Review: Modern family

Leila S. Chudori’s latest novel raises poignant questions about family, home and belonging


Tineke Hellwig

What makes Leila S. Chudori’s 9 dari Nadira such an enjoyable read and an excellent piece of literature? This novel stands out because it touches upon a wide range of emotions and aspects of the human condition that readers easily recognise and with which they can empathise and identify. This work of fiction raises questions of what brings fulfilment in a person’s life. Reflecting the experiences of two generations of the Suwandi family it addresses the importance of education, a career and professional recognition in one’s life. It also explores how these correlate with marriage and intimate relationships. In addition it asks the extent monogamy and reproduction lead to happiness and whether motherhood is every woman’s calling.

In my opinion 9 dari Nadira is not a collection of nine stories – as suggested by Maman S. Mahayana in Horison – but a highly developed novel. It is as eloquently written as Chudori’s widely acclaimed first anthology, Malam Terakhir, which was published in 1989. The narrative is fluent, suggestive and rich in content and imagery. The story focuses on family and sibling dynamics, momentous life choices, women and careers, unfaithful spouses and divorce, and missed chances in life. It is sophisticated in the way it relates Nadira’s life and her family’s circumstances non-chronologically. The narration oscillates not only in time but also from from various first person narrators to an omniscient external one. It thereby exposes the reader to disparate points of view and insights even though Nadira is unfailingly at the centre of attention. The inner thoughts and emotions of different characters are portrayed in great depth, and it is particularly their distinct psychological development that makes 9 dari Nadira exceptional and at times deeply moving. The story flows smoothly even though diary fragments and stream of consciousness recollections interrupt the sequence of the chronology. These retroversions, subtle references and clues that anticipate later events are part of the larger narrative puzzle which the reader must put together. The ending is unexpected and leaves one in suspense. But most importantly, this novel, although fictional, relates true-to-life situations, human relations and interactions in the public and private sphere that are not always rosy, positive and promising.

A transnational family narrative

9 dari Nadira opens with a moment of crisis in December 1991 when Kemala, Nadira’s mother, has taken a fatal overdose of sleeping pills. This dramatic act affects her husband and children for the rest of their lives, as they constantly seek answers as to she had left them. Kemala’s diary entries show no signs of mental instability or depression, and throughout the novel the question of why she committed suicide remains unresolved. The diary records that in 1957, Kemala was a university student in Amsterdam. She fell in love with a fellow Indonesian, Bram Suwandi., They married and three children, Nina, Arya and Nadira, were born in the Netherlands. In 1964 the family returned to Jakarta where Kemala met her in-laws for the first time. They strongly adhered to the Nahdlatul Ulama Party while Bram leaned politically towards the banned Masyumi party. Kemala herself was more of a nominal and seemingly apolitical Muslim but she agreed that her children should have an Islamic education and study the Quran.

Nina, Arya and Nadira grow up under the influence of highly recognisable sibling power dynamics. As the eldest, Nina assumes an air of superiority over the younger two. In one scene we see her push Nadira’s head down into the stinking toilet to make her confess ‘from where she stole the money’. As it turns out, her eleven-year old sister had received an honorarium for a published short story. Later in life Nadira often relives this nightmarish experience and in periods of distress she subconsciously repeats the motion by dipping her head in the bak mandi (bath tank) until she realises the origin of this habit.

The middle child, Arya is a robustly masculine boy. As a result of his rough play one day, his two-year-old sister Nadira ‘bounces’ down the stairs and needs stitches on her forehead, leaving a permanent scar. As a teenager Arya likes to push the limits with his male cousins. One day Nadira loses all hard copies of her published stories when firecrackers explode in her closet. Another time the boys cause Nina’s desk to go up in flames in a bonfire. These incidents contribute to the shaping of Nadira’s frame of mind, and she knows that she will never forgive some of her siblings’ actions.

Nina drops a bombshell with her announcement that she will marry a thrice-divorced choreographer and artist Gilang Sukma., Her parents as well as her siblings express their serious concerns. Soon afterwards Nadira has an unsavoury encounter with Gilang during an interview. He tries to lure her into an intimate exchange, an event that tarnishes her relationship with her sister. Nina and Gilang end up in New York but their marriage lasts only two years. After the break-up in 1991 Nina remains in America and undergoes psychotherapy to gain insight into the course of her life. She realises that she and Nadira ‘are like straight parallel railway lines that have no intention to meet in the middle’ and that ‘she could never live with her siblings under one roof anymore, not even in the same city’. As readers we wonder if this is a possible clue to Kemala’s decision: possibly she perceived Nina’s marital fiasco and her aloofness from her siblings as her own failure as a mother and a rejection of the family. Was this a disappointment that made life not worth living?

Nadira and her father take Kemala’s death quite hard and each becomes somewhat dysfunctional. Bram, who was sidelined as a senior correspondent and has retired, hardly leaves the house, has no appetite and suffers from insomnia. He holds long reminiscing phone conversations with one of his colleagues and watches the same movie over and over again. Nadira tries to accommodate him as much as she can. From New York, Nina shares her views over the phone with her sister. In her opinion their mother ‘loved father too much, and was not capable of handling his dramas, her own concerns and those of her dysfunctional family’. These scenes help us to understand Kemala’s distressed frame of mind.

Identity and ‘home’

Nadira’s journalistic career creates a special bond with her father even though she decides to move out of the parental home for her own sanity. However, she is too despondent to live a healthy and normal life in her rented accommodation. Instead, she camps under her office desk. Her supervisor, Utara Bayu or Tara for short, allows her to stay there as a squatter and tolerates no commentary or argument from co-workers. Throughout the story we find numerous indications that Tara is extremely sensitive to Nadira’s needs and that he holds her dear to his heart. But she wallows in her grief and does not notice. Nadira’s decision to turn the work place into her ‘home’ can be interpreted as her strong identification with her profession. Journalism is her calling and she takes it seriously because it challenges her skills and competence. Yet, we witness how her personal sorrow follows her during her assignments and interviews. Emotionally her bereavement remains raw and determines her responses.

Eventually Nadira and Arya find themselves significant others whom they marry. Inevitably the stigma of their mother’s suicide and prejudices against divorce continue to resurface. We read in detail where life takes them, how and why. After several intricate twists and turns Nadira retreats to Victoria where she longs to stay ‘as a person with no history and no home’. This desire to deny her roots and home is her form of escapism and raises questions for the reader regarding one’s identity. What makes Nadira who she is at the most fundamental level? Can she possibly renounce that? It underscores the multi-layered identities of people like Nadira’s parents, who have strong ties to the colonial past which they cannot easily shake off. But it most notably comments on postmodern and transnational identities in postcolonial nation-states. Nadira and Nina have lived in diverse cultures, travelled the world and enjoy the advantages of bilingualism. Their sense of belonging, everywhere and nowhere, can easily turn into a permanent state of ‘be-longing’.

More than anything else 9 dari Nadira represents real life predicaments, family squabbles and unfulfilled dreams. Leila S. Chudori does not provide her readers with ready-made solutions nor does she push them in a certain direction. Herein lies the novel’s authenticity as in reality we do not easily find answers to life’s challenges. In Nadira’s family no one can ever find an explanation for Kemala’s suicide. While her husband suffers gravely from her loss, for the three children the maternal abandonment leaves an everlasting emotional scar.

The nine chapters of the book flow effortlessly into one coherent storyline. Its numerous cross-references signal that 9 dari Nadira has a complex narrative. Significant elements that recur from chapter to chapter point to meaningful connections: the seruni flowers, the grandfather’s rosary beads, Kemala’s black diary, Candra Kirana, Nadira’s scar on her forehead and so on. The story more than once mentions important historical events or political affairs such as Masyumi, Malari (the 1974 student protests), Petisi 50 (the Petition of Fifty of 1980), Cory Aquino’s rise to power in the Philippines and the 2001 9/11 attacks on the New York World Trade Center. These are all the more relevant as components of the larger plot and they underscore Leila S. Chudori’s extraordinary literary talent to articulate Nadira’s family’s emotional upheavals with poignant finesse.

Leila S. Chudori, 9 dari Nadira. Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia. 2009.

Tineke Hellwig ( is Associate Professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia. She is the author of In the Shadow of Change: Images of Women in Indonesian Literature and co-editor of The Indonesia Reader: History, Culture, Politics.