Interview: Ariel Putu Santikarma

Birthplace: New Jersey, U.S.A.

Grew up in: Bali, Indonesia; Pennsylvania, U.S.A.; Virginia, U.S.A.

Currently living in: Washington, D.C., U.S.A.

Age: 20

Find her: Instagram 

(Photo courtesy of Ariel)

Q: How did you start thinking of yourself as someone with Indonesian heritage?

The formative years of my life were in Bali. I spoke Indonesian and Balinese as much as I spoke English — I learned those three languages at the same time. My favorite foods were chicken feet and gulai kambing. My parents just let me ride my bike around with all the kids in the neighborhood, but I also had a sense that something was different. There was a marker on my skin that made me different always. So in that way, I always knew I was Indonesian, but also knew that something was off.

And then, when I moved to the U.S., that complicated my relationship with my Indonesian heritage again. I started to learn to think of my Indonesian identity as something that was different in a bad way. But at the same time, my mother was American, so that privileged me a sense of ease. I don’t know; it’s complicated. When I think about how I conceive my Indonesian heritage, when I first thought I was Indonesian, it felt like something inherent to me, but at the same time, my relationship with that identity is something that I’ve embraced sometimes, distanced myself from other times, felt very in conflict with, but also at peace with.

It’s something that’s contentious; it’s never been a simple thing for me. It’s still not a simple thing, and I don’t think it’ll ever be.

Q: What sort of stories did you grow up with? 

I remember I would have these recurring nightmares when I was younger of these military figures coming up to my house in Bali, walking up the driveway, into my house, and killing my family. I had this recurring nightmare, and I kind of forgot about it as I grew older. And then, when I was 14 and my dad told me about ‘65, I was like, oh my god, those nightmares, that’s what that was, and I think, really young, growing up in Bali, my family was very active in talking about ‘65 and honoring that part of our family history. And I think when I was young, I really absorbed those stories and embodied it in a lot of ways. I remember just feeling like I inherited this sense of anxiety for certain authority figures that I got from my dad. These recurring nightmares. And maybe just an embodied sense of trauma that I didn’t really understand, and it must’ve been because of those stories being told around me, now that I look back on my childhood. But at the time, I had no words for it until I was 14 and my dad finally told me the story. It felt like the feelings I had when I was younger and ways I saw the world and these images that I saw in my mind, I felt like a lot of it made sense. That’s such a prominent thing in my family.

Q: How else did your family help you connect with your Indonesian heritage? 

That’s so hard to think of because I don’t know what they did on purpose and what I just absorbed from being around them. I think, even now, I would sit at my family’s temple and my aunt would sit with me, and she would go through the rhythms of how to pray, and you do this three times, and you drink the holy water three times, and you hold your hands like this. My dad would tell me be quiet now, and we do the offerings, now you do this with the incense. When I think of how my family taught me things, there’s that.

And then, there are the more implicit things. I think a lot of what it means for my dad to be Indonesian is to be really critical of what it means to be Indonesian and really critical of our history and politics. When I think of my Indonesian heritage and what my family truly taught me, it’s to be critical of nationalism, scapegoating politics, things like that. To me, that’s really central to what it means to be Indonesian.

I did this art therapy workshop with an Asian-American art therapist who focused on how Asian-Americans expressed their identities, and so she had us draw this picture of an experience that highlights our cultural identity. And I struggled for so long to think of what it means for me to be Indonesian, and I remember I first drew Balinese banten, because that’s a labor of love that my aunt undertakes every single morning. It really is a symbol of love for me, but at the same time, how I was taught to be Indonesian is more than that. I ended up drawing a bookcase, because I think of my uncle collecting books of Pram and Indonesian authors, and all my family’s conversations are about politics, about corruption, about ‘65, or elections. And that to me is what it means to be Indonesian.

Q: Tell me more about getting into anthropology. What is it like to be a person of Indonesian heritage in a space that’s hard to separate from its colonial context?

Both of my parents are anthropologists. My dad is a Balinese anthropologist, and my mom is an American anthropologist. So I always kind of grew up with my parents encouraging me to interrogate a lot of the things I’ve said. For example, when my sister and I were both like, “We want to be cheerleaders!” My mom would be like, “Write a paper on the gender dynamics of high school cheerleading.” In that way, we really couldn’t catch a break. Like, I would say, “I wanna wear this camo shirt from Gap,” and my mom would say, “Do you want to represent war?” So my parents were just very critical in that way. So that’s how I grew up. When I took my first Intro to Anthropology class in college, I cried because I felt for a long time I just wasn’t good at school, because I wasn’t good at math or science and that meant I was stupid or not good enough, and it made me feel really terrible about my experiences in high school. But when I took my first anthropology class, it was everything I talked about to my friends, to my parents, all the things I was truly interested in engaging in outside of school, in an institution that was considered valid.

That’s really what it meant for me, but of course I can’t separate it from its colonial context. I’ve heard stories from people of Indonesian heritage who are also anthropologists in Indonesia having people say to them, “You’re not a real anthropologist because you’re just studying what you’re familiar with. How does that make you an anthropologist?” That’s wrong for so many reasons, so I think about how that’s still a narrative that exists today within the field I’m studying and every part of me wants to subvert that. I think there’s something about being a non-Western anthropologist or being a non-white anthropologist that is marginalizing, that makes you marginalized, and I also recognize my privilege in being half white and being able to work in a Western framework. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot now, and I don’t think representation in the field is enough of a way to reconcile with anthropology’s colonial past (and perhaps present). I’m interested in finding ways for non-white people in academia to create communities of support for one another, to make knowledge and theory accessible to the public, and to find ways to subvert the classist and racist institution of academia. But I don’t have all the answers today, and I’m still learning and searching for what that might look like.

Q: Tell me more about your journey into learning more about Indonesian history and politics? What advice would you give to others who are also interested in learning more?

When I think about my family history, I think of ‘65. Two of my grandparents were disappeared; my grandfather was killed, and my grandmother was presumably in prison but never seen again. Four of my uncles were also disappeared, so we never saw them again either. My dad was 5 years old at the time, and the impact that left on him was obviously tremendous. He carries so much trauma every day, but I didn’t conceive of that until I was 15. So when I learned about ‘65 and what that has meant to me is…I don’t know, it gave me this new understanding of the family dynamics and the effect that has on me as the granddaughter of victims of ‘65. I think for young people who are looking to learn about ‘65 or about ‘98, too, I think our parents must embody this trauma and carry it with them every day. There must be a way in which that has a profound effect on our everyday lives. My dad, it effects him every single day.

There’s a route of looking for those academic sources, and at the same time, your family may have these stories that have not been told or have not been given a platform. Regardless of what side of history they’re on, if you will, I think there’s something to be learned from your own community and your own family, especially if you’re Balinese. But it’s also really complicated, right? Trauma often means that people don’t want to talk about it. When I go to Bali and I talk to my family, there’s still this air of pain and wounds that aren’t healed. So a lot of it is still very hush-hush. I think as young people, though, I at least feel the responsibility to learn about the violent history of Indonesia, and I feel responsibility to learn that in order to heal a part of myself that in turn heals a part of my ancestors that are within me. I think it’s this process of recognizing that you can carry all of this pain in your body from the generations before you and trying your best to heal that. Because I feel it — I feel my father’s pain, I feel the anxiety that his trauma creates, and I inherit some of those anxieties, so I feel like it’s my responsibility and the generation after me to recognize that part of history, and I can’t heal without recognizing that part of my history. I don’t really know what that means for other people to learn about ‘65, but I think for me, it’s something I’ve always viewed as something deeply personal. Of course, it’s also about reparations at-large, but it’s also about allowing my family and myself to heal.

Q: What does it mean to have Indonesian heritage to you?

My own heritage, with the history of my family, and the way that they’ve been implicated in Indonesian history and politics, what that means to me is that I have this responsibility to move towards justice in every sphere of my life. On a personal level, that means recognizing the violence and trauma of the past, learning about it, but also never allowing my Indonesian identity to be uncomplicated, to be simple. Never just embracing my Indonesian-ness in some idealized, imagined, nationalist way but really breaking it down and criticizing it and interrogating my own connections to Western institutions and my own whiteness. For me, being Indonesian is also having responsibility for that part of me as well.

Q: Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

My advice for anybody who might be Balinese and Irish, or Indonesian in general and white in general, is to always interrogate that identity. Never want some kind of conclusion about it. I used to want somebody to come up to me and tell me, “You’re Indonesian,” or, “You’re white,” so that I could just be done with all of the questions I have about it. It’s exhausting. But I think in reality, having those different parts of yourself means that you have the responsibility to question that identity. In what ways do your proximity to whiteness — when does that make you feel safe? When does it make you feel cool to be Indonesian? When does it not feel cool? When do you hide behind your whiteness? How do you otherize the Asian part of yourself? How do you center your whiteness in other spaces? I think it’s always really important to be critical of that, and that doesn’t mean you can’t embrace your Indonesian heritage. I think that’s actually a part of embracing your Indonesian heritage.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.