The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Teenagers in a twisted world     


“Dad, how come we didn’t know some people in Indonesia hated us so much?  We had heaps of friends and everyone was always nice to us.  Was it anything we did or said?”

A troubling question from 14-year old Ruth Scott to her father Robert after his Muslim friend Urip and 20 other academics and students had been torn apart by a female suicide bomber.

On that fateful day at a Christian university in Central Java, Robert was scheduled to deliver the lecture.  Instead he’d invited Urip to speak in a bid to build religious tolerance and understanding.

So Robert was watching from the back of the hall when a Jemaah Islamiyah fanatic struck the podium targeting Westerners but killing Indonesians. 

The Scott family flees to New Zealand in deep shock.  Ruth mourns the loss of her friends and those she’s had to leave, particularly her best mate Ari, (Urip’s daughter), and her happy life in Indonesia. 

Back in her safe and snug homeland Ruth rejects counselling and makes a telling point about Kiwi’s ignorance: “No, I hated it.  They had no idea about the bomb.  Or Indonesia.”

Robert blames himself for not realizing militant Islam had grown so fast and penetrated the campuses.  His daughter’s questions scratch the guilt scabs raw.

Fortunately it’s fiction and on the keyboard of a writer hostile to Indonesia The Red Suitcase could have been a polemic against Islam.  But prize-winning author Jill Harris turns the brutality of religious intolerance around, to nurture understanding of the complexities of faith and culture.

This is something she knows well, having spent a “tumultuous” three years in the early 1960s teaching English at the Christian Satya Wacana University in Salatiga, Central Java with her journalist husband Ian.

The couple had been inspired by a Protestant minister in NZ who told them their nation’s future lay in Asia, not Europe.  At the time most young adventure seekers spent their gap years in Britain.

“We did not have exalted ideas about ourselves and certainly no belief in the superiority of Western values,” she said forcefully.  “We wanted to learn about our neighbors, to get alongside people of another culture. Missionaries?  Heavens no, horror, horror.”

It took almost a year to get visas, time spent learning Indonesian from the only available text in NZ.

“It was an incredibly tough time but a life-changing experience,” she recalled.  “Martial law was in place; on the drive from Jakarta we were stopped by soldiers ten times.

“We lived on Indonesian wages, but in fact got less than local staff who took other jobs to survive. We called the local shop Tidak Ada (don’t have) because it was almost always empty of stock.  Relatives sent us food parcels. Yet we never felt unsafe.

“The economy was collapsing – people were eating rats.  Rice that sold for four rupiah a kilo when we arrived was priced at 95 rupiah when we left.

“Many, many times I wanted to give up.  It was very difficult, but it changed my life in a positive way, though I’ve never completely bridged the cultural gap.

“Back in Auckland I realised how racism was part of our society.  In those days Maori people were hardly recognized.  That’s no longer the situation.”

While in Indonesia Ruth gave birth to her two sons.  Medical problems gave her further insights into the Republic’s health services. 

On her return Jill taught Indonesian and gave public lectures on NZ’s closest Asian neighbour. The couple also helped establish the NZ-Indonesia Association, a non-government organization dedicated to improving relationships between the two nations and which still exists.

The Red Suitcase maintains the message that NZ’s future lies in understanding Asia, the same direction given by the minister who first inspired the couple to head to Indonesia. Fortunately it does this subtlety. Just because readers are young doesn’t mean they can’t spot and reject a barrow-pusher.

Later the story moves to another level as Ruth discovers letters from an airman relative killed in World War I1 and enters the “slippery nature of time.”  But it’s the Indonesian bombing which sets the scene for a girl rushing into womanhood and confronting the great questions: Why is life not always good?  Why do people cause grief?

Teenage novels have accelerated far beyond tales of enchanting princesses who find true love and live happily ever after.  Kids who get hate and horror served on breakfast TV can’t be protected from the great tragedies of the world they’re entering.

“Hush – you’ll understand when you grow up,” is no longer an acceptable response when Generation Net reaches the age of inquiry. A child’s book no longer has to be childish.

Jill Harris understands this market, reasoning that modern kids need frank answers in fiction that reflects reality, not tip-toeing around the topics that set adults trembling.

The Red Suitcase is her fourth book, but the first based on her time in Indonesia.  The title comes from the real life discovery of a box holding almost 100 letters from the writer’s journalist uncle Colwyn Jones, a bomber navigator who died in Europe.

These facts form the major plot as the fictional Ruth comes across similar correspondence, entering “a sliding time zone,” that puts her into the aircraft raining death over Germany.

Despite the Scott family’s ghastly experience in Indonesia they don’t hate the country,  peppering their conversations with Indonesian, illustrating the author’s “affection” for the archipelago.

“The media now offers a softer image of Indonesia,” she said. “But Indonesian is no longer taught in NZ schools or universities.”

Although Ian has been back, leukaemia has prevented Mrs Harris, 75, from returning to the land that shaped her thinking.  Her next project is to publish the couple’s Salatiga diaries so readers can understand more of life in the Soekarno era.

“Indonesia taught me about resilience, tolerance and friendship, and what it means to be really poor,” she said in her batik-draped home.  “It also helped me discover myself.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 24 November 2014)

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