Writing Another Jakarta: An Interview with Ruby J. Murray
Guest Post by Rebecca Harkins-Cross
Ruby J. Murray’s debut novel Running Dogs explores how mythologies, both political and personal, may influence the trajectory of our lives. Protagonist Diana is an Australian aid worker living in Jakarta (an experience that Murray herself had in 2009-10), who occupies a liminal space as neither tourist nor insider in this bewilderingly vast city. But Diana’s reasons for accepting the post are not all philanthropic; she secretly wants to reconnect with her university friend, Petra Jordan, whom she met when Petra was on exchange in Melbourne but lost touch with years before.
As Diana becomes more swept up in the lives of Petra and her siblings, she comes to know another Jakarta — one occupied by expatriates whose extreme wealth segregates them from the rest of the city. Despite their affluence, however, the Jordans are suffering from some malaise that Diana can’t quite grasp. Cutting between two time periods, contemporary Jakarta and the Suharto-era of Petra’s childhood, Running Dogs examines how the narratives of our past play out in the present.
Rebecca Harkins-Cross chats with Ruby J. Murray about the importance of politics in her writing, the state of contemporary Indonesia and the process of getting her debut published.
Your background is in environmental politics. What spurred on your decision to write your first book?
I’ve always enjoyed writing and I’ve always done it. I did my honours thesis in genetic modification and the scientific debate around it, and then was going to go on and do a PhD in climate change politics, looking at ideas of the nation state — how ideas of the nation state would change with increased movement between countries. So I guess a lot of what I was interested in academically is actually present in the book too.
What interests me about academia is not the dry stuff, but about exploring what it means to live a good life and how you do it, and I guess those are similar concerns that come up in the book too. It’s just a slightly different way of approaching it. They don’t seem like drastically different projects to me.
Would you say you’re writing from a political place then?
I think everybody writes from a political place — it’s just whether or not you’re aware of it. I don’t try to write from a political place with answers; I most certainly don’t have answers. I think that a lot of academics who claim to have them, or definitive ones, are full of rubbish, especially in areas that concern ideas of what it means to live a good life. That’s been such a massive debate for so long.
[But] I think people who claim they’re keeping politics out of their books are sort of lying. Everybody has a political worldview and everybody sits in that worldview; it’s just whether you’re consciously sitting there or the degree to which you’re trying to be didactic. I hope that I’m never didactic — like I said, I certainly don’t have answers.
With that in mind, how much was Diana’s experience of Jakarta based on your own?
I think all writers get asked this question. Obviously you write from your own experience, but in many ways Petra is more like me and she has more of my experiences than Diana does. I grew up as a third culture kid. I have two younger brothers, one of whom is gay. So she shares a lot more in common with me than Diana does. But Diana’s feelings of being a witness are mine, although her experience is very different to mine. I worked in development in Jakarta, but I worked in a vastly different organisation to the one that Diana worked for, and I have lots of really close Indonesian friends. Her experience is not my experience.
I guess I was really talking about those great descriptions of the way she perceives the city, and that feeling of inhabiting a liminal space — she’s not a tourist but she’s definitely not an insider either.
That stuff is definitely my experience of Jakarta, and also the extreme shock of being… I know this sounds silly, but being so obviously white. Before that, I hadn’t really spent a whole lot of time in South-East Asian countries or African countries. I grew up in France and Wales, and places where you could be anonymous even though you’re an outsider. I’m very used to trying to assimilate quickly — and it makes me really uncomfortable to be looked at all the time — so it was very different to experience living in that city. It’s a very international city, but you’re always, always an outsider. From the moment you walk into a mall, or anywhere, you’re an object of glee.
Did you write the book while you were in Jakarta, or once you came home?
No, I didn’t. I had no time to write when I was in Jakarta. I had this half page that I thought was going to be a short story, but the development scene there is incredibly demanding and hardworking. It’s long days — six days a week, seven if you’re doing project-based stuff. The day I left Jakarta I sat down and said, “Well, I’m not really ready to leave,” and had this half page. I started writing the next day when I got off the plane.
There’s a lot of the history of the city in there. Was the novel, in some ways, an attempt to understand Jakarta for yourself?
It really was. It was an attempt to try and grapple with what I’d seen, and to have a chance to go back and understand the city in a way that I didn’t have time to while I was there. I was constantly trying to get out into it and see more of it, but that space for reflection on it has been invaluable really.
You’ve set the book in two Jakartas, one at the end of the Suharto era and the other ten years later during the city’s period of reform. How much has Indonesia changed over this time?
Massively… I speak so badly for Indonesia as a place, because it’s so massive — it’s like 238 million people and 700 languages — and I didn’t really get out of Jakarta at all. I spent some time in Bali, and in Central Java and Anyer where the other parts of the book are set, but I didn’t travel. I didn’t have time, and I wasn’t really interested in it. I was only interested in Jakarta…
It’s interesting how much I get asked this in interviews too. I think there’s a real hunger in the Australian public to know more about Indonesia, and there’s not really anybody out there who’s addressing that. I feel really lucky to have been able to write about Jakarta at a time when no one else is writing about it, because that’s really what you want. At the same time, I feel very trepidatious speaking to Indonesia all the time, which of course I know about but there’s so many great academics and Indonesians in Australia who can speak so much better to that. If I’m hesitant in answering those questions, it’s only because I don’t want to be a spokesperson for such a complex place.
Well, my next question was partly along those lines. That idea of the two Jakartas also happens in an economic sense — there’s the world inhabited by the Jordans, and then the world inhabited by everybody else. Did you find the economic divide that drastic when you were there?
It’s hugely drastic. Jakarta has more square miles of Chanel than all the Australian cities put together, as far as the stores go. It’s super confronting. I hope what comes across in the book is that it’s very much the way we live too. What’s confronting there is the physical proximity, but that still exists when Diana goes home. She gets to escape things, and it’s too much for her. She’s very happy to leave and go back to a life that looks like extreme privilege in Jakarta, but is just a normal middle-class life in Australia, or even a working-class life in Australia. The economic disparities are very difficult to wrap your head around when you’re there, but they exist here as well.
Did the Jordan family come to you as a way of trying to articulate that economic divide, or as characters in their own right?
They came to me as characters. You don’t need to try and articulate that, because it exists within every expat community there. If they didn’t exist like that, they’d be fake really, because that’s just the way that people live — although they’ve got way more money than the general expat community. But I guess I came across plenty of people like them when I was living there. But yeah, they were very much characters in and of themselves.
I’m interested in the way that it seems like you get far more insight into them than you do into Diana, in the passages about their childhood, but as adults they still remain incredibly elusive.
You don’t get any insight into Diana. She actually had this hugely complicated backstory, but I just chopped the entire thing in the end. I think it’s more important to me… that she gets to be the viewer all the time. She uses that lack of a connection to her past in that moment as an excuse for her absolute gutlessness really, her non-action. It can feel very isolating when you’re there, and you can feel an extremely long way away from your own reality. You see people do the most horrendous things in South-East Asia that they’d never do at home, Australians travelling there, and millions of Australians travel to South-East Asia every year. It’s such a huge part of the tourist dollar, and the way that people behave is so shocking. There’s a real sense of being an other, and also being removed from your normal circumstances there too.
When I came back, I hadn’t seen my girlfriends for a while… We were all discussing what had happened in our families over the period that I’d been gone, and it really struck me how we imagine our friends’ pasts in this really vivid way. I have almost picture vivid memories of all my friends, and I’ve got all these narratives about how they developed as people. They’re very causal narratives — this happened to them, so they’re this sort of a person — but in the end they’re very, very limited. Even my best girlfriends, there backstories that I have in my head are not the real thing. I think that’s what Diana is doing when she’s remembering the Jordans growing up, that’s her excuse for how they are now. In my head, all those backstory parts are actually Diana remembering, creating these stories about them from the limited things they’ve told her.
This idea of the stories that we tell ourselves about our lives, it also plays in with the folktales that the Jordans are told by their nanny as children. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
I’m really interested in the way that we use cultural myths to define who we are. I was brought up in a family where the peripheral family is very religious, of many different denominations, so I went to church when I was little. Mum was not actually practicing, and read us all the Grimms’ Fairy Tales and a lot of Greek mythology as well. I was convinced that all of it was true; I wasn’t really sure where the stories ended.
I also didn’t go to primary school until I was eight, and I didn’t go to an Australian primary school till I was 10, so I had these very vivid narratives. A lot of people carry them over through their entire lives. I don’t want to say that all religious people believe in a fairy in the sky, but there’s an element to religion that is obviously mystical as well, and I find that really fascinating… I think that most childhoods are like that, and then we go through a process of forgetting what it was like to believe in another other.
What is the significance of the mythological figure that the Jordan children call upon, Nyai Roro?
She’s an amazing figure. She’s the queen of the seas there… Nyai Roro’s got a really long tradition in Sundanese myth… so long that for centuries Javanese leaders have gone and paid tribute to her; Suharto paid tribute to her. She’s supposed to be a consort to Javanese leaders as well, who have a very different conception of power to Australians…
Down at Anyer Beach, there’s this massive hotel that was built in the late Suharto era, so in the 1990s, but there’s one room in the hotel that is always kept empty for Nyai Roro. It’s very much a current myth… You’re not supposed to wear green, because green on her beaches means she’ll come and steal you away. People will run up to you and be like, “Take your green off! What are you doing, you idiot!” She’s super-powerful as well, and very angry a lot of the time too, so you want to avoid her really.
Diana works for an international aid program, and there’s some very direct criticisms and frustrations that are expressed about this sector. Are they drawn from your own experiences of working in Jakarta?
My frustrations with the aid industry are drawn from my own experiences of working there, but I met a lot of amazing people working in aid in Jakarta. The organisation that she works for is not the organisation that I worked for. You do witness a whole lot of rubbish when you work there that is just shocking and scary, but not that shocking when you think about it, because aid is an industry like any other. There’s very entrenched behavioural patterns, and it’s also an incredibly difficult industry to work in. The attitude towards what it means to do aid are shifting but haven’t shifted far enough… I have a lot of respect for people that work in aid, and a lot of respect for what they’re trying to do as well. But it’s such a diverse industry that does so many things, from disaster response, to health, to education measures, but things go wrong all the time and in sometimes unbelievably bad ways.
Is that part of what prompted you to move into fiction then? Is it drawn from those frustrations?
There’s still organisations that I would love to work for in aid. I think literacy is a huge aid area that you pretty much can’t go wrong on. A lot of what’s difficult with aid is trying to work out where to start too, and there’s not often an obvious answer to that when you have so many different things going wrong at once and almost system collapse in communities. Then you have 80 different groups from 80 different countries coming in and building 80 different worlds on the edge and not talking to each other, because they all need to get rid of their donor money… I think literacy is an amazing tool, so I’d still be interested in doing that. I don’t really think fiction is an escape, but it’s definitely been a breather. The thing it made me realise is it’s not worth making yourself completely miserable all the time. I’ve always wanted to write, and it seemed like a good time to start.
Was it a difficult process getting your debut published?
I think it can be. I was incredibly lucky and had a couple of short stories do very well just before I moved to Jakarta. In the same month I won the Alan Marshall Award, and then completely separately had a short story picked up by Meanjin… That was extremely lucky for me, because it meant that a couple of publishers called me up and asked me if I had a manuscript.
So it was really difficult writing the novel, but it wasn’t difficult getting it read, which can be really hard if you end up on the slush pile. Even though the fiction market is so bad, it’s a really exciting time for Australian literature because there are a couple of publishers out there like Text and Scribe who are really on the hunt for good Australian novels. I’m lucky in a couple of senses, in that I’ve begun writing when they’re around and that I had those short stories out. Not difficult, but extremely lucky.
– Running Dogs is out now through Scribe. RRP $29.95
Rebecca Harkins-Cross is a freelance arts writer and critic based in Melbourne, whose work has appeared in Meanjin, The Big Issue and The Lifted Brow, amongst others. You can read her published work on her website, rebeccaharkinscross.com