Interview: Lona

a.k.a. MANIIK

Birthplace: Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

Grew up in: Northern Virginia, U.S.A.

Currently living in: Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S.A.

Age: 21 | Gemini

Find her: Instagram | Soundcloud | Vimeo

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Q: Tell me more about yourself.

I’m a foreign affairs major. I study politics, and I’m a global sustainability minor. So I take classes on that, but I think it’s one of those things where I kind of started to lose the passion for it a little. I’m very excited to graduate. On the side, I’ve just been working on music; I really like building instruments so I’ve made synths or controllers before. I also work with video; I like to make videos for my music. I’ve been dabbling with animation. I’ve been working on podcasts; I have this podcast with my roommate — it’s a casual, conversation type podcast where we just talk about sex and intimacy but from the viewpoint of two queer women. So that’s a project I like to do. I’m interested in oral histories.

The type of music that I listen to: Kelela, Arca, Frank Ocean always, Abra, and FKA twigs. They’ve been the top five for me this past year.

Q: Tell me more about your interest in music, how you got involved, and your songwriting process. 

I’ve always grown up playing music, because my dad is a musician and he’s amazing at piano and the guitar. He’s one of those guys that doesn’t know the music theory, but if you play him this jazz song, he’ll be able to play it on the piano. So I grew up with that; we always had instruments in the house. I had piano lessons, guitar lessons, I always sang. My mom made me do a lot of singing stuff for the [Indonesian] embassy. So I was always interested in music.

But then, when I went to college, my first band was this weird punk/shoegaze band. My second year, I joined that band, it was a four-piece band, and we had toured around for a year; we played mostly in central Virginia, so like Richmond, Harrisonburg, Fredericksburg, and Charlottesville, and that was really fun. And that plugged me into the DIY music scene, and I love the DIY music scene so much. I still feel a part of it, even though I’m not in that band anymore. So that got me into like, “Wow, I can make my own music and book myself places and do this.” I wasn’t getting paid a lot, but I was happy with it. I thought to myself, “This is something that I could do.”

After I was not in that band anymore, I started making music by myself and I was trying to figure out what kind of music I wanted to make. For a while, I didn’t know what I wanted to make. I knew that I liked psychedelic rock and I also liked lo-fi type stuff. But one day, it was my third year, I was just listening to this gamelan orchestra album I found on Spotify and I loved it. I had this moment where I realized I really wanted to try and get more influences from traditional Indonesian music into my music practice. Because I realized I actually did have that knowledge sort of embedded in my brain because I grew up around my parents who played a lot of Indonesian music in the house, whether it was Batak Karo music or dangdut. Also being in the D.C. area is nice because the embassy always puts up these cultural events. I’ve seen a gamelan orchestra in real life. I’m aware of the scales and how to compose that music, I guess, and I didn’t realize it at the time. So, I started working with that.

Now, I make electronic music that is downtempo with a lot of Indonesian influence. What I like to do is find traditional Batak Karo music on YouTube, chop that up, use that as samples, use a lot of gamelan samples, looking into the different instruments and trying to find samples of it on the internet and incorporating that in my music. There are some songs that I write in English, but also Bahasa [Indonesia] and Batak Karo, which has been a really interesting experience. It’s kind of intergenerational in a way because I’m not very fluent; I can understand when people talk to me in Indonesian, but I’m really slow to respond and I don’t think I have the grammar down very well. But to write music in Bahasa or Batak Karo, I’ve been having concepts, writing down words that I like in English and then calling my mom to help me translate the words and help me piece it together. It’s been really nice to do that with her because we bond over it and it’s my art practice, but it’s also nice because I get to learn more about the language.

This project has been really special to me because not only have I been making music that feels authentic to me, I’m getting to work with my mom on the lyrical part as well and that’s been making me feel so full and nice. This whole project is my baby.

I hope that it’ll be finish at the end of the summer. I just love making music and working with my mom on it. She’s my biggest supporter; I’ll always send her tracks like, “Mom, am I pronouncing everything right?” My whole project is really about my identity and my process with that.

Q: Can you share more about your family background?

I was born in the United States, but I’ve always had a pretty good connection to my culture. First off because my mom’s family, she has nine older brothers, they all live back home in Indonesia, so growing up, I used to travel back there every year. I think up until sixth grade, either me with my mom or the whole family, we would go back and visit for the summer. And then, I think once I got to high school, it was every other year because I think we weren’t able to take off as much. But I go basically every other year.

The last time I went was this past winter, so I feel connected through that, just because I’ve spent so much time there, and I feel really, really close to my cousins. I have like 26 cousins and I’m really close with them. I’ve traveled a lot throughout Indonesia. I go to Jakarta every time I go, but most of my family’s from Medan, so we go to Medan a lot. My whole family’s Batak Karo.

I feel connected because I have seen a lot. But on top of that, I grew up — so, my parents are Christian and they’re very, very religious. Their community has always been the Christian Indonesian community here in the DMV area. So growing up, I’ve been going to the same church for my whole life. I have these four best friends who are all Indonesians, who are one or two years apart, and we’ve been best friends since we were 5 years old. All of our families are close. Every Sunday, we would see each other. There was always some sort of event on Saturdays, and I was very plugged into the embassy. My mom would make me do all those cultural events. At the time, I thought it was really annoying like, “Mom, you’re making me do all this stuff,” but in hindsight, I really do appreciate it because I learned to dance and sing through that, and playing music through that, but also, I made a lot of friends, even just outside specifically the Christian Indonesian community, the Indonesian community in general here, which is huge.

My grandma came to live with us when I was in sixth grade, and she’s been living with us ever since then. My parents mostly try to speak in Bahasa, but I was really stubborn growing up and it’s kind of sad because to this day, I’m not as good as I would like to be, but they would try to do it. My grandma would always speak in Bahasa and always wanted me to respond in Bahasa, so that was really nice too, having her around and growing up with her because she taught me how to cook and her presence in general made me feel connected as well.

Q: Did your parents ever instill specific lessons about connecting with your Indonesian heritage?

There was never really a time where they sat me down and they were like, “Do you know what it means to be Indonesian?” I think that a lot of that has been on my part, me asking them stuff. Because they’ve always been the way that they’ve been, which is — I think they assimilate to a certain extent, but their entire social circle is Indonesian people and they’re constantly going to these events. Their whole lifestyle is very Indonesian, even though they’re here [in America].

For me, what it was, for a while, there was a little bit of a pushback. On the one hand, on some weekends, I didn’t want to have to go to church and go to all these events; I wanted to hang out with my other friends and that was something that I had to decide to, I don’t know, spend my time on. But recently, I think, for building my identity, has been me asking them more questions. As I’ve grown up, for the past four years, when we do travel back to Indonesia, I’ll just ask them things that I had never really asked before like, “Oh, what is this food that we’re eating?” Or, “What is that man talking about?” And my parents are happy to tell me about the history of things.

Q: Tell me more about your experiences growing up as a person of Indonesian heritage in Northern Virginia.

I’ll always remember this story because I was really sad and embarrassed. In elementary school, fourth grade maybe, we had one of those days like “International Food Day” or something, and all the kids were supposed to bring one dish, snack, something that was representative of their culture. So I asked my mom what to bring, and she was like, it was this krupuk stuff, like shrimp krupuk [shrimp crackers], it’s really good but smells a little bit funky. I brought them, but I was really embarrassed. I liked them, but I remember thinking that I almost wanted to lie to my teacher and say that I didn’t bring anything. Because I was really afraid about how it smelled. Everyone else was bringing cookies and things that everyone likes. I was really, really nervous. I still brought it out and I remember no one ate it. I was watching everyone go through the line, they were grabbing everything else, I think I remember seeing someone smell the krupuk but not take it, but that really hurt me. And it made me kind of resent that — I kind of wish I could’ve just brought cookies.

Being in school, I didn’t know any Indonesians there. My high school — it wasn’t completely white, it was still diverse slightly, but I didn’t know any Indonesians there. Even though it was kind of diverse, it was mostly white, and I think that, especially in my high school, I struggled a lot with trying to assimilate within that. During high school was a really dark time because I think that was when I rejected my culture the most; I mostly was just trying to be as white American as possible, which was sad. I’m so happy to have graduated and to leave that. It was just really toxic. It was in the past few years that I’ve felt really proud about my culture and been asking these questions because I genuinely want to know. So, my high school experience wasn’t — I don’t know, I don’t think it was conducive for me to help myself.

TAKE THIS BODY from Lona Manik on Vimeo.

Q: Did you feel you ever had to grapple with white standards of beauty?

Just in general, I had a lot of body image issues, but I do remember that I wanted to get colored contacts, I wanted to have a nose job — I felt like my nose was too wide and flat, or something — because I would always compare myself to my other white friends. They had these tall noses and blue eyes, I don’t know. I dyed my hair a lot. I think at the time, I was like, ah, I just dye my hair because it’s fun and whatever, but why was I dyeing my hair lighter every single time? I was really trying to look white, seriously. It was wild. I can’t even tell you when I realized it because I think it was so embedded from the beginning. I can’t even tell you the time when I was like, “I wanna look white,” I just always thought I wasn’t as pretty as white people for a really long time. I looked into all these like “how to contour your nose” or “how to make your eyes look bigger,” all this shit.

It wasn’t until college when I really looked at myself like I am beautiful, I definitely let go of all these insecurities. Because I definitely had all these insecurities about my eyes, my nose, my skin color. But I think the skin color thing was also from my family. When I would travel back to Indonesia, I’d get tan really easily and I like to be tan, but my aunts would always be like, “You’re getting a little dark, don’t you think?” So the skin stuff was from Indonesian people, more so. The other stuff, it wasn’t anyone telling me I was ugly — I just already knew it. I already thought it.

Q: Tell me more about your experience in college, about the personal growth you’ve experienced. 

After my first year of college, I completed this internship at The Habibie Center, I did that for a month or two, so that meant that I had to travel to Indonesia by myself. It was the first time I went by myself, and I was staying with a family friend. She wasn’t really at the house, so I was very much on my own, going to work, and then at night, I was trying to meet up with one of my cousins that was my age. We would go out to drink, or she introduced me to a lot of her friends. So it was also the first time that I was making friends that were Indonesian that weren’t through a religion like here or through the community. It was just people that my cousin was introducing me to. We traveled a lot together, and that was the most beautiful two months of my life, because I was so struck by how beautiful everything was and how I wanted to live there. Actually, after that trip, I was like, “I’m going to move back here after school.” I was set on it. I might still live there for a year or two, I’m not sure, because I really like being there and I really like the people that I met when I was there.

So I think it was the going to Indonesia by myself and traveling by myself. For the first time, I had to be OK with being by myself, and the fact that I was OK with being by myself in Indonesia was an interesting combination. I think beyond that, it was just also being away from the mentality of the people I was going to school with in high school. Everyone in high school was very concerned with the day-to-day drama of who’s doing this and who’s doing what at this party, at this football game, and all that stuff. Then, when I got to college, none of that really mattered anymore and I was also learning a lot so…I still can’t really put my finger on it. I think it was also making more friends of color definitely. Because growing up, I had my Indonesian friends, who were like my sisters, they’re like my family, and then I had my white friends, basically. I had maybe a few friends of color growing up, but everyone at my high school — it was very white.

Then, in college, I have other friends of color and I think being around them, too, helped me a lot to want to learn more about myself. We didn’t have to be from the same place, but there were these shared experiences. The more I talked about it with them, the more confident I felt that those weren’t negative experiences, they were important parts of my life that made me realize who I was. I think it was a combination of things that happened when I was 18, 19 that really got me to think critically about my identity and stuff.

Q: You mentioned you were raised in a religious community. Do you still feel connected to that part of your community?

So, the church has never really resonated with me in general. I think there were times where because my parents were so religious and my family’s so religious, and my four best friends that I mentioned are also pretty religious, and all my Indonesian friends were religious , for a while, I tried to convince myself that I was also religious. Just because I thought that was going to be the tie for me being Indonesian; at the time, I thought, “OK, if I want to be Indonesian, I also have to really dive into this religion part of it.” But, I’m not really religious. I still participate in the culture surrounding it, as in going to church when I come back, but I’m not super religious.

It’s definitely been an interesting thing for me to reconcile because I only recently realized that I don’t need to be religious to still stay connected to these other Indonesian people that I know. But for a while, I didn’t feel like that. And for a while, I also felt pretty ostracized because I’m queer and where does that fit in? Because I don’t know any queer, Indonesian, Christian girls, so I felt like those things couldn’t exist. And that’s something I’m still trying to grapple with now, how not many people know, so, I don’t know. It’s been a little rough.

Q: And what has your experience been like finding your community as a queer person of color?

It’s still something that I struggle with because it’s really isolating when you don’t have anyone else to share certain experiences with. It’s definitely been an interesting struggle because the queer community that I’m a part of specifically in Charlottesville is pretty white and that’s been an interesting thing to navigate because I think white queerness is a thing for sure so, there’s that. But, I don’t know, it’s one of those things that I’m still trying to grapple with it.

I’ve definitely thought about — you know, when I was growing up, I always knew that I wanted an Indonesian wedding. I always knew that I wanted to wear what my mom and dad wore at their wedding. But recently, I’ve been thinking about if I marry a woman, what will that look like? It would be really interesting. I still don’t know how to reconcile those two identities because I don’t feel I have a role model or somewhere to look where it is being done, I guess. I still feel pretty isolated with that.

Q: What does having Indonesian heritage mean to you?

I think for me, what I’ve realized is that having Indonesian heritage really means that I want to, as much as I can, keep the culture alive and keep telling these stories, whether it’s telling my story or stories about my family that my dad has told me. I’ve made it a mandate for myself that anyone I’m really close with, I need to basically orient them on my culture because that’s how important it is to me. It’s really important to talk with people about where I’m coming from. I think, for me, I just want to pass down the legacy. I don’t know if I’ll have kids, maybe I will, but I’ve always known when I have kids, I want them to feel just as Indonesian as I am, and that’s really important to me. I just don’t want my culture to get lost. It’s just been me trying to be as aggressively Indonesian as I can in my everyday life.

digitalis 2017 from Lona Manik on Vimeo.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

4 thoughts on “Interview: Lona

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