“At a Moment’s Notice: Indonesian Maids Write on Their Lives Abroad”, edited by Jafar Suryomenggolo

Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong (Wikimedia Commons) Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong (Wikimedia Commons)

More than 70 percent of the thousands of documented migrant workers who depart Indonesia for overseas jobs each year are women. The reason for this remarkable statistic is simple: the well-established demand for Indonesian housemaids in the wealthier countries of the region, particularly Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia. Around 45 percent of registered foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong are Indonesian; in Singapore the figure is 60 percent.

Horror stories of abuse and exploitation of migrant domestic workers—by employers or by the shady agencies that arrange their travel and contracts—are something of a staple of the Indonesian press, with the outrage frequently given a belligerent nationalist spin when it involves a neighboring country. And there is often an assumed need for others—government officials, NGO workers, academics—to step in and to speak on behalf of migrant domestic workers. They are, after all, the archetypal “subaltern”: economically disadvantaged; typically poorly educated and from a rural background; and invariably female.

This is not some earnest collection of testimonies, mediated by an interceding anthropologist or journalist.

At a Moment’s Notice: Indonesian Maids Write on Their Lives Abroad, Jafar Suryomenggolo (ed, trans) (NIAS Press, June 2019)
At a Moment’s Notice: Indonesian Maids Write on Their Lives Abroad, Jafar Suryomenggolo (ed, trans) (NIAS Press, June 2019)

What makes At a Moment’s Notice: Indonesian Maids Write on Their Lives Abroad so interesting, then, is that migrant domestic workers get to speak for themselves in its pages. More strikingly still, this is not some earnest collection of testimonies, mediated by an interceding anthropologist or journalist. Instead these are pieces of short fiction, all penned by current or former migrant domestic workers, all based to some extent on personal experience, but all passed to a greater or lesser degree through a filter of imagination.

The collection—edited and translated by Jafar Suryomenggolo—contains 23 stories, arranged into four themed sections under the headings “Employer-Worker Relationships”, “Love and Sexualities”, “Moonlighting” and “Home”. As with any collection by an array of different writers, the quality and interest of the pieces varies, but they are never less than proficiently written and structured, and the best are highly accomplished, original and moving.

Some of the stories feature rather obvious themes and scenarios. In Ratna Khaerudina’s “Susi” the injustice of casually terminated contracts is described. “I Love Your Daughter” by Noena Fadzila describes the inevitable emotional tensions that arise when parenting is delegated to an employee. And Bayu Insani’s “Billy and I” sees a naive young woman’s romance with a wealthy suitor end in predictable tears.

But other stories confound expectations. In what is perhaps a deliberate editorial strategy, the first two pieces in the book—Mega Vristian’s “The Jade Bracelet” and Maria Bo Niok’s “A, Ne, Ge!”—overturn clichés of migrant workers in grimly abusive situations, with their portrayals of happy outcomes and warm worker-employer relationships. And while the majority of the stories, whether narrated in first-person or third, focus on the point of view of the migrant, two pieces—“Two Bosses in My Home” by Susie Utomo, and “Jealousy” by Ida Raihan—take the perspective of the employers, both in scenarios where the customary power dynamic is, if not entirely reversed, then certainly complicated.

 

Certain commonalities emerge across the collection. It is noteworthy how many of the stories make reference to the specific square footage of the homes where the protagonists are employed. An apartment may be “relatively small at 750 square feet”, a space which “only took about two hours to clean”; or it might be “large, 1600 square feet—too big, I thought to myself, for one person. Maids are not, typically, seen as having a “profession”, or even a “trade”. But the term “unskilled migrant” has always been reductive and demeaning. The noting of apartment sizes and cleaning times reflect professional concerns, just as any other worker might comment on the attractions or disadvantages of a particular workplace.

Another common motif is the feckless or faithless husband or fiancé, left behind in a Javanese village while a migrant woman gains a certain international liberation, even in poorly paid employment—an idea which complicates simplistic notions of migration compelled by economic desperation alone.

Several other stories—including Juwanna’s “The Turkish Veil” and “Sasmitha” by Karin Maulana—deploy a familiar Indonesian theme in which sustainable happiness is associated with the adoption of the Muslim headscarf. But this message is certainly not universal: Ida Raihan’s “Sandy and I”—which, like the aforementioned “The Turkish Veil”, explores the culture of same-sex relationships between Indonesian maids in Hong Kong—appears at first to be heading in the same direction. Its narrator rejects her lover, a fellow maid, telling her she wants to “go back to my nature as a woman” and to return to her husband in Indonesia. She flees in the direction of a mosque, but is told that it is not a place “for women like you”, and the tragic climax plainly implies a change of mind—albeit too late.

The two most original and finely written pieces in the book are Lik Kismawati’s “The Bird Painting”—a surreal and disturbing story which looks set at first to be another tale of a sexual encounter with a local man, but which rapidly enters the realms of the supernatural—and Etik Juwita’s “I’m Not Yem”. This latter piece comes in the “Home” section of the book, and recounts the final stage of a homeward journey after employment overseas, with a group of returning maids hustled and cheated—not by foreign employers or rogue agencies, but by Indonesian minibus drivers and their associates. The journey from airport to home village seems interminable, seems at times, in fact, to be taking the women further from their destination. And though the narrator is canny enough to dodge the worst of the scams herself, she is powerless to protect her fellow travelers, and at the same time is tormented by the lurid anecdotes of a veteran migrant. The ambiguous but quietly affecting ending refuses to make a simple romance of homecoming.

Migrant domestic workers here get to speak for themselves.

Readers may at times find that distracting questions come to mind. What were the mechanics of the production of these stories? Where were they first published? And do they represent a specific literary trend? Some of these queries are, in fact, answered in a brief essay by the editor at the very end of the book (there has indeed been an “explosion of literature written by migrants”; most of the pieces collected here originally appeared in Indonesian-language collections, some specifically dedicated to stories by migrant workers).

Had this essay appeared as an introduction, it may have provided some useful context. However, the decision to foreground the stories themselves was, ultimately, the wisest choice, for it allows them to stand in their own right, as literary works, rather than as sociological artefacts. Having the opportunity to write imaginatively, and to be read for pleasure, is surely one of the ultimate forms of agency. And in granting that agency to Indonesia’s female migrant workers, the editor and publishers of this book are to be congratulated.

 

Also read Mega Vristian’s “The Jade Bracelet”, excerpted from the collection.

Tim Hannigan is the author Murder in the Hindu Kush, shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Prize; Raffles and the British Invasion of Java which won the 2013 John Brooks Award; and A Brief History of Indonesia.