Girl of the Southern Sea
Girl of the Southern Sea
I start to make dinner. I slice some onion, garlic, and chili and cook it in a frypan with the leftover breakfast rice. I add soy and crack an egg on top.
Bapak continues to sip from his glass as I cook. I noticed his bandages have fallen off, but I feel too crabby and mad at him to fix them.
“Here,” I say to Bapak, shoving a plate of fried rice under his nose. “You need to eat.”
“Yummy!” says Rudi, grabbing his plate and spooning the rice into his mouth. He spills half of it on the mat. “I love fried rice, Nia.”
“You’re making a mess,” I say. “Settle down and eat properly”
Rudi finishes his bowl and then pecks the fallen rice off the floor. I am too tired to tell him to stop.
Bapak’s head lolls. His eyelids are heavy and his half-finished plate begins to slip from his grip. I take it from his hands before it spills.
“Come on, Bapak,” I say. “Time for you to go to sleep.” I pull on his good arm but he is a dead weight and won’t be roused. He slouches over and sleeps where he sits, so I let him be.
I re-dress his wounds and cover him with a sarong.
“Silly Bapak,” says Rudi, patting his head. “Sleeping on the floor.”
“Yes,” I say with a sigh. “Silly Bapak.”
Later, once Rudi is asleep and the dinner dishes are washed and put away, I check the old kettle where the money is kept. I unfold the cloth and count the bills. All of yesterday’s earnings are gone.
I look over at Bapak’s slumped, snoring body. I imagine screaming at him and pounding him with my fists. I swallow my fury and bury my face in my hands.
Exhausted, I lie on the mattress next to Rudi and think of ways I can stop Bapak from buying arak. My mind races. I know the only way to quiet my thoughts is to write.
I creep out of bed and light the kerosene lamp. I pull out my new notebook. I promised Rudi the story of how Dewi Kadita and Nero got coconut ice cream for his birthday. As always, when my pencil moves along the page, a calm and peaceful feeling settles over me. At least in my stories I can always find solutions to Dewi Kadita’s problems.
Nia is a 14-year-old girl who lives in the slums of Jakarta, Indonesia. Since her mother passed away, it has fallen to her to look after both her father and her young brother. She does the housework, makes the meals, gets her brother to school and helps her father with the food cart where he makes and sells fried bananas, sprinkled with powdered sugar. Nia’s dream has always been to attend high school and then become a writer, but, with her family duties and the lack of money at home, it seems almost impossible that she will ever attain her goal.
Nia is a wonderful character – resilient, courageous and independent. She is self-motivated and determined to one day complete her education and become a writer. While she deals with the practical chores of everyday life and is essentially a mother to both her brother and father, she always has time to write stories to entertain Rudi and his school friends. Kadarusman gives her readers a young rebel as the protagonist of this novel. Nia is determined that she will not follow the cultural norm and marry the older man whom her father has chosen for her. She gives her father an ultimatum and eventually forces him to break his promise to Nia’s future groom.
There is an entertaining cast of characters in Girl of the Southern Sea. Readers may dislike Nia’s Bapak (father) as he uses any money earned to buy arak and get drunk. Eventually, however, readers realize that he is simply not a strong man, and various life crises and complications – along with severe poverty – have simply worn him down. While he sees his shortcomings as a parent, he appears to be unable to overcome them.
The other men in the novel are also characters whose superficial appearance belies the personality which lies underneath. In general, they offer little or no help to Nia. The female characters, however, are strong and determined just as Nia is. These women work hard for what they earn and are generally supportive of one another and willing to help when problems arise.
The novel is an interesting adventure story as Nia negotiates the dangers of the slums around her. She is surrounded by gangs who buy and sell drugs and steal from anyone and everyone. These realities keep Nia on her toes whenever she leaves home and add excitement for the book’s readers. The author has lived in Jakarta, and so the details of the slums ring true for readers.
There are important themes in the novel as the author looks at the role poverty plays in the life of a young girl. The rights of girls and women are also an important aspect of the story. As well, the importance of a good education is central to the book. Nia’s big dream is to attend high school when she can afford it. This will come as a surprise to most young Canadians who take for granted a high school education.
The setting of Jakarta is almost another character in the novel. Readers are immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the city slums. Readers also begin to understand some of the culture as they watch Nia’s daily activities at home and in the city around her. Cultural norms, such as a daughter who should willingly and happily accept her father’s choice of husband, may be new to young Canadian readers. As well, readers are introduced to superstitions surrounding the role of luck in one’s life and the practice of visiting cemeteries to pay one’s respects.
Nia’s stories are fantasies in which the female protagonist somehow always manages to solve the problems surrounding her. They have their basis in ancient Javanese mythology but mirror Nia’s attitude toward life as well. Legend says Dewi Kadita was also known as Princess of the Southern Sea, and so Kadarusman gives her readers Nia, a girl of the southern sea who is a real-life reflection of the ancient goddess and her struggles and ultimate victories.
Young adult readers in the junior grades will find Girl of the Southern Sea an entertaining and interesting novel. A glossary of Indonesian terms and a map will help with comprehension. The novel would be an excellent starting point from which to study Indonesian culture as well as the effects of poverty on young women in Indonesia and elsewhere in the world. In fact, the author will be donating a portion of her royalties to Plan International’s Because I Am A Girl campaign, and Pajama Press will match her donation.
Ann Ketcheson, a retired secondary school teacher-librarian and teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, Ontario.