The story begins in Jakarta, a hubbub of street vendors, motorbikes, and calls to prayer from mosque loudspeakers. “Travelling is the most ancient desire”, writes Intan Paramaditha in her first novel, a choose-your-own-adventure story published this February as global mobility ground to a halt. The wandering narrator, addressed in the second person befitting the conventions of the form, travels along multiple routes to Berlin, New York, and even outer space as she faces ordeals that illustrate the privileges of going abroad and the limitations of individual choice.
While protagonists of choose-your-own-adventure narratives are typically obscured to allow room for the reader’s subjectivity, the narrator in The Wandering is clearly defined, bringing instead a sense of role-play. Born in Yogyakarta, she moved to Jakarta from an early age with her parents to lead better lives. Now twenty-seven, she teaches English as a second language and wishes to escape the city she calls home. In a magical realist twist of events, the narrator lands herself a lover, who happens to be a demon, and makes a Faustian pact with him for a pair of magical red shoes—part Wizard of Oz, part Hans Christian Andersen—that can take her anywhere.
At first, it is more than she has ever dreamed. She gains the resources and freedom for her journey, bypassing restrictions for those holding Indonesian passports, which only grant visa-free access to a limited number of countries. (As a chapter titled “Tips for a Cosmopolitan Adventure” states, a “visa application is a mirror, reflecting back at you the distortions of international relations.”) Soon, the narrator learns that many parts of travel—long journeys with garrulous drivers and visits to “must-go” attractions—are in fact dull and unremarkable.
As the reader flicks through different routes of the story, it becomes apparent that the narrator is unable to attain either true freedom or a full sense of belonging no matter where she is. Depending which forks in the path are taken, she becomes a victim or a murderer, a prostitute or a runaway migrant. The novel presents options along the way, but there are times when the reader is given no choice but to turn the next page and face a dreaded situation, or is forced to choose between two equally bad courses of action.
Cosmopolitanism, the narrator realizes, exacerbates rather than flattens inequality, for it is in New York where she feels most acutely the existence of privileged elites. While academics, journalists, and expatriates connect over Facebook for university positions and graduate programs, the narrator survives by waiting tables and dating an older, twice-divorced Caucasian Sinologist, a relationship stemming from her identity as an exotic other (both his previous wives were also Asian, from Taipei and Hanoi respectively).
The Wandering was first published in Indonesian in 2017 under the title Gentayangan, which carries more nuance than its English counterpart to also mean “haunting, being in between”. Paramaditha compares the state of wandering to the kuntilanak, a long-haired female ghost unable to make peace with the world. At one point, in a chapter that may not even show up in some of the routes, the narrator looks into a mirror and discovers she is in fact the kuntilanak herself, fated to drift between borders and relationships.
This sense of displacement, and the mixing of myths and cultures, somewhat reflects how the novel came into being. Conceived in New York and published in Jakarta, Gentayangan is the product of over nine years of writing as Paramaditha, an academic in media and film, moved across continents and cities. Inspired by her childhood reading of the Choose Your Own Adventure series from the ’80s and ’90s, Paramaditha portrays the experience of travel with forking narratives that allow for multiple selves and realities, the way she separates her work by languages: she conducts her research in English and writes fiction in Indonesian, the language she feels most comfortable with. Translated by Stephen J. Epstein—Paramaditha’s longtime collaborator, who is also behind her first English short story collection, Apple & Knife—The Wandering, while keeping with the original’s witticisms and phantasmagoria, takes on a life of its own. Readers who perceive the presence of Paramaditha herself in the novel are not entirely wrong—she has a parallel visual project documenting the odyssey of a pair of red shoes during her own travels, just like the narrator.
Ultimately, The Wandering is a book about crossing borders, geographically but also those of gender, society, and fictionality. Magic aside, her portrayals of migrant life and inequality ring far too true. In a global age where the world becomes more accessible to a select few, Paramaditha explores the motivations behind people travelling in search of better lives, questioning the extent to which individual choice is structurally predetermined and how certain journeys only lead to places between worlds, being nowhere and everywhere.