I don’t know quite how long ago it was that I ran into the writer and journalist Grace Tan-Johannes (Grace Susetyo) online. I think it was around seven years, although I can’t be sure. Grace got in touch with me as she had read my first novel Cargo Fever (perhaps the only person in Indonesia who has ever done so), and we shared an interest in the Eastern part of the archipelago. We’ve been sporadically in touch ever since – Grace sent me an article from the Indonesian newspaper Kompas that was formative for my book Stealing With the Eyes – so it was a pleasure to eventually get the chance to meet face-to-face.
We caught up in Jakarta, where I had dinner with Grace, my collaborator Hannah Stevens, and Grace’s husband, the film-maker Andra Fembriarto. Over abundant nasi Padang at the Garuda restaurant in central Jakarta, we talked about books, travel, language, culture and Indonesian views of the supernatural. Grace’s own work-in-progress, Di Antara Nusa-Nusa (English title: Faraway Isles), is a trilogy about identity, rootedness and exile, and a tale of unfinished business with the ancestors and the impossibility of returning home. Meanwhile, Andra’s films include the sweetly strange ecological ghost-story, Pohon Penghujan (The Raining Tree).
One of the pleasures of travel is that once you get where you are going, you find yourself falling into conversations, and then in those conversations you find yourselves travelling a whole lot further. And if when travelling, you can only be in one place at once, in conversation, you can travel huge distances over the course of a single meal. It was an evening of fascinating, funny and warm conversations.
After more than two decades of neglect, my Bahasa Indonesia at the moment is rusty as hell; but when Grace’s trilogy comes out, I’ll be there with the book in one hand, and my Indonesian-English dictionary in the other. And the same goes for Andra’s first feature-length film, subtitles or no subtitles. Because I am certain that both will repay the effort many times.
Image: With Grace in Jakarta.