Interview: Denny

Birthplace: Jakarta, Indonesia

Grew up in: Cayman Islands; Jakarta; Bali; Balikpapan; New York state, U.S.A.

Currently living in: New York City, U.S.A.

Age: 23

Find her: Decoding Ellipses blog | Allure piece (content warning: body dysmorphia and gender dysphoria) | them.us articles | Instagram | Twitter

(Left: Photo credit to Leah James | Right: Screenshot via Allure.com)


Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Q: You’ve moved around a lot. Tell me more about that.

I’m the youngest of three, so the first half of my life was pretty much a blur. My dad had to travel a lot for work. Even living somewhere else, we still traveled to different countries; my mom is half-white — she’s half-Dutch — so we were traveling to Holland a lot, too. There’s so little that I remember, and usually the things I remember are not so great … things that shape your nervous system and the way that you are. It’s something that I want to revisit, literally. I don’t really remember much. In terms of having any sort of agency, it’s not like a 2-year-old could be like, “No, I don’t want to live in Bali.”

Q: Did you have any expectations about moving to the U.S.? How were those expectations affirmed or shattered?

My parents are not very good at communicating, so one day, we’re living in Balikpapan, and the next day, we’re packing up. I say goodbye and then I’m on a plane. It’s a memory I remember in general, but getting into Customs, my mom took off her hijab. I don’t think she realizes I was watching, but it was a very vivid memory that’s stuck with me to see — she didn’t really say anything, it was just something she took off. But, in that moment, I understood that was some sort of surrender to get something in return. This was post-9/11, too.

I wasn’t too thrilled to move again, but also, I didn’t have consistent friend groups growing up. I was pretty indifferent to moving all the time. Moving to the States wasn’t really a concern since my parents’ policy was that if we were home — in Indonesia, we would speak English, and if we were in the States, at home, we would speak Indonesian.

Q: What was it like growing up on the internet? 

I love the internet. The first time I was introduced was in Jakarta. I was visiting my dad in his office, and he introduced me to Google Images, and I was printing Power Ranger pictures for hours.

By the time we were in the States, I don’t really remember a lot — even at the point fifth, sixth graders would remember things, I guess in my circumstance, I was just kind of like a frog in boiling water. I feel like I didn’t have the tools to really analyze my environment, so I was always just pretty zoned out. At the computer, I was playing Runescape and MapleStory … That was my first introduction to the internet. It was then, really, whenever I had the agency to choose characters, I was choosing girls. I got to make real-life connections with people and befriend people. People I’m still friends with!

And then, I moved to Johnson City [in upstate New York]; I finally felt like we had gotten to a stable home where we weren’t moving all the time. We went from moving every year to staying in Johnson City for 10 years — it was a big change. I was a lot more comfortable to submerge myself in real communities. I kind of went offline for a bit. My draw to the internet was — it was mindless, but looking back, it was a coping mechanism as a kid.

Q: Tell me more about your journey as a writer. 

I come from a pretty musical family, too. I do a lot of songwriting and singing. I was doing slam poetry for a few years. So, writing was always present in my life. I probably wasn’t good at it when I first started.

It wasn’t until college that I became an avid writer. I was two years into transitioning and I was surrounding myself with … from becoming zoned out from games and fantasy world online, it was a really hard shift to narratives that were human human human human. It was reading memoirs, watching reality TV shows, reading academic papers. I guess when something finally made sense with me, when I had some certainty about who I was, I kind of clung onto realism.

I was really inspired by storytelling. So, I decided to journal and take note of what I was going through in college, but at the same time, I wanted to be smart about it. I worked with the head of the women and gender studies department to make it an independent study. So, with that, I made a blog. Within a few months, a few weeks — I think it was the same semester — I had a viral post. It was a makeup tutorial for trans women. I still get notifications about it today on Tumblr, but it’s not something I 100% stand by. It was like, “Here’s how you do this,” but at this point, I’m like, wear whatever you want to wear.

I met a mentor my junior year. Melinda was the first person who was like, you don’t have to omit yourself when you’re writing an essay. I was so used to academic writing, where there’s a clear division between your thoughts and who you were. She said, use I, say me in your paper. “Let’s not pretend that even if you’re trying to divide that you’re not in there.” That was pretty inspiring.

She would give feedback everyday. She kicked my ass, but she was the one who told me, when I was telling her about the grad schools I wanted to go to, to aim higher. So it was just having someone have a little more faith in me than I did. I think I do now, but I’m a person with insecurities, so sometimes, it helps to be reminded now and then.

Q: What has it been like sharing your writing and getting feedback from people?

I think having a creative medium is my preferred way to receive any sort of praise. In undergrad, as the only openly trans person for the first three years and transitioning pretty young as a teenager, I felt like I was kind of a spectacle. So, a lot of the praises I would get really felt micro-aggressive and back-handed. Anytime someone would tell me, “You’re brave,” “You’re amazing,” for being who I was, was sort of ironic because you’re sort of accepting the fact that it was hard for me to begin with, and that’s the issue. I don’t want you to clap for me at the end of the race when you know this was a race in the first place.

So, when people praise me for the things that I do, that feels a lot better as a creative person. I’m aware now that I physically respond better to, “I loved your work,” “I loved your performance,” and not like, “Werkkk!” It’s such a slap in the face. But the feedback for my work has been good.

Q: What is your writing process like? Are you more regimented?

I am now, because of quarantine. I have a pretty rigid structure for writing. I wake up early and meditate. I have a legal pad so I don’t have to gravitate to my laptop. I make it my duty to write at least a page, whatever it is. Usually, it’s whatever’s on my mind. I usually cry for a few hours in the morning.

Then, after that, if I have something I really want to work on and I’m still working on my warm up, it’s usually a good push for me. When you have something you really want to write, but you’re doing something else, to finish it so that by the time I get to write what I want, I feel like I’m in all the way. And then I’ll take a break at noon or 1, and take a break on my phone or check my emails.

But, it’s such a weird time. There’s only so much routine I can do, and so much discipline I can give myself. So, if I’m not feeling it, I step away. But later I might be feeling it at 1 a.m. So I have to give myself opportunities to write, but also really pay attention, because it can get pretty punishing when you get into a routine.

Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?

With every other part of myself, it becomes kind of incognito. I’m not cooking my fajitas as an Indonesian person. I’m not buying my groceries as an Indonesian person. I’m not taking the train as an Indonesian person. But that also goes for every part of who I am. Unless I’m being asked or in a position to think about it — I do recognize I’m Indonesian, I do think about it. It’s something that I’m grateful to be, especially being here and growing up in Indonesia.

I think having a transnational childhood experience makes me feel a little more advanced in the ways that I can be observant and pull myself out of situations and look at the things through a bird’s eye view. I feel like I can be a lot less selfish, because of growing up everywhere.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

It’s been about 10 years now — I just miss a lot of my cousins. They missed a big turning point in my life. Should I visit anytime soon, I might go. I mean, everyone after a decade is someone else, but at least in our family, no one else has transitioned. I do miss them a lot and it’s something I think about, too, how transness at least for our family will be received. It seems like a lot of my cousins won’t care. It’s something that’s been on my mind, too, especially now; I’m growing, I feel more and more distance from the people over there.