This week Kill Your Darlings, in partnership with the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF), presents a showcase of emerging Indonesian writers, who are all previous UWRF artists. The 14th UWRF runs from 25–29 October in beautiful Ubud, Bali. The first lineup has been revealed, and early bird tickets are on sale until the full program is announced on 16 August.
‘You’re a researcher? What university are you from?’ people would ask me.
‘I make comics,’ I would answer with a smile.
It’s great to be making comics. For me especially, as one who often mingles with people outside the usual comic book circles – researchers, academics, activists, journalists, and writers – when they ask me what I do, and I tell them, I always get that amused smile. It’s priceless.
For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to make comics. After graduating from high school, though, I became disillusioned by what it takes to become a professional in the world of serialised comic books and graphic novels. I was not ready for that kind of production capacity, and so I took a detour into social and critical theory instead.
I don’t mourn this, of course – in fact, diving deep into liberal arts gave me so much ammunition for ideas and a brand of critical thinking that has somewhat become a staple of my works, and I am immensely thankful for that.
I never gave up on comics – they remained both a pastime and freelance profession in my university years. But they were nothing more than just that – no big dreams of hit series or groundbreaking graphic novels. Of course, this changed last year when I quit my job to write comics. But even then, the idea of making a comic book studio seemed far away.
And then, I joined the HANDs! Project fellowship. The impact was profound.
From September 2015 to March 2016, The Japan Foundation took me and 24 other fellows around Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and Japan, to visit sites struck by disasters and learn first-hand from communities and survivors. Tales of courage and despair, resilience and regrets, and everything in between, filled our days.
We were also taught design skills, and, in the span of a few days, were tasked with making games and events for the local community.
What took me by surprise, then, was a realisation of the obvious: How profoundly stories matter.
What took me by surprise was a realisation of the obvious: How profoundly stories matter.
We learned some simple facts: Communities with nursery rhymes that teach children of the dangers of tsunami had a much higher number of survivors in the 2004 tragedy than those that do not; Children in shelters and refugee camps with professional volunteers whose job it is to tell stories and play games with them fared much better in terms of psychological health and trauma healing, and the willingness to go back to schools afterwards , than those without; Shelters that employ volunteers with a sufficiently critical mindset to consciously teach tolerance, counter-racism, and counter-sexism (yes, these are still very strong, if not stronger, in times of disaster) while doing their aid work foster better social coherence than those that don’t.
For the first time, I realised that what I had been doing so far with my life, and what I wanted to do with it, could converge into something that has the potential to transform lives and save others. For someone who has spent the majority of his career being derided for having his head in the clouds and his hands too busy with child’s play, this was an important moment.
I want to keep doing what I do – no, I have to keep doing it. And I have to keep doing it better. There is just no other choice.
And then there’s the very specific, perhaps rather personal context of making comics in Indonesia.
NaoBun Project, the interactive storytelling studio, arts collective and comic artist agency I founded with Naomi Saddhadhika, is not intended to be an explicitly political project. We are, rather strictly, a producer of family-friendly comics. But to deny involvement of all politics in our comics is absurd.
Our mission is to become the leading hub of comics for social transformation and progressive values, pushing for equality and awareness in all fronts – racial, gender, economic, environmental, and so on. We could never do this without awareness and immersion in historical and political praxis.
Our mission is to become the leading hub of comics for social transformation and progressive values.
So let’s talk about what has recently been happening in Indonesia.
In early May, a popular political figure was sentenced to two years in prison under questionable blasphemy laws with obvious racial undertones.
I learned of this while visiting an SOS Children’s Village in Cibubur, exploring collaboration possibilities. I was with Widy, our Social Impact Designer and a founding member of our company’s management team. I told her what had happened – she could barely keep her jaw off the floor.
Naomi, our co-founder, wasn’t there, so I got on social media to see her reaction. It wasn’t pleasant. The verdict devastated her much more than it did me, so much that she blacked out her Twitter avatar.
I messaged her to tell her I was sorry that this had happened, and that we should never lose hope.’ You know what I want to do right now?’ I said to her. ‘I want to write comics.’
And that was true. I was overcome by irrational anger at myself, that I could not be more productive and write all the stories in my head. I was angry at how few progressive entertainment outlets for children we have, that would help steer them away from all this prejudice.
It was naive, perhaps, and it was certainly irrational. There was no way that one person can make that much of a difference, and certainly not that quickly. But writers, I believe, are always at the forefront of social transformation – I have never had an ounce of doubt of why I do the things I do – so the thought could not help but linger. If only I could write all these things!
I was angry at how few progressive entertainment outlets for children we have, that would help steer them away from all this prejudice.
‘Of course, Bonni,’ said Naomi. ‘This is getting more and more crucial now, more than ever.’
‘Comics is our way to fight,’ said Widy.
The imprisonment of political figures due to racial undertones presents a shameless downward turn in Indonesian politics. But it should hardly be surprising. The conditions of this have been cooking for decades. It’s the exact same conditions that led to young males of the country strapping explosives onto themselves.
Widy and I are lucky. We belong to the majority group of race and religion in Indonesia. Although we do not identify nor practice in any significant way, we can easily blend in with the majority.
Naomi is a Chinese Buddhist Indonesian woman. She has had first-hand experience of what it means to be discriminated due to your race, religion, and gender.
Nineteen years ago, in May 1998, Naomi and her family fled to Malaysia as refugees, escaping a wave of racial violence and riots aimed towards the ethnic Chinese population, during which over 1000 people died . She witnessed her family in chaos and panic, unsure of what was happening, unsure of when she could come back to Jakarta. She was five.
And then there was the bombing.
In late May this year, a suicide bomber attacked a bus stop in Kampung Melayu, leaving three dead and eleven wounded. It was at a bus stop Naomi frequented on her day-to-day commute. It could have been her.
This is Indonesia. A country where the late Gen-Ys and early Millennials are defined not only by their quick adoption of technology and their embrace of digital nomadism, but also, for many, by their direct identification with the May 1998 tragedy. It’s not uncommon for these young people to have first-hand experience of trauma.
At the same time, this is also a country where extremism is on the rise in schools. Where it’s technically illegal to marry someone of a different religion. Where no textbook teaches history properly, because so much is censored by the government. All while suicide bombs go off in bus stops and cafes.
Shock. That is the concept most analysed by one of my favorite political theorists, Naomi Klein. It refers to that state of mind where we are so psychologically shaken that we are no longer sure how to make sense of things. As Klein writes, those in power use shock – from natural, political or terrorist disasters – to push through corrupt or controversial policies when we are too weak or distracted to resist.
It’s what we felt after the 2004 tsunami, or after the great earthquake of 2011. It’s what we feel when bombs go off in places frequented by our loved ones. But also, albeit to a lesser extent, what we feel when we watch corrupt politicians and extremists gain power while our heroes go to prison.
People ask me where the intersection between natural disasters and political movements are. That’s where.
We’ve witnessed post-shock societies first-hand. We’ve been through 1998. We live under the threat of extremists with suicide bombs. For us, making comics is not some fun project to brighten our days or inflate our egos. It’s something we do because we have no other choice.
To this day, I still get strange looks when people know both sides of my expertise. Those who have read my body of work know that I’m well-versed on critical theory and philosophy, and yet I choose to make comics.
Those who have read my body of work know that I’m well-versed on critical theory and philosophy, and yet I choose to make comics.
But here’s the thing. When you live in a country where so much is at stake, where children are being raised in environments that are practically very fertile grounds for prejudice and extremism, and where there is virtually zero local entertainment for children – books, cartoons, or otherwise – that provide more progressive and less racist ways of seeing the world, you cannot but gravitate towards the most obvious form of shock resistance. For us, that is making great comics.
So that’s what we decided to do.
‘So you are concerned about social transformation, as well? Are you a writer? Are you a researcher?’ people would ask me.
‘I make comics,’ I would answer, with pride and excitement I can barely contain.
A shorter version of this essay was originally published on Medium.