The Jakarta sky “had a rosy nuance that somehow seemed both warm and sad, like a freshly slapped cheek” the day a stranger, a photographer, told Nastiti that she was incredibly beautiful and took her picture. She enjoys a moment of glamour when the photo appears in a trendy exhibition and in a national newspaper covering it – and then, she makes herself disappear. As the narrative of Dias Novita Wuri’s novella Birth Canal shifts its focus from Nastiti to her mother and grandmother, we begin to understand the different ways women can vanish when they are seen by men, and how war and sexual violence continue to inflict their wounds through the generations – and collaterally.
The ground beneath the reader is constantly shifting. The story begins in Jakarta, narrated by the unnamed young man who aches with unrequited love for his friend Nastiti, whose difficult relationship with her emotionally distant mother leaves her seemingly unable even to love herself. We then leave the man and Nastiti to join her mother, Arini, in the Netherlands. We are inside Arini’s head as she tells her story and that of her own mother, Rukmini, to “you”, a sympathetic Dutch researcher who is studying the Japanese army’s “comfort women” in World War II.
Rukmini was a young girl when the occupying Japanese army forced her into sexual slavery. The use of “you”, the second-person narration, denies the reader distance from the horrific brutality experienced by Rukmini and expressed with sorrow by her daughter. Later, a third-person narration introduces us to other characters on the periphery of Rukmini and Nastiti’s stories, illustrating how trauma ripples sideways as well.
Birth Canal jumps in time and moves between places of security and insecurity, hiding and transit, literal and metaphorical light and dark. It takes us from Indonesia to the Netherlands, and finally to Japan and the United States.
Towards the end, we meet an American photographer who, in occupied Japan after the war, became hideously obsessed by the beautiful wife of one of the soldiers who raped Rukmini, by then himself a casualty of war. There is perhaps a skerrick of poetic justice in how the men who commit violence against women also degrade themselves, though there’s little comfort in that for anyone.
In the end, this extraordinarily accomplished and profound novel, translated from Indonesian by the author, is about how difficult love can be, and how precious.
Scribe, 160pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 29, 2023 as "Birth Canal".
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