Michelle Kadarusman and Girl of the Southern Sea

“I suppose it was told this way because people expect that a girl would choose her beauty over anything else. But maybe one day you will write your own version of the story about a girl who overcomes her hardships instead.” (Girl of the Southern Sea)

Michelle Kadarusman has swept onto the Australian and international Middle Grade stage with two impressive novels, The Theory of Hummingbirds and now Girl of the Southern Sea (UQP). (She has also written Music for Tigers, set in Tasmania, which will be available in Australia in paperback this year.)

Michelle’s writing is finely crafted and sensory, spanning the delicate blend of being imaginative and hopeful while grounded in realism. Her protagonists face difficult situations but are marked by their empathy and resilience.

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Michelle.

I am so delighted to speak with you again, Joy, and thank you so much for your kind introduction.

How have you based your novels on your own experience?

My novels are all quite different, but all have a connection to my own experience, or reaction to an experience. I was born with the same disability that Alba has, the character in The Theory of Hummingbirds, and I have the same performance anxiety that the character Louisa struggles with in Music for Tigers. With Girl of the Southern Sea, it was a way for me to process the extreme poverty that I lived beside during my years in Indonesia.

Nia, the 14-year-old protagonist of Girl of the Southern Sea, is a remarkable character. It is impossible not to care about her and hope that she flourishes. Could you please introduce her and her circumstances?

Thank you, that is gratifying to hear. Girl of the Southern Sea is set in Jakarta, Indonesia, and follows 14-year-old Nia who lives in the slums along the train tracks. She wants to attend high school and become a writer but her family can’t afford it. Nia finds empowerment in writing and telling stories about a mythical Javanese princess, Dewi Kadita.

What is the significance of the novel’s exotic title, Girl of the Southern Sea?

Nyai Roro Kidul, is a mythical Javanese Goddess of the Sea, also called Queen of the Southern Sea. She is the character that Nia bases her stories upon and who empowers Nia, so I swapped ‘Queen’ for ‘Girl’ to represent Nia in the title.

What is Nia’s affinity with the tale of Dewi Kadita?

In the Sundanese telling of Nyai Roro Kidul, Dewi Kadita is the beautiful princess who becomes the goddess of the sea. Dewi Kadita helps Nia to imagine herself as powerful. Which, for someone like Nia who is without any agency in her everyday circumstances, is pivotal to her self-growth and self-discovery. With the stories she writes about Dewi Kadita she can imagine herself beyond the life she has been assigned to, this gives her courage and allows her dreams to flourish.

You have rendered Nia’s local community with great authenticity and evocation. Could you give an example of something from her everyday life that hits the senses?

A part of Indonesian culture that crosses all socio-economic groups is eating from street vendors. The poor, middle-class and wealthy all have their favourite street vendor snack. From childhood, one of my first memories of being in Jakarta is going with my older cousins to the local food market for pisang goreng, fried bananas. We ate them piping hot, directly from the wok. Crunchy fried batter with gooey, sweet fruit inside. Delicious! I wanted to recreate this memory, so it’s no surprise that Nia runs a fried banana stand.

How have you been able to balance deep issues without sacrificing plot and reader engagement?

I have my editors to thank. My writing is emotionally driven, so my editors are instrumental at nudging me back to plot. I rely on them a great deal. Perhaps something readers don’t realize is how collaborative it is to publish a book. From first draft to published book, the story goes through many transformations. I enjoy the editing and re-writing process and I’m eternally grateful to have professional editors to guide and elevate my work. 

How do you think young people such as Nia are able to develop such fortitude and empathy?

Nia is a composite of many young women I have known in Indonesia. Due to their circumstances, they are thrust into a life that offers them little choice to advance beyond the cycle of poverty. Gender discrimination, lack of education, health care and advancement – these are factors beyond their control. Still, incredible compassion, humour and creativity sparkles within and a lightness of spirit despite their situation. I am not sure how they achieve this, but culturally there is a deep devotion, connection and love for family and friendships.

Who would you particularly love to see reading Girl of the Southern Sea?

I’ve been so fortunate to have a wide readership of Girl of the Southern Sea because of the award nominations and honour lists that it achieved from the North American release in 2019. A Turkish translation came out last year and it’s currently on three provincial school reading lists in Canada. But I am especially moved when young Indonesian readers reach out to me. Last year I was invited by an Indonesian university in Central Java to speak with the students in their English literature course. That was very special.

Michelle Kadarusman

Nia is a talented writer and longs to be an author. What was your own path to publication?

It was a long path! I always wanted to be a children’s author but I didn’t have the courage to start until I was in my early 30’s. Then I spent over a decade in writing groups, critique groups, creative writing courses and workshops. During this period, I received rejection after rejection. It challenged me to work harder on the craft and listen to the critical feedback I was receiving. I finally published a story in a children’s magazine in 2010 and from there published a few more. My first novel came out in 2014. Looking back, the most important thing I did was not give up.

Where up you up to with your current work in progress about orangutangs in Indonesia?

Thanks for asking. Like everything, COVID-19 threw my plans up in the air. I’ve not been able to travel to Indonesia for research as I had planned to do, but I’ve managed to source information in other ways. It’s taking longer than I originally anticipated but thankfully I have a patient publisher. Publication is aimed for 2022.

In your interview here last year you recommended Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. What would like to recommend this year?

I moderated a panel of authors last year for a literary festival, one of the authors was Michel Chikwanine who wrote a non-fiction graphic novel called Child Soldier. The book is based on his own experience of being abducted by rebel militia in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a devastating and powerful story but presented in an accessible and meaningful way for young children to understand what he lived through. No easy feat. It even manages to leave readers with a sense of hope. Michel is now a motivational speaker, inspiring audiences through social responsibility. His book leaves a lasting impression, I highly recommend searching it out.

Thank you very much for your responses Michelle and all the best with Girl of the Southern Sea. I greatly anticipate your next book.

Thank you, Joy! It’s such a pleasure to be on PaperbarkWords again.

Girl of the Southern Sea at UQP

Interview with Michelle at PaperbarkWords about her previous MG novel The Theory of Hummingbirds.

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