Feby Indirani: The Importance of Being Honest
When Feby Indirani was a young girl, writing helped her to put things in perspective and make sense of everything that happened around her – from keeping a diary to penning poems and short stories to eventually joining the school paper as a teenager.
At 17 years old, she was the runner-up in a writing competition held by a national teen magazine.
“I think that was the first time I realized that writing could be more than just a hobby,” she recalls. “After finishing high school, I didn’t really know what major to choose – all I knew was my love for writing, and so I decided to study journalism, which I thought was closest to writing, and then I fell in love with journalism as well.”
Feby soon realized she didn’t have to choose one or the other.
While working as a journalist, Feby – who studied journalism at Padjadjaran University in Bandung, West Java and has worked with Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, Tempo media group and Kompas TV – still found enough time to finish her first novel Simfoni Bulan (Bulan’s Symphony), which was published in 2006 and was inspired by real-life events.
“The trigger to write this story was when Kramat Tunggak, at the time the biggest red light district in Southeast Asia, was closed down and replaced with a grand mosque,” she says.
“To me, there was something wrong with the logic behind that decision. Economically speaking, it led to the suffering of thousands of sex workers and their families – but it seemed the government and most people were mainly concerned about moral issues. I thought that so-called religious people could be very selfish.”
Her novel tells the story of Bulan, a journalist who works closely with her sources in Kramat Tunggak, and at some point decides to experience life as a prostitute herself.
After the book was published, Feby had to face the wrath of her family: her brother called her immoral, destructive and accused her of having a negative impact on society because of the sexual content in her novel. Her mother said she put the family to shame.
“It was hard because my family is significant to me,” Feby says. “Everything that happened around my first novel was quite traumatic for me.”
This experience didn’t diminish Feby’s love for writing, and she continued to publish both fiction and non-fiction books – but only about “safe topics”, such as novels for young adults and inspirational stories.
“I worked as a journalist full-time, and at the same time exercised my writing skills, communicated my ideas to the public and published books – I was quite happy,” she explains.
“But deep down, I sensed it was actually not fulfilling, like I had to hide something from myself. I felt like I was still writing, but wasn’t fully honest with myself.”
One decade after Simfoni Bulan, Feby gathered her courage to start writing Bukan Perawan Maria (Not Virgin Mary), a collection of short stories that examines the Islamic world in a critical, yet emphatic and often humorous way.
Feby is the first to admit it was quite a challenge for her to do so: not only did she fear a backlash from her family, but also from hardline Muslims in Indonesia.
“At some point, I decided I had to stop worrying and keep going,” Feby says. “Bukan Perawan Maria was eventually published in 2017, and though I still have some issues with my family, I think I have become stronger. Bukan Perawan Maria is definitely not a safe topic, and it doesn’t put me in a safe zone either. At the same time, I feel relieved I was being true to myself after all.”
Bukan Perawan Maria has been translated into English and its Italian version, titled Non è mica la vergine Maria was published by Add Editore in June.
Since September last year, she has been based in London after winning the Chevening scholarship from the UK government, where she is pursuing her master’s degree in Digital Media, Culture and Education at University College London.
“I never strayed far away from media and journalism, so learning about digital media feels like the next logical step to me,” she says, adding that she quickly fell in love with the city, its plethora of cultural offers like art exhibitions, theaters, discussions and independent bookshops.
“It can feel overwhelming sometimes because there are so many great things to absorb while I ‘only’ have one year here, but I just try to make the most out of it, I breathe in everything I can and celebrate it,” Feby explains.
“The city has inspired me a lot, especially when I see how the art and cultural ecosystem has been maintained, and I have learned to pay attention to ‘little things,’ things that are easily taken for granted.”
Feby’s stint in Europe also brought her to Germany recently, when the Rumah Budaya Indonesia cultural center in Berlin invited her to its literary event Temu Sastra, which is held on a regular basis to introduce Indonesian writers to a German audience.
Instead of a mere reading and discussion, Feby suggested to involve Berlin-based artists to perform as a response to her short stories.
“Similar events have been held in Jakarta, Bandung and Lombok [in Indonesia], and the results were terrific,” Feby explains.
“I collaborated with local artists who shared the same concern on religion and belief issues, and most of them told me how the project moved them. The responses from the audience were always great.”
In Berlin, Feby collaborated with hip-hop dancer Makbul Deli, or Mabu; artist duo Ariel William Orah and Bilawa Ade Respati. German interpreter Gudrun Ingratubun was also part of the performance because Mabu danced without music, the only sound being Gudrun’s voice as she was reading Feby’s story in German.
“This was the first time for me to have a collaboration like this outside of Indonesia, and I am very happy with how it went,” Feby says. “Besides Mabu, who has a Turkish background, there was someone in the audience from Iran who told me she could really relate to the topics. I believe my stories explore many different angles of Muslim experiences – even though they are rooted in Indonesia. The rise of ‘Islamic conservatism’ has become a global concern, and I think the book and the art-movement has lit up more conversations and dialogs about it.”
Feby is well aware of the fact she might be “under scrutiny” for the topics she chooses to write about – especially now that religious intolerance seems to be growing in Indonesia.
One of her events in Indonesia, for instance, was almost cancelled by the police due to safety concerns over the sensitive subject matter. However, it doesn’t stop her from continuing to follow that path.
Currently, Feby is working on a second short story collection titled Memburu Muhammad (Hunting for Muhammad), which is slated for publication later this year.
“I believe that what I write is in the corridor of Islam, the way I think it to be,” she explains. “Islam never forbids critical thinking, and many Islamic works of literature encourage humor and self-criticism, like the Sufism stories by Nasruddin Hoja and Abu Nawas,” she says.
“I want to follow the path of Islam, which promotes compassion and self-criticism while I believe in the power of storytelling and art activities. I also receive support and positive feedback, which makes me believe that I am not alone on this journey.”
This article was first published in the Jakarta Post on 29 June, 2019.