Reviewed: Sunbirds, Mirandi Riwoe, University of Queensland Press
In Mirandi Riwoe’s Sunbirds, her second novel, a Javanese servant called Diah is instructed by her Dutch boss to read a novel called A Java Romance. Indonesia as we know it doesn’t exist yet. It’s 1941, and the Dutch have ruled the archipelago for 350 years. Mr van Hoorn—who suggests Diah read the Dutch novel as ‘good practice’—can’t seem to imagine that the world the Dutch control and administer is poised to end. But to Indonesian nationalists like Diah’s brother Sigit, the upheaval of World War Two signifies one thing: ‘Total revolution. If the Japanese don’t arrive to help us, then we will have to take back the country ourselves’.
Set on Serehwangi, a tea plantation in West Java owned by the van Hoorn family, Sunbirds explores the months leading up to the 1942 Japanese occupation, and the complex ways this pivotal historical moment plays out for a range of characters. Between ‘natives’ such as Diah and Sigit, and Europeans like Mr van Hoorn, there are also Eurasian ‘Indos’ (of mixed Chinese, Javanese and Dutch heritage), including van Hoorn’s daughter Anna and wife Hermine. They embody a liminal space, women of colour who are also colonial occupiers. It’s these ambivalent and conflicting experiences that form the backbone of Sunbirds.
Riwoe has said that writing the novel during Covid-19 lockdowns shaped its sense of ‘not knowing’. In Sunbirds, the characters’ aspirations for the future diverge, with some hoping life will return to its colonial norm, while others dream of revolutionary upheaval. But all are united in a suspended time of waiting, not knowing when or how the Japanese invasion will unfold.
Readers, on the other hand, know the history (or can look it up): after three years of Japanese occupation—three more, on top of 350—Indonesia declared independence. In the novel, it’s Sigit who serves as the charismatic face of decolonisation. Like Nehru or Fanon he is an archetype of postcolonialism—a young man educated in Europe, electrified by European hypocrisy and ready to burn things down. In Riwoe’s historical romance, which features entanglements in many directions, he is a magnetic presence.
But Sunbirds also makes sly digs at the male privilege Sigit enjoys, as a sexy revolutionary who comes and goes as he pleases. He is critical of Diah for what he sees as her complicity with a regime that subjugates her. Through her eyes, however, we see a more nuanced reality, and how her choices and even modest dreams of financial independence are constrained by the mere fact of being a woman. Set against the epic backdrop of war and historical upheaval, Riwoe is most concerned with the quiet revolutions in her female characters’ lives—and their role maintaining or subverting the colonial order.
Reading plays a key part in awakening the consciousness of both Anna and Diah. When Anna becomes obsessed with the newspaper coverage of a murdered ‘Indo’ girl, it leads her to ask transformative questions about race, gender, class and her own position. Sigit, who first views Anna uncomplicatedly as a coloniser, is also surprised to learn she has read—in the native Sundanese language—the letters of Kartini (a real-life Javanese princess who became a symbol for Indonesian nationalism and feminism).
Diah, meanwhile, knows from the topless native girl on the dust jacket of A Java Romance that it will prop up imperial fantasies of possession and submission. Still, she reads on with a certain curiosity. In part she wants to understand how she is seen by the Dutch men around her. More importantly, she wants to know: ‘will the native girl get her way or somehow perish, like so many other women in her position?’
This is clearly the question Riwoe’s own novel seeks to respond to and subvert, refracting the answer through her characters’ different experiences of privilege. The slow pace and the extensive cast of characters mean that the reading experience at points feels laboured. Riwoe’s prose is sometimes weighed down, thick with so much sensuous description and tension—political, historical, sexual. But the inherent message never gets lost. Underpinned by its feminist values, Sunbirds is a memorable glimpse of a society suspended on the brink of seismic, irreversible change.