Working with Words: Intan Paramaditha

Intan Paramaditha is an Indonesian author and academic based in Sydney. She spoke with us about how theory impacts her work, being a morning person, and why the market shouldn't dictate what we write.

Photograph of Intan Paramaditha

What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?

I read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens in high school, and I cried because I did not want Sydney Carton to end up in the guillotine.

Studying literature in college allowed me to approach a piece of writing with a critical distance, but dissecting how things work in literature can actually lead to humbling experiences. There have been a few occasions when writing has been so good that it's made me cry. This happened to me when I read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years?

Yes, I started writing at the age of nine. I wrote my own versions of fairy tales, but I also experimented with detective stories because I read Agatha Christie. When I was in the sixth grade, my story was published in a children’s magazine called Bobo. Most Bobo stories were written by adults, so getting published there made me feel proud and ‘adult-ey.’

During my teenage years I wrote poems – all about teenage angst – but I was also preoccupied with other things, including music.

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

I have always been an academic. My fiction writing has been largely shaped by the readings that I use for research or teaching. Apple and Knife was influenced by my BA thesis on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and feminist theories, which continue to shape my fiction and academic work.

A few years ago I taught a course on travel and gender at a liberal arts college in the US, and the readings I use in the syllabus are exactly those that inform my novel. The novel poses questions on travel, mobility, cosmopolitanism and global inequalities.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I played the flute in a youth symphony orchestra for years, and my father wanted me to work at a global corporation. So in an alternate reality, I’d probably be a mediocre musician or a tormented employee of an oil company with an aspiration to be a writer.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing? 

‘Do not write short stories because they do not sell well’ – that’s the worst advice I’ve received about writing. Indonesia was the guest of honour at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, and since then I have been hearing a lot of suggestions about how to enhance the global visibility of Indonesian writers. If you write a novel, it will be easier for you to get translated and published abroad. It is indeed the age of the novel globally, and I must say that it was quite hard to find a publisher for Apple and Knife.

Letting the market dictate what you can and cannot do in that tiny space called writing is demoralising.

The advice is not wrong at all, it’s just bad. Everything is a market and everyone is a brand in our neoliberal world. Of course we all negotiate with the market logic, but letting the market dictate what you can and can not do in that tiny space called writing is demoralising. 

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

I had a diary during my childhood, and I guess that was the way of existing as a child back then. I grew up during the authoritarian regime under Suharto where, until the early 1990s, we only had one television channel showing mostly the government’s propaganda programmes. I had a lot of time to read books and write a diary.

I don’t have a diary now because I am too busy, but I do write down my feelings, thoughts and observations and keep them in an ‘idea bank’ folder in my computer.   

Which classic book/play/film do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

Where I come from, there are many gems that will be considered obscure in the West, and perhaps they will remain that way until some Western authoritative voices pick them up. That’s global inequalities for you.

Where I come from, there are many gems that will be considered obscure in the West.

An example of this is an Indonesian film from 1954, Lewat Djam Malam (After the Curfew), directed by Usmar Ismail. The style is to some extent influenced by Italian neorealism. The story has a universal appeal about the post-war fractured identity, but at the same time it is also very Indonesian. I really want to include that in a cinema history course as a strategy for what Robert Stam and Ella Shohat call 'unthinking Eurocentrism'. It was restored a few years ago, but until now it's only had limited screenings worldwide.   

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

Because a lot of my stories are dark, some people think that I am a mysterious writer who only works past midnight. On the contrary, I see myself as a morning person. I need a perfect quiet morning where I can write for two hours without any disruption from technology or human beings. And coffee, because I get grumpy without coffee. Oh, I guess I am just like everyone else.

Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

Many stories in Apple and Knife were written in my early twenties. I do not regret writing them, but I wish they had been written by my mature self.

Which artist, writer or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?

I would like to have dinner with Mary Shelley and talk to her about how she has inspired me, how we are connected geographically by the Krakatoa eruption, and how cool her mom was. If there’s some extra time maybe we could talk about Percy.

Portrait of Intan Paramaditha

Intan Paramaditha is an Indonesian author and a lecturer in Media and Film Studies at Macquarie University, Sydney. Her story collection Apple and Knife (translated by Stephen J. Epstein) was published by Brow Books in March 2018. Her novel Gentayangan (The Wandering), selected as the best literary fiction of 2017 by Indonesia’s Tempo magazine, is currently being translated and will be published by Harvill Secker/ Vintage in 2020.

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