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When Wandering the Globe Is a Feminist Choose-Your-Own Adventure

We spoke with the rising author Intan Paramaditha about her life on the move and why "bad girls wander."

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Oct 25 2017, 11:00am

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Intan Paramaditha has spent the last decade moving from place to place, but, for this rising Indonesian author, the concept seems to take on a more ethereal state of being. She describes it with the word "gentayangan," which, sure it means "wandering," but it's typically used to describe ghosts who refuse to cross over to the other side.

It's a word Intan uses to describe the feeling of moving between cultures and places, and how, once you return home, you feel a bit torn between here and all the other places out there you also called "home."

"I feel like I'm not here nor there, but at the same time [I feel like I'm] everywhere," Intan told me.

In 10 years, Intan has lived in Jakarta, San Diego, New York, Amsterdam, and now Sydney, where she teaches classes on film and cultural criticism at Macquarie University. Even when she stays in once place for a while—she's been in Sydney for about a year—Intan told me that she changes addresses whenever life starts to feel too stagnant.

The only constants have been her love of film and fiction, her partner Ugoran Prasad, the singer of the legendary Yogyakarta band Melancholic Bitch, and their 14-year-old daughter Ilana. Well, that and her hatred of malls. Which is weird, since that's exactly where we decided to meet... because, you know, when in Jakarta.

Intan walked into the cafe in Cilandak Town Square—a large, semi-outdoors mall that tries to feel like an actual town, but fails—in a red dress, red lipstick, and nude flats. We agreed to meet to talk about her debut novel, The Wandering: Choose Your Own Red Shoes Adventure, a globe trotting choose-your-own adventure book that brings readers on a journey through Jakarta, Harlem, and the US-Mexico border.

It was her first novel, following up on two short story collections, Black Magic Woman and Spinner of Darkness and Other Tale, and a play called The Obsessive Twist. A full novel was already a new format for Intan, so why did she choose something as hard to write, and ignored, as a choose-your-own adventure tale?

But I figured a softer question was better to start off with, so I asked her how she spent a typical day. Intan paused for an entire minute before eventually apologizing for "being disoriented in terms of space."

"So, you mean on a typical day, right?" she said.

Shit. Should I have asked about a non-typical day instead? Intan walked me through her normal routine, which involves coffee, getting her inbox to zero, packing her daughter's lunch, and then teaching classes with names like "Screen Images and Ideas." Her classes often focus on travel and representations of gender in cinema, she told me.

"It's a lot of fun," she almost squeaked. "We get to talk about the ideology of home, about crossing boundaries, about the politics of travel. We discuss how women travel, what it means for them, and how it differs from how and why men travel."

Concepts around travel and gender have been a focus of Intan for some time, so it's no surprise they feature heavily in her debut novel. The Wandering bills itself as a novel about "travel and displacement, capturing those who are tempted by the edges, those in motion and paralyzed, those who flee and get caught." You basically jump from section to section, making decisions that send you down a fork in the plot that introduce you to a cast of "travelers, tourists, migrants, all in their escape, border crossings, searches for home, routes, and emergency exits."

Then you flip the book back to page one and start all over again.

But even though her book is about travel, and she's expected to appear at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival this week in the heart of Indonesia's "find yourself" territory, Intan doesn't believe in all that "get lost and rediscover yourself" bullshit. The whole notion smacks of white privilege and the kinds of inward-looking idleness that wealth can afford.

"Travel shouldn't be an achievement," she said. "I mean, what about those who can't afford to 'get lost' in a faraway country?"

She told me about a time her daughter signed up for a Japanese language class. By the end of the semester, the entire class was expected to go on a study tour of Japan, a trip that would've cost Intan about $2,300 USD.

"That's a very normal amount for the white education system, but for our family who comes from a third world country, it's never that easy," she said. "So travel is also about checking your privilege."

She's also aware of her own privilege. She touches on it in a segment of The Wandering where the unnamed narrator returns back to Jakarta from overseas for her grandmother's funeral. Her grandmother never had a chance to travel or see the world. To her, "her desire to move could only manifest in going to the traditional market wearing her favorite dress," Intan explained. "That's very important, the desire to move."

Like wearing a nice dress to the mall?

"Ugh, I hate malls," Intan said.

The conversation turned to feminism. Intan is known as a prominent feminist, especially in Indonesia, and, as such, people often ask her opinion on literally everything. One time someone came up to her and asked what she thought of Wattpad, a literary app packed with stories that are full of toxic masculinity that is still surprisingly popular among young women.

"What can I say, I never really used Wattpad," she said. "How could I opine on it? I think younger feminists have fresher perspectives on pop culture. I mean, let the younger generation have a say. Why do people keep going to me? I'm almost 40."

It took Intan nearly nine years to finish writing The Wandering. But now that the book is finally out, she wonders if people will actually buy the thing. It costs Rp 125,000 ($9 USD), a sizable sum for a book in Indonesia.

It's not too expensive, I said. "Maybe for you!" she exclaimed with a laugh. "You privileged bitch!" she teased before sipping her coffee.

What about the red shoe on the cover of her book. Is it one of hers?

"It's a pair you can wear, but that one is for marketing purposes only," she said. "Although, I have almost twenty pairs of red shoes."

She opened her bag and took out a pair of red patent leather heels. "I brought these for the concert later!" she said, referring to the Melancholic Bitch show scheduled for later that night.

But does it have anything to do with The Wizard of OZ? That film is about a woman wandering through different realms and realities. Intan told me that it's one of her favorite films, but it still leaves her with some mixed feelings.

"The film has the potential to be subversive," she said. "Most of the characters in power are women—the good witch, those two witches killed by Dorothy. So Dorothy is a sweet girl who kills witches, it's pretty badass. But in the end it falls back to conservative [idea] that 'there's no place like home,' that a woman will eventually go back home and start her family."

So is wandering a feminist act for a woman then?

"Of course," Intan replied. "It has a lot to do with crossing boundaries, which has been a key point in feminism."

In 19th Century Europe, women who were out on the streets were often considered "bad girls," she explained. If they were out at night, women were branded as prostitutes. But men out there on the road were only seen as layabouts and wasteoids.

"That's why I wrote, 'Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go… wandering,'" Intan said.

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