It’s 12 Years Late, But I Finally Got My Hogwarts Letter

Been teased (with fondness, but teased nonetheless) whenever I got visited because of these self-cheering posters. The left one says, “Imagine being able to say, I graduated from UI in 2013, and HKS in 2017…” and the other “…or, spend two years in the most inspiring melting pot in the world.”

Some of the kindest people I know responded the good news with, “It’s no surprise! Of course you’ll get in!” Which is a nice thing for them to say, but little did they know that it’s been an almost-year-long of journey from these papers on my wall to the two letters of acceptance that visited my inbox this week.

It was months full of self-doubts, reflections, long trips, lengthy emails, nervousness—loneliness (because you’d have to decline some invitations to have fun), even, but I guess it has all been worth the energy.

Naturally, I now feel like I’m on top of the world, but also humbled, by how I finally experienced, first-hand, that hard work always pays. Now overwhelmed by the amount of joy my family and friends have for me, realizing the magnitude of this to the course of life possibilities ahead of me.

Lastly, I’d like to thank people who’ve had faith in me, who really thought it was not impossible for me to get into the walls of the East Coast league. I know there’s still a long way to go until I could secure the funding, but I’m already forever grateful for what life has brought me so far.

Sent my resignation letter to my country director a couple of days ago, and now ready to make my other dream come true: publishing a book. Got 5 months to go.

A Short Account on Humility

Originally posted on Almanak-Almari a year ago.

I love writing and I’m good at it. I won’t pretend that I’m lousy with words just to make people think that I’m humble, because clearly humility doesn’t work that way. And I believe that’s what everybody should be doing, too. Finding what they love and/or good at, then stand up for it.

Yes, there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, but a trained mind can tell when they see one. So worry not: dare yourself to tell the world what you love and/or good at. Just keep your apology for the rainy days when you have to hurt someone for what you believe in. And when that time comes, tell yourself that things are going to be alright.

[On a less relevant note, I published this on Selasar (made it to the most popular article for a while) and this on Forests Asia’s website (as an intro to the youth session speech I’ll be delivering)—in case you need some extra reading this weekend. Cheers.]

Good Readers Make Good Writers: Five Authors That Affect Me the Most

There’s only a few things I hate in the world, not too many that I could name them one-by-one: dog-eared books, reckless taxi drivers, and arriving late to a meeting, among others. On top of this, however, is my perpetual loathing towards ‘How to Be a Good Writer’ workshops.

I MEAN, SERIOUSLY.

[Disclaimer: I take writing (and reading, as well as other literary-related activities) personally. So personal that I easily get offended when the notion of profit or profanity in general make its way into my romanticized world of literatures. And I could be offensive in return.]

First of all: no great writers had been born from a two-hour seminar.

It takes years of writing shapelessly, then a period of finding your own writing character (length may vary), then every-now-and-then-looking-back-with-embarrassment at your old writings, then finally settling down with your own identity—first without confidence, and later with (if you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by an audience of your kind).

Bottomline: it’s a pretty long process, and I’m quite sure it involves a lot of practice, confusion, temporary assurance, second confusion, and so on.

Second of all: good readers make good writers. Surprise, surprise, but it’s sort of the law.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that one is supposed to read more shall he/she want to write better. Yes, doing that can help you store richer perspectives in your mind palace and wider vocabularies in your word bank, but they would not necessarily sharpen your ability to argue or creativity to develop a moving story.

I’m saying that a writer’s opus always reflects the collection of the books that captivate her/him the most throughout his/her course of literary exploration. In my case, there are five major writers (and therein elements) whose writings have been an influence to the voice of my own:

1. Ayu Utami

Ayu

There was a period back when I was under the dilemma of fiction/non-fiction dichotomy—never been quite assured that I belonged in either of the two. As much as I enjoyed developing story lines, I still thought that a writer could only do his/her writing a justice had he/she used it to make a bigger, factual point. One book that later made a huge impact on me by answering this was Ayu Utami’s. An in-depth, research-based criticism toward militarism, monotheism, and modernism, Bilangan Fu is also an eloquent novel about three young lovers.

On one occasion, she told me (and a room of starstruck audience) that it is the duty of a writer, or artists in general, to make truth a little more bearable. She’s the queen of both worlds I look up on.

2. Alain de Botton

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The second writer who gives a huge impact on me is, apparently, a British bloke. I love Alain de Botton not only for his wide range of topics (read through this blog and you’ll see that I never really succeed in trying to stick to one theme) and his generalist point of view (an inseparable consequence of the first notion), but also his intellectually astute, eloquent way of elaborating a profound observation. In Essays In Love, de Botton uses diagrams to point out how we often feel like a different ‘amoeba’ around people we love. He writes above dull rhetorics and cheap philosophy, resulting in pure, golden thoughts. He shows me the magnitude of brilliance you can create with just words.

3. Pramoedya Ananta Toer

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Pram is a one-in-every-century writer whom you shall not compare with other writers. It is already a literary sin to put him on a list like this, but some sins are worth it, and I just have the urge to bring this up: that the greatest writers are great because they capture not just stories, but an entire civilization. His Child of All Nations effortlessly helped me understand the initial confusion of our identity as a nation, and later growing consciousness of being ‘Indonesian’ throughout the colonization area.

This, fellow aspiring writers, is just not something that you can acquire. This takes real experience and personal contemplation, something that our generation had no privileges upon. I learned a great deal from you, old man. I am so grateful that you had access to pen and paper.

4. Joanne Kathleen Rowling

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Spending 10 years of my childhood coursing through Rowling’s story of Harry Potter and the wizarding world, it would simply be a lie (a lame one) not to say that her writings inspired me big time. For one thing, her seven books set the standard of how well-developed characters could make a very significant difference to your story. If there’s any writer who treats the characters in their novel like treating actual children, it’s her. She wouldn’t stop at only giving a very well-thought name, she would go as far as making a separate chapter of background story for them. If we’re now familiar with the humane side of villains, remember that it was her who first made us fall in love with Snape.

I mean, come on. It’s been years since she finished the series and she still thinks that maybe Hermione would’ve be happier had she been with Harry.

5. John Green

JohnGreen_3

Rara insisted that John is too cengeng of a writer. I am aware that some of you might agree with her, but I would rather call it innocence. We don’t need to debate on that, though, because obviously it is not his teenager-ian stories that bought me; it is his unique way of grammar-mixing ability to cook new form of words and sentences that give you enjoyable pops in your head. If you notice my liking of writing whispers inside brackets “(…)” or Capitalization of Words that Are Not Somebody’s Name or neverending-dash-to-make-a-sentence-a-word, the credits go to him.

John hosts literature crash courses on YouTube, all the more proof that, beyond his preference of writing overly-young adult stories (I really enjoyed Looking for Alaska, btw), he loves English.

6. The List Goes On…

I know I should stop, and I will, in fact, stop, but I have to say that my quick overview suggests that there are four kinds of awesome fiction writers:

  1. ones with strong characters (where authors spend enough time to help us understand them, such as J.K. Rowling and Harper Lee);
  2. ones capturing the status quo of a civilization very well (the writer was lucky enough to be born in a historic scene, including Pramoedya Ananta Toer);
  3. ones supported by really good, extensive research (Dan Brown and most of the other science-fiction writers, besides Ayu Utami);
  4. ones depicting what’s might happen in a utopia future (I worship George Orwell and Aldous Huxley’s works for their imagination wild enough to soar in possibilities but also grounded enough to make us think that it might actually happen).

Do you have a different idea on what makes a book great, or want to share which authors make the hugest impact on you? Feel free to write it down in the ‘Comments’ section.

Good night.

P.S. in case you haven’t, also read: A Personal Note on Reading.

The Sign of Four

To all Sherlock fans out there: apology—this post has nothing to do with that Jonathan Small case. It of course does not altogether mean that you shall not be interested in reading it through. For what it’s worth, it’s gonna try to answer (or at least start a discussion about) the mystery of constantly repeating quartet patterns around us. You see, sociology has probably explained so much about human’s dyadic (consisting of two people) and communal (typically uncountable) interactions, but little effort has been put into shedding more lights upon bonds between four individuals.

The more relevant question to begin this with is probably:
do such quadrangular connections actually exist, or is Afu just completely wasting my time into a delusion of a non-existent order?

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Well, my shallow belief contends that either you’re part of one, or you know a group of four close friends who seem to be a real match to one another. I don’t just mean any random friendship of four, but a strongly-tied relation whose balance is reached exactly because there are four nodes and not less or more. Shall one of the people in the group leaves, things don’t seem to work out.

In case you’re none-of-the-above, then here are some fictional references of the Great Division of Four (different personalities):

  • The four female characters in Ayu Utami’s Saman surely have something in common, but they are four different animals by nature: Shakuntala the undomesticated, Cok the ever-thirsty, Yasmin the spoiled, and Laila the curious.
  • In Candice Bushnell’s Sex and the City, each of the foursome stands out with their own, unique qualities (Carrie Bradshaw the columnist, Samantha Jones the businesswoman, Charlotte York the art dealer, and Miranda Hobbes the lawyer) but they are also a perfect combination for one another and make a greater whole than sum of its parts.
  • Lastly, the fact that all of us feel like we belong in either of the houses in Hogwarts (Gryffindor the courageous, Ravenclaw the clever, Hufflepuff the nice, and Slytherin the ambitious), must mean that somewhat there’s gotta be an explanation behind J.K. Rowling’s division of four.

Have psychologists came across this interesting pattern?

Well, the truth is, they have. Despite the fact that it is not their mission to untangle the mystery of human interactions (since they usually focus on self-discovery or person-per-person psychoanalysis), they have—through the ages—been coming up with personality categorizations that focus on four quadrants:

  • Time-traveling back to the ancient times, there was Hippocrates who came up with four temperaments that he thought shaped us all: the Choleric, the Sanguine, the Melancholic, and the Phlegmatic—each of which reacts differently to various stimuli. Now I’m not sure why exactly he got the four combination, but it is interesting to further look at.
  • Only recently, psychologists develop personality test for companies/organizations to figure out what condition suits their employees best—it says that we’re either one of the four colors: blue (the relationship way), gold (the action way), green (the logical way), or orange (the organized way) in day-to-day working situation. Knowing this, companies/organizations can set up better, enabling conditions that would allow them to be more productive.
  • Last but most compelling to me, is the famous Myers Briggs Test Indicator (MBTI), which puts us in four major boxes: the Idealist, Rationalist, Artisan, and Guardian. It revolves mainly in four elements of personality: 1) introversion/extroversion, 2) intuition/sensing, 3) thinking/feeling, and 4) perceiving/judging.
    Later this builds up to 16 different combinations of personality that explains (or even predicts) an individual’s behavior.

Now literatures might not offer the same level of wonder since we can simply blame the authors for arranging stories around the omnipresent four, out of personal, arbitrary decision. But those psychological theories, typically based on close observation of human behaviors, really fascinate me.

Having said this, however, I would still have to say that the difficult part is to connect the dots in real life. Luckily enough, my laboratory for social experiment sits right here in my own friendship. Let me quickly introduce you to Diku, Kiki, and Ipeh—three girls who probably have the biggest impact in my life, especially for accepting my unusual obsession towards patterns. (Trying my best to maintain the scientific tone of this post and not get all emotional here.)

So one day Kiki, Ipeh, and I had a dinner where we laid out our MBTI results (after some 30-minute rants on boys and politics), which looks like this:

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Now I would lie to say that this finding did not excite me. As I’ve been repeatedly saying, yours truly is pretty much a bitch for patterns (why do you think I bother to make this post from the first place), SO YEAH IT DID REALLY THRILL ME TO HAVE THIS DISCOVERY!

From then on, some derived premises have been knocking on my overthinking brain’s door:

  1. It is not that the four of us happen to like the same things or possess identical personalities; rather, the four-node balance is formed because we are both similar and different from one another. To be precise, each of us is actually excluded from the rest at one specific aspect—Ipeh for being the sole extrovert, Kiki’s rather extraordinary sensing ability, Diku’s feeling-based rationality, and my, well, slow progress toward making conclusions (I have a subconscious tendency to keep things open-ended).
  2. We dig into really engaging conversation when we are together because there’s a shift of balance of power (a.k.a. topic-driver) every now and then, making a dynamic to its flow. Imagine if we’re all thinking machines or sensing analysts—our friendship might not be as exciting (and enriching) as I remember it now.
  3. Our friend (Diku’s boyfriend) Sindhu, later convinced me (through Diku) an alternative view: that we’re a circle of clicking personalities. It goes Diku-Afu-Kiki-Ipeh (and goes back to Diku). This would explain not only why Diku-Kiki needs me to connect, me-Ipeh needs Kiki to connect, and so on, but also how Kiki connects best with me and Ipeh, or Ipeh with Diku and Kiki.

Ah, patterns. I could continue talking all night but I’m sure you’re starting to lose interest at this point, so I’ll just stop. I also know that these are all premature hypothesis—ten years from now, I might find this post obsolete or the four of us might actually stop being friends to one another because we lose the balance (psychology does support the idea that personality is ever-changing). But even then, I would be grateful to ever experience being part of a sociological artefact that could explain the link between quadrangular personalities and sociology of four.

Even then, I would cherish this little infinity of (almost) five years we’ve been together. Cheers, girls.

***

Thought-bibliography:

  • Sindhu, for coining the phrase ‘sociology of four’ and being our first and so-far-only interested observer who came up with the proposal from the first placealthough, to be fair, I had it at the back of my head since the time of Ayu Utami and Candice Bushnell (long before we had our first conversation).
  • Diku, for shoving Sindhu’s staggering (yet effortless) examination into my head, and adding a lot more sense to it through your advanced comprehension upon human behavior and outstanding ability to elaborate.
  • Kiki and Ipeh, for simply being yourselves and finding us at the right place and the right time—you know how obsessed I am with patterns and your mere presence is already a gift (note that this is a sociological remark, of course you bitches mean a lot more).
  • Rizky (and plausibly two currently-non-existent boyfriends of mine and Ipeh’s as well), for stimulating follow-up questions in analyzing our respective counterparts—to be curious about whether or not a pattern of eight puzzle pieces exists at all.

A Personal Note on Reading

One can brag so much about how they love reading and you are permitted to ignore them—only until they successfully describe to you, in details, upon what they actually love about it. This post, however, is not an attempt to convince you about my perpetual fondness to books (I don’t think that’s even necessary), but rather a casual narrative on how this affection of mine develops.

(Not that you should care about it.)

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Before we march on, allow me to confess this: in my 18-year career of reading, I’ve always carefully tried not to make an impression that I belong to the group of readers who pretentiously call themselves ‘bibliophiles‘, ‘literary aficionado‘, or the alike. It’s not because I particularly hate them or anything—I guess it’s just that I think labeling yourself with communal pronouns degrades the sacredness and intimacy of reading. It’s like cutting off that ‘reading’ branch from your ‘personal pleasure’ tree and add it on top of another stack of other people’s branches. In a less hygienic analogy: sharing a common name to call yourself is like sharing your clean toilet with the public. It’s not a sin, but I’d prefer to keep mine private—if you know what I mean.

Lately, though, I fell onto one of those middle-class traps of enjoying the phony habit of regularly uploading a stream of pictures—only instead of unconsumed foods, I take unread covers as my object of photography.

Anyway. About what reading means to me (I might get sentimental along the way):

1. A Mind-Capsule Where Time Stops

Does anyone actually remember the time when they first learned letters, spelled them out, and read a ‘b-o-o-k’? (Or a ‘p-a-r-a-g-r-a-p-h’, on a less ambitious note?) I’m pretty sure that mine started on a Thursday when I was 3 years old, because Thursdays were the days when Abang Koran in my neighborhood always had a new issue of Majalah Bobo. The family rumor has it that I wanted to read the magazine so badly that I learned to read overnight or something like that.

Regardless this blurred fact, I have no doubts that from then on, I have created this mind-capsule into which I can silently enter—all by myself. Sometime in the course of developing its shape and volume, time had stopped forever inside. Even when I visit it today by reading the most philosophical novel like Anthem, the girl reading it is still that innocent teenager who thinks (in the present tense) that she belongs to Ravenclaw and that some heroes deserve better. The hours that you spend while holding an open book doesn’t count—it paused; not like a broken clock, but simply because there are things more profound than the number of ticking seconds that should be measured. Things like those new, exciting thoughts and ideas before your eyes.

Then I realized that there are only two kinds of time: one before you can read a book, and one after. And believe me, the world is so much brighter and more colorful in the latter.

P.S. I love this #joyofreading project by The Economist.

2. A Thought-Silencer That Actually Works

Nocturnal people know it better: it’s not some disease called insomnia, or deadlines that keep us anxious; it’s just that our minds can get so loud that in the extreme cases, we cannot sleep at night. Experienced over-thinkers often find it troublesome to relax because they are bombarded by this new questions or memories on a minute-basis. And such anxiety isn’t exclusive to times when you’re supposed to sleep, but also in the middle of the day when you’re supposed to
carpe diem and loosen up.

Different people have different methods to silence this inner-voice down. Some put on their headset, sketch pictures on a fresh paper, or take it out by talking to their partners. Having tried various alternatives, however, I found out that the little domain inside books is what works best for me. It’s one of the magic tricks that books perform on us: they know how to control the noise inside our heads. The most powerful paragraphs can shove the resistant loud completely off, and let us enjoy a little peace of mind for a while. No wonder many of us have to read something before bed.

I believe that reading should not make you feel lonely—alone yes, but not the sad kind of alone. More like the happy one—ask the introverts around if you don’t get the phrase ‘elating solitude’.

3. A Travel-Company Who Doesn’t Mind

Saying that I hate traveling would be a lie but frankly, unlike the majority of Indonesians, I don’t cherish it as much. I like being in a new place, interacting with strangers and all, but spending hours in trains or planes sounds like a downright ‘wasting time’ to me. Thank God there are books—not music, not games, just a proper, volume-adjustable sound coming from the story-plots in those romance novels or thrilling fictions.

To count, there had been at least a thousand times that my parents told me to close the book I was reading at the back seat. They told me that reading in a moving car would impair my eyes and make me feel dizzy. Until today, I’m not sure if I wear glasses for that habit, but I’m pretty sure that ‘not reading’ would’ve made me feel dizzier. (Later they argued that I should enjoy the scenery and appreciate the world outside, but I just couldn’t help it that I was more interested in what happened
in the next chapter.)

As I grow up, I travel by myself, and people still think I’m crazy for reading in a boat or a bus, but seriously, the story of A in Every Day is more compelling than some polluted sea. So pardon my ignorance and take some pictures for yourself.

Oh and I also develop this skill of maintaining balance on a moving MRT/Commuter Line without having to grip on the holder because both of my hands are busy turning pages. It’s twice fun and challenging when the train is crowded.

4. A Natural Identity—and Conversation Supplier, Too

I am aware that people have said things about me—be it good or bad stuff. Having this consciousness, however, does not help me in any sorts to figure out my own identity. Because truth be told, I’m never sure if I was what people thought I was—you know, all those humbling adjectives. But when it comes to books and reading, I know for sure that I love the time I spend reading them, or just going to a library, or a bookshop and buy nothing, or stacking as many as possible to my worn out bookshelves.

‘Reading’ has become a natural identity to me, one that I’m confident in telling people about. Look. I’m not sure if I care about Indonesian youth, I’m not sure if I am to become a diplomat or a journalist, but I know that I love books, and I will continue reading them until my last days of living.

know it as a fact, and it’s such a relieving instinct.

And books don’t stop there; they also generously donate comfortable topics for conversation-starters like, “Hey, have you read [book title]?” and things usually go smooth from then on.

5. A Radar to Find the People of My Kind

I always believe that preferences are assistive elements to indicate who we are. I mean, psychologists have worked their ass off to categorize personalities into sets of four-colored boxes (choleric-melancholic-sanguine-phlegmatic or Jung’s idealist-rationalist-artisan-guardian are two examples), but I think the kind of books or the music you enjoy best can equivalently reveal who you are. Primitively, this also means that preference to ‘read’ than to ‘travel’ can also tell a person’s personality. In other words, understanding what you prefer is a way to peek inside yourself.

My preference in reading, apparently, has guided me to find a bunch of lovely people with whom I can spend hours asking questions and listening to their awesome ideas. Two months ago (or more, I’m not sure when it started), we decided to gather and discuss about the books we read, or a bunch of unrelated thoughts about which we somehow had the urge to discuss upon. The latest one is available on SoundCloud, although it was too philosophical to be called a typical book club discussion. We call these meetings #BookTalk, because well, it involves a lot of talking about books. (D’oh.)

By the way, you can email me if you’d like to join our next lunch.

6. A Beautiful Mess of Mind-Twisters and Heart-Exercisers

There are times when books drive you crazy. Like when Mr. Darcy sweeps you off your feet, or when you wanted to shout to Dexter Mayhew’s ears that he should’ve realized sooner that he loved Emma Morley. Some other times, they make you angry because what you find in a book has stayed in your own mind for a long time, but its author just stole it away from you like that. And worse, they actually present it better. (I detested de Botton’s Essays In Love and Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary only because I love both so much.)

At the same time, reading also induce new thoughts and develop the existing ones to a certain level of complexity. It surprises you with new plot possibilities, calm you down with answers to your current problems, or inspire you to take new habits. Ayu Utami is one of the most talented ones in doing this, not to mention Chris Cleave and Dan Brown’s in-depth-research-supported thrillers. The feeling of going through all these tangled thoughts and ideas, having multiple braingasms until you reach the end and close the hard cover of that copy, is indescribable.

A little tip: read classic books. Remember: swimming in  first-hand thoughts (not reviews about them) is an inalienable right every reader has to claim.

7. The Truth

7.1. I don’t read 7 books in a week, okay. Stop assuming that all bookworms read unreasonably plural number of books—they read a lot and they read more than you do, but it’s not like they are bestowed with a superpower to have all the time in the world to read every single book written. The trick is this: the most clever readers don’t settle—they stop reading when they know that a book is crappy. And crappy books do exist. The smartest readers don’t read certain titles because the whole world is talking about it (exhibit A: Fifty Shades of Grey—no offense, E.L. James), and they know the kind of books they truly, sincerely love. I myself read a couple of books whose first chapters compelled me. Then I swam deeper before I’d bore my friends with all the new thoughts and ideas that
I discovered in the ocean.

7.2. I read fast, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t read wholeheartedly (people usually accuse fast-readers for that—maybe out of jealousy). It’s plausibly an inevitable skill trained by years of practice. There are, however, some paragraphs that takes your eyes off the book because you need to reserve a couple of minutes to exclusively ponder about it.

7.3. Reading English books doesn’t make an Indonesian reader a snob who ‘does not love their own country’ (don’t you even dare give me that nonsense), but again, people simply have preferences. Sometimes we have to accept that certain kinds of readings, languages, or themes are more intriguing than the others. I read many English books, but I pay my fullest respect to Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Goenawan Mohamad, and Eka Kurniawan, whose amazing works always humble me down.

7.4. Lastly, I’d have to do just to the Singaporeans (whom I badly judged in this post) and admit that they do have wonderful people who care about thoughts, ideas, and books. I learned this especially after I visited some of the awesomest literary enclaves in Singapore, including Littered with Books and Books Actuallyboth restored my faith in their local literatures.

“A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man’s mind can get both provocation and privacy.”
—Edward P. Morgan