After dreaming and drooling over photos of white beaches and turquoise water, Andrew and I narrowed down our favorite honeymoon choices and made our decision: we’re going to Bali!
I have a teeny-tiny smidgen of history with Bali already. My mother is Dutch, and while you wouldn’t necessarily connect Holland with Indonesia, you can. The Netherlands colonized Indonesia back in the day, and the result was that when WWII broke out, many Indonesian refugees made their way to the Netherlands (which must have been quite the culture shock). I grew up eating solid, one-pot, Dutch farmer’s dishes, but also kroupouk and nasi goreng and gado gado salad (even for Christmas dinner, one memorable year).
I also grew up with shadow puppets. I didn’t know what they were for years. They hung in our hallway, men and women with sharp profiles and richly detailed clothing, jeweled ornaments in their hair and long, thin sticks dangling from their wrists.
Sometimes I’d stop on my way to the family room or my bedroom to examine the details of their costumes, and more often I’d walk right by. They were part of my everyday scenery. Then I learned that, used properly, no one would see all their intricate beauty. Shadow puppets, as the name implies, are performed from behind a sheet, illuminated by candlelight. Their strange poses and angular faces are made that way so viewers can distinguish one silhouette from another, and to show the nature of the character (a demon would have a wilder outline than a prince, for example). I couldn’t understand why someone would spend so much time and effort on something that was going to be hidden from the audience.
Now that I’ve jumped into editing short stories for my upcoming collection, A Moment of Unexpected Closeness (it’ll be published in 2013!), I realized there are several reasons why it makes sense to put the time and effort into all that beautiful, unseen detail.
1. It shows respect for your creation. Many Balinese shadow puppet performances are religious or historical, so they want characters representing deities or respected historical figures to look their best. My characters are made up, but I care about them, so I’m learning to flesh them out. A guy who buys the creepy artifact from the dusty old store is as stock as stock characters get. A former museum curator with a borderline kleptomaniac obsession with rare totems has a lot more at stake when he enters the store, and there’s a lot more that can go wrong.
- It reminds you not to show everything off. Knowing everything about your character is good—it means they’ll come across more natural and three-dimensional. Proving to the reader that you’ve got your protagonist’s report cards, dental history, and high school crushes memorized is no good. The people watching the shadow puppets don’t need more than the silhouette and good narrative. Provide the shape, and most readers will fill in the features for you.
- It proves that the characters don’t run the story—the writer does. Balinese shadow puppet performers are regarded as a kind of mystical blend of poet, philosopher, storyteller, and holy man or woman. A shadow show only has one person operating the whole cast of characters, and the performer is also responsible for chanting the narrative of the story and directing the orchestra with his or her feet (because obviously his or her hands are too busy)! It’s fun sometimes to talk about a character running away with the story, but ultimately it comes down to the writer’s invention, and I love thinking that the experience comes down to the well-crafted shape of the characters and the power of the performer’s story.
I’m hoping Andrew and I can make it to a shadow puppet performance during our honeymoon so I can see the art I grew up with the way it was meant to be seen. Until then, I’ll keep a picture on my bulletin board, to remind me what I’m trying to do.