Sarah Donaldson on Indonesian Folklore and Shadow Puppet Theater

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Sarah is a writer, folklorist, and filmmaker. Her short documentary film on the multiracial identity, “What Are You?,” was aired on Oregon Public Broadcast in 2015. She has presented her research at national academic conferences, and is currently working on a middle grade fantasy series based on Indonesian folklore. She splits her time between Portland, Oregon and Surabaya, East Java.

Q. In your paper “The Secret Life of the Cross-Cultural Fairy Tale,” you argue that a heroine’s agency is diminished when she is robbed of her wealth. Why study the transaction of money in fairy tales?

A. The acquisition of wealth is a common goal for characters in fairy tales. Heroes go on adventures to seek jewels. Kings marry maidens who are gifted with the ability to produce gold. Until I began this comparative study, I hadn’t realized just how pervasive an element it is in fairy tales.

Q. In “Breaking Down the Women’s Sphere,” you note the subjugation of women to the domestic sphere portrayed in and reinforced by Indonesian media created during the New Order regime of Suharto’s presidency (1966-1998), and the regime had a heavy hand in the production of this media. You cite the film Pasir Berbisik (2001) as a strong feminist film. How does it use folklore? And is this folklore used to uphold subjugation, to criticize it, or to dismantle it?

A. First I will provide a brief synopsis of the plot. At the beginning of the film, Berlian and her daughter, Daya, live alone in a village in East Java. We learn that Agus, Berlian’s husband and Daya’s father, had left them when Daya was still a child. After Berlian and Daya flee their village during the anti-communist massacre of 1965-66, Agus returns. For a short time they live happily as a family. Then, one day, Agus sells Daya as a prostitute. When Berlian finds out what Agus has done, she poisons him. By the end of the film, Berlian tells Daya to go out on her own, stating, “There’s nothing left anymore.”

At the beginning, we see Daya play with the shadow puppets her father, a puppeteer, had left behind. Later in the film, she is given a mask by a man she meets during her travels. The man tells her to wear the mask on the back of her head so “the ghost of the desert cannot bring [her] underground.”

It is important to note here that shadow puppet theater, traditionally performed by men, is used to recount war epics. In my paper, I argue that the female leads adopt this traditionally masculine performance of violence as a survival tactic in war-torn Indonesia. During the murder scene, in particular, Berlian embodies a shadow puppet. Her positioning within the foreground of the frame exaggerates her largeness of presence, while Agus sits behind her. (During a performance of shadow puppet theater, the performer holds the “murdering” puppet farther from the screen, thus enlarging its silhouette on the screen.) Furthermore, much of Berlian’s face is concealed by shadow.

As for the mask? I believe it represents the omnipresent mother, who seems to, as the mask-giver says, have “eyes on the back of her head.” Innocent and naive, Daya lacks this awareness of her surroundings. Throughout the film, she is wholly dependent upon her mother.

Q. You use fairy tale-like monsters in your own fiction. What do you think makes a good monster?

A. One that possesses the ability to use your own strengths against you.

Q. What is your favorite Indonesian folklore?

A. Anything that makes me laugh. I love ketoprak, which is a form of improv theater. In the city of Surabaya, I once watched a performance of ketoprak in which an actor tried to “stab” another actor (costumed as a tiger) with the sheath of his sword. The tiger fainted, but the man couldn’t drag the tiger offstage. Finally, the man shook the tiger awake and rode him offstage. I’ll leave it to the Freudians among you to analyze that one.

Q. What are some mainstay plots in Indonesian shadow puppet theater? In fables, there are ‘lessons’ or ‘morals,’ but fairy tales are all sorts of weird. For shadow puppet theater, is there a didactic purpose in storytelling or is it more exploratory?

A. As I’ve stated earlier, shadow puppet theater, or wayang kulit, mainly relates stories of war. Mahabharata and Ramayana are two of the most famous war epics told via this medium.

As for the second part of your question, isn’t all folklore didactic in some respect? The moral may not always be presented in an explicit manner, but there is always that implicit message of: “Don’t do this. Don’t be like these people. See how it turned out for them?” Improv theater might be the exception.

Q. German folktales seem to be fascinated with the woods, incest, and dismemberment. Are there any recurring themes, plots, or archetypes in Indonesian folklore?

A. I don’t want to make any blanket statements about Indonesian folklore. Hundreds of dialects are spoken across the archipelago. Similarly, East Javanese folklore is different from West Javanese folklore is different from Sumatran folklore is different from…you get the idea.

Q. What about the characters in Indonesian folklore?

A. Monsters, demons, and malicious spirits appear in many tales. For instance, Nyai Roro Kidul is a sea goddess said to drown people in order to turn them into slaves. It’s a more impressive warning than, “Don’t swim out too far, children. There are whirlpools out there.”

Q. You also use many magical objects in your fiction. How do they inform plot? How do you use them to reveal more about your characters? Can they introduce conflict into the story?

A. I think I’d need a hundred pages to fully answer these questions. In short, it depends on the object and its magical properties (as well as its limitations and conditions of use). I’d recommend any serious folklorist purchase a copy of the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols. I find myself referencing it constantly.

Q. If you had to choose, what would be your top three favorite fairy tales?

A. “Toads and Diamonds,” “Aladdin,” and “The Story of Two Sisters Who Were Jealous of Their Younger Sister” (Farizad of the Arabian Nights). “Mulan” is technically a legend, but I would be remiss not to mention it.

Q. If you had to lock away the secret to your own destruction, would you lock it in a stone, in an egg, in the mouth of a snake, or in the leg of a doll you sewed into a gold-embroidered fainting couch?

A. I’d lock it away in my savings account. Nobody would go looking for anything of value in there.

Q. Do you think fairy tales say anything realistic fiction can’t say, or can’t say as effectively as fairy tales can?

A. Fairy tales provide a space in which reality is suspended in favor of the surreal, the supernatural, and the fantastical. The reader enters a world in which princes emerge from the woods with a bride in tow, no questions asked. When a witch asks for a woman’s firstborn in exchange for a salad, we don’t question her motives. When a bloodthirsty king desires for straw to be spun into gold, we don’t question his logic.

At the same time, fairy tales are also a projection of a society, as relayed by the lowest-ranking members of that particular society. (Who were the storytellers? Peasant women. Mothers, grandmothers, teachers, and nursemaids.) In the words of Alan Dundes, folklore provides an “autobiographical ethnology” of one’s society.

That is to say, I don’t think the question is whether or not fairy tales contribute something that realistic fiction cannot. Rather, fairy tales are the foundation by which all literature was built.


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