Eliza Vitri Handayani with Nigerian-American author Teju Cole at the 2015 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. Photo supplied.

After the cancellation of her Ubud Writers Festival book launch, Eliza Vitri Handayani devised a peaceful protest

After receiving news that her book launch at this year’s Ubud Writers & Readers Festival would be cancelled, author Eliza Vitri Handayani devised a creative peaceful protest that prompted discussions about working around censorship with the added bonus of helping her book sales.

The week leading up to this year’s Ubud Writers & Readers Festival was fraught for its organisers. Local authorities had warned organisers their license to hold the event would be revoked should events in the program pertaining to the anti-communist killings of 1965 and its aftermath go ahead. While organisers fought hard to keep as much as they could in the program, some events were either cancelled or replaced with alternate events. What this meant for author Eliza Vitri Handayani was the cancellation of her event, the launch of her book From Now on Everything Will Be Different. The news surprised Handayani, whose book is a coming of age story of a young man and a young woman against the backdrop of the 1998 student protests.

‘I was surprised and angered, especially after attending successful discussions on 1965 at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, where Indonesia was the focus country,’ she told Nipa. ‘When they told me that my book launch was one of the events cancelled, I was puzzled. I thought there had to have been a mistake. So I emailed the organizers and explained what my book was about. Later I got an email from the festival director Janet DeNeefe, saying that they had fought hard to keep my launch in the program but didn’t succeed.’

Eliza Vitri Handayani with Nigerian-American author Teju Cole at the 2015 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. Photo supplied.
Eliza Vitri Handayani with Nigerian-American author Teju Cole at the 2015 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. Photo supplied.

‘After I received the confirmation, I went ahead and chose five politically critical excerpts from my novel, created a simple design, and found a T-shirt printing shop that would take a one-day rush order. I wanted to find a creative means around the censorship,’ she said.

Reactions from festival goers and other artists were encouraging with Handayani giving out business cards explaining her T-shirt protest. She sold out of copies of her book that she’d carried around the festival in her backpack, and a friend in Vietnam reached out to say her protest has started conversations over there about unique ways to circumvent censorship.

‘I was very happy to hear that, I hope my action can inspire courage in a lot of people,’ she said.

In From Now on Everything Will Be Different, Handayani explores what freedom is and if people can break free from their fate. The book’s central characters come of age during the 1998 protests. Rizky wants to be an actor, Julita wants to be a photographer and both seek to live as freely and honestly as they can even if their beliefs and values conflict with society, Handayani said.

Each has their own way of surviving this conflict. Rizky chooses to lead a double life while Julita openly challenges laws and conventions and, according to Handayani, they each pay a price for their choice. Although they’re drawn together by love, it may not be enough in the face of the society they live in, which is still ravaged by corruption and sexism.

The idea for this gripping story arc came to Handayani after she received an email from an old friend. ‘After awhile we started talking about our love life and our sex life. At the time I was reading a lot of libertine literature, so I immediately thought of Valmont and Merteuil from Laisons Dangereuses,’ she said.

From that, she thought of writing something similar, a story about Indonesia’s dating culture and the things people don’t like to admit or discuss. ‘I thought of what [Milan] Kundera writes in Laughable Loves when a character compares erotic explorers of yesteryear, such as Don Juan, and those of today,’ said Handayani. ‘Don Juan, Kundera’s character argues, is a Great Conqueror, because he transgresses conventions and laws and carriers a great moral burden, whereas today’s players are merely collectors because having many lovers has become good manners, good form.’

It struck Handayani that this wasn’t the case in Indonesia because ‘having sex outside of marriage is still considered zina, you may still be ostracised, be fired from work, or prosecuted.’ Zina is a concept in Islamic law about unlawful sexual contact between Muslims who are not married to each other.

Although she started writing this novel about a man and a woman who experience many lovers and disappointments in their professional and personal lives, Handayani realised the story of her characters had parallels with Indonesia’s after 1998 of ‘high hopes followed by a series of disappointments.’ As such, she decided to intertwine those themes as Rizky and Julita try to fulfill their dreams and Indonesia struggles towards democracy.

You can read extracts of her Handayani’s book on her website and buy it from Vegabond Press.

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