Untitled by Emma Handoko

I’ve always been fascinated by stories -- infinite combinations of the same set of twenty-six letters, each with the ability to incite every imaginable emotion and create a sense of congruity in the midst of my cluttered world.

The stories and pieces of literature I have gotten lost in over the years are ingrained into my childhood. Even now, they are as much a part of me as the afternoons when the sun burnt my nose a bright scarlet after being carried away surfing whitecaps, the tears of mingled laughter and heartbreak from 3am conversations with my best friend, the rainy Sunday mornings spent baking brown butter chocolate-chip cookies with my mother. The stories I’ve absorbed have empowered me with memories from characters worlds away but no less palpable, bridging the unattainable distance between the paradox of an imagined reality and the eight-year-old girl whose tears stained the well-worn pages of her favorite novels.
Stories are the types of fantasies that, although completely made-up, just seem to make sense amidst a reality that does anything but. Soon, they became my form of escapism. After living abroad for the majority of my life, I moved back to my home country of Indonesia in seventh grade, still needing to Google Translate my own native language. I was lost — and not in the way I wanted to be. Instead of losing myself in the pages of fiction, I was adrift in the real world. For someone who has always been a little too sure of herself, I was utterly and completely baffled. So I sought comfort in the one way I knew how, by revisiting the only fragment of my world that represented familiarity. I threw myself into books with a newfound fervor, finding solace in the letters, the lines, the pages, the chapters. The nostalgia of picking up the Percy Jackson series for the hundredth time temporarily erased my self-doubts in the real world. I was hooked — too hooked.
Of course, my third-culture-kid struggles didn’t last forever; I found who I hope will be my lifelong friends, I threw myself into academics, and slowly but surely, I adjusted to life in Jakarta. I suppose I succumbed to the inevitable phenomenon we all know as growing up. By the time I got to junior year, something shifted. Essentially, I woke up. I woke up to real-life issues that I couldn’t simply avoid by diving into a fictional one. I noticed the racial prejudices — not just with the murder of George Floyd, but within in my own country, carried out through the many instances of racial violence in Papua. I witnessed the errors of a society where even young girls are told to cover their shoulders when walking on the streets; where sexist jokes have become a normalized part of daily conversations. I realized the consequences of the patriarchy — consequences that have led Indonesian society to believe domestic violence is better left ensconced. Such a belief has upheld a society where, although over a third of Indonesian women have experienced physical or sexual abuse, 93% of rape cases remain unreported.
Soon, I wasn’t simply reading to get lost in fictional worlds. I stopped basking in idealized fantasies simply for the comfort of being transported to a place where everything seemed bright and lustrous. Instead, I combined the simple nostalgia of fiction together with the stories that continue to plague our current reality. Eventually, I no longer read to lose myself, to escape, to forget — I jumped into stories so I could find myself. When reading Fitzgerald, I no longer romanticized the grotesquely lavish scenes of Gatsby and Daisy’s seemingly gilded world, but rather, saw the price behind the toxicity of unrivalled luxury corrupted by greed. I ceased my absentminded daydreaming during social studies classes; instead, I intently scrutinized the firsthand accounts from runaway slaves that we were assigned in AP US History. These stories became a form of discovery that I needed to gently piece together my perception of the world as I know it today.
The stories I’ve consumed and entwined with my own life, as well as what I’ve taken away from them, are the constants I’ve always had in the midst of an ever-changing world. In a society with transformation baked into its every facet, change is a default we’ve had to grow accustomed to. Obstinate reality has shoved us, kicking and flailing, into a future where we are involuntary immigrants from the past, perpetually pining for the sheltered warmth of what we can never revisit.

Yet, in the midst of it all, through the stories I’ve consumed -- both the fictitious and the substantive -- I’ve managed to discover what is somehow intractable.

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