Mount Merapi, in Yogyakarta’s north, sits unpredictable, looming. Located on the Asia-Pacific Ring of Fire, it is the most active of Indonesia’s volcanoes. Its eruptions in 2010 forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate and killed 353 people, including its most respected resident, Mbah Miridjan, the custodian of the mountain. Despite ongoing tremors and government warnings, thousands of residents continue to make a living on Merapi’s fertile slopes, living in the shadow of this unpredictable force.
In Deryn Mansell’s Tiger Stone, Merapi serves as an ominous backdrop. Set in fourteenth-century Central Java during the rivalry between the Sunda and Majapahit kingdoms, this novel for young adults tells the story of Kancil, a young girl from Sunda (West Java), forced to flee her homeland following the murder of her father and brother at the hands of Majapahit forces. With Sundanese relatives seeking revenge, Kancil and her Majapahit-born mother embark on a long journey to seek refuge in the home of relatives near Prambanan temple in Central Java. Living in Majapahit territory, Kancil must remain mute so as not to give away her Sundanese accent and her true ancestry.
In her uncle’s home she befriends Kitchen Boy, an outsider who was discovered in the forest as a baby, having survived a tiger attack. The two strike up an unlikely friendship, uncovering a plot that threatens to destroy the entire village. As their adventure unfolds, the unpredictable Merapi rumbles in the background, and the novel’s characters live in constant fear of the mountain’s next move.
Mansell was inspired to write Tiger Stone after studying in Yogyakarta in 1995, when she became fascinated with the history, culture and languages of Indonesia. Years later, her fascination and meticulous attention to cultural detail draw readers into a distant world that recreates a centuries-old Java through rich imagery and pepperings of folklore.
The protagonist’s name, ‘Kancil’, is taken from Indonesian and Malay myths about a small mouse-deer able to defy the odds using wit and cunning to survive the most challenging situations. As the reader journeys with Kancil through silence and isolation, small, seemingly insignificant characters like Kancil and Kitchen Boy keep their wits about them and succeed.
As the friendship between Kancil and Kitchen Boy grows, Mansell draws the reader deeper into the secrets shared between these two living as outsiders, and posits questions on belonging, ancestry and the nature of Indonesian identity more broadly. As they adventure on together, Mansell skillfully condenses seven centuries into an engaging story. As Kancil hides under a pendopo (Javanese hut) in the middle of the night, or Kitchen Boy grinds up jamu for Kancil’s mother, young readers are offered not only an entrée into Indonesian language, but into another world sitting just on our doorstep.
Stylistically, Mansell achieves that rare accomplishment in cross-cultural novels: introducing readers to foreign vocabulary throughout the story without disrupting the flow of the narrative. Young readers meet the juru kunci of Mbah Merapi, and move beyond basic batik and gamelan to discover words like kemben and kendi as Kancil goes about her daily chores in the village. Subtly weaving Indonesian words throughout the story not only enriches Tiger Stone’s narrative, but also shows that there are clearly authors passionate about fostering cross-cultural understanding and building up critical ‘Asian literacy’ skills among younger readers in Australia.
Given Kancil’s proficiency in several languages, Mansell’s decision to cast her protagonist as mute is a noteworthy one. Where Kancil is desperate to speak out she is forced to remain silent, and in doing so, forced to adapt and adjust to many of the new Majapahit (Javanese) ways around her in her new home. Mansell’s own experience of studying in Yogyakarta and living in a boarding house among dozens of new languages sparked her own passion for growing cross-cultural understanding between young Australians and Indonesians.
At the 2014 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, and in an interview with The Jakarta Post, Mansell noted that her two main goals with Tiger Stone were to encourage people to listen and to foster an interest among younger Australians about being curious about other languages and cultures. Tiger Stone not only represents a significant step in the right direction in encouraging an interest among young Australians and other English-speaking youth in Indonesia’s language, history and culture, but also serves as a reminder of the unique ability storytelling has in breaking down barriers and cultural stereotypes.
Mansell, Deryn, 2014,Tiger Stone, Black Dog Books.
Elena Williams (Elena.Williams@acicis.or.id) is the resident director for the Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) in Yogyakarta, which facilitates study programs in Indonesia for Australian secondary and tertiary students.