Many of the books I read for this blog are tedious and take me forever to get through. That was not the case for the book I chose for Indonesia. Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s The Girl from the Coast, translated by Willem Samuels, arrived in the mail Friday morning, and I was finished with it by the following morning.
This novel features an unnamed girl, based on the author’s grandmother, living in a small fishing village on the island of Java during the time when Indonesia was still a Dutch colony. Although her family and all the other villagers are very poor, the fourteen-year-old girl is content with her life there.
Everything changes, however, when word of the girl’s beauty reaches a wealthy aristocrat, known as the Bendoro, in the city of Rembang. He sends a representative to tell the girl’s parents that he wants to marry her, and they agree because they want her to have an easier life than they have. The girl would rather stay in her village, but her wishes don’t matter.
Life in the Bendoro’s house is very lonely for the girl, as she doesn’t see her husband very often. There are two children living in the house, and when the girl asks who they are, she finds out that her husband is their father, but their mothers have gone back to their villages. Since the girl is a commoner and the Bendoro is part of the aristocracy, she isn’t even recognized as his wife by members of his social circle. Instead, she is considered a “practice wife,” someone to fulfill the Bendoro’s sexual needs until he finds a mate suitable for his station in life. The Bendoro’s habit has been to take a practice wife, keep her until she bears him a child, then send her back to her village afterwards without her child.
At one point, the girl receives permission from the Bendoro to go visit her parents. When she arrives, however, she learns the truth of the old saying, “You can’t go home again.” Although she wants to slip back into her old life, at least temporarily, her parents and everyone else in the village no longer treat her as though she is one of them. They won’t let her do any work, and they are careful about how they speak to her. While she is happy to be outside again after having spent the previous couple of years in her room in the Bendoro’s house, she feels just as lonely as ever.
Shortly after her return to the city, she becomes pregnant, and her life changes again. Ultimately, the girl, who has never had any say in decisions involving her life, takes charge of her own destiny.
I don’t usually say much about the authors of the books I read for this blog, which is probably a serious omission on my part. In this case, I was interested to read that the author of The Girl from the Coast, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, spent many years in prison as a result of his writing. He was first imprisoned by the Dutch government from 1947 to 1949 during Indonesia’s War of Independence. Later, after Indonesia gained its independence, he fell afoul of the country’s second president, Suharto. He wrote The Girl from the Coast in the years just before he was sentenced to hard labor in a penal colony from 1969 to 1979. At the time of the book’s eventual release, he was under house arrest for yet another political transgression.
The book ends with an odd little epilogue, which is explained in a footnote: “The Girl from the Coast was originally intended as the first volume in a trilogy of novels on the growth of the nationalist movement in Indonesia, with the story line based loosely on the life history of the author’s family. Because the other two novels in the trilogy were destroyed by the Indonesian military, this epilogue, which was not part of the original novel, was prepared by the author and translator specifically for the publication of this English-language edition in order to provide readers a greater sense of closure to the tale.” Personally, I was grateful for the closure that this epilogue brought.
No particular vegan or veganizable dishes were mentioned in The Girl from the Coast. However, rice was mentioned frequently. When the girl returns to her village to visit her parents, she takes many gifts from the Bendoro, who wants to ensure that the villagers hold him in respect. “Take with you a gunnysack of rice,” was one of his orders.
With that in mind, I found a recipe for an Indonesian fried rice dish called nasi goreng. The recipe, on the “Feasting at Home” website, includes options for making the dish vegan. I really enjoyed it, although if I were to make it again, I’d probably add a little more tofu.
Reading a book about a time in Indonesia’s history when women and girls were little more than chattel made me want to give money to an organization supporting girls. On the GlobalGiving website, I found a project to help girls in Bali graduate from high school. According to the project description, “More than 4.14 % of people in Bali earn less than $1 a day. Often it’s difficult to get enough money together to cover food and rent, let alone something as extravagant as a school. If a family can afford to send a child to school, the chosen child is almost always a boy. In Bali, 6.04 % of girls are forced into marriage before they turn 16 and teenage pregnancy is also one of the most common reasons for dropping out of school. Many girls in Bali get pregnant because of the lack of education.” Donations to this project will provide three-year scholarships to girls from impoverished families to cover “school fees, uniform, school supplies, daily allowances, and a workshop.”
More information about this project is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/support-15-girls-in-bali-to-graduate-highschool/.
NEXT STOP: IRAN
(Originally published on July 5, 2020.)
Pam Giarrizzo is a retired attorney who loves traveling, reading, and giving. She isn’t particularly fond of cooking, but she nevertheless reads, cooks, and gives for her armchair travel blog, The Booktrekker. Pam and her husband Phil live in Northern California, but they travel to Colombia often to visit their California-born son, their Argentine daughter-in-law, and their Colombian grandson. You can explore the world with Pam by following her blog at The Booktrekker or on Facebook at The Booktrekker | Facebook.