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’.

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

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.

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.


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.



Meet Kancil

Kancil (detail) by Dina Indrasufitri
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