Hi Jeremy Allan! The Canadian writer who lives in a bungalow in the village of Penting Sari, Jogja.
Canada is a long way away from Indonesia – why have you decided to make this archipelago your home?
I was taking advantage of the airline price war in the late 70s to travel around the world when I was Shanghaied (or more accurately “Singapored”) out of a backpacker dormitory in Bencoolen Street to supervise an oil-field survey crew in the forests of East Kalimantan. By the time I was laid off, three years later, I realised that Indonesia would provide enough material to sustain a decades-long writing career. And it has.
Where did you live before Jogjakarta?
All over. Bandung for a few years, fifteen years in Jakarta, some time in Bogor, and seven years in Bali.
You recently moved to the outskirts of Jogjakarta to a village called Penting Sari to work on a new book. Can you tell us a little bit about this work in progress?
It’s about Jogjakarta during the Indonesian struggle for independence. Penting Sari played a significant role during the Dutch occupation of Jogja as a staging and provisioning point for guerrillas hiding in the mountains north of the city. Hence the name: “penting” means important.
Are you the only ‘bule’ in the village?
Since Penting Sari is a “desa wisata” a tourism-oriented village, foreigners are not an uncommon sight. In general I am left alone, except during festive occasions, when I am fed to within an inch of my life.
How many books have you written since you moved to Indonesia?
I am the sole author of only two books, Jakarta Jive and Bali Blues, but I have contributed as co-author or contributor to many others.
You are a journalist also. What’s your most memorable article?
Actually I’m not, as my cavalier attitude toward fact verification disqualifies me from that noble profession. The article generating the most reaction was probably the account of a tandem skydive in 1991, in which I sensationalised a minor parachute malfunction into a near-death experience.
For those readers who don’t know, your book Jakarta Jive looks at the tumultuous events surrounding the fall of Soeharto through the eyes of the residents of Jakarta. What made you want to write this book and what kind of a reaction has it sparked?
One of my heroes is the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who noted that one of the best ways to understand a community is to examine how the residents deal with a disaster or calamity. Circumstances put me in close contact with Jakarta residents from all economic levels and social backgrounds during the upheavals of 1998, so I realised I could apply Geertz’s approach to describe aspects of Indonesian society that normally stay hidden. The reaction to the book was generally positive, especially from Indonesian readers.
What do you love about living in Indonesia and, if there is anything, what do you hate?
Living in Indonesia I am, by turns, frustrated, infuriated, and exasperated. But I have never, ever, been bored.
Last but not least – durian – yay or nay? And if you could describe its consistency in three words, what would they be?
Tourist guidebooks say that durian is an acquired taste. But, to my knowledge, no one has ever acquired a taste for durian. You are either a passionate devotee from the first taste or will have a lifelong revulsion. And trying to describe durian in three words is like explaining Javanese culture in a thirty second sound bite. The taste of a great durian is such a symphony of nuances and overtones that no description can do it justice.