"It was that imaginative connection with Indonesia and arts and culture that got me in the first place."

Indonesia Forum Launch

The University of Melbourne’s Indonesia Forum invited Professor Virginia Hooker to speak at its launch of Tiger Stone in November 2014. It was a wonderful night with musical accompaniment from Melbourne Community Gamelan and delicious Indonesian snacks.

Deryn was delighted to be asked to present Tiger Stone. The event was made extra special as Deryn was reunited with Mrs Lien Lee, who was Deryn's first Indonesian teacher and to whom Tiger Stone is co-dedicated along with Deryn's parents.

Deryn and Mrs Lee
Deryn and Mrs Lien Lee

Professor Hooker gave the following thoughtful and thought provoking speech:

Tiger Stone book launch, Indonesia Forum, Melbourne 10 November 2014

Ibu-Ibu, Bapak-Bapak, Saudara-Saudara sekalian,

Salam sejahtera dan selamat malam.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen!

It is a huge pleasure to be here tonight, among old friends and meeting new ones.

Thank you for the honour of introducing this book to you.

It is a privilege to make a few comments about Deryn’s very thoughtful and imaginative work to a gathering of people who are deeply committed to ensuring that Australians have the knowledge to better appreciate Indonesia.

I sometimes feel many Indonesians do not realise that there are increasing numbers of Australians who are committed to serious study of the Republic of Indonesia and want to work in partnership with Indonesians to learn from and with them. If they are in doubt, it is a book like this that is proof of that commitment and knowledge.

I would like you to close your eyes and enter the world Deryn has created.

This is how she describes the long journey Kancil (the main character) and her mother make out of West Java travelling east towards her uncle’s village in Majapahit territory:

‘The river when they reached it, was a trickle cutting through the middle of a wide expanse of silt that burned their feet as they trudged across it. They stopped to refill their earthenware kendi and cool their feet in the running water before beginning to climb up the other side of the ravine.
The sound of distant thunder was rolling across the treetops when they emerged from the ravine….’

And another scene:

‘After the midday rest, Kancil was sent to the pendopo at the front of the house to help with the preparations for the welcome ceremony. Girls and young women were sitting in circles around piles of banana leaves, palm fronds and flowers. Everybody’s hands were busy with something: splicing palm fronds to weave offering baskets, fashioning banana leaves into hanging decorations or plaiting jasmine and cempaka flowers to make dancers’ headdresses.’ (p.155)

These deceptively simple passages paint word pictures of experiences we can easily share with the characters – in language a primary school reader can enjoy, and using Indonesian words as natural parts of the sentence.

Enjoyable as they are, these passages are not just casual descriptions. They include details that later form important elements in the plot Deryn has constructed for her story. The clues have been laid.

Sangat mengesankan, ya? Very impressive, don’t you agree?

So what exactly is this Tiger Stone book – a work designed for young adults, set 700 years ago in West and Central Java, and starring a pair of teenagers.

This elderly reader detected two main elements:

  • One, a story line focussing on a girl, nick-named ‘Kancil’, the little mouse deer who is famous in Indonesian folk stories as Pelanduk Jenaka. And like her namesake, she faces the many challenges in her young life with initiative, intelligence and spirit and is not overwhelmed by the odds that face her.
  • The second element is the setting and context which re-creates a distant past in Java, but a past which has many links with the present. Links that are real as well as fictional – you’ll see what I mean when you read it.

To give more detail about these two elements:

The story line is an action narrative, which includes themes familiar to all of us but especially to younger readers

  • Several mysteries which need the two young characters to piece together information they have acquired
  • Adventure sequences which require courage and risk-taking to survive
  • Identity and what it means - is it based on birth, appearance, achievement?
  • Establishing and maintaining relationships with trustworthy people
  • Fear of loss, facing fear and overcoming it.
  • And, for realism, a little teenage rebellion

And all these elements are presented in the context of 14th century Central Java

So let’s look at that second element: time, place, culture.

It is this aspect of the book which is remarkable.

Through well-chosen scenes and very natural conversations between characters, Deryn subtly introduces readers to very important themes in Indonesian history.

For example:

  • The competition between coastal and interior regions of Java
  • The boundary between forest or ‘wild’ world and village or civilised world
  • The fear of strangers from across the sea – that is, non-Javanese
  • The interdependence of ruler and ruled
  • The constant threat of natural disaster which destroys or displaces populations
  • The building of alliances through strategic marriages

And there is more – which again you will discover when you read the book.

In these ways, Deryn weaves into her narrative themes which shape Indonesian communities, power relations, and history. And as you will appreciate, Indonesian culture is the backdrop for the whole narrative.

To keep readers, especially young readers, engaged and reading Deryn successfully balances the familiar with the unfamiliar. Through Kancil’s daily tasks we come to understand the daily routine of sweeping, husking rice, grinding spices, obeying elders, using appropriate levels of language, judging people by their behaviour and dress, understanding the roles of the departed ancestors, premonitions, spirits and omens, ceremonies, dance, and wayang performances, indirect rather than direct action.

So HOW does Deryn do all this?

First, every word counts – this is a beautifully judged book and I should think, the result of many drafts and rewritings. We can thank her for all that work. It has been worth it.

Second, she uses humour – of all kinds, some which young adults will especially relate to and some, more wry and wicked, like the following:

‘The juru kunci looked down at his hands and said nothing. Holy men, Kancil decided, had their limitations.’ (p.217)

Third, and perhaps most important, Deryn has the gift of showing rather than telling. Nothing is laboured, didactic or obvious. The historical and cultural points I have mentioned are described in low-key, natural, integrated parts of the whole narrative. If only all knowledge transfer were this pleasant.

And to support readers who are unfamiliar with Indonesia and the Indonesian words which are used in the story, there is a very helpful glossary.

My enthusiasm for this book is clear – it is a very enjoyable and engrossing read, it re-creates an important but little known time in Indonesian history, and it is presented in a way which offers a bridge between contemporary Australian culture and Indonesian culture. Deryn’s skill as a specialist in intercultural communication shines through the whole book. And there is a back-story to Deryn’s study of Indonesia which has links with my own life.

Deryn dedicates her book to her parents and to Mrs Lien Lee, seorang guru yang luar biasa (an exceptional teacher). In 1968, Lien and her husband came to Australia, sponsored by the late Prof Herb Feith who realised their position and safety in Indonesia, which had recently experienced unbelievable civil violence, had become untenable. Mr Lee, Han Koen, started postgraduate study at Monash while Lien also took a job there, in the Indonesian Dept. I arrived in that same department at almost the same time and since 1968 we have remained close friends. Although she was a graduate from the Law Faculty of the prestigious University of Islam and a specialist in international law in Indonesia, at Monash Lien decided to enrol for her Diploma of Education. Thanks to a perceptive decision by the Principal of PLC, Lien was employed to teach Indonesian. Her fellow language teachers told me that her enthusiasm, dedication and skill were inspirational to them and to her students.

Deryn is one of those students and Deryn has continued that tradition of inspiring and professional teaching which in its turn is transforming the lives of new generations of teachers and students.

It is a matter of great pride for those of us who have supported the teaching of Indonesian in Australia, to see the success of talented people like Deryn. Her family background, her school, her university, her own in-country travel and study, her choices and dedication have all contributed to this exceptional book.

I will conclude now with the words of Jackie French. She is a friend but more importantly in this context, she is Children’s Laureate for 2014-2015. She represents Australian children’s literature both nationally and internationally. When I told her I was reading Deryn’s book she asked to borrow it.

She then contacted me to say she was going to include it in her choice of the three best books for young readers published in 2014.

The Australian Book Review gave her only 150 words in total to describe her choices and she apologised to me for being restricted in her comments, but here is what she wrote, to appear in the December issue of ABR.

“Simple but not Simplistic Enchantment

The job of a novel is to enchant. The magic of Tiger Stone, by Deryn Mansell (2014 Black Dog Books) is its background of 14th century Java, created with gripping and authentic insight, in the shadow of the rumbling volcano Mbah Merapi. … A good book transcends its genre: both books are magic for any one who can read fluently….”

Deryn, warm congratulations on an important and highly enjoyable book. I hope it will go into several re-printings and, also, that it will be translated into Indonesian.

Virginia Hooker
Emeritus Professor
College of Asia and the Pacific
The Australian National University