Stephani Soejono is an Indonesian freelance illustrator and creator of comics. She has lived in Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as Canada where she went to university and majored in animation.
In her own words, ‘I am a little disappointed to have to come back [from Canada] for various reasons, but mainly [the lack of] Female Health Empowerment and Religious Freedom [in Indonesia]. On the other hand, Indonesian food, lol.’
Soejono recently published Tale of the Bidadari with Maple Comics. You can read my review here.
What was your inspiration for Tale of the Bidadari?
I wrote the very first draft of the story when I was in college, abroad. I missed Indonesia a lot and I was reading W.B Yeats’ poem, The Stolen Child. It’s one of the most haunting poems I’ve read. It grew from there.
It’s so interesting that Mayang is a stolen child, in reverse. Was that deliberate?
That was a coincidence ahaha.
Am I right in thinking that the village community in the book is based on the Minangkabau? Why did you choose these people specifically?
Yes. I was very aware that Indonesian literature and comics scene are very Java-centric and I wanted to showcase the Minangkabau for the sake of variety. Plus, they are matriarchal, which enabled me to have a lady village chief. The only two other people whom I know of who use some Minang culture are Adi Fitri Ahmad and Ivanna Mendels. They both used Malin Kundang [which Malaysians know as Si Tanggang] as the basis of their stories.
I’m still waiting for letters and e-mails detailing my mistakes, but the criticisms I have received usually had more to do with my storytelling or drawing skills. Two West Sumatrans has come up to me but they were excited that the story was set in their home turf.
Is the detail about the sacrifice of Mayang based on any kind of historical fact or cultural beliefs involving the Minangkabau?
It’s not really a Minangkabau-specific belief per, but there is a persistent story I keep hearing that if you want to have a successful thing happen, you need blood sacrifice. I have heard it in Java, Chinese myths, Riau, and even in the West. Heck, the building where I first worked in animation apparently housed a murdered girl in the foundations.
How do the myths about the Bunian differ among the Indonesias and Malaysians? Are they also called mahklus halus in Indonesia? What is your personal take on them?
I find that the description of orang Bunian in Indonesia and Malaysia to be very similar.
Makhluk Halus is just an umbrella term for intangible beings and supernatural creatures. I have thankfully never seen or heard one and I hope I will never cross paths with them. You can look at it through a logical, dispassionate lens, and say those are nonsense, but given how much we humans know nothing about, best to tread carefully.
Do you think the story delivers on the promise of the book’s title? Why didn’t you offer more information about Mayang?
You brought up a really good point in your review that I focus more on Erlang (and to some extent, Upik).
I want readers to draw their own conclusions, because to me, Mayang is of the forest. She’s whoever she decided to show herself to. She is a force of nature after all.
Also, can you talk about your decision not to reveal more about the villagers’ past, including why Aminah feels so apprehensive about Upik?
I thought I had provided enough, but upon re-reading it I do wish I had had explored the village more. I had researched this and many of the kids in the village would have had kwarshiokor, but at the time I was scared of depicting it incorrectly. Aminah is also a recent widow, which is something else I wanted to incorporate, but couldn’t find the space to.
Am I correct in saying that Upik faces the possibility of being sacrificed? Would there have been human sacrifices in the village’s past?
Yes, because let’s be real, Upik is pretty disruptive and not well mannered. The rest of the village is probably thinking, we can deal with one less annoying mouth to feed.
And yes, there would have been other sacrifices, but not in the previous three generations, because the chief is still considering sacrifice as the very last option. Even then she would still prefer to take a stranger. A more blasé attitude would indicate that it’s a common event, right?
How much is this book your comment on environmental issues? Please elaborate.
I was aware that my script touched a little of that, but it ended being more present because of the extended dry season in 2015. I’m not the outdoorsy sort, but I used to live near a very tiny forest. It’s very peaceful and otherworldly inside that space, but a lot of those places are getting ‘developed’ into luxury apartments or housing complexes. That’s a shame because we are part of nature and isolating ourselves doesn’t do us any good. It’s been proven that nature decreases anxiety and helps people with neuro-atypical conditions cope with their life better, and I wish there are more things like urban forests or green spaces in Jakarta. If some of the villages that contributed to the haze can learn to do better, then we definitely can do better.
Have you any plans to return to the story? If so, can you reveal what aspect you will be focusing on?
I have toyed with either Erlang and his Dad going to another village or small town with a different problem (with Upik and Aminah in tow), two years after the events in Bidadari, but I don’t have any good ideas for that yet.
What are your favourite comics/graphic novels and why do you like them? Which ones did you read growing up?
My favourite books when I was a kid were Doraemon, Ringo Hijiri’s Time Limit Nena! and Kenji by Ryuchi Matsuda and Yoshihide Fujiwara. Doraemon because it’s funny and the gadgets are cool, Time Limit because it’s the only girls’ comic where the main character actually acts like a human woman, unlike many girls’ comic I read at the time. Nena is emotional, graceless, and funny as hell. Kenji I love because it was beautifully drawn, and it’s very mature, even now when I re-read it as an adult.
For some reason in my teens all the comics I like to read are action based like Bruce Timm’s Batman, Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong and LiZiqin, and, eventually, Kyoko Hikawa’s work. Her most famous title is Kanata Kara but my personal favourite is Onna Noko wa Yoyu! Onna is not actiony at all, but Hikawa and Bruce Timm’s work are very easy to read. This might sound like an insult, but to have the confidence to draw with just enough detail is a feat of self control. Li Ziqin’s illustrations feels grounded and lived in despite the high octane drama from the script.
Are there any comic artists/storytellers whose work has/have influenced you?
There is a lot, and my influences aren’t just comic artists. Akira Toriyama is great at what he does, so is Jeff Smith, Rumiko Takahashi and Eduardo Risso. Guillermo del Toro, Rebecca Sugar, Kate Beaton, Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières too. Last but not least, the late and great Terry Pratchett.
At what point did you decide you wanted to create comic books?
A lot of artists usually started when they were younger, but for me, I got the bug in college because my seniors had online comics and they regularly booth in conventions. I took animation but during semester breaks I would go to libraries and bookshops to read, borrow or buy comics.
What do you like about being able to tell a story with words as well as illustrations? Do you think you have an advantage over those who can only write or only draw?
I really like that I control both the writing and the visuals. I used to work in TV animation as a storyboard artist and I only control the visuals. I’m okay with that except, when you get a really good script, it’s really good, but when it’s bad, hoooo boy … You also can’t exactly control which script you are getting. In comics I get to control both.
That said, Maple’s workflow follow more of the independent comics pipeline. If I were working on the commercial end of things, I’d only be in control of one thing, two, max.
Tell us a little about your next comic with Maple.
It’s a fantasy action story about this girl who discovered her family’s secret heritage. It’s got dragons, fight scenes and pre-colonial architecture, which are super exciting to me. It’s set in a fantasy world based in South-east Asia, partially inspired by Avatar The Last Airbender, wholly inspired by Majapahit, and regional mythical characters. I also got to re-learn our pre-colonial history, which has always been fun for me.
If someone were new to comics/graphic novels which one would you advise them to start with?
All the books I have read are recommended, of course. I also want you guys to read fellow Maple comic artist’s work like Adi Fitri’s Taubat Si Tanggang, Amir Hafizi’s Scenes of The Father, Mimi Mahsud’s Kuala Terengganu in 7 Days and Jai’s Komik Ronyok. I know there’s some controversy about him lately, but the fact that he managed to consistently draw funny comics for two years is nothing to sniff at.
Outside Maple, I just finished reading Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, which is a story about her family when they were refugees. It’s nice to be able to put a face to a historical event. And just understanding our neighbouring countries is a huge plus.
For kids and family, I love Noelle Stevenson’s Lumberjanes series and I just finished Jen Wang’s The Prince and the Dressmaker, which is sweet and gorgeous. Alex Alice’s Castle in the Stars is just so breath taking and it’s a YA Steampunk Fantasy, what’s not to like? There’s also Full Metal Alchemist (Hiromu Arakawa), which is a masterpiece, and her underrated series Silver Spoon.
For uncles and dads (yes, really) I like Koh Hong Teng and Oh Hyong Hwee’s Ten Sticks and One Rice. It’s about this old school Chinese guy’s life, selling satay and how he and Singapore evolved together.
There’s even something for mums and grandmothers, Lucy Knisley’s Something New and Displacement are great! However, do not give these to them during Christmas, CNY or Hari Raya because Something New might trigger your folks to ask you when you’re getting married, and Displacement is about Knisley contemplating mortality through caring for her aging grandparents on vacation.
Do you think readers of a certain generation are more stereotyped in their tastes?
Based on my experience with older men, with very few exceptions, like people working in education, I find older men are more dismissive of female stories.
What other kinds of books do you like and who are your favourite authors?
I read a lot of sci fi, fantasy and lit fic. My favourite writer all across the board is Terry Pratchett. His Discworld series is a master class in writing and his books are very visual. Others in that genre whom I love are Diana Wynne Jones, Ray Bradbury, and Douglas Adams Lately, I’ve had the chance to read Ken Liu, Ursula K Le Guin and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work, which I enjoy immensely.
What do you hope for in terms of your career as a comic book/graphic novel creator? In what ways do you want to improve?
Be more well known, get better at writing and drawing, going to more international conventions to travel and expand my world.
I definitely want to do more comics set in Real or Fantasy Indonesia. I’ve been thinking about historical and noir fiction, but, who knows, life doesn’t always go as we plan it. I told the Maple folks that I was doing a travelogue after Bidadari, but I ended up writing a Fantasy Action comic!