Elia Bintang had just launched his first novel, Pantai Kupu-kupu (Butterfly Beach), published by Plot Point. He is also an avid blogger who writes at Jurnal Elia and a singer/musician. Albert Camus, Haruki Murakami, and Jean-Paul Sartre are some of his major influencers. He is now living in Bali, Indonesia. You can read more interviews with Indonesian writers here.
Me: Why beach? And why butterflies?
Elia: It’s a very simple story. A girl meets a guy in a strange, faraway, almost mythical place called Butterfly Beach (Pantai Kupu-kupu). She is in search of the purpose of her life. He is in search of the love of his life. In Butterfly Beach, every morning, the sun rises with millions of butterflies flying out of it. That’s the general idea.
Why beach? Because it’s a perfect setting for the characters. Imagine that you’re sick of the way you’ve lived so far, and decide to think about what it is that you really want, why do you exist, and stuff like that. Imagine that you are into the alternative way of living (and thinking) because the accepted way sucks. If you stay in the city, you’ll feel very much alienated. If you go to the mountains, you must be full of hatred.
This is not a story about alienation or hatred.
There might be a subtle feeling of alienation throughout the book—I can’t put that out of the picture—but it has a certain quality of warmth, as well. A certain quality of fun–and a relaxed attitude. You’re serious, but not so serious at the same time. So, the beach is a necessity.
As for the butterflies, no particular reason. Maybe because they’re beautiful (just think about millions of them coming out of the sun). The main character has a rainbow-colored butterfly tattoo, too. She, as well as the guy, is a part of the Rainbow Community. It’s inspired by the Rainbow Family of Living Light in real life, a community that embraces the alternative way of living. I choose butterflies more for artistic reasons, I guess.
Me: How and where do you write?
Elia: When I’m working on a novel, I write for eight hours every day. I write anything that comes to mind for the first draft. After that, I review it, analyze it, make an outline, and begin the second draft. I review and analyze it again, decide on which parts that are inefficient and should be left out; and what I should do to improve the story and the writing. Then I begin the third draft. If everything goes well, it’s all that it takes. But sometimes, it takes more.
I write anywhere. I’ve written in Jakarta, Yogyakarta, and Bali. All I need is a quiet, peaceful room with a closed door. And cigarettes. And cups of coffee. A beer, occasionally. Whisky. Songs that take me somewhere else. Magic mushroom would be nice, as well, for fresh new ideas and perspectives.
Me: You’re a musician, as well. What is it that music can’t do, that writing can do, or vice versa? How do these two influence each other?
Elia: A song is a sword. A novel is a slow knife. If you want to die, get the first one. If you want to understand pain, get the second one. You will die, too, in the end, but as a deeper, wiser, more complete person.
My music doesn’t influence my writing. My taste of music does. I like Radiohead, Sigur Ros, Massive Attack, Isaac Delusion, stuff like that. Their songs set my mood right when I’m writing surrealistic things, which is an important aspect of my work besides freedom and counterculture. They stimulate my senses and imagination.
Me: I believe that our writings or stories reflect our fears, dreams, wishes, concerns, belief—or a combination of all those. How do you see Pantai Kupu-kupu reflects yours?
Elia: It reflects my concerns and belief quite a lot. I believe that we should live this life as subjects, not objects to labels, stereotypes, norms, values, and anything created by the society. We have responsibilities towards other people, of course, but we are individuals at the same time. We are free. It’s up to us–how to live and define ourselves. All the characters in Pantai Kupu-kupu define themselves; or in the process of defining themselves.
I support equality between men and women. I’m not talking about the difference of salaries they make at work or the numbers of men and women in the parliament or stuff like that. I’m talking about the mindset. Women shouldn’t be afraid of anything. Women are free individuals and shouldn’t give a shit about the pressure society put on them; it’s how the society sees them that has to change. Women shouldn’t live their lives expecting to rely on men financially and emotionally; because they are better than that, and are capable human beings—besides, men don’t owe women anything, we are all equal. All female characters in Pantai Kupu-kupu are free individuals with good self-image and self-esteem.
Today’s culture was shaped by the generations before us. What kind of culture will we pass on to the next generations? It’s not the time to write about weak, fragile women and the superiority of men.
Me: I sense several issues related to interconnectedness, finding oneself, and spirituality in this novel. How do you—yourself, as Elia—see these issues?
Elia: You pray to the ‘higher’ being every night and day. Then things work out as you asked. You say, my prayer is answered. Then things don’t work out. You say, my prayer is not answered. How do you see that?
I’d say, it’s just the nature of life. Even if you pray to a tree, the outcome would be the same: sometimes you get good things, other times you get bad things. Based on this argument alone, I see no point in being too spiritual. I believe the existence of spirits, but that’s it. I never discuss anything beyond that in my writing because my purpose is to emphasize the absurdity of life and the surrealistic things you can experience, not the spirituality itself.
I’m a non-believer and I think life is absurd. You can live all your life as a good person and die in a traffic accident or in a bombing. You can be a bad person, kill millions of people, live a long life, and some people suggest to make you a national hero after you die. One phenomenon could occur just because it ‘felt’ like occurring. I don’t believe in interconnectedness.
About finding oneself, I always think that self-knowledge is important; and that in life, it’s much more important to be than to have. Do everything your way. Succeed you way, fail your way, and in that you will find yourself. The logic is very simple. When you’re being you in every decision you make, self-discovery is inevitable.
Me: How’s the most difficult writing days in your life look like?
Elia: Writing is not difficult. Thinking of what to write is.
I always have a big picture in my head before I work on a story. I know how it’s going to be like, how the main characters look like, what are their strengths and weaknesses, their clothing style, how they move, how they become who they are, what they want, and so on. If you know all these before you write, it’s easy. Writer’s block is a myth. I don’t remember anything so unbearable about my writing process.
*) photo courtesy of Maria Leonietha.
I fall for words. Words of all kinds. Flirty texts. Random questions. Stupid remarks. Retarded emoticons. I fall for words so much, to the extent that I once agreed to meet a guy I had known online without even knowing how he actually looked like. He wrote nice emails and texts. That was all I know, and that was enough. Later on, he realized that he had not sent me his picture.
“What kind of girl agreed to go on a date with a guy she doesn’t know the look of?” he asked, laughing.
“An open-minded girl,” I replied. “And, anyway, who said that it was a date?”
“Ouch. You got me!”
So, we met over coffee one afternoon. And he turned out to be very pleasant and nice–just the way I pictured him through his words. We had a great conversation. And banters. And we laughed a lot. Oh, and as a bonus, he was actually quite handsome. Thus, don’t blame me if I continue to fall for words. My experience tells me that it’s 95% accurate.
So, yes. I judge people from the way they write (including the type of font they choose). I fall for their writing style, their choice of words, their inner voice, the way they place the right punctuation marks, as well as the wonderful feeling of reading those sentences out loud and thinking about how smart or funny or dark or interesting or intriguing the writer must be.
I also fall for Mishka Shubaly this way.
About a month ago, when I was browsing the Internet, I stumbled upon a mention of a writer I’ve never heard of before: Mishka Shubaly. I was intrigued by one particular article about him in Huffington Post, written by Cynthia Ellis. Cynthia’s words got me in an instant. Soon enough, I had been reading reviews about Mishka’s works all over the Net. Then I just knew by heart that I have to read them! Excited, I went to Amazon to purchase Mishka’s Kindle Singles–and devastated when a message appeared on my computer screen, stating that his works were not available for sale in my country.
Brokenhearted, I went to Twitter and told the world my sufferings, mentioning Mishka. I was so surprised when he sent me a direct message a while after! He didn’t know me. I was merely a stranger. But he was asking for my email address so that he could send me a draft of his story. I cried happily. I have learned many times in life, that you can get what you want if you only ask.
When The Long Run landed on my inbox, I cherished it like my secret treasure. Soon, I was immersed in the story of how Mishka climbed out from his ‘shit hole’–that was full of drugs and booze–and tried to ‘run’ his life back on track. I read the story 4 to 5 times in a row, slowly, tracing each words, each sentences, finding new details here and there every time. I read some parts out loud–and someone else’s life, more than 10,000 miles away from here, slipped from my lips. I fall in love with Mishka’s voice. The rising emotion as I delved further into the story. The way he sounded so bare and brutally honest, so strong and yet so vulnerable.
I’d never had to get through a breakup without that tireless listener, that bottomless well of comfort, that sympathetic devil: alcohol. I didn’t start drinking and I didn’t stop running, but I did start wearing sunglasses on my long runs, twenty-one miles over five bridges in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, so the people I passed couldn’t tell that I was crying.
[The Long Run by Mishka Shubaly.]
The Long Run was a dark story. But Mishka didn’t inject depressing sobs as much as he laughed it all off–the way one should when looking back. The ability to laugh at ourselves is healthy. Because then we put ourselves not as a victim, but as a survivor. We’ve gone through that, we’ve passed, we’ve survived. Our past will always linger somewhere underneath our layers, but now it’s going to be more of a deep and reflective ha-ha story instead of a dreary suicidal tale.
The next few days after reading The Long Run, I was organizing my thoughts to shoot Mishka an email about his story and how it had affected me–both as a person and as a writer. But before I even had the chance to do so, I clicked the blue dot on my Twitter’s DM button one cloudy Saturday morning, and found a message from Mishka.
“I can’t believe I’m talking to you right now,” I typed. “This is so effing absurd, but one of the coolest things ever!”
I was perched in a comfy couch in Casa, Kemang–my favorite place in town to read and write, or have a lovely chat with my besties. That Saturday, it was raining heavily outside, and I was glued to my computer screen, talking to Mishka.
“One time, a cab driver told me. Everyone has to work, but you can choose who you are working for. I work for me. He was so right,” Mishka replied when I asked him what was the best advice he had ever received in life so far. “I started working for me, too. Toughest boss I’ve ever had! But I reap the rewards, not some fat old white man in a suit. Funny to get great life advice from a cabdriver, huh? Or unsurprising. I often find that people working the front lines of humanity know the most.”
(I didn’t tell Mishka–yet, that one of my greatest life advice also came from a cab driver in Jakarta’s hellish traffic jam. But I’ll save that story for the next post)
“How does it feel to write something as… honest?” I asked Mishka. When I read The Long Run, I got nervous imagining how different people who were being featured in the story would react to it–and to him. “Do you struggle in the middle of writing it? Like how much should you put out and how much should you hold?”
“Writing the Kindle Singles is always exhausting,” said Mishka. “I try to write them like I’m writing a private diary that no one will see. Then, before I can stop myself, I send it to my editor. And then it goes out to the world and I have to deal with the consequences. It can cause me a lot of anxiety, heartache, worry… but the end result is worth it. I’d rather have people hate me for being honest than love me for being something I’m not. I’m a flawed human being with a lot of bad habits and foolish tendencies with lots of poor decisions and ugly shit in my past. I think that’s something a lot of people relate to.”
He was right (and it was funny he said that, because a few days ago I had just wrote a piece about dealing with our pasts).
The Long Run is indeed a story about struggling with addiction–but it is more than that. Mishka’s addictions to drugs and alcohol is our addiction to a certain guy. To political power. To a branded bag. To be skinny. To a lighter skin-tone. To self-pity. To wealth. To the Internet. To an unresolved love affair. To a past.
We’re all dealing with our own addictions. We’re carrying these things inside, hiding it like a well-kept secret–so that no one will find out. Everyday, we’re all trying to run away from something that anchors us down, and run towards the freedom to be who we truly are.
Humor is all a matter of perspective. You watch Homer Simpson hit his head and it’s funny, but when it happens to you, it’s supposed to be a tragedy? Nah, I think it’s funny either way.
“We need to find a way so I can buy the rest of your stories,” I told Mishka. “I can pay through PayPal if you have a PayPal account.”
“Please just email me some popcorns as payment,” replied Mishka. And so, I did.
UPDATE, Jul 17, 2013: And Mishka shared this on his Facebook Page. Isn’t he just the sweetest? :’)
I woke up to rain. To the faint smell of pandan leaves and frangipani. The sky was dark gray. The garden were glistening under the downpour. I watched the mist floating silently in the air, astounded by its ghostly appearance. A dark and wet morning in Ubud for a bunch of depressed writers. A perfect gift. When the rain subsided to drizzles, we tip-toed to the breakfast area, to avoid stepping over the offerings (banten).
Breakfast was served in a small hut next to the paddy field. The sound of Balinese gamelan, the hush of the wind, the rhythm of the raindrops, the spores of Actinomycetes. There were three of us at the table, but we did not talk much. I sipped my coffee without hurrying.
Leaving the cottage at around 10, we decided to take our separate ways. The guys went uphill, while I sat on the edge of the bridge, looking down to the mesmerizing beauty of Tjampuhan (Campuhan) river. I could spend hours just looking at the flowing water, orchestrated by the faint sounds of the birds and monkeys from the nearby forest. It was so calming, like a therapy to ignite a sense of melancholy.
Joe Forgas, a social psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, has spent the last decade investigating the link between negative moods and creativity. He has repeatedly demonstrated that a little melancholy sharpens the spotlight of attention, allowing us to become more observant and persistent. Forgas has found that states of sadness also correlate with better writing samples; subjects compose sentences that are clearer and more compelling. Because they were more attentive to what they were writing, they produced more refined prose, the words polished by their misery*.
That was probably the exact reason why the three of us decided to hide in Ubud for a few days.
True, it was that time of the year when they held this annual International Ubud Writers & Readers Festival—where writers from all over the world came to this little dot on the map for a series of talks, readings, or workshops. But the festival was merely an added topping. The core ingredient of our #PecahdiUbud (“Bursting in Ubud“) journey was actually the one that Forgas mentioned.
We were looking for a place where we could savor the melancholy of being silently depressed and miserable.
Ubud was just the perfect place to do this. A small village hidden beneath the lush canopy of green, with its forests, rivers, hills, temples, and October rain, far from the beach-side’s sunny celebrations. A bunch of traveling companions who could understand these shared state-of-sadness. Those who wouldn’t mind to sit together in silence—each one got lost in one’s own thoughts: racking our brains, scribbling some notes, typing stories, reading books, or gazing out into the emptiness.
In the afternoon, after a long lunch, we would wander around listlessly—only to find ourselves took our separate ways, again. Adit went to a batik workshop, Ney went to a book discussion, and I decided to sit in a class of 15 people; clutching my Vernon God Little novel while the author, DBC Pierre, was sharing his writing experience right in front of me.
When the sadness and depression overwhelmed us, we left Ubud for Seminyak and walked under the sun until our feet got tired and our skin were burning hot. That day, we waited for the sun to set in Cafe Bali, Oberoi Street. Sat lazily on a huge couch overlooking the tiny pool and the Ganesha statue, we sipped our coffee and devoured six types of desserts to wash away the bitterness.
As night fell, we climbed back up to Ubud: the wind was chilly, the air was damp, the sky was dark. A small sliver of the moon was hanging there, looking lonely. We walked past the darkness of the museum not far from our cottage, the sound of the night enveloped us. It was the museum of Antonio Blanco—a painter of Spanish and American decent who came to the island in 1952 and fell in love with Ni Ronji, a Balinese dancer, and got married to her a year later.
My mind was instantly filled with mythical creatures, kisses and fireworks, invisible inhabitants of the past and the future, the traces of unrequited love, explosion of tears. It was that time of the year. To celebrate sadness and misery, to welcome tears and despair, to get high just by looking at the words pouring from my computer screen. “Bursting in Ubud” was about embracing all these, to wake up again in a different morning one day and walk out with my golden slippers, sunglasses, shirts, and shorts—heading to the beach with a burst of laughter.
*) p. 77, The Unconcealing, a chapter from the book “Imagine” by Jonah Lehrer.