Mirandi Riwoe on writing women, freedom fighters and a bygone era

Mirandi Riwoe on writing women, freedom fighters and a bygone era

Mirandi Riwoe is an award writer of historical non-fiction. In 2023 she released Sunbirds, a historical fiction romance interrogating a bygone era - Java in 1941 before the Japanese invasion of World War II and in the lead up to the revolution to overthrow the colonial administration of the Dutch East Indies to become Indonesia in 1949.

Her 2020 novel Stone Sky Gold Mountain won the ARA Historical Novel Prize and the Queensland Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. Her novella The Fish Girl won Seizure’s Viva la Novella and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize. Her short fiction and novellas can be found in the collection The Burnished Sun.

Mirandi Riwoe on writing women, freedom fighters and a bygone era


ASTRID: Mirandi, welcome to The Garret once again. We spoke for the first time right at the very beginning of 2019 when the bushfires were happening, and it was just before the world was about to change. I've always remembered that interview because it was so surreal.

MIRANDI: I think that was probably my first and last in person interview before we were all locked down.

ASTRID: And you released your book, Stone Sky Gold Mountain, into that crazy period. I'm so happy that Sunbirds is being released at a time where we all get to see each other and talk about your work together.

ASTRID: Yeah, I'm so excited. On Friday I had my launch Avid Reader, lovely Avid Reader. I'm just really excited I get to dress up and go out and it'll be fun. It'll be fun to talk about.

ASTRID: We recently saw each other at Canberra Writers Festival, and I met your Mum. I noticed that Sunbirds is dedicated to your Mum, Meg, and I noticed that in the acknowledgments at the end of Sunbirds you thank your Mum, and I quote, ‘for her sharp eye’. Is she one of your first readers?

MIRANDI: She used to be my first one. I've got a couple of friends now that I can send the book to, but she is definitely one of the first. This time round, it was more… it used to be for the editing. She'd pick up all my you know, hanging participles, things like that, she was great for that. This one, I would say more… There's always that point when you've written your book and it's going well, but then there's that point where you wonder if it's rubbish. There are a few people that you send it to, and Mum is very honest. She's not one of those Mum readers, who just tells you it's wonderful, yeah, she's great. But also, she read my first crime novel. That was also dedicated to her because really, my reading and my love of reading and then wanting to be a writer came from her, because she was such a big reader. And she does write as well.

ASTRID: I didn't know your Mum wrote! What does she like to write?

MIRANDI: She's writing memoir and short fiction that is sort of based in life, but she fictionalizes it. So that's what she's working on.

ASTRID: I have to say for everyone listening, Mirandi’s Mum is incredibly impressive, attending all of the events at Canberra Writers Festival, she made her presence felt.

Let's turn to Sunbirds. It opens in 1942, and it's the middle of World War II. And the first scene Mirandi, it is under seven, eight pages, and I'm like Mirandi, I want to see this in the cinema as a movie. It's a really great way to start a novel, but also really kind of heart wrenching. Without giving spoilers, a plane crashes in World War II, and it’s pretty emotional. Can you outline the time period?

MIRANDI: It's set just before the Japanese invade at the beginning of 1942. The prologue, that part is 1942, and then it goes back, the rest of the book goes back a few months before that in sort of the lead up.

So, what happened is, I met a fellow through my cousin whose father was a baby rushed out of Indonesia. He was telling me about it because his father was a pilot, and when the Japanese were invading, the pilots were absorbed into the Allied Air Force. But first, they wanted to make sure their families got out safely. At first they were told no, you've just got to fly. But then they did, at the very last moment, I think he said it was something like they had half an hour's notice to get out. And then of course, a lot of them were evacuated to Broome. But then Broome was attacked as well by the Japanese, which I think a lot of people don't realize. But what happened is, a lot of people came in on those planes that can land in the water, and they were attacked by the Japanese one day and Broome. So that's sort of the era that I'm writing about. And then I go back in time to Java and the lead up.

ASTRID: I think you're right, I think most Australians are aware of the bombing of Darwin but not aware of Broome as well. You just heard from your cousin about his friend who had a similar experience to the setup of the novel, being evacuated. How did you approach dates and locations?

MIRANDI: Yeah, that was a bit painful. Most of my research would be, you know, travel to the area and look at the colonial stuff from the time. I read fiction by Indonesian writers, fiction by Dutch writers. And the best thing I got was probably these memoirs written by Dutch-Indonesian people, so they're Eurasian and they're called Indos. Those Indo memoirs are about that time in Indonesia, and what is great about them is… I thought about it the other day, they wouldn't have been written, especially so nostalgically, if they hadn't been chucked out of Indonesia at the time. So now I've got these beautiful memoirs to draw on that talk about this lifestyle that they they loved and we're sad to leave in those last days of colonial Indonesia. So that was mostly where I got that research from. But what was difficult were the information on the flights, the flights and where they were going in Australia and Indonesia, and what dates were the Japanese coming in? Where were the Japanese at that time, because then they went down to Malaysia, and then Singapore, and then to parts of Indonesia, although not quite to Java, so I had to line all that up in my head. For dates for what my characters were doing, because of course, Matijas himself is a pilot. So, he's off doing this stuff, and meanwhile they're on the plantation taking care of other stuff. So that probably was the hardest part of the research, just trying to get that stuff right. Even though you're fictionalizing it, you still want those things to be right as well. So yeah, that probably was the trickiest part.

ASTRID: Let's talk through the main relationships. There are quite a few in the story, and they all almost reflect each other back in various ways. There are different things that we can see about one relationship by looking at the other. So of course, there's Anna, who I guess is the main protagonist, but there are quite a few protagonists at various points in the story, and her fiancé, Matijas. There are her parents, Theodor and Hermine, and of course, at Diah and Sigrit. Can you introduce the listeners to those characters, and how they relate to each other, because those relationships really set up, I think, how we'll talk about Sunbirds for the rest of this interview.

MIRANDI: I guess what I was trying to do overall was reflect on the situation in Indonesia at the time. It was the old Dutch East Indies. So, we've got the Dutch pilot, that's Matthias, and he's trying to forge a new life because of course, Germany has taken over Holland in World War II. So, he's already in Indonesia. Then we've got the Eurasian family, the Indo family, we've got Hermine and Theodor, who have Willem and Anna. And then like you said, a lot of this takes place from Anna's point of view. She's Eurasian as well. Her father is Dutch, but her mother is Indo like herself, she is Chinese, Indonesian and Dutch. And then we have Diah, who is the housekeeper who's been brought up in the family. She's an Indonesian, native Indonesian, and her brother, who comes back from uni and from teaching and traveling, has become a freedom fighter. Because it got to the point where, you know, these nationalists did want Indonesia back, and they actually thought, some of them actually thought, Japan would help them, that it was a good thing that Japan was coming in to get rid of the Dutch. I wanted to show this period of time that had all these different ways of looking at Indonesia, you know, the people who wanted to stay but didn't belong, and the ones who had been colonized and wanted it back. So that's what I was looking at with all the characters.

And in between that I've got, of course, the novella, which is from Fientje’s point of view. That was based on… In my research, I came across an Indo-Dutch academic. She writes about women in the period, especially in that colonial period, from a feminist lens. She talks about these different ways this murder case was represented in the media in the 1920s. That’s a bit earlier, in the 1920s, but there was a sympathetic autofiction about it, and the newspapers and of course the Dutch court were horrible about her, because she was like an Indo sex worker. I wanted Anna, who's also Indo, to reflect on the position of women, and especially Asian women in Indonesia.

ASTRID: Firstly, I am fascinated that it is based on a real story. You've tweaked the timeline a bit, 20 years ago, but I don't think that attitudes to women had changed at all.

MIRANDI: At all, I could have said that anytime.

ASTRID: Probably still say it today.

For the listener, it is literally a novella woven within the broader novel. It is not just moving viewpoints in different chapters. Each section of the novella has a little introductory page making it very clear that we are, you know, leaving Sunbirds the main narrative and we are moving elsewhere. It is set in the same time, and very much in the same location, but it is a different viewpoint, different experience of the world and the social mores that are happening at that time. And of course, Anna and Fientje, did I say that correct?


ASTRID: They mirror each other in so many ways. They're about the same age have the same background, but occupy very different roles. You know, it felt a bit like, I don't know, Laertes and Hamlet, that foil that's showing differences. And my question was, this is almost an interrogation of the social structure of the day. Yes, we have World War II and those big events of history that are happening and moving people around, but we have racism and classism and just comparative ideas of how someone structures their daily existence…

MIRANDI: I guess, what I wanted to do was, you're right, I did want to reflect on Anna and maybe even later Hermine. You know, their lives, through this life that Fientje has, but also, the whole idea of, I guess, for all of us, everyone, it's luck of the draw where you're born, whether society accepts you, or whatever. I really wanted to… I think what struck me with the original academic work was looking at her case from different points of view, because what fascinates me is like, I read about Anna the Javanese, and my novella The Fish Girl, and what fascinates me is people would say, ‘Oh, you give them voice’. And I was always a bit uncomfortable with that, because I thought, well, that's a bit unfair, giving voice to these people. And then I read this article on Sylvia Plath, on how maybe unfair the biographies are on her, you know, giving her voice that maybe she didn't want. And then I realized, everything I write, or any of us write, is only one version. What I was trying to show is that, even the novella, which is in the first person, can't share. And who knows who wrote it? You know, who knows who wrote that? I did want the reader to wonder who wrote it, but it's still just a version. And we'll never know what really happened to the real Fientje. So that's something I wanted to reflect on as well, just as a writer and reader.

ASTRID: When you edit this, in terms of the structural edit, what was the response? I'm always fascinated to ask about those behind-the-scenes conversations as something is being created.

MIRANDI: Do you know what the other inspiration… Actually, this does remind me. The other inspiration was I just read Great Circle. Have you read Great Circle?

ASTRID: I am getting really embarrassed that I haven't.

MIRANDI: It's so great. But also, she has this weird thing. She's got the main story, two characters, two different timelines. But once in a while she'll just come from a tangent, like one of the characters will mention some character, and then the next chapter will just be this tangent into this character… and then she’ll come back to the story. And I was like, Oh, my God, that's brilliant. But I knew Aviva Tuffield, my beautiful publisher, I knew she wouldn't let me because, you know, it was unwieldy, like, if I did it, not Maggie Shipstead.

You'll even see on my whiteboard behind me, I have even I haven't wiped it out yet. But it says, ‘possible insertions that are on point’. I was trying to copy Great Circle. There's a part together, and then we can segue off to a massacre – you know, because they had terrible massacres there by the Dutch. So I've got all these ideas there and that's what I was going to do. But then I came across the story about Fientje, and that's what I decided to do, to slice it in. I think… Perhaps I didn't mention it during the writing of the novel, because sometimes there's a worry you might not pull it off. I probably didn't mention it. And then when I gave it over, I don't there were any quibbles about it, which was nice, because I did wonder because there's, you know, there's, like you said, there's quite a few characters followed here, but I got it through, Astrid, I got it through!

ASTRID: You did. I think we should all be grateful that you got it through. As a reader, I always find it interesting when I come across something that I haven't seen very much before. It feels like I found something to enjoy in a different way. It's like a gift to the reader. Thank you.

MIRANDI: Oh, thank you.

ASTRID: I noticed during my read, because I am the person who is weirdly obsessed with books, I noticed that quite a few characters read and, you know, you pause on them in the act of reading and we get to see how they feel about the thing that they're reading. And there are different translations, so you have the thing where various characters read. Two questions arise from that for me, firstly, are you referring to real works that you found in your research?

MIRANDI: Definitely. So, the Kartini work, Kartini was fascinating in that she's royalty in Indonesia at the time. She was friends with Dutch people, she wrote to them that shewanted to go to Holland to go to university, but she died in childbirth first. She was this fascinating woman, and there's been a film made, a beautiful film made, about her. And what I wanted to do was, I guess, think of Diah and her brother giving her the book and her considering her place in the world as a native Indonesian. Oh, and the book she's reading is a novel as well. That's right, and that is a conceit. I did run this via an Indonesian academic writer who read the manuscript for me, and I did understand that it was a conceit that Diah, the housekeeper, would be able to read Dutch. What I have is that she's been brought up… I read about these Indo households, where the servants, especially earlier than the 1900s, were absorbed into the family a lot more than you would think. I thought, well, if I've got her young, she's growing up with the kids, maybe she's learned a bit of Dutch and can read, you know, which works for her and later life. So, it was a bit of a conceit, because I wanted her to consider these works. Another one, I think it's called The Java Girl, written by a Dutch man, it is fiction but it's very colonial, and it's also about a Dutch man on a plantation with his brother and the Japanese servants, and one of them really wants to be with him. And he has to fight, like his instinct is to not be with her, and it's a bit revolting. I have her reading that, but I think I call it something else. So the books are based on real books.

ASTRID: My second question arising from this act, choosing to have characters like Diah read, who, as you said, you invented the conceit that she can read in Dutch… She sits a few times and she reads and we hear her internal monologue and I almost felt like you're coming close to breaking the fourth wall. You didn't quite, but you know, you have her ask a question which is what the you have led the reader to ask, given what she's been reading about, and I quote, you write, ‘Will the native girl get her way or somehow perish like so many other women in her position?’ The reader is thinking that, because the reader is witnessing several other character arcs face choices that may or may not turn out very well for them. I was just wondering about your stylistic choice and artistic choice of just putting that question there for the reader.

MIRANDI: I guess the thing is, especially in the research, there is so much there. There was so much in the fiction and the non-fiction about these women who were native Indonesian women who were used as mistresses, and depending on who the fellow was, so it'd be to Dutch men but also higher aristocratic Javanese men as well. A very famous Indonesian writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, he writes about his grandma who had been taken from her fishing village to this man just to have a baby, and then had to go back to a village without the baby, that sort of thing. There's a lot of fiction about, you know, the mistresses, and non-fiction as well, about these mistresses being just taken back to the village. Like, it's just a really big thing, and these women might be, you know, deserted, and then they might commit suicide. I just was trying to use one little line to show how horrible it was for many women. And of course, for a lot of women, that was how they got by as well. But also, many perished. And Diah, she had to consider things like that how young she was when she went to go look after Anna and the family, you know, and it's all in the fiction. That's what's so enraging. It's in the fiction and the non-fiction about how unfeeling the native women are, and they don't care about kids, like, they look after the Dutch kids, but they're unfeeling and stupid and all these things that are actually in the actual books. You know, how can I not mention it?

ASTRID: It is horrible. I'd like to turn to her brother, Sigrit. He is a freedom fighter. He spent time in Holland, he can speak multiple languages, he is horrified at the colonization of his land. His story, I felt, speaks to so many other novels that I read about the experience of colonization in Australia. It is a global experience of European colonization. I was sad, you really got me with his story.

MIRANDI: Interesting. He was based on, I was really inspired for his character from a lot of the Indonesian leaders in the end, like Sukarno and all the others. They were educated in Europe, which was part of the downfall for these European colonizers, because got this education of, you know, liberation and philosophy and politics and brought them home, which is great for them. I did base him… and even at the beginning, he's following some Indonesian, I guess, politicians, he's followed them to the area – because they were sent to the area in real life, they were sent to the area. They weren't jailed but they were sent to home detention in the area. And he's followed them there, and that's why he's home again.

ASTRID: Oh, that's interesting.

MIRANDI: Without spoilers, it's very difficult. But I guess for him, the best thing did happen. He did get Indonesia back after years of fighting. But it has to be noted, too, that they still had to fight for several years after the war to get Indonesia back from the Dutch. The Dutch put up quite a fight for a few more years, several more years.

ASTRID: Why call it Sunbirds?

MIRANDI: You know, originally, it was a placeholder. I was thinking… I wanted to reflect on birds. How birds can, you know, like, some say at home, but some, because a lot of these people have to move to Australia or back to Holland, I was trying to hone in on that. And then of course, there's the other birds in the book. There's the mynah bird who Hermine owns. I guess it just became a nice foil for… what do you call those birds who migrate? That is what I was thinking the whole time... I wanted to reflect on migration, some stay at home. And then there's the bird which Hermine that keeps in a cage. She loves it, but she keeps it in a cage and on a gold tether. But then you know, just became a pretty image for what I was trying to write.

ASTRID: We started this interview reflecting briefly on your previous historical fiction novel, Stone Sky Gold Mountain. I wanted to end by asking you, do you see any resnances between that work and your latest, Sunbirds?

MIRADNI: No. So in my mind, they're quite… I mean, apart from me as a writer and how I research and how I like to go to the area and see what my characters might have seen, all that sort of stuff, my process is the same. But I would say, I see them as quite different books. The stories, the themes, I guess, some of the themes are the same, you know, like cultural diversity. This one probably has a lot more love in it, more of a love story. But you know, in Stone Sky there are Meriam and Ying, but no, in my mind, they're quite separate. Actually, my next novel, I'm going back to a Eurasian family, 200 years in Australia, and that one, obviously, is coming a lot from the research I had from Stone Sky. So that one in my mind is more similar…. But this one no, this one's sort of off to the side. I would say this one in my mind probably sits more with Anna and The Fish Girl, my novellas.

ASTRID: Mirandi, I really enjoy filling up on the couch with Sunbirds. Congratulations.

MIRANDI: Oh, thank you Astrid. Thank you very much for having me too.