The Jakarta Post-Book Review: Pastels Tinged with Crimsons (by Dewi Anggraeni)

Posted in Essay by Linda Christanty on 08/01/2010

If you want proof that a writer is born, not trained, talk to Linda Christanty. Her collection of short stories, Rahasia Selma (Selma's Secrets), covers a wide variety of topics. Each story is written in a beautifully simple, accessible and engaging way. Her prose evokes surprisingly vivid imagery that is sometimes breathtaking. Only a person with a writer's antennae and inherent sensibilities could have captured so many nuances in life in a away that is neither ponderous nor tendentious.

The book's stories, with one exception, are not regionally, or even globally, positioned. "Para Pencerita" (Storytellers) is the only work set against a specific historical, regional and cultural backdrop. There are vague references throughout the other stories which force the reader to make inferences.

Whether Linda uses a first-person participatory or a third-person observational narrative style, she takes readers on a winding journey that delves deep into new worlds and different series of events. In the title story, "Rahasia Selma", the narrator is a young girl that is confronted by, and trying to make sense of, the adult behavior of her artist mother, her friends and the people around them. Nothing escapes her gaze. In her innocent musings, many adult inconsistencies come to light.

Linda avoids boring her readers with linear story-telling. Each story has many layers which, like onions, sting the eyes when peeled. In "Pohon Kersen", the reader is taken into the story by another young narrator who is always moving forward and always opening a door to another scene. The adult characters who come alive around her in each scene are all very real. No one is inherently good or bad. Even the young man who sexually abuses her comes across as somewhat devious and cowardly, but not altogether evil. Life depicted is complex, happy, at times mysterious - and yet tainted, too. The girl's subconscious attempts to escape bad memories are recounted with just the right dose of pathos.

The conflict in Aceh is depicted in "Para Pencerita" in a gentle way that reveals events of ordinary lives. Characters address their problems in a business-as-usual manner and make the best of what is offered. All the while readers are aware that violence is lurking in the background.

The book changes pace several times. After a meandering account of a lonely and curious young girl, there is a shift of ambience. The tales that follow are more somber; the metaphors less gentle. "Menunggu Ibu" (Waiting for Mother) features another young narrator who has to negotiate life with a deranged mother and culminates in a brutal finish. "Kupu-kupu Merah Jambu" (Pink Butterflies) is even darker. The protagonist is a transsexual prostitute who, after years of tolerating abuse from a thug, finally takes revenge.

Adult relationships - heterosexual, homosexual, inter-racial - are presented in pastel colors tinged with an occasional blaze of crimson. Running through them is the author's relentlessly eye, which focuses on anything remotely resembling hypocrisy. Linda's portrayal of sexual relationships is not at all coy, but neither is it graphic. As for sexual assault, a few brushstrokes depict the acts,. The details are far from explicit but undoubtedly felt.

In "Mercu Suar" she wrote, (Reviewer's translation) *The doctor says the pattern may repeat itself each May. I fell ill. Two hours after leaving you at the beach last year, I was speeding along the toll road in my car, away from Jakarta airport. Suddenly a group of men standing in the middle of the road brought me to a sudden stop. They forced me out of the car. They dragged me... And I was overcome by nausea, totally overcome.'

A journalist, essayist and 2005 recipient of the Khatulistiwa Literary Award, Linda has an abundance of sources and inspirations for her fiction. Without doubt, she made good use of them. The richness and depth of her stories display her mental alertness an incredible capacity for empathy with a wide variety of characters. Her use of metaphor is invariably spot-on. She is a natural writer.

Rahasia Selma is a must-read.



Linda Christanty is an author and journalist. Her writing has been recognized by various awards including the national literary award in Indonesia (Khatulistiwa Literary Award 2004 and 2010), award from the Language Center of the Ministry of National Education (2010 and 2013), and The Best Short Stories version by Kompas daily (1989). Her essay "Militarism and Violence in East Timor" won a Human Rights Award for Best Essay in 1998. She has also written script for plays on conflict, disaster and peace transformation in Aceh. It was performed in the World P.E.N Forum (P.E.N Japan and P.E.N International Forum) in Tokyo, Japan (2008). She received the Southeast Asian writers award, S.E.A Write Award, in 2013.

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