Tuesday, 18 December 2012. This afternoon I had an appointment to meet Etik Juwita, a returning IDW writer.  I took a public bus at Bungurasih bus station in Surabaya. It would take me around 1.5 hours to arrive in Malang, a mountainous city, the second biggest in East Java after Surabaya.

Got a class this morning, mbak?” I asked her, circling my arms around her shoulders, when we met for the first time near the gate of Gajayana University in Malang, East Java. The face in front of me looked chubbier in her short-haired style. Different from her pictures I found on the internet. The face was fresh, her tummy protruding. A baby was going to cheer up her days in the next two months or so.

No class this morning, bu. The lecturer went out of town,” she replied. She called me ‘bu,’ or ma’am. Probably because I’m much older than she is. Or perhaps because she knew my profession as a teacher.

Etik was in her senior year at the English Department at the above private university. She decided to continue her study after working overseas for 9 years. Right after she graduated from high school in Blitar in 2000, Atik began her journey for a better life. She worked as a domestic worker in Singapore for two years. Upon finishing her contract, she found that she had not had enough savings, in addition to her reluctance to merely become a shopkeeper, she flew overseas for the second time. This time she headed to Hong Kong, where she managed to finish two work contracts.

No matter how interesting it may be to talk about Etik’s ups and downs of becoming an Indonesian domestic worker (IDW), it is more engaging for me to reveal her creativity in the world of literacy. On a public car that would take us to Malang Town Square, we started conversing about her works that have been translated into English. Her short story “Bukan Yem” (Maybe Not Yem) is one of the first stories I know that were written by IDWs. This story was published in Jawa Pos, a Surabaya-based national leading newspaper, and was eventually selected the 20 best short stories under the category of Anugerah Sastra Pena Kencana 2008 (Golden Pen Literature Award 2008).

Have you ever heard of the gloomy stories about Terminal 4 at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport? This terminus was exclusively used to serve returning IDWs. The story”Bukan Yem” can be considered representing the horror of mafia that attempt to take away dollars, Malaysian ringgits, or Saudi reals earned by IDWs with sweat and tears. The English version, “Maybe Not Yem,” I should say, serves as an indicator of IDWs’achievement in blurring professional divides in the world of literature. This story was placed in the collection  of Tropical Currents: Writings by Indonesian Women, and was considered representing transnational literature at the website of   Words without Borders.

When we search on the internet, we will find some information that the nomination of this short story for the 2008 literary award, was actually polemical. Some judges considered that the language was too plain and straightforward, while the others actually saw this as the strength that represents the story theme. “I heard that Prof. Budi Darma was one of the judges who defended my story,” Etik said. Budi Darma, a well-known Indonesian author, also a professor of  Literature in the university where I work, was indeed one of the judges.

It was not Etik’s first encounter with Budi Darma. Three years back, in 2005, Etik once received a text message from Budi Darma. She had no idea how Budi Darma got her Hong Kong number. “Bu[1] Etik, congratulations. Your short story was published in Jawa Pos. It was very good. (Budi Darma).” That was roughly the message she received about her story “Seharusnya Berjudul Celana Dalam” (It should have been titled an Underwear) appeared on the newspaper.

Pak[2] Bon, who is Budi Darma?” Etik asked her innocent question while forwarding Budi Darma’s message to Bonari Nabonenar, a regional writer who has been mentoring IDWs to write. Bonari is an alumnae of Indonesian literature from IKIP Surabaya, where I also graduated. Etik has known Bonari long enough through Kosa Kata, a literature-oriented mailing list. Etik saw Bonari as a figure who has helped her a lot in commenting on and editing her works. It was Bonari who secretly sent the short story to Jawa Pos. Etik also considered such a mailing list a uniting community, in which all members have the same interest, which is writing.

Receiving such an appreciation from an author of a high calibre like Budi Darma was a strong drive for Etik to keep writing. She spent her holiday and free time sitting in front of a computer at Hong Kong Central Library. This pastime yielded various pieces of writing in the form of opinion articles and short stories that were published in a number of Indonesian media in Indonesia and Hong Kong.

It is also interesting to know that Etik was once a contributor to Suara, a monthly Indonesian newspaper distributed in Hong Kong. She co-authored a serial about Tulkiyem, a fictional IDW in Hong Kong. Etik took this responsibility for about four years, and still continued for sometime after she returned to Indonesia for good and had started her college life. Tulkiyem, a traditional Javanese name often associated with provinciality, soon became a hit within IDWs’ community. Many IDWs looked forward to finding out about what was up with Tulkiyem. They impatiently waited for Tulkiyem’s lives to appear in the serial. Tulki, with all her being provincial and exaggerated bahaviours, was seen as part of most IDWs.

What’s up with Tulki now?,”murmured some of Etik’s friends when they were gathering on their day-off. It brought her satisfaction to know that her stories were anticipated. On one side, her friends had a blurred idea that she was actually the writer. The pen name, Etik Juwita, gave her freedom to become anybody and to say anything. Tulki was figured as an IDW from Banyumas, Central Java. People from this town are known for their ngapak-ngapak, a unique Javanese dialect. When Etik’s friends learned that she was one of the writers, they did not believe it as her East-Javanese dialect was way different from Tulki’s.

During the story publication, Tulkiyem took its readers to current issues of labour migrants. Etik used the character to voice her thoughts. It may have been for its close proximity to IDWs’ real conditions that some IDWs assumed Tulki to be a real figure. She was one of them. There was a creative reception process, when rallies that involved IDWs’ community were coloured by the appearance of figures who said, “It’s me, Tulkiyem, ” along with make-up and costumes that were assumed to best represent the character. It is unfortunate that Tulki had to be ‘sent’ home to Indonesia for good due to contract termination. This sad episode finally appeared as Etik became too preoccupied with her other activities in Indonesia and found it difficult to find time to continue writing. Partly, Etik also admitted that she no longer kept up with the issues of IDWs . She had no choice but to ‘send Tulki home.’

During our conversation at one corner of Malang Town Square food court, I saw Etik as a woman of strong character. Her words were straightforward, her voice firm and full of confidence. In her utterances, I felt a strong convergence with literacy. One of her friends at the training centre in Singosari explained that. As Etik imitated her friend’s statement, “what I remembered most about Etik was there was no day without reading.” Etik admitted that she read practically everything. Paper wrappers, brochures, or notices.

Books have been an important part of Etik’s lives since her childhood. She recalled her mischief  of ‘stealing’ library books that belonged to a school near her house. She would take some books home to read, then secretly return them, then take some others. There came time when she grew upset as she had read all books on the library. Her love of reading and language eventually brought her to Talun High School, Blitar. It was then the only school that ran a Language major.

In terms of opportunities to read, Etik saw herself as a very lucky domestic worker. Her duty as an aged carer in Singapore was quite an easy job. She was able to read most English newspapers and magazines, even before her employer touched them. It would then become one of her tasks, reading the media to her employer.

Unlike most IDWs in Hong Kong, Etik only relied on English as a means of communication. This happened both in her first contract with a Hong Kong employer and in the second one with a Western boss. During that time, Etik enjoyed privacy without  any problems. It was actually her boss who suggested that she spend her day-off in public libraries. As time went by, holiday visit did not satisfy her quest for books. She would steal time to go the library more often, in between her shopping duty. English novels were one of her favourites.

Etik said that her exposure to English literature taught her to write in a more straightforward style. She mentioned Hemingway as an example of an author with simple language. She did not really like works with flowery language. That was why when her short story “Bukan Yem” became polemical, she quite understood that some Indonesian literary figures still paid attention to word play as a quality indicator of a work.

Etik was also one of the few IDWs who were often consulted by non-Indonesian scholars for their researches. This academic interaction had occurred since Etik was still in Hong Kong, and continued after her return to Indonesia. Prof. Ming-Yan Lai, then a Cultural Studies scholar from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, was one of the scholars who profiled Etik in her researches on IDWs’ labour activism. I actually intended to meet Prof. Lai. Unfortunately, she no longer worked for the above university, and left no contact information to her colleagues.

Etik considered creative writing as a long and slow process. Looking at herself, Etik saw their her writings were shaped by her reading habit, even when she was not aware of her love for books. Furthermore, Etik referred to writing as a catharsis. While she did not experience miserable things herself, horror stories happening to her friends went around her. If not a revenge, her writing served as a resistance to the bad conditions happening to many IDWs.

In relation to her existence in Indonesian literature, Etik did not really agree to the use of the term Sastra BMI Indonesian migrant workers’ literature). She questioned the rationale behind the term, whether it was related to their profession or the issues of migrant labour as the underlying themes. Etik also wondered whether her writing would be categorised as such when she no longer held the profession as an IDW. To her, anybody could write without being trapped into categorisation, because literature itself should be liberating.

However, Etik was not really bothered about how readers would receive her works. She was a bit indifferent when I told her that her short story about underpants may have been plagiarised by a fellow IDW in Taiwan. A story with a very similar in plot and title was published in an anthology in 2010. Etik had heard about this rumour from another friend. She only said, “karepmu(as you like it). She actually saw this as another form of appreciation.

Etik’s indifference was even reflected in her reaction to the check she received for a permission to have “Bukan Yem” translated. She was unable to cash it, as her pen name, Etik Juwita, was written on the check. A little bit upset at first, she eventually made fun of it. “I laminated the check, and used it as a bookmark,” she laughed when saying that.

Two fruitful hours with Etik felt just like a blink. It was full of smart statements and deep understanding of the world of creative writing. With her accomplishments, I personally want to see Etik Juwita continue shedding her colour in the world of Indonesian literature. Having two short stories translated into English and discussed in transnational literature scholarship should indicate her great potential.

[1] Bu is similar to Ms. It is commonly used to address a female adult to show respect.

[2] Pak is similar to Mister. It is commonly used to address a male adult to show respect.