A couple of weeks ago I saw a post on one the the blogs I admire, Novroz' Favorite Things indicating that Novroz was going to do a series of special posts on her blog honoring Indonesia's day of independence from colonial domination, celebrated on August 17. I then somehow decided to Google "independence day world wide" and found a whole list of days and countries. I noticed also that the independence day of Malaysia will be observed at the end of August. I wanted to honor these two South East Asia countries-both just a few hours from my home in Manila by posting on some short stories by Indonesia writers and then Malaysian. I think I will do a total of five posts on Indonesian short stories. I have decided to do separate posts on each writer so as to give a bit more time to spotlight the writers and also to allow a Google search on some of these not yet well know writers to find at least my post.
Ethics Juwita is from Blitar in East Java. She works as a housemaid in Hong Kong. She has published a number of short stories about her experiences working as a maid in Hong Kong and is part of the immigrant worker writing community in Hong Kong. Immigrant workers (they are called Offshore Foreign Workers here in the Philippines) often support large families back home by accepting two year contracts to work outside their country doing the work people in richer countries do not want to do. The quality of life of the workers is to a large extent determined by the character of their employers which ranges from totally brutal to completely wonderful and kind.
"Maybe Not Yem" is set in a van carrying six returning female workers just back from their two year contracts as house maid from the airport in Jakarta to their remote home towns. All of the women are asleep but for Yem and the narrator. The narrator does not really want to converse with Yem whose first words to here are:
"Can you believe it? One of my friends threw her boss's baby into a washing machine, just before going back to her village," the woman beside me said in a flat voice. I turned my gaze to the darkness outside the car window. The woman was terrorizing me.The Narrator dos not really want to sleep even though all the other women in the can sleep but for Yem who seems intent on harassing her.
She placed her lips so close to my ear that I was able to smell her breath. After having her mouth closed for such a long time, her breath smelled of a blocked drain. I could feel her warm breath on my left cheek. "I put rat poison in the milk for my boss's kid," she said.The narrator had frequently heard stories from her fellow housemaids about adding urine to the food in the belief it would keep their employers from being so bossy. Many gave their female bosses private nicknames like The witch, the dog, the pig, etc.
Then we learn a very sad secret from Yem. As the women travel toward their home they are stopped several times by various vendors. Some want to sell them travel insurance and advise them of the women who did not purchase the insurance and then through no fault of anyone of course somehow get robbed and raped. At one stop a money changer tries to get the women to exchange their wages from Hong Kong dollars to local currency knowing in many cases the workers will not know the exchange rate and they can rob them. Luckily the women have been advised of this scam. It seems the custom is to pay a large portion of the contract to the worker when the two years is up to insure they do not leave early (their employers have paid their airfare and a fee to an agency). When the other workers tell Yem not to have any money exchanged she tells them that her boss has told her she will mail a check for any funds due her. The other workers are horrified knowing Yem will never be paid the bulk of her contract and has no recourse at all. Her employer had told her that if she will not go along with the idea of getting her final wages in a check in the mail then the employer will not buy her a ticket to go home and simply put her out in the streets as a then homeless and illegal immigrant. I will let the story have the final words here:
"That story, Yem, about the rat poison in the baby's milk…Is it true?"
"I'm not Yem!" she told me with a smile. "I'm free!"
I've never been able to understand the meaning of that final smile she gave me—even after I decided to tell you about it. Maybe she was saying that she too had the power to make another person suffer. Could you ever imagine poisoning your own child with rat poison? Maybe someone—but maybe not Yem—could do it to an oil magnate who has three wives and ten children.
And Yem, or maybe not Yem, had never admitted to it. It was unclear. Everything was unclear.
This is my final post in my series of five posts on short stories by Indonesian women. All the stories have been written in the last few years.
Here is a link to all five of my Indonesian Short Story posts.
I really enjoyed reading and posting on these stories. Of the five stories if I had to pick two I would said I like best "Maybe Not Yem" and "Her". All of the stories are very well done. I really can imagine Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf reading these stories and admiring the craftsmanship of the works while being stunned by transportation into a world so different from theirs and in fact so different from my own world and the world of many of my blog readers.
I really thank Novroz for giving me the inspiration to venture into Indonesian Literature. I can see even in translation it is a rich and culturally deep area.
I will soon be doing a series of post on Malaysian Short Stories in honor of their Independence Day, observed on August 31. I will be doing this in association with JoV of Bibilojunkie. Any and all are invited to join in this event. All you have to do is just post on something related to Malaysian Literature and let me or JoV know about your post.