by Kate Rogers
Eliza Vitri Handayani, From Now On Everything Will Be Different, Vagabond Press, 2015. 160 pgs.
Eliza Handayani's novel about Indonesia's 1998 Reformasi movement From Now On Everything Will Be Different was banned from launching at the Ubud Literary Festival 2015 in Bali, although authorities had only declared events related to the 1965 anti-communist massacres in the country off-limits. In response, Handayani proved as defiant as Julita, her female protagonist in the novel. Every day of the festival, Handayani wore a different T-shirt featuring text from the book. "I wanted to think of a creative way of circumventing the censorship," she told the Sydney Morning Herald. "It's expressing your voice but also through your body and what you wear, which is a freedom that is also often restricted in Indonesia."
Right from the start, Rizky, the lead male character in the novel, admires Julita because she has more courage to follow her convictions than he does. She takes photos of student protestors and plasters a school bulletin board with her photo essay, "Human Delinquency," which documents not only the protests, but also hypocrisy, such as in images of people who live a life of surface obedience to Islamic taboos, yet smoke cigarettes on street corners and buy lottery tickets. Her unforgiving lens also catches popular male classmates watching pornography, but she is the one suspended by the Head, Frog. The boys threaten her in the school yard but her friend Rizky, who is torn between his open admiration and affection for Julita and his desire to be popular and please his mother, stands by and watches his friends push Julita at the school gates and grab at her breasts. Julita cannot forgive Rizky his betrayal of their friendship.
The statement which sums up the goals of the Reformasi movement is also Julita's mantra and an aptly chosen title for the novel: "From Now On Everything Will Be Different." That hope and optimism are returned to again and again by both Rizky and Julita, but the title also sums up the conflict between the two characters, who dance in and out of trust and mistrust until near the end of the book. The story is driven by the tension in their relationship.
Both Rizky and Julita yearn for acceptance from each other and from their parents, and search for meaning through rebellion. In this struggle, the novel reminds me of 69, Ryu Murakami's novel set during the Japanese student protests of 1969 in which teenage rebels, inspired by protests on university campuses, define themselves as individuals through their acts of rebellion. The choices Murakami's characters make, or fail to make, in 69 reveal the evolution of their personalities. Ritzy and Julita in From Now On Everything Will Be Different show how choices can define us, too—theirs is a universal coming of age story, and a love story. Their story starts with the same passion and idealism that defined the Hong Kong's Occupy protests. At Occupy, high school students did homework on the pavement. University students formed bonds which inspired them to marry and pose in wedding clothes for press photographers.
The Indonesian Reformasi protests which erupted in 1998 were inspired by idealistic students, but in time attracted the participation of many members of the public. Years of poverty and corruption under two dictators—Suharto and Sukarno—and life in a society torn apart by religious conflict and caught between Western values and cultural traditions fuelled protests around Indonesia. The story of Rizky and Julita is the story of Indonesia in conflict with itself: the traditional, rule-respecting side and the independent side, yearning for political, artistic and personal freedoms.
As Rizky and Julita's high school friendship develops, they get drawn into the student protests of the Jakarta Reformasi movement. Rizky's parents plead with him not to go to demonstrations as the situation intensifies and finally lock him in his room. Julita's parents make less of an effort to stop her. Her father bails her out by making an endowment to her school when Frog tries to suspend her, yet he also criticises his daughter for being different from her conservative classmates.
Julita experiments with her photography and her definition of herself as a woman. She struggles with poor self-esteem and her father's abusive treatment of her mother, but ultimately ends up studying art and photography in France. After high school, Rizky and Julita go their separate ways—he abandons an interest in the theatre which she had encouraged to become a doctor and volunteers in remote and vulnerable areas of Indonesia. These choices help him avoid conflict with his parents, but his desire to stage a modern Indonesian version of Metamorphosis is never realised as he chooses caring for others and pleasing his family over theatre and creative fulfillment. (Handayani 's idea for the work is original: to stage a version of that play which portrays Indonesians who have been transformed into marginalised people in order to understand their suffering.)
Julita takes more risks, but they cost her. The pain which moves in and out of her life when she cannot find a home for her photographs causes her to cut herself. But Rizky's caring side, developed through becoming a doctor, is triggered by Julita's suffering. At times, Rizky and Julita remind me of the trauma-damaged lovers in another piece of Japanese fiction: "Lizard" by Banana Yoshimoto. In that short story, the male character is also a doctor, but the characters are also better realised.
I enjoyed From Now On Everything Will Be Different, but felt that Rizky was more authentic in his inner conflict than Julita, who is said to suffer more. The story starts from his point of view on page seven, and he is better established as someone at war with himself throughout. Julita's struggles, on the other hand, are summarised instead of shown. We are told she uses her pain and alienation at being limited by traditional female roles for her art. Yet, we only briefly observe Julita cut herself.
Julita has the courage to leave Indonesia for her education and to see the world while Rizky chooses a more conventional path. But Handayani again only summarises Julita's life in a clichéd Parisian garret and her pursuit of multiple sexual experiences as a means of self-discovery. For example, only one encounter is highlighted to represent her effort to acquire deeper inner-knowledge through extensive sexual experience.
Much of the novel consists of the correspondence between Julita and Rizky, and we read many emails from Rizky to Julita insisting that she stop wounding and scaring herself and start to see a therapist. The epistolary nature of the novel is effective in part because it shows the illusion of intimacy fed by long distance communication. The exchanges between Rizky and Julita are authentic because today's youth communicate more by texting and email than any previous generation. However, the reader isn't given enough opportunity to become intimate with Julita's pain—the author almost seems to distance herself from the suffering of her lead female character.
There are many fresh ideas in the novel, such as the boxes in which the lead characters keep precious photos and letters, especially those from their shared history. Julita calls her repository the "Box of Unfinished Projects" and delves into it whenever she needs to reimagine her future in more positive terms. Rizky's container, his "Box of Essential Memory," becomes a liability during the story: first visiting neighbours find it and show it to his mother, and second, he leaves it out—complete with naked photos of Julita—where his wife finds it. This moment highlights his obsession with Julita, which perhaps stems from the fact she is so elusive. As Handayani writes at one point, "Each time he'd seen Julita after a long absence she seemed more hidden in person than in absence."
There is no pat resolution at the end of this story of love and ambivalence, but there is plenty of suspense as the characters seek resolution. Seen as the story of Indonesia, this tale is open-ended.