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Talking Location With author Annee Lawrence – Indonesia
19th September 2019
#TalkingLocationWith…. Annee Lawrence, author of The Colour of Things Unseen, set in Sydney, and Central Java
On researching and writing place…
My novel The Colour of Things Unseen is set in Sydney (Australia) and Central Java (Indonesia) and is published by Aurora Metro Books (2019). It is about a young man, Adi, who grows up in a village in Central Java and who is offered a scholarship to study at an art school in Sydney Australia.
Adi leaves Indonesia in early 1997, just six months prior to the economic collapse which devastated the country later in the year. Eighteen months later the Suharto dictatorship is overthrown and democracy and freedom of speech take its place. Throughout all this and the change that follows, Adi is living a world away. And when he finally returns to the village, he is returning to a society that has changed in fundamental ways during his fifteen -year absence.
In 2012, I went to Indonesia for two months to do field work for my novel. I mostly stayed in Yogyakarta but, on one occasion, a friend – my daughter’s father — took me to his family village north of Solo and left me there! He reassured me I would be looked after and that was that.
That feeling I had of being uncomfortable and out of place in the village was a rich and valuable experience for me as a writer and I’m so grateful to the families there who were so welcoming.
I have lived in several villages at different times in Central Java and Bali but that village in particular became a setting in my novel because I felt it would be more authentic not to create a composite.
So many of the scenes I observed on that visit found their way in some shape or form into the novel. While I took photos and made some notes, the sensations which were mostly imprinted in my mind and body emerged in the writing process.
Because Adi is an artist, and the woman he marries, Lisa, is an art historian, a sense of the visual is heightened in the novel. But not just the visual — colour, light, reflection, line, shape – for there are the other senses as well: taste, smell, sound, texture. And linked to these are the emotions they stimulate, and the way they are embodied in the characters as they engage with and respond to the world around them.
During that very short time in the village, I became immersed in observing the daily life of the family and this presented great opportunities:
Light— the light of day, the light when it rains, fireflies in the rice fields at night.
Colour– the green of the rice fields, of rice seedlings, of vegetables in the food market; of cakes brought on the back of a motorbike; of newly-made grey bricks that turn a soft red after they are fired; of dance costumes worn at a 24-hour dance festival; of wax applied to fabric before it is dyed; of the clothes of the women sitting in the circle to make the batik; of the rich bronze-brown of the liquid wax and the faint whiff of smoke as it is being heated over the gas flame.
Line– rows of newly planted rice seedling, the lines of wax applied to the fabric, the dishes on display in the window of the Padang restaurant, a straight tree-lined road, the outline of Mount Merapi towering in the early morning.
Texture– the assortment of leaf shapes on the fruit trees in the backyard, the texture of fruit and vegetable skins
Sounds– a cow mooing as it is scrubbed to rid it of parasites, food sizzling in a wok, the call to prayer, the morning sounds of roosters, ducks, motor bike, motorised plough, the splash of water when bathing, chattering children walking to school, rain splashing off the roof and onto the ground, geckos calling in the night, an orchestra of frog sound.
Weather and climate– the heat – so hot it hurts to breathe; the humidity – rivulets of water sliding down my front and back, or gathering on my forehead and face. The feeling of the air — when it rains, when it is going to rain, or when it has just stopped. The cooling breeze while riding a bike, fanning myself with a fan, or when sleeping under a fan at night.
Batik and batik making– In Solo a wonderful private collection of batik is displayed to the public in a museum. It presents a history of batik making in Indonesia that is rich in symbol and documents the styles of batik produced in different times and places throughout Java especially, and the ways in which it was worn to reflect status and imbue good fortune. So, on this visit to the village, I was lucky that my nephew had set up a small studio which was producing contemporary batik designs. As a result, I could inhale the smell of heated wax that remains in the batik even after it is finished, and watch the women work, hear the soft puffs of breath as they blew air bubbles from the canting, see the way they held the cloth to the canting to ensure the lines of wax were even.
Finally, as a result of this visit, this batik making practice infuses the novel and becomes a metaphor for the art of writing the novel, for creative arts practice including visual art, and for living with cross-cultural difference.
© Annee Lawrence August 2019
Thank you so much to Annee for sharing such personal and insightful thoughts on location. Do pick up a copy of her novel through our database!
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