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.

Jakarta: Museum Gajah

Kancil at Museum Gajah
Flat traveler in front of elephant statue outside the National Museum
Kancil at the National Museum of Indonesia

I finally got to see the Wonoboyo Hoard at the National Museum of Indonesia today. It’s an incredible collection but  photos are not allowed, unfortunately, so you’ll have to come and see it for yourself.

On my way into the museum I picked up a Flat Traveler all the way from the 14th century (the out of focus, ghostly look is intentional). Kancil has agreed to come to Sulawesi with me and share her thoughts about the 21st century along the way.

BTW – the elephant statue behind Kancil was a gift to the Government of Batavia from the King of Siam in 1871. I had a bit of trouble explaining where the National Museum was to the taxi driver and when we finally got there he said ‘Oh, Museum Gajah!’ So, if you want to see the Wonoboyo Hoard next time you’re in Jakarta, ask the taxi driver to take you to the Elephant Museum.

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.

Ash clouds and aeroplanes

Iceland coastline near Stykkisholmur

Stykkisholmur is a small fishing village in western Iceland. Ngurah Rai International Airport is in Indonesia, on the island of Bali. What’s the connection? Volcanic ash.

Right now, Ngurah Rai International Airport is a little quieter than usual; an ash cloud from Mount Raung, a volcano in East Java, has airlines so worried that they have cancelled flights out of the Denpasar airport. Stykkisholmur is home to the Eldfjallasafn Volcano Museum, where, along with amazing volcano-inspired art and a geological display, you can view an informative (read terrifying) video about the power of volcanoes. Watching this video last month was the first time I heard of ‘The Jakarta Incident’ – a narrowly averted air disaster in 1982 that showed the aviation industry just how dangerous an ash cloud is to aeroplanes.

Woodcut of Mt Hekla eruption by Sebastian Munster
Woodcut of Mt Hekla in Cosmografia, 1551 by Sebastian Munster. Volcano Museum Stykkisholmur.

On 24 June 1982 British Airways Flight 9 from London to Auckland was flying at night over West Java with 248 passengers and 15 crew on board. The radar indicated a clear sky but the plane became enveloped in cloud and the cabin filled with smoke. Then, one by one, each of the four engines failed.

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. This is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are all doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.” Captain Eric Moody

The pilots tried to restart the engines but to no avail. As the plane lost altitude, gliding towards Java’s mountainous south coast, the crew made rapid calculations to determine where it would land. They were just about to change course to try an emergency landing at sea when miraculously the engines came back to life.

The crew was able to land safely in Jakarta, but not without incident; one of the engines failed again as the plane regained altitude and the pilots had to land ‘blind’ as the windscreen was mysteriously opaque and the plane’s landing lights weren’t working.

The cause of the Jakarta Incident was an ash cloud from Mount Galunggung in West Java. Radar detects cloud by measuring moisture, but ash clouds are dry so they don’t show up. While the instruments reported a clear sky, the windscreen, engines and landing lights were being ‘sandblasted’ by tiny particles of ash similar to shards of glass. The ash also melted onto the engines. Luckily, as the engines cooled the molten ash solidified and enough of it broke off to allow the engines to restart.

The Jakarta Incident was the subject of an episode of the Mayday television series, which features interviews with passengers and crew – it is well worth a look unless you are a nervous flyer.

So that is why planes don’t fly into ash clouds if they can possibly avoid doing so. Keep it in mind if you’re ever stuck in Bali because your airline’s risk management team have decided to be cautious. And if you are affected by the current delays – you have my sympathy, but spare a thought for the 5000 people of Papua New Guinea’s Manam Island who are still waiting for urgent assistance a week after a volcanic eruption destroyed their food gardens.

Sisters in crime

Sisters in Crime Australia Logo

Yes it has been a long time. Let’s not talk about it.

The news is that Tiger Stone has been long-listed for a Sisters in Crime Davitt award. I found out a couple of weeks ago and at first I thought it was a hoax but once I’d read the whole email it looked legit (no spelling mistakes, no sob story about money tied up in a distant dead relative’s bank account). It was all pretty exciting, especially because the press release mentioned Trixie Belden, one of my all time crime fighting heroes.

But I got the news on the same day I found out that Jane Taylor had been killed in a car accident so it didn’t feel right to be happy. Jane was an Indonesian teaching colleague in Bendigo. She was lots of people’s hero. She had no patience for apathy or anything half-arsed and she defended her students, her colleagues and the study of Indonesian to the hilt. At her funeral the church was so packed that I only just made it inside the door. Her school photo smiled down at us from the screen above the pulpit: strawberry blonde like Trixie Belden without the curls but but just as fierce.

The post drought

Dry Soil by Petr Kratochvil

Just in case you were wondering, this blog has not been abandoned. I’ve been busy building a kitchen. I have permission to say that from the person who has really built the kitchen. My role has been to hold pieces of plywood in place and complain about the heat (while the real builder wields a circular saw and makes cheerful noises about how satisfying it’s going to be to have built our own kitchen).

I have also recently learned how to tile a laundry and glue Laminex to a benchtop. These things take a great deal of mental energy that has left no room for posting. Sorry. I will be back.


Readers at Castlemaine Launch. Photo by Peter Mansell

I’ve had three book launches in the past three months.

There are probably some really productive authors out there who could launch three different books in three months, but not me. I launched the same book three times. Is that excessive? In my defence, the launches were in three different places – Castlemaine, Ubud and Melbourne.

guests at Castlemaine book launch
Castlemaine Library Foyer, 23 August 2014

The Castlemaine launch was the original first time new book new author never done this before launch. It was at the Castlemaine library on a chilly Saturday afternoon in August. To make it feel like Indonesia we served dadar unti (pandan pancakes with coconut and palm sugar), lapis legit (spiced layer cake), iced tea and Bali coffee with sweetened condensed milk.

Susan Green gave a lovely speech, which you can read on her blog and the patented Castlemaine library book launcher shot a copy of Tiger Stone into the audience (caught by an 11-year-old who took it to a quiet corner and read for the rest of the afternoon – the ultimate compliment). 

Tiger Stone stocked next to Patricia Grace and Robyn Davidson at UWRF bookshop
Tiger Stone was in pretty good company at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival bookshop.

The second launch was the big time international launch at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, Indonesia. It was at Jendela House, an airy, French inspired cafe owned by a lovely Cuban fellow who served a mean margarita (their lemon cordial in hipster preserving jars were pretty good too). Nic Low, who I used to work with at Asialink, was a lovely launcher and the audience was small but encouraging. The rest of the festival was fabulous and I ran a writing workshop the day after the book launch, which I will write about soon.

The third launch was a special event for the Indonesia Forum at the University of Melbourne. It was held in the Melbourne Community Gamelan’s rehearsal room and conveniently coincided with their rehearsal time so they played for us. It felt like Indonesia, even though it was upstairs in a stumpy cream brick building in a Melbourne back street. There is something very special about gamelan music.

Virginia Hooker, Lien Lee and Deryn Mansell at the Indonesian Forum Launch
Virginia Hooker, Lien Lee and me after the Indonesian Forum launch

Professor Virginia Hooker from ANU was in town for a conference at the Law School and had agreed to be the launcher this time. Apart from giving a very thoughtful speech and loads of encouragement, Virginia also solved a problem – she found Mrs Lee for me.

I had a phone number and an email address for Mrs Lee, my high school Indonesian teacher, but when I tried to contact her to tell her that I’d dedicated the book to her, I discovered that the details I had for her were out of date. As luck would have it, Virginia Hooker and Lien Lee have been friends since 1968 and Virginia knew where to find her. Mrs Lee came to the launch with her husband and she smiled all evening. It was gold.

So Tiger Stone has been thoroughly launched and I couldn’t have asked for a better welcome to the world.

Radio Australia


I grew up with Radio Australia. When I was little, my family tuned in to hear the news from ‘home’ on the radio in our lounge room in Lae, Papua New Guinea.

Back in Australia, as a teenager I did work experience in the Indonesian section of Radio Australia at its headquarters in the Melbourne suburb of Burwood. That’s me at the desk in the photo. I can’t remember the name of the gentleman with me but I remember him being very patient and speaking Indonesian really slowly for my benefit.

I spent most of my work experience week timing B sides of singles (it was the 80s – the world was analogue). One record I had to time was a Monty Python single. The A side was ‘I like Chinese’ and somebody had scrawled across the label “banned in Indonesia – don’t play”.

As an adult, I discovered Radio Australia’s ‘Asia Pacific’ program rebroadcast in Australia on ABC’s Radio National. It moved around the grid from late at night to pre-dawn and I chased it, as I know many loyal listeners did, hungry for news from the Pacific – so close and yet seemingly invisible to most media outlets in Australia.

The advent of the podcast made everything simpler – in the morning I would download the previous evening’s episode and listen on my way to work. It made me smile to hear Sen Lam wish me ‘salam sejahtera’ as my train hurtled through the box ironbark forest of country Victoria.

‘Asia Pacific’ was cancelled about a month ago. I still have the last episode on my phone, unplayed. I can’t bring myself to hear the end.

And then, the first mention of my novel, Tiger Stone, in the media was on Radio Australia websites: on the Indonesian language page of Australia Plus in August and then in an English language article last week on the Radio Australia website itself.

I hope that doesn’t complete the Radio Australia circle for me. I hope that Radio Australia recovers from its funding woes. One day soon I’ll be ready to search for a replacement for ‘Asia Pacific’. I hope I find it on RA.


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.