Ubud encounters: Chauly, Godden, Wibowo explore identity

At the 2013 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Salena Godden, Agustinus Wibowo and Bernice Chauly talked about the art and science of the memoir.

All three writers spoke of their complex identities. Godden grew up in Britain with an Irish jazz musician father and Jamaican dancer mother. Chauly was born in Penang, Malaysia, to a Punjabi father and Chinese mother. Wibowo is an ethnic Chinese Indonesian who has written about his extensive travels, including lengthy stays in Afghanistan and China.

Wibowo was raised in the Chinese Buddhist tradition by his parents and taught to think of China as the ancestral homeland. In his most recent book, Titik Nol (Point Zero), he recounts a bizarre scene in his mother’s hospital room. With terminal patients, Indonesian hospitals will summon the approach clergy to minister appropriate rites. However, some of Wibowo’s relatives had converted to Christianity. “My mother’s sisters and brothers tried to baptize her on her deathbed on one side. On the other side, Buddhist monks were performing their rituals.”

During the Suharto years, Chinese language teaching was banned, and Wibowo’s parents took advantage of that in front of their children. “They spoke Chinese when they didn’t want us to understand.” In response to anti-Chinese discrimination under Suharto, his parents infused Wibowo with the idea of China as their ancestral homeland, and they sent him to school there. “But when I got there, I was just a foreigner,” Wibowo recalled, and that strengthened his Indonesian identity. “I used to root for Chinese teams in badminton competitions. But in China, I rooted for Indonesia.”

In the years since Suharto’s ouster, as part of Indonesia’s refomasi legal discrimination against Chinese has ended. “My father always wanted me to take his bones back to China when he died, to bury him in his homeland. He called it returning home,” Wibowo said. “When I asked him after refomasi, he wanted to be buried here. He said, ‘My home is Indonesia.’”

Bernice Chauly said that her father’s death cut her off from her Indian side as her mother moved back to live with her family. “I had a Chinese childhood, but I yearned to be Indian.” In her teenage Malaysian national indoctrination class, she did feel sufficiently tied to each community to apologize for both the Chinese and Indians’ enumerated abuses of Malaysia’s native bumiputera.

“Memoir comes from a great void, an emptiness,” Chauly, who curates Penang’s annual George Town Literary Festival said. Her book, Growing up with Ghosts, uses six different voices to tell its story. “If I hadn’t written this book I’d be haunted by ghosts,” Chauly said. “This book saved me.”

Poet and spoken word artist Salena Godden hopes that crowd funding can save her memoir, Springfield Road. The book follows Godden growing up as the “brown girl” in her school and wondering about her absent father, who, between cruise ship band gigs, visits her for a single day.

“I was craughing when I wrote the book,” Godden said, using the term she coined for the cross between laughing and crying. “When you read it, you’ll craugh after ten lines.”

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.