📖 🇮🇩 #18: Supernatural Indonesian tales

Intan Paramaditha's short story collection

Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you’re enjoying my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.


Set mostly in modern day Indonesia, Intan Paramaditha’s Apple & Knife is a collection of thirteen short stories inspired by horror fiction, Indonesian folklore, and fairy tales. Exploring what it means to occupy a female body in a deeply misogynistic world, Paramaditha’s main characters are not helpless maidens but fierce, empowered women who share a determination to exact justice.

Paramaditha’s stories aren’t long—between 10 and 20 pages each—and they’re fuelled by an almost frantic energy. All of the stories in this collection are grotesque, often featuring blood and supernatural elements as well as plenty of lessons to be learned. Many feature wicked men who reach untimely and grisly fates. Take, for example, Bambang, the businessman who is found asphyxiated in his 1982 Mercedes Tiger after getting involved in his wife’s relationship with their houseboy in Doors. Or Guy, the faithful husband who is locked into a cupboard by his master, a vengeful woman with a face “like a rough chunk of meat” in Beauty and the Seventh Dwarf.

One story I haven’t stopped thinking about since putting it down is the collection’s first: The Blind Woman Without a Toe. A retelling of Cinderella from the perspective of one of her stepsisters, it includes a particularly nasty account of the narrator’s decision to amputate her own toe.

Mother, still dreaming we could find match of royal pedigree, made Sin hide while my sister and I took turns trying on the slipper. But the slipper was too small. I tried to force my foot inside. Alas, my toes were so bulky! My big toe was larger than most. Mother handed me a knife. ‘Cut it off. You don’t need it. If you become queen, you won’t be doing much walking.’ I took hold of the knife, bit my lip hard and amputated my toe. I tossed the first morsel of my flesh into the trash so that stray dogs could eat it. You would do well to know, child, that this world is filled with poorly fitting shoes that only accommodate the mutilated.

Other memorable highlights include Blood, in which copywriter Mara recalls a haunting story about an old hag who roams public bathrooms and licks blood from used sanitary towels whilst brainstorming an ad campaign for Free Maxi Pads; Scream in a Bottle, in which a young researcher meets an old crone who bottles women’s screams; and Apple & Knife, in which Cousin Juli exposes the hypocrisy of the women who have ostracised her on account of her extramarital affair by gathering them and introducing them to Yusuf, the “trembling angel” she left her husband for. Pulling on elements of the Quranic/Biblical story of Joseph, it’s a wonderful tale that descends into metaphor-laden chaos.

Everything eventually blurred: it was no longer clear who was victim, who was tormentor, who enjoyed pleasure, who suffered pain.

Offering a sharp and highly original take on the pervasive mistreatment of women, and often subverting the reader’s expectations, the scope and precision of this collection is admirable. I particularly enjoyed the stories’ wide range of settings: we meet Paramaditha’s characters in Indonesia’s boardrooms, shanty towns, and walled mansions. If you think you can stomach it, Apple & Knife is a rewarding and worthwhile read. I’d recommend dipping in and out to avoid OD’ing on metaphor and gore.

Apple & Knife by Intan Paramaditha, translated by Stephen J. Epstein (Vintage, 2019)

More books by Indonesian authors

Here’s a list of the other recommendations I received this week:

  • In The Hands of a Mischievous God by Theodora Sarah Abigail

  • Kei by Erni Aladjai, tr. Indriyatno Nurhayat Mohamed

  • The Original Dream by Nukila Amal, tr. by Linda Owens

  • From Now on Everything Will Be Different by Eliza Vitri Handayani

  • Nirzona by Abidah El Khalieqy, tr. Anine Tucker

  • Paper Boats by Dee Lestari, tr. Tiffany Tsao

  • All Women Have Affairs and Other Stories by Clara Ng, tr. Pamela Allen and Jorn-Holger Sprode

  • The Birdwoman’s Palate by Laksmi Pamuntjak, tr. Tiffany Tsao

  • The Wandering by Intan Paramaditha, tr. Stephen J. Epstein 

  • Mirah of Banda by Hanna Rambe, tr. Toni Pollard

  • Earth Dance by Oka Rusmini, tr. Rani Ambyo and Thomas M. Hunter

  • Saman by Ayu Utami, tr. by Pamela Allen

What have you read recently?

If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or want to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I won’t be too dogmatic about it so do share recommendations that don’t quite fit the bill, too.

You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.

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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to InterSastra for their recommendations for this issue. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!