Our kids were playing marbles in the dirt road outside of her Borneo home. The electricity had been off in my friend’s neighborhood for hours. The stifling air added to her story, the heaviness of the moment turning into sweat running down my face. Yunike Hermanus, my Indonesian friend, was telling a part in her life story I’d never before heard.
She was dying on that day almost 20 years ago, in a remote Borneo village where she and her husband worked, unconscious from her sickness. Someone took her on a boat to a village with a dirt airstrip that villagers had carved out of the jungle by hand years beforehand. A small Cessna 185 plane picked her up and took her to a hospital—where she spent three months recovering.
“I don’t know if I’d be alive today if that airplane hadn’t taken me,” she said, then leaned closer to me, studying my face. “I told you all this before, right?”
I shook my head. I’d heard other stories from her life since I’d moved to this Indonesian town with my relief pilot husband, Brad, whose job it is to fly those little planes in the remote jungle villages like hers. Yunike had told me the one about how her daughter was born two months early—in that same village—and how she’d kept her frail body warm by heating up water and pouring it into plastic bottles that flanked her daughter. And then there was the one about losing her husband. She moved afterward, as a widow with young kids, to this town where we both live, making a life for herself there.
But she hadn’t yet told me this one—this long-ago trauma that was still so impactful that she was weeping with the telling of it.
I’ve lived in two different Indonesian towns for 12 years now. I’ve listened to many stories of life in the midst of some difficult circumstances. This is due, in part, to a culture rich in story-telling. Stories of war and love are told by dancers with glorious feathers on their heads, or by musicians with instruments made of bamboo, or by my neighbors in words over cups of hot tea—the ticking clock of time going disregarded. Sometimes I watch painful stories unfold with my own eyes, like the sick baby girl my husband flew in from a remote village, who only ended up dying soon after in the hospital.
Many of the stories haunt me. I can picture the pain, the violence, and the desperation late into the night.
I started writing novels right after the death of a close, young Indonesian friend. I was pregnant with my first child when her accident happened. I turned on the computer and wrote the first two scenes for my fictional characters—one of a child’s birth and one of a funeral. I had so many questions. I needed to figure it all out.
I didn’t. Not all of it.
Instead, created characters who were on the same quest as I was, who made it all less lonely. And also, I discovered something that felt powerful—with the good kind of power. I started to learn how to shape a story in a world that seems, at times, to run amuck against our wishes.
On that recent hot Borneo day, I drove home, mulling over the parts of my friend’s stories in which bad things that shouldn’t happen to anyone had happened to her. And then I remembered all the other stories Yunike had told me…the ones in which she happened to her stories. Her ingenuity saved her daughter’s life. Her courage helped her heal from her sicknesses. Her friendship with me connects me, the foreigner, in a deep way to this community. And her generosity in giving me permission to share her story here broadens its impact.
I see the power of her trauma. But I see the resilience from her courage. I’ve got my own struggles I’m working through right now. But I’m finding my own courage. And we connect through our stories—through the choices we make, the redemption for which we pray and the good that somehow emerges from the worst of circumstances.
Today I’m partway through a several-month visit to the States after three-and-a-half years of being away in Indonesia since my last visit (and a total of 12 year of living abroad). But I have to admit, I was nervous about returning to the States at the time that it struggles with racial tensions, refugee needs, political division.
America’s story has some difficult pieces right now. It has had hard chapters at different times in the past. The future will, inevitably, contain pain, too.
I wish it wasn’t that way. I wish everything was going well and nothing was wrong and evil didn’t exist.
But I’m doing what I’ve always done when it all disorients me and I start to lose hope. I lean into the stories. I listen to people I meet at the pond share their own stories of courage and redemption while our kids, oblivious, chase after the ducks. I go to concerts and close my eyes and let the crescendos expand over me until they end on a satisfying note. I go on hikes through the mountains with my husband and I talk and he talks and we listen and keep going and sweat and enjoy the vistas and look back and see how far we’ve come.
And I write.
“It’s a gorgeous cycle,” K.M. Weiland writes in a blog post, How to Benefit from the Biggest Reason for Storytelling, on her site www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com . “We use our art to interpret life, but, as artists ourselves, we also get to use our art to create and expand upon life.” (link https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/benefit-biggest-reason-storytelling/ )
Weiland next quotes author Caryl Phillips: “A writer begins by breathing life into its characters. But if you are very lucky, they breathe life into you.”
Rebecca Hopkins writes young adult novels while living in a world of ancient jungle tribes, sea-dwelling gypsies and isolated Balinese hand signing villages. It’s a world she’s trying to make her own—Indonesia. She’s lived in Indonesia with her relief pilot husband and three kids for twelve years. Read more about her writing and life in Indonesia at www.rebeccahopkins.org .