Butterfly Batik (2)

I convinced my Beringharjo guide to speak to me in Indonesian. His aunties thought they were speaking to me in Indonesian too but I thought they were speaking Javanese. It didn’t matter much as we were soon speaking the language of cloth. Their second-hand fabric was mostly old kain, hemmed lengths of cloth that Javanese women traditionally wear wrapped around the body (in English we’d call it a sarong but in Indonesia a sarong is a tube of cloth with a seam on the short edge and is worn by men). The cloth was soft from years of wear and washing – that perfect velvety state that fabric achieves just before it falls apart.

The kain I chose was a dark navy blue with a design of birds, butterflies and flowers picked out in a rich tan with dotted white highlights. It was a batik tulis, or ‘written’ batik. For this type of batik the craftsman (who is usually a woman) uses a tool called a canting – a tiny brass pot with a spout at the bottom and a bamboo handle – to create a freehand design instead of using a stamp to produce a regular pattern. The maker scoops melted wax from a pan, puts her finger over the spout to stop the wax pouring out and blows on the pot to cool it slightly. In her other hand she holds a length of cloth that is draped over a bamboo frame and in one swift movement she transfers the canting to the cloth and continues to draw the pattern where she left off, adjusting her speed to control the width of the line as the liquid wax pours from the spout.

I’ve seen batik tulis ladies in action. They sit straight-backed on low stools and their movements are fluid and unhurried – they are a Javanese version of the refined ladies doing their embroidery by the fire in BBC productions of Jane Austen novels. I’ve also done the obligatory batik-making workshop that goes with language immersion courses in Indonesia – in the afternoon, when everybody’s brains are fried, we all sit around pots of hot wax making blobs on scraps of cloth and trying not to burn our legs on the kerosene burners or pour wax all over our clothes. My kindergarten attempts at batik tulis gave me an appreciation of the patience and skill required to make it properly. But how much would a piece like this be worth?

At the time, I had learnt Indonesian for four years at secondary school in Australia and at an intensive ‘summer school’ at a university in Indonesia. My school experience had given me a strong grounding in Indonesian grammar – to the extent that the children at my homestay in Jakarta told me I talked like a textbook – and at the summer school I had got pretty good at talking about politics, sociology and the cultural role of soya bean products in Indonesia. But I wasn’t (and I’m still not) very good at bargaining.

I knew a few things: keep it cheerful, don’t be in a rush and if you offer a price that is accepted, you are duty bound to buy the item. I had also been told that if you want a good price you shouldn’t appear too keen on the item and it’s worth checking out the price of similar items in a fixed-price shop before venturing into the market. However, I couldn’t hide my love for the butterfly batik and I hadn’t looked at the price of batik tulis in the shops – I had always assumed it would be beyond my backpacker budget. Yet I wanted that batik so bargain I must.

I don’t remember how much I paid but it wasn’t cheap. And why should it be? It was beautiful, and besides, I wasn’t just paying for a piece of cloth; I had been given a personal tour of the market and a free language lesson and the experience had lifted my mood immeasurably. This might sound like a self-indulgent attempt to justify retail therapy, but it’s not. Well, maybe it is a little bit.

In any case, it is a memory I have cherished for over twenty years, so if you’re about to head off on a backpacking adventure yourself, remember that it’s not all about getting the best price and travelling as light as you possibly can.

The aunties wished me well for my travels and my guide led me out through the maze of stalls to the front of Beringharjo Market where we had met. He had a smile on his face that told me he would be allowed to knock off early that afternoon.

As for me, apart from having a lighter wallet and a heavier bag, I had a new purpose: to find a tailor. [tbc]

Butterfly batik

I changed my website theme today and in the process I revisited a journey I made over twenty years ago.

I was looking for something suitable to use as a background for my header image when I came across my old batik shirt. The fabric was so worn that it ripped every time I put it on but I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out because it reminded me of the boy at Beringharjo Market, his aunts and the fastidious tailor. So for many years it has been languishing in a box with all the other treasures that I can’t bear to relinquish.

When I was twenty-two I travelled solo through Bali, Java and Sumatra. I arrived in Yogyakarta on an overnight bus from Malang and checked into what was, in retrospect, a pretty creepy guesthouse. My trusty Lonely Planet South East Asia on a Shoestring (a big yellow brick) told me to go to the Beringharjo Market, so I did – even though all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball in my room where nobody could hassle me (it hadn’t been a great bus trip).

The boy at the Beringharjo Market was a few years younger than me. His after school job was to stand near the entrance to the market looking for likely tourists to draw into the depths of the Market where his aunties sold second-hand batik. He saw me coming.

The thing about me is that I have no sense of direction; I get lost at Vic Market in Melbourne, which is not only laid out in a grid but the rows are labelled alphabetically. I knew I had no hope of finding my way out of Beringharjo by myself so I did a deal with the boy (I’m sorry I can’t remember his name): if he would take me into and out of the Beringharjo Market, I would visit his aunties’ batik stall.

We wound our way through the labyrinth. Past stalls selling fruit, kitchen utensils, plastic toys and every imaginable body part of a cow. Finally we arrived at the aunties’ batik stall. It’s possible that they sold new fabrics too but I only had eyes for the old kain. [tbc]

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: http://www.omahkecebong.com/ It is my dream writer’s retreat.

How to make a zine

I was speaking at a teachers’ conference recently about the IndonesiaZine project and there were a lot of questions from teachers about how to make a zine. So, I thought I’d post a ‘how to’.

First up – this is not the only way to make a zine! It’s just what I found worked in the workshops I’ve run in schools.

you’ll end up with a zine that looks something like this:

2016-03-16 08.45.15Well, maybe with a bit more text on it.







Step 1: set up

Start with a 5-page document in MS Word or similar. Or start with 5 blank A4 pages if you want to go freehand.

  • Page 1 is the back cover
  • Page 2 is the front cover
  • Page 3-4 is the centre spread

All of these pages will end up being reduced to A6 size so use big font – 24 point for body text should be about right.

  • Page 5 is the fold out. It will stay at A4 size so this is a good place for a comic, a longer article or a photo-story.

Step 2: create content

Fill your 5 pages with brilliant ideas.

Step 3: resize

Reduce pages 1 to 4 to A6 size.

The easiest way I’ve found to resize in MS Word is to choose the ‘layout’ menu in printer settings then select ‘4 pages per sheet’ and print.

Step 4: layout

When opened out flat, the orientation of your first 4 pages should look like this:2016-03-16 08.43.34

So if you’ve resized in MS Word, you will need to cut the page in half along the short edge and flip the centre spread. I’ve tried making MS Word turn pages upside down but it won’t do it for me – if you figure out a way, I’d love to hear from you.

Step 5: publish

Print page 5 then photocopy it back-to-back with the covers and centre spread page. Fold in half along the short edge, keeping the front and back covers facing you. Now fold in half again, keeping the front cover facing you.

Congratulations, you have just made a zine!

By the way…

If you would like me to do a zine-making workshop at your school or arts organisation, you can book me through Creative Net Speakers Agency. For more information: info@derynmansell.com

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

Global Gardens of Peace

Getting into the Christmas spirit and also as an antidote to the news of Australian politicians being undiplomatic in the West Bank, I thought I’d talk about something garden-y and good that’s happening in Gaza for Gardening at Night this week. (This week’s episode is brought to you by the letter ‘G’.)
Anyway…back in 2004, Moira Kelly was in Gaza organising a medical rescue mission. Moira Kelly is an Australian humanitarian who is best known for bringing Trishna and Krishna the Bangladeshi conjoined twins to Australia for surgery.
When she was in Gaza, she visited the Gaza War Cemetery, which is maintained in part by the Office of Australian War Graves. She found the cemetery to be a sanctuary of green space in stark contrast to the bombed streets where she saw children playing. So she decided that the children of Gaza needed a garden.
The very green grass at the Gaza War Cemetery
The very green grass at the Gaza War Cemetery. Photo: Commonwealth War Graves Commission
In 2013 Moira Kelly founded Global Gardens of Peace as an Australia-based charity that would provide gardens for children in war zones, starting with Gaza. The Municipality of Khan Younis in Gaza provided 32,000 square meters of land for the garden. Khan Younis is the location of a large refugee camp that housed 72,000 registered refugees in 2011, 30% of whom were aged under 14.
The Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne got on board, with their landscape gardener David Laidlaw leading the team to design the garden. The design for the garden includes a treehouse, a giant slide, a flying fox, fruit trees, vegetable plots, an oasis, and education and cooking facilities.
Global Gardens of Peace has estimated the cost of the project to be A$8.5 million. This includes some provision for a desalination plant, which will be required for the garden’s ongoing maintenance; 90% of the local water supply is considered unfit for human consumption and salinity is a significant problem.
A team from Global Gardens of Peace visited Gaza in November this year and met with representatives from the UNDP and the Municipality of Khan Younis. Despite the positive tone of reports on the visit, the project is still waiting for funds. According to a report in the Canberra Times back in March this year, other nations had offered support but Moira Kelly wants the project to be “a gift from Australia with no strings attached”.
More information about Global Gardens of Peace: http://www.globalgardensofpeace.org
Featured image: “The Treehouse”. Borrowed from Global Gardens of Peace: Moira’s Garden – The Beginning

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

White Ravens

I admit that before Tiger Stone was included in its 2015 catalogue, I had never heard of the White Ravens. But it only took a little bit of research to realise what an honour being included in the catalogue is.

The White Ravens is an annual catalogue of 200 books released by the International Youth Library (Internationale Jugendbibliothek) in Munich. The judges select books based on “their potential interest for an international audience, whether due to their innovative literary or illustrative quality, or due to their consideration of universally relevant topics.

Our work is guided by the conviction that children’s and young adult books are an essential part of the cultural life of a society and of a country, and as such must be preserved, documented and shared. We particularly care about the promotion of international cultural exchange and the cultural education of children and young adults.

Internationale Jugendbibliothek

Thirty-five of the books in this year’s catalogue are written in English but the catalogue includes books from many countries and more than thirty languages are represented in the collection. Most are European languages but Taka Ki Ro Wai, written in Maori by Keri Kaa and illustrated by Martin Page was one of three New Zealand entries. Tiger Stone was one of eight book from Australia included in the catalogue.

Approximately 10,000 new titles are received by the International Youth Library each year in goodness knows how many languages. The library’s experts in each language family read the books and whittle the catalogue down to 200 titles. What an undertaking!

So as November has ticked over to December and we have entered the season of the list, I’m pretty pleased to be included in this particular list and now my goal is to read as many of the other entries as I can. You can visit the catalogue online to read the judges comments and choose your own reading list.


Peter Corlett's statue of Weary Dunlop. Photo by Kim McKenzie

Image: Weary Dunlop in Kings Domain, Melbourne. Photo by Kim McKenzie

When I think of the Remembrance Day poppy the image that springs to mind is Peter Corlett’s statue of Weary Dunlop in Kings Domain in Melbourne. The poppy association with war began with John McCrae’s poem In Flanders fieldsHe wrote the poem in Belgium in 1915 where, as a medical officer with the Canadian Army, he saw red field poppies (papaver rhoeas) growing in the otherwise devastated landscape of the battlefield in Ypres.

McCrae’s poem inspired YMCA leaders to sell poppies to support veterans and their families after WW1 and the poppy in the lapel has now become synonymous with war memorials. Before In Flanders fields, the poppy was associated in western literature with sleep and death (remember ‘The Deadly Poppy Field’ chapter of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz?). The poppy in question here is p. somniferum, more commonly known as the opium poppy.

Growing poppies

The poppy you are most likely to see growing in Australia is the Iceland poppy (p. nudicaule). Mary Moody (The Gardener’s Companion) recommends you sow the seed in late summer to flower in late winter and spring. The tip to promote long flowering from the ABC’s gardening website is to swap from a high nitrogen liquid fertiliser to a high potassium fertiliser once the plants are about 10cm across.

The opium poppy is the source of poppy seeds and poppyseed oil, as well as opium, but it is only legal to grow it in Australia if you have a licence. Having said that, the opium poppy produces loads of seeds and the poppy is a pretty robust flower, so there’s a good chance there is a poppy or two growing in a garden near you. To identify an opium poppy: it will have bluish-greenish-greyish leaves and stems and white, mauve or red flowers. There are a lot of commercial poppy farms in Tasmania, which is one of the world’s main producers of poppies for medicinal purposes.

The Flanders Poppy is considered a weed by grain farmers in Europe but it’s not listed as a noxious weed in Australia, so if you fancy planting your own poppy field, go for it.

Speaking of war and remembrance…

Read Robert Nelson’s Remembrance Day article in The Age in which he asks why we don’t remember the bravery of those who refused to fight in WW1.

And if you’re in Castlemaine, check out Ben Laycock’s Hero 1 and Hero 2 at Lot 19: ‘Lest we forget’

Gardening at night

…is a segment of Dancing About Architecture broadcast on 94.9MAINfm Thursday 7-8pm and repeated Sunday 9-10am





The Gardener’s Companion by Mary Moody, New Holland Publishers 2001