. I felt the weight of responsibility looking out at the sea of eager faces in the auditorium but they were still firing questions at me as their teachers ushered them out the door at the end of the session so hopefully I inspired some budding writers.

So a big shout out to Emily Rumble at Ringwood North and Avril Morris at Serpell for organising my visits and a huge thank you to all the students who listened and asked questions and inspired me to keep writing: terima kasih banyak!!!RingwoodNorth

Sulawesi Selatan

Students at Pinrang workshop

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve visited Indonesia, but this is my first time in Sulawesi. It’s the jigsaw-piece-shaped island that always seemed somehow remote, even though it’s only a two-hour flight from Jakarta. My visit here this time is the result of kebetulan. When I put in a grant application to the Australia-Indonesia Institute I gamely stated that I would visit a school in Makassar to do a writing workshop with the students. I had a vague plan to get the BRIDGE team at AEF on board and convinced myself not to worry, something would work out, it always does.

By the start of August, the BRIDGE team was on board and an itinerary for Java was starting to take shape but Sulawesi seemed as remote as ever. Then, kebetulan, I met Lily Farid at the Bendigo Writers Festival. Lily is the founder of the Makassar International Writers Festival, a talented writer and a true dynamo. Before I knew it, I had a MIWF t-shirt and bag and a spot on the line-up for a MIWF 2016 pre-event: a two-day workshop at SMAN 11 Unggulan Pinrang, a boarding school in a small (by Indonesian standards) town about four hours drive from Makassar.

I’m back in Makassar now, having just spent two wonderful days in Pinrang with two fellow writers (Aan Mansyur and Faisal Oddang), an inspiring Indonesian teacher (Baharuddin Iskandar) and twenty-nine enthusiastic senior high school students.

Senior High School students in South Sulawesi design zines on their laptops
Editorial teams at SMUN 11 Unggulan Pinrang prepare zines for Indonesian teachers in Australia to use as reading material in their classes

I shared my zine-making idea with the students and they were straight onto it, forming editorial teams and gathering material for zines about food, boarding school life, why everyone should read and dispute resolution Bugis-style. Within two days they had produced first editions for seven zines and one team was onto its second edition. I’ll get them onto a Wikispace to share with Indonesian teachers in Australia soon but now it’s time for me to go and explore Makassar.

Melbourne Writers Festival

Melbourne Writers Festival Schools Program

WithCaroleWilkinsonMWF260815Last week I got to see the Melbourne Writers Festival from the inside. I was invited to speak on a panel with Dragonkeeper Carole Wilkinson as part of the MWF15 Schools program. Our brief was to discuss how Asia inspired our writing. That’s us in the photo on the right, being inspired by the chocolates in the green room before the event.

Preparing for the Melbourne Writers Festival event was a good opportunity to reflect on what did inspire me to write Tiger Stone. Coincidentally, the festival occurred at the same time as the ACICIS 20th birthday celebrations in Yogyakarta. Speaking at MWF was one reason I wasn’t able to attend the ACICIS celebration, which was a pity because I collected a lot of material for Tiger Stone during the 7 months I spent in Yogyakarta with ACICIS, even though I didn’t realise at the time that I was going to write a book.

So when Heather Zubek, the chair of our MWF panel, asked Carole and me for our top writing tip for the audience I knew straight away what my answer would be: travel. Whether it’s overseas or to a neighbourhood you’re not familiar with, travel feeds the imagination; it gives you an outsider’s perspective on a place and that lets you wonder how it looks from the perspective of those who belong there.

The dog ate my homework

It has been almost three weeks since Tiger Stone was launched at Castlemaine Library and questions have been asked in certain circles about the absence of a post launch post. My excuse(es)? Life got busy, my eyes hurt, the VLine commute is killing me and the dog ate my homework.

Hmmm. Last week I visited a high school – primarily to convince anyone who would listen that 14th century Java is really really fascinating, but also to help the Year 12s prepare for their upcoming Indonesian oral exam. Unlike me, the students I spoke to didn’t make any excuses but a couple of them were clearly at the hyperventilating stage of exam preparation so I did my pep talk about doing a little bit every day and setting achievable goals. All of which made me think that I should probably listen more to my own advice.

So here’s my little bit for today. The launch was ace: the dadar unti (coconut and pandan pancakes) went down a treat (thanks Paul and Leonie); Susan Green gave a beautiful, thoughtful speech; loads of friends, family and book lovers came; the patented Castlemaine Library book launcher went off on cue, delivering a book into the hands of an avid young reader and I managed to get through the whole thing without crying or locking myself in the bathroom.

Thank you to everyone who came and to those who sent messages (and flowers!).

We’ll be doing the whole thing again in Ubud in a few weeks if you want to come along.



The last exam I sat was my NAATI exam. NAATI stands for the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters. There were hundreds of us all crammed into Wilson Hall at the University of Melbourne, all different ages and different ethnic backgrounds scribbling away in I don’t know how many different languages. I’ve still got my official NAATI translator rubber stamp in a box somewhere but as I passed the exam a good 15 years ago and haven’t done any official translating for at least 10 years, I don’t think I could ethically use it now.

Recently I decided to test my translator’s brain to see just how rusty it is. I wanted to translate an article that was published in 1990 in Tempo Interaktif magazine because it is one of the few online sources of information about the Wonoboyo Hoard – the treasure that appears in Tiger Stone – and I thought readers who don’t speak Indonesian might be interested to find out a little more about the treasure and its discovery.

The exercise reminded me how much I love translating – it’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle with ideas. It’s also quite a balancing act – if you translate too literally then it sounds clunky in English but if you are too free with your translation you run the risk of stepping outside the translator’s role and becoming an editor.

You can read my translation of ‘The Legacy of Saragi Diah Bunga’ here. If you read Indonesian, have a look at the original here – what do you think of my translation? Would you have translated anything differently? I’d love to hear your thoughts.



The new notebook effect

I’ve been asked to visit a school in a couple of weeks to help them celebrate Indonesia’s national day. They want me to talk about how learning Indonesian at school influenced my career and how it led to me writing Tiger Stone.

EnglishNotebookI was digging out stuff to show the students when I stumbled across my English notebook from high school. Inside are the outlines and first drafts of stories and poems I wrote in Year 8 and Year 9. I can still remember writing the first story in the book – a story about an autistic boy who comes to life when his carer leaves the room. I was sitting in a beanbag in my bedroom when I wrote it and the sun was shining through the window. I remember wondering where the story was coming from as I wrote.

I suspect the fact I only remember writing the first story is due to the new notebook effect: You start a new notebook believing the blank pages carry some kind of magic power but as soon as you start writing it’s not a new notebook anymore and its magic gradually drains away.

The last six pages of my English notebook are blank, consistent with the pattern of my notebook-keeping career. About half way through every notebook I start to wonder if a new notebook might be just what I need to inject some magic into my flagging imagination. I resist for as long as I can but I rarely make it to the final page before succumbing to the new notebook fever.

I’m not going to show the students my notebook but I will ask them where they write their stories. If the answer is ‘on a computer’ I wonder if they’ll be flipping through their early works thirty years later.