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

Meet Kancil

Kancil (detail) by Dina Indrasufitri
Kancil_by_Dina
Kancil by Dina Indrasafitri

Tiger Stone (my first novel) will be published in Australia and New Zealand in two weeks (August 1) so I guess I should get used to talking about it. It’s all making me feel a bit like the rabbit in the spotlight so let’s talk about Dina’s drawing instead.

Dina is a Melbourne-based artist and journalist. She read a draft of Tiger Stone last year and a couple of weeks ago she sent me this drawing. I really like this image. Kancil looks wise but feisty and maybe just a teeny bit fed up. I’m guessing she’s reacting to something irritating that Kitchen Boy just said or did. You’ll have to read the book to put that in context.

Tiger Stone is historical fiction if you want to give it a label. It’s also children’s fiction, not YA fiction, if you want to get further into labelling. I like to think of it as a mystery adventure for all ages that happens to be set in the past.

Dina drew the image to illustrate the clothing that Kancil probably wore. I say ‘probably’ because Tiger Stone is set in fourteenth century Java. The climate in Java isn’t great for preserving cloth so historians mostly rely on carved stone temple friezes and statues to figure out what people looked like and what they wore seven centuries ago.

The problem with that evidence is that stone is quite hard to carve so nobody was going to waste time carving an accurate portrayal of the everyday life of a village girl. Dina has drawn Kancil wearing a kain and kemben. This matches what the temple friezes and statues tell us for ladies considered worthy of having their image recorded so let’s assume ordinary folk wore much the same style of clothing but of rougher cloth and with less jewellery.

You can have a sneak peek at a few chapters of Tiger Stone here. And if you want to see more of Dina’s artwork, visit dinainds.deviantart.com