Mirandi Riwoe was joint-winner of the 2017 Seizure Viva La Novella prize with her book, The fish girl – and it has now been shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize. As you may already know, it was inspired by Somerset Maugham’s short story “The four Dutchmen”, which I reviewed a few days ago. Indeed, Maugham’s story provides the epigraphs to each of the novella’s three parts. Do you then need to have read Maugham’s story to appreciate Riwoe’s take? I’d say not – and would hate that assumption to put people off reading her book. Nonetheless, I’m glad I read Maugham’s work. How’s that for a foot in both camps?
To recap briefly, “The four Dutchmen” tells of four fat, jolly Dutchmen who work together on a boat plying the southeast Asian seas. Immensely loyal to each other, they plan to all retire when the first of them dies. The only blot on their togetherness is the captain’s penchant for Malay girls. However, the chief officer usually cleans up after him – paying off the girls, in other words, when the captain tires of them – until the day the captain decides to bring one of these girls along on a boat trip. Tragedy ensues.
Now, Maugham’s story is told first person by an observer-narrator, a traveller in the region, rather than one who’s involved in the events. The story has a matter-of-fact tone. Not so Riwoe’s story, which, although told first person, gets into the girl’s heart. Unlike Maugham, Riwoe gives her a name, Mina, and from the start, we realise that Mina’s fate is tied to men. Hers is a world controlled by men – regardless of whether that world is her village or the Dutch Resident’s house.
I should, perhaps, clarify some terminology at this point. Maugham uses the terms “Javanese” and “Malay girl” in his story. These days, we differentiate Javanese, who come from Java which is part of Indonesia, from Malaysians, who come from Malaysia, which neighbours Indonesia. However, in Maugham’s time, Malay was used for Austronesian people, which include today’s Malaysians and Indonesians, amongst others. Mina, Riwoe’s version of Maugham’s Malay girl, is from a Sunda village in this region.
Riwoe tells her story in three acts, each preceded by epigraphs from Maugham’s story. In the first part, Mina is offered by her father to a man who comes searching for “cheap labour for the Dutch Resident’s kitchen.” The barely pubescent Mina doesn’t want to go, has never left home before, but for her parents, her father in particular, there is hope that she will be able to send them things they “need, like more spice and tobacco.” Mina is scared, but we also get an intimation of resilience when we’re told of the “tremor of excitement finally mingling with the dread in her stomach.” Maybe it will work out alright we hope.
By the end of part 1, she has arrived at the Dutch Resident’s place where she works in the kitchen to the unsympathetic, unkind head cook Ibu Tana. She seems to be a favourite of the Dutch Resident who treats her kindly, and requests her to serve table in his house. Is he grooming her? Or is he decent? We fear the answer.
Part 2 introduces the four Dutchmen who dine with the Dutch Resident, and, in particular to the captain – the man described in the epigraph from Maugham as “losing his head over one brazen hussy or another”. That should warn us, though in this part he seems gentle. He wants her to teach him her language. In return he teaches her his, and gives her gifts. Hmm … our antennae are up. Meanwhile, Mina has fallen for Ajat, her village chief’s son who does some work for the Dutch Resident. Her sexuality is awakening, but Ajat treats her cruelly. Part 3 commences with her arrival on the boat with the captain, after which the story plays out pretty much as Maugham tells in his short story.
What Riwoe does in this story – her post-colonial response to Maugham’s – is to look at it from the angle of the colonised, and particularly colonised young women. What she shows is that young women are not only pawns in the hands of colonial powers but also in the hands of their own men (in this case her father who trades her for potential material gain, and the chief’s son who tricks her and uses her ill).
This may all sound same-same, as in “I’ve heard all this before”, and at a simple level that’s so. However, what makes The fish girl such a good read is the character Riwoe gives Mina. She’s young and naive, but she’s not a type. She has dreams and at least an attempt at having agency. Here she is, as she’s about to be taken to the boat by the Captain:
Mina leans against a tree, rolls her head gently against the prickly bark. She takes a deep breath. She will need to be very strong. She will need to be like one of the dhalang’s wayang puppets, as hard as lacquer, enduring.
Also, Riwoe adds a mythical element through Mina’s love of the sea, and her belief in the Ocean Queen. The sea is presented as a curative force – both physically (for her rash, presumably eczema) and spiritually.
She calls for the Ocean Queen. Only when she feels Nayai Loro’s strong, smooth pull, feels the soft arms suckle at her damaged thighs, does Mina scatter the flowers upon the sparkling water.
Finally, although this is short, Riwoe unfolds the story slowly, developing Mina’s character and allowing us to hope that Mina will endure. But that, of course, would be a fairy tale and, despite its heartening mystical conclusion for Mina, this is definitely not that. An engaging but powerful read.