Birthplace: Jakarta, Indonesia
Grew up in: Depok, Indonesia; Australia; U.S.A.
Currently living in: Jakarta, Indonesia
Quick things: Mita is a writer, researcher, and photographer who has contributed to outlets such as VICE, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera. She is currently working on a collaborative book on Borobudur and the politicization of heritage through visual representation from the 19th century to the present.
(Photo courtesy of Aria Danaparamita)
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: How did you start thinking of yourself as someone of Indonesian heritage?
In my younger childhood in Indonesia, I think that’s pretty much drilled into you — that sort of nationalism, patriotism — it’s everywhere around you, especially at school, with the national curriculum, school uniform, and activities like upacara bendera ceremony that you do every week where you have to repeat the Pancasila. So, in that sense, I had definitely absorbed an idea of being Indonesian.
But as a kid, you assume everybody grows up the way you do, and you’re not necessarily thinking about identity in terms of a relational difference to other identities. So it wasn’t really until we as a family moved to Australia that I noticed that difference.
At the time, and I’m sure a lot of diasporic kids can relate to this, my parents were extremely protective of maintaining that Indonesian identity. So when I was at home or with my parents, we would socialize with other Indonesians in the area. They tried to use Indonesian, even though us kids were mixing languages and mostly using English anyway, and made us learn and perform traditional dances, participate in potlucks where we cooked traditional dishes, and so on.
I didn’t think of these issues critically until I was about college-age. That’s when I started thinking about it more from an external and analytical perspective.
Q: Tell me more about your experience in Australia. Were you having conversations about identity with other kids your age?
I think it’s important to distinguish experiences between people who’ve been there for generations vs. first-generation immigrants vs. those who are temporary migrants. Because we were only there for four years, I think my experience is different. My mother was doing her Ph.D. at the time, so we were hanging out with other Indonesian Ph.D. students and their families.
There happened to be other people my age and we did hang out. As children, we didn’t talk about identity with each other a lot. Just the activities that we were doing, like the dance classes. But it was interesting because I’m ethnically Javanese, and it was the first time that I’d stepped out of that ethnic bubble, because the Indonesian immigrants who came to Australia were from everywhere. I had Balinese friends, friends from Makassar, from Manado, so I was learning a lot about their cultures, too, so that in a way enriched my understanding of what Indonesia was. But in terms of personal identity, I don’t think we had that many conversations about that. We were also 12.
Q: What got you interested in decolonization and anti-imperialism?
That’s actually something I’ve not really reflected on, but I probably should. I think it probably came to me quite gradually. I’ve always been a generally politically conscious person, ever since I was a teenager, so I’m sure that’s always been on the back of my mind. I try to read up on social issues, but in terms of the more critical takes, that happened through college.
I started taking courses on visual and literary representation, including theories of diaspora, a lot of different strands of thought. I also took a history class and really enjoyed the analytical approach to historiography and the writing of history and the role of the historian. I became more conscious about the relations of power that go into how these representations are made.
Q: Did your family ever talk about history? What stories were passed down to you?
That’s actually an important point, because I think that did influence me in a subconscious way. On my mother’s side, my grandmother used to work as a librarian. She’s someone who reads a lot and thinks a lot about the history of Indonesia. She has always presented it as a personal history that she lived through but also what it means from that power-relational context.
She and my grandfather, that generation, were part of the freedom fighters movement. My grandmother, for example, spent some time in prison. Even living through it, she was conscious of the power dynamics that were at play during colonial times, so we’ve spoken a lot about that.
Q: What has been your experience in academia in the U.S.? I’m interested because as a Southeast Asian person, I don’t often find other Southeast Asians in the U.S. doing academic work on Southeast Asia. So what was your experience like?
I have a lot to say about that. The university I went to [Wesleyan University in Connecticut, U.S.A.] didn’t have a Southeast Asia department. Even though I did end up writing a dissertation about colonial Java, my academic advisor specialized in British colonization in India, and he never claimed to be an expert on Southeast Asia. In that way, I was very lucky that he opened the way for me to explore these issues kind of on my own. My thesis supervisor was also incredibly supportive; she was a historian of British culture and history, so she was able to support me thematically and theoretically.
The frustration that I had, though — and I think it gets progressively worse the higher up you go — is you start to recognize how much of a gap there is. As an undergrad, it was reading books, papers, and articles written by white people. When I did my masters in the U.K. [at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London], things were far more colonialist there than in the U.S., both in terms of the existing source materials and the active knowledge-making in the profile of professors who are teaching these topics. That was much more visible to me in the U.K. than the U.S.
I do think it’s changing, and I think it would be a disservice to not acknowledge the Southeast Asian scholars, people from diasporic backgrounds, who are starting to or have been writing about Southeast Asian history and culture, and are finally getting the respect they’ve deserved for so long.
But I think for me, academia fucked with what I thought knowledge was, what kinds of knowledge were accepted, and how to express that knowledge. It was mostly still just referencing white, mostly male philosophers, like Foucault. I found that aspect, the intellectual limitations, frustrating.
There’s also the second aspect of it: the personal-relational. I have faced actual instances of racism in my experience — I don’t really like the term microaggression, because to me, it was full-on aggression, but that sort of couched, “Know your place as a not-white person in a white space.” Those interactions are another source of frustration. So there was this intellectual prison, but also this day-to-day emotional stress from having those interactions. There is a constant struggle, a feeling of having to prove your voice and your place at the table.
Q: What drew you to journalism and using what you learned in academia into journalism?
I think I’ve always just wanted to tell stories, whether in school academically through writing history, or professionally in journalism and seeking out stories and talking to people and working with them to tell their stories.
I’m fortunate to have grown of age post-’98 in that journalism was even an option for me when it wasn’t always for so many people. Things are changing now.
I think a decolonial approach to journalism is also very necessary. Like academia, English-language media is still dominated by western, upper-middle class editors and western, upper-middle class voices, even though its audiences are more diverse than ever. I can’t count how many times I’ve been told to add “Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country,” even when religion wasn’t relevant to the story. This persistent Orientalism is why I’m a strong proponent of collaborative journalism, and always foregrounding local voices and perspectives.
Q: When you were abroad in your later ages, what conversations were you having in diaspora?
At university, you realize that not all Indonesian immigrants come from the same background, and the people you meet abroad can come from a very selective group of people who are there because of class — they can afford to go to school abroad — or they’re scholarship students, which attracts a different set of people. I was a scholarship student myself, my Indonesian friends were other scholarship students, so in that sense, we were able to relate a lot more. We were also of a similar political consciousness. The class differences really mattered, and that affects political discussions as well.
Q: What advice can you give to someone who is interested in learning more about Indonesia beyond “Wonderful Indonesia”? How can people better inform themselves?
I would encourage people to learn about the history of the making of Indonesia, and that the thing we call Indonesia isn’t in fact a static entity.
It’s a process; it’s still ongoing. It’s a process that started under colonialism, through colonialism, through the various wars in the post-colonial era, and to this day, we are still debating and creating different meanings of what Indonesia is.
There is no such thing as a thing — everything is a process, and that process is made by someone, usually people in power, and in that sense, we need to understand that there are other processes by people who are not in power, who are marginalized, who have their own interpretations of what Indonesia is and what their relationship to Indonesia is.
So I would encourage people to be more aware of what are the things that inform their sense of what Indonesia is, what their personal identity is — whether that’s art, music, language, dress, the way you relate to people — and be conscious of the forces behind these markers of identity.
Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?
I think Indonesia as the nation-state and as a cultural identity is relatively young, and yet it’s been so powerfully enforced, at times violently so, and so to be part of that is kind of incredible and not necessarily in a positive way. I don’t know if that answers your question, but for me, it’s about being part of this historical process, and it’s still something I continue to reflect on.
I also respect this history of solidarity and social justice in Indonesian culture, in terms of labor movements and a lot of leftist, progressive thought, and anti-colonial spirit.