The Malay Mysteries. A Conversation with Graphic Novelist, Jai Sen
Looking for that perfect summer read? Well, look no further. The Monkey recently spoke with graphic novelist, Jai Sen about his magical stories, The Malay Mysteries. Levitating Monkey: How have the stories depicted in the Malay Mysteries been
Levitating Monkey: How have the stories depicted in the Malay Mysteries been shaped by your time living in Indonesia in your youth?
Jai Sen: I’ve realized over time that this series is kind of a love letter to my experience of living there, an attempt to recreate the feeling of it. In Indonesia I encountered a combination of a sort of cheerful innocence, but then so many haunted places, evidence of brutality in the past (the sort committed by invaders foreign to that culture and otherwise), and hair-raising stories about black magic and monsters. The subconscious is very alive there, along with a belief that anyone can encounter and experience the supernatural.
One thing I’ve tried to capture in these stories is the odd mix of incredulity and total belief I noticed in people there. On one hand, Indonesians I met could be as modern and skeptical as anyone, but then they would tell you some story about seeing a ghost or sea goddess and be absolutely convinced that it was real.
My stories wouldn’t work in a world in which all the characters believe the same thing. That, especially for a western audience, would just be a depiction of an unfamiliar culture with different beliefs. The tension I’m trying to create in my stories, and the potential for them to have any emotional resonance or metaphorical weight to them, is the question of what’s real and what’s not, the way we struggle to integrate these things within dreams. That, and the different ways in which each of us defines a reality we can all participate in.
This is what I like about these stories as their author. Sometimes the monsters and magic feel very real and literal, and at other times, it’s easy to treat them as allegory. That was my experience of living in that place and absorbing its mythology. It can be both. The significance of experiences is the reality we ascribe to them, and their meaning depends on interpretations that change based on the viewer and even one’s own perspective over time.
Levitating Monkey: Can you talk to us about the magic and folklore you were surrounded by while you were there? (Especially the theme of light and dark that you explore and how it is important to keep the two in balance.)
Jai Sen: You’ve pinpointed the main structural device I use in the stories: the alternation of light and dark. Broadly speaking, the odd numbered books are dark stories, and the even numbered books are “light.” There are a few instances where my characters talk directly about how indigenous Malay spirituality is about keeping the two in balance, rather than (as it is in most other mythologies I’ve encountered) ensuring that evil is defeated so good can triumph. In the Malay world view, there are times you call on one, and times you call on the other, and each has its rules and a consequence to summoning it.
This was one of the most difficult things for me to absorb when I lived there. The Indian tradition I grew up with has plenty of ambiguity and complexity when it comes to questions of good and evil, morality, and causality. A well-intentioned act can have awful consequences, and the intervention of evil can lead to great good, or at least, its existence is necessary for good to triumph. But the two are still pretty clearly delineated, even in that complicated tradition, and there’s an emphasis on developing personal virtue.
In Indonesia, especially in Bali, I saw the result of Hindu stories (which had come to Southeast Asia in the 4th century) mixed with indigenous Malay spirituality, which is basically animistic. Everything became a lot more ambiguous, open to interpretation. Differing versions of the stories proliferated. The Malay versions of the Hindu epics show that there is this alteration of all the basic rules and principles of existence as day moves into night, a whole set of powers that take over and assert themselves.
Long after living in Indonesia, I saw the film “The Year of Living Dangerously,” which takes place in Jakarta in the 1960s at a time of great political upheaval. Linda Hunt’s character (she plays a photographer named Billy Kwan) is trying to explain the Malay worldview to a westerner and uses shadow puppets to illustrate the duality that’s present in Malay spiritual belief. She talks about Arjuna, the epic hero, explaining how he’s handsome, skilled, virtuous—but then she turns the puppet over and says that all these good qualities come with their opposites: fickleness, vanity, and covetousness. This idea is present in the original Hindu version, but much more pronounced in the Malay interpretation of those stories. In the film, this duality was also a metaphor for east meeting west in a sort of interplay of traditions and worldviews. On one hand, aspects of the incursion of the west into this culture were benign (or at least well intentioned), but on the other, exploitation and suppression were inevitable. Just look at the complicated history of missionaries almost anywhere.
My family lived in Jakarta, so we got a dose of both Javanese culture and Southeast Asian urban culture, while observing an interface of the culture with many outsiders. Even in the most crowded parts of the city, side by side with 4-lane highways and skyscrapers, little makeshift villages would form, and the same word was used to describe them as one would use for a rural community. Despite Jakarta being in one of the largest cities in the world, and one of the most modern in the region, people would casually talk about having seen ghosts and monsters roaming through the streets after dark, and were terrified of what might be floating about on the night air.
One time, groundskeepers at the international school I attended refused to show up for work until an exorcism was performed because someone had found something that looked like a grave out near a soccer field. There was a sort of celebration and fear of natural forces and the mysteries behind them, a sense of wonder. Adhering to traditional beliefs and living in modern times didn’t represent a conflict to them. Similarly, with religion, there was a sort of layering effect of the new and old. They would go to the mosque devoutly, but for certain problems, only a “jamu” lady (a folk healer, like my character Marsiti), a dukun (shaman/magician), or a witch would really do. And the city was full of them. Jamu ladies roam the streets of Jakarta even today, lugging their trademark baskets full of mysterious liquids and powders, full of stories about all the supernatural things they’d encountered.
Levitating Monkey: Can you tell us about all the research you did for these stories. You have artistically interwoven some deep reflections on colonialism, mysticism, and sociology/anthropology in these stories. How difficult was that to bring in?
Jai Sen: The main body of the stories comes from the folklore I heard while my family lived in Indonesia during the 80s. They were just so strange and magical that I knew I wanted to do something with them someday.
Given the nature of the stories, you’d think I’d heard them from rustics or deeply superstitious people. But the truth is I heard them from people from all walks of life. I heard about the sea goddess Nyai Loro Kidul from a colleague of my father’s, a high-ranking member of the Indonesian government who was educated in the U.S. And he didn’t impart it as some colorful tale. He swore that he had seen the goddess with his own eyes. There’s a story about Sukarno performing rites to appease her, and it’s not described as anything ridiculous, but rather as a smart precaution for a modern politician to respect the old ways. Over time, I came to see that part of the world as having its own rules, ones that don’t exist in other places. There was no denying a sense that it is somehow haunted. I could feel the presence of these forces that Indonesians believe so strongly exist there.
So generally speaking, the stories I’m writing try to capture the experience of being there and hearing these stories, in a culture where they’re a sort of currency, and you’re dealing with degrees of credulity in hearing them. My character Hidayat, a schoolteacher, is a convenient stand-in for a western audience with his skepticism and modernity. I have this tension in my own family, in which very educated people coexist with ones that have a devout belief in mystical forces. Hidayat puts aside his pure skepticism pretty quickly once he starts seeing more of the mystical world, but he retains a tendency to question, learn, and explore, trying to discover ways in which to explain both the mystical and scientific. And, when the occasional mystery turns out not to have a wholly supernatural cause, he’s a reliable detective.
The rest of what comprises the stories is other preoccupations of mine, some of them from having grown up in India. Indonesia was under Dutch colonial rule for longer even than the British occupied India. Yet you don’t see nearly the same merging of the two cultures as you did (and still do) in India. In Indonesia, perhaps because the Dutch were there for so long, I had a sense that both sides were really studying each other and still coming up short, and neither seemed to have much interest in assimilating the other (though, inevitably, some of that did happen, a theme I try to explore in a few different ways in the series). With the Dutch and the Indonesians, little moments of exchange could lead to some sort of understanding, but only if the conditions were right.
This was my experience there too, watching multiple cultures interacting with each other. On one had it was miraculous that there was any sort of cross-cultural understanding at all, but on the other, I’m still puzzled by how some of the people we knew in Indonesia never really got the place, didn’t make much effort to understand and internalize it from within the expat bubble, and still don’t, to this day.
Levitating Monkey: What are some of the issues explored within these graphic novels that resonated most strongly with you, personally?
Jai Sen: If I had to choose one basic theme for the whole series, it’s the issue of being an outsider. Choosing that part of the world as a setting for these stories allowed me to make anyone an “outsider” pretty easily—by showing the interactions of cultures and groups—but also to show that we’re all outsiders, in some way or another. That was my experience going into a culture that wasn’t either of my home cultures, and watching people from other cultures trying to negotiate this shifting boundary.
It’s human nature to try to find the “other” in order to define a comfort zone around ourselves. This is a psychological truth of the human experience. As cultures touch, though, the question becomes, what do we do when we encounter that other, and under what conditions otherness can dissolve, even temporarily.
The results are often unpredictable. In Garlands of Moonlight, the villagers, under the predation of a rapacious colonial power, turn on (what one would assume would be) one of their own. Then in Sita’s Shadow and Other Stories, my character Marsiti finds common cause with a Dutch plantation owner in a story she retells from her youth. However, from remarks Marsiti makes in the present, we see that despite this encounter, not much has changed about her view of the Dutch people, nor does she become particularly interested in them, even after making that connection. As readers, we might empathize with the Dutch woman in that story a lot more than Marsiti ultimately does. Marsiti has a moment of reflection that it might be difficult for the foreigners to live so far away from their point of origin, then she moves on with her life, not excusing—but still not forgetting—the disruption the Dutch represented to the life of Indonesians for centuries. And she doesn’t find reason to alter some of her preconceptions about them.
I’m also working with notions of religion and spirituality, and how hung up people get on their world view being the only and most correct one. Indonesia is ostensibly a Muslim country—95% of the population identifies as Islamic, making it the most populous Islamic country in the world statistically. But as I mentioned before, Islam in Indonesia coexists side by side with older, animistic belief systems and vestiges of Hinduism left over from pre-Islamic times. I played with the idea of orthodoxy by making one of the narrators in Sita’s Shadow and Other Stories a dukun, an indigenous shaman. Dukuns serve a lot of functions in Indonesian society. Many of them, perhaps even most, espouse Islam, but they function as healers, trance mediums, conjurers, and so on in the pre-Islamic tradition. Many of their practices mirror the rites of Vodou and other animistic belief systems.
So in the stories I look at this dimension, that despite embracing a religion that strictly forbids messing around with anything like what dukuns do, even modern Indonesians can’t give them up as a part of society. Every religion does this sort of thing. Christianity is by definition monotheistic, but then a trinity emerged, along with worship of a mother, then a whole pantheon slowly grew in the form of saints and mystics. These things appeared in response to a human need for these archetypal figures that all mythologies provide.
In his story in Sita’s Shadow, the dukun is the voice of orthodoxy and misogyny, even though he’s practicing a complicated fusion of contradictory and incompatible belief systems (magical/animistic, polytheistic Hindu, and monotheistic, anti-superstitious Islamic). We see this vividly in modern times in the way people cleave to religion. Those who yell the loudest often behave in ways that their religions’ stated beliefs deplore, but they do it anyway, using religion as a justification and means of judgment and condemnation. So that’s another theme in the series. There’s a common human experience, the sort of things all writers explore, but it finds different vessels and mediums of expression. Religion has been cleverly described as humanity’s greatest vice, but it’s there because it fulfills a powerful need.
Ultimately, the end of Sita’s Shadow, other than offering what I hope is an entertaining twist, shows us the futility of trying to connect with people whose emotional need is to pull away, isolate, and shield themselves with the comfort of an absolute belief system that doesn’t make room for other ways of thought. Such people will connect only when and if they can, and otherwise they will see any intrusion into the ideas that comfort them as hostile.
As a person, I struggle with what to do with such people. These days, anyone who uses social media encounters them, and they’re present in all our families and communities, and they’re maddening. As a writer, I have the freedom to try to understand them by depicting them and speculating as to their motivations, to try to get into their emotions and their rationalizations. It’s therapeutic and freeing. Because ultimately, this tendency is in all of us, and we’re all incapable of seeing the boundaries of our own limitations in this respect.
Levitating Monkey: In Garlands of Moonlight, there is tragedy surrounding the two so-called villains / monsters, although they are evil, one still comes away feeling a great deal of empathy for both of these characters. Was that intentional as you started writing the story?
Jai Sen: Absolutely. One early reader questioned me about my portrayal of the Dutch governor in Garlands of Moonlight, pointing out that it was rather pointed. She was right, that character is a brute—but there’s also that moment when we see the same brutal governor, stripped of his trappings of power, defenseless, vulnerable, and asleep in his pajamas, about to be killed by a monster.
The mob that forms after the governor’s raid on the village market is portrayed in similarly exaggerated terms, for the same reasons. Whenever you see people with pitchforks, nothing good will come of it, no matter how valid their cause. People seem to like these complications of whom to identify as the villain(s) in my work. I hope it’s a signature of my writing, that I make that difficult and unexpected. Evil can hide in innocence, and vice versa. This is part and parcel of the story of the monster in Garlands of Moonlight (or, for that matter, any of the stories in the series). Any villain is a sympathetic character if you go deeply enough into his or her heart and experiences. Anyone identified as a hero is often oversimplified by the observer and his or her flaws are being deliberately overlooked.
I feel like the Malay world-view makes a lot of room for the true contradictions and ambiguities that exist in the human character. The greatest monstrosities in human history have been committed in the name of something that someone felt was “good” or “right,” and, with some important exceptions, most “evil” can be traced back to some misunderstanding, suffering, or apathy.
My hope is that I stir some level of compassion on the part of the reader for everyone in the stories, even the characters that are shown to be depraved or even supernaturally evil.
Levitating Monkey: As your wrote the Malay Mysteries, did you know that you wanted to have them be depicted graphically or did that come after? What is involved in translating these stories into sequential art?
Jai Sen: I always wanted to write in this medium, so I think they were just always in this format in my mind. For me, the medium is very cinematic. I see the scenes as a sort of movie in my head, and try to capture the still images that will make it unfold for the reader the same way it does as I visualize it. I’ve heard comics described as a sort of schematic that the reader decodes into moving images, which is an idea I love, because that’s certainly how I encode them.
Composition and scale are really important in sequential art. One of the ways to control pacing is to use quicker successions of smaller panels to create a rising tension, then suddenly open up to a huge panel, making the reader stop abruptly after racing through pages to follow the fast sequences. This can be accomplished with film, but it’s harder and more obvious. For a series in which I’m showing my readers an unfamiliar place and time, I have to walk a fine line between surprising them visually and keeping them in a comfort zone in which they can feel like they know what’s going on.
I use a few common tricks in the Malay Mysteries to accomplish what I need to, but mostly, in part due to the small postcard-sized format of the series, I use a very regular rectangular grid that moves along predictably. Partly this is to evoke photos of that time period, as though you’re looking at daguerreotypes from a century ago. It can get a bit restrictive to work in such tiny panels and such a regular grid, but sometimes it’s quite freeing, because I’m not worrying as much about the trickery of odd sized or shaped panels and have a very familiar palette to pick from. The same applies to the decision to make all the books black and white—it simplifies things enormously, and does a lot to evoke the time period.
One thing that’s particularly tough to convey is the sound of the language, the idiom, and some of the other sensory elements that, for me, really bring memories of that region to life. I try to simulate the experience and cadence of the language to show the range of scholarly/educated speech vs. everyday chatter. I’ve been told (to my relief and delight) that it does evoke a strong impression of what it’s actually like.
And other little things, like everyone calling Marsiti “grandmother,” to reproduce the warmth and familiarity of how Indonesians interact even with strangers. For the other senses, especially smell and touch, there are ways in this medium to communicate that there’s delicious food being prepared, for example, but not really what it smells like, or its texture. So sometimes the experience doesn’t really engage all the senses, but I can hint at it, the way prose authors do. One of my favorite lines in Sita’s Shadow is Marsiti musing about what Dutch people eat for breakfast: “bland, colorless things, I imagine”—a way to hint to a viewer unfamiliar with that region that spices and strong flavors are present in all meals.
Levitating Monkey: How do the image/text relationships work within the graphic novel? What aesthetic principles are needed to inform the work?
Jai Sen: There are a lot of people working in this medium doing far more experimental things than I am in the Malay Mysteries—other than the small format, I’m not experimenting that much with this series. I’m focused instead on letting the different artists’ work speak for itself as much as possible and to concentrate on the weirdness of the world described in the series. I think if I were too experimental, the strangeness and unfamiliarity of the subject matter might make it really obtuse.
What’s wonderful about this medium is that text and images can be coupled and uncoupled in all sorts of ways. Even in the Malay Mysteries, I have passages that are all text, or all image. It can be taken a lot farther than this, though. One thing I haven’t used in the series at all so far is a deliberate decoupling of the images and text, which is something virtually impossible to do in the same way in any other medium. You see it done in film, but you really have to fight against the viewer’s tendency to assume that sound and image are coincident somehow, even if you’re really pushing them far apart. Film has many other strengths, but that’s not one of them.
Readers of comics and graphic novels are much more malleable when reading. They’re not predisposed to assume that the text and image are simultaneous or even related. An example would be someone’s narration taking place while images unfold of another scene altogether. In film, you’re expecting them to connect at some point, actively looking for the merge point. With a graphic novel, they might never obviously connect—the image (or the text) might just be foreshadowing, or a continuation of another scene, or be entirely unrelated. You certainly couldn’t pull this off compellingly on the stage, other than in a deliberately avant garde production in which you’d lose many features of narrating conventionally. It’s a lot of fun to work with.
Levitating Monkey: How involved are you, in terms of the visual artistic process on theses projects?
Jai Sen: I worry that my artists might tell you I’m over-involved. My stories, particularly these Malay Mysteries, usually arrive almost fully formed by the time I start to write them down, and they’re all based in tales I jotted down from my time in Indonesia. So when I’m actually writing them, I don’t have many gaps that an artist would need to fill in. I can see most of the details and I describe all the ones that are relevant.
Comics and graphic novels are written in what is essentially a screenplay format. Comics scripts are broken up by page and there are elements (that function like stage direction) that describe the action and compositions, with dialogue noted for each panel.
I’ve weaned myself of the habit of writing hugely over-descriptive scripts. Many writers I idolize—among them Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore—are known for writing incredibly detailed scripts. In the case of the Malay Mysteries, I have the advantage of working with artists that know precisely what I want since they’re familiar with the area. All but two of the artists I’ve worked with on the series are from Indonesia, so I can economize a bit on the heft of the script. I also provide a lot of visual reference, since I tend to be a bit compulsive with my research. That said, I’m pretty open to working collaboratively too. I often get (and use) suggestions about composition and flow from the artists I work with.
Levitating Monkey: Book 3, Island of Glass and Ashes seems to be the most violent in the series. Was that a deliberate intention in this story about two young lovers who have to face the consequences of their past?
Jai Sen: Island of Glass and Ashes is such a peculiar story. I’m not quite sure how to explain it myself. One thing that’s a bit unusual about it is that it’s the one episode of the series that I had an opportunity to workshop in a writing group (the dedication of that book is to the members of the group). Partly as a result of working it through that process with other writers, it’s also the episode of the series that took the longest to write.
When I read it now, it also seems to be the most melodramatic. This could be because it revolves around a love story, and I’m not sure to this day that I know how to write those (I might never). At the time, the parallel between the doomed love affair and the physical violence and horror shown in the rest of the story made a lot of sense. Now, I’m not sure what I think of it. It has its place in the series and opens themes that I’ll be returning to eventually.
It does serve to build the backstory of one of the two main characters in the series, but it’s hard to imagine I’ll get into quite that level of obvious gore in the books that remain (I’m writing the 6th and 7th books now, and there will be ten of them in all). I feel like the horror works best when it’s suggested or implied. I suppose the story hints that there is always some violence in love, and some love in violence. The story depicts a literal version of both sides of this coin.
For me, the most haunting image in that book is the image of the village made of wrecked ships. There’s a moment when Marsiti recognizes it, but she’s not sure from where. For me, that was the emotional crescendo of the story. After that, she has to face the consequences of everything that happened long ago between her and her old lover. But just for that moment, we see an indication that she’s managed to move past it enough that the configuration of the village is not immediately familiar to her. This happens to us all. It’s often only in hindsight that we can recognize we’re making the same blunders as before, and conversely, we map past tragedies onto new experiences in an effort to try to get ahead of them emotionally.
Levitating Monkey: Of all the stories you have written, which do you identify the most with and why?
Jai Sen: Maybe because it’s the most recent, I’m very proud of the newest Malay Mystery, book 5, The Dark Colony. I feel like it’s something I can finally call a competent piece of writing. The characters came alive to me and I think they embody most of the core themes of the series: these human experiences playing out on a supernatural canvas, in which the participants are both mystified and complicit. I love the ambiguity of it. I developed four plausible narratives that could explain the events in the story and (deliberately) never settled on which was the one “true” explanation, and I think this gives it a lot of strength.
But the one that’s closest to my heart is Sita’s Shadow and Other Stories. A couple of reviewers have identified me as a feminist writer, which I take as the highest compliment (because it’s wholly true). I think it’s in Sita’s Shadow that this aspect of what I’m trying to do is most obvious, but I don’t think it hurts the stories. You hear some misogynistic voices in my stories—I always worry that people will think the characters’ views are my own, as so often happens with fiction—but those characters always used to help illuminate a larger, more holistic truth or injustice. I’m letting my characters speak their truth but trying to show something much larger, and it’s most apparent in Sita’s Shadow.
That book is also important to me because I dedicated it to my father, who passed away in 2009. He never had a chance to see this particular story completed, but I think (I hope) he would have liked them. I did a reading of one of the stories to commemorate what would have been his birthday, which is a tradition I’ve continued.
One of the stories, “The Dutch Woman’s Aunt,” is actually based on a family ghost story I heard from my father’s uncle when I was a little boy. Really, all elements of the book—its focus on a Hindu epic, the use of family lore, the story about a man who leaves the comfort of his familiar surroundings to sacrifice everything for his family—are in some way a tribute to my father, and stories I think he would have enjoyed and appreciated.
All three stories in the book also resonate strongly with a few of my bigger preoccupations in life: cultural identity and otherness; religion and spirituality; the idea of answered prayers being curses of a sort; how to be a good man in a world unequally skewed in favor of men. I know that some of these were preoccupations of my father’s too, from discussing them with him. The book is, in its way, a conversation with him, now that he’s not here to converse with directly.
Levitating Monkey: Last Question — If you could impart three key life lessons to others on their (spiritual) path, what would they be and why?
1.) Be prepared to leave the familiar if you want to grow. Radical changes in perspectives, and learning the way others see the world, is the greatest growth medium there is.
2.) There are some real, universal, human truths. Seeing them play out in an unfamiliar setting helps us to actually notice them, where we might otherwise miss them for the details of our daily lives. Any two people, from anywhere, can connect on the basis of these truths, no matter what they believe.
3.) That said, comfort zones are vital for people’s psychological survival, and our comfort needs shift throughout our lifetimes. Have some compassion for people who seem to embrace outmoded, unfair, or limited ideas. They’re circling the wagons so that they feel safe and in control. While some of what they say or do may seem abhorrent, they’re struggling with the unfamiliar as we all do from time to time. At their best, they may one day be capable of greater emotional and spiritual generosity, once they find a reason they can connect with. (This doesn’t excuse what they do; often they cause great harm—but trying to understand through compassion goes a long way.)
About Jai Sen: Jai Sen spent his early years in India and Indonesia, and later lived in Japan. He is now based in New York. He is the author of The Golden Vine, an alternate history of the empire of Alexander the Great illustrated by Tokyo-based artists Seijuro Mizu, Umeka Asayuki, and Shino Yotsumoto. He is also the lead writer of The Malay Mysteries, including the Xeric award-winning and Eisner-nominated Garlands of Moonlight; The Ghost of Silver Cliff, which he co-authored with Eric Bryden; Island of Glass and Ashes; Sita’s Shadow and Other Stories; and the newly published fifth book in the series, The Dark Colony. Click here to learn more about Jai Sen.