Stephani Soejono’s Tale of the Bidadari is a short graphic novel based on the Orang Bunian stories of West Sumatra. The Bunian are a race of nonhuman entities who feature in the folklore of the Malay Archipelagoes, so I was looking forward to reading an Indonesian treatment of it, particularly since it’s one of my research and storytelling obsessions*.
The story is set in Sumatra, as is evidenced by the Minangkabau shape of the houses and the headgear worn by the adult women. The matrilineal lifestyle of the Minangkabau people are also deftly depicted in the panels. The story tells of Doctor Tanuwe and his son, Eriang who visit a drought-stricken village in order to donate rice and food. They are treated as guests of honour. Eriang befriends a young Minang girl named Upik. The sparsely narrated story is told mostly in fast-paced panels which nevertheless lend a sense of motion and drama. I particularly enjoyed the way the artist depicts tension and fear in just a few deft lines, for instance with the axe dripping with blood.
Eventually we learn that Upik has a friend named Mayang, who has escaped from captivity. The name Mayang is already an indicator and a spoiler if you know Malay (whether Malaysian or Indonesian), as it refers to spirits. She is an unwilling component of a truly ominous plan of propitiation by the villagers to alleviate the drought that the villagers are experiencing.
The story is dark in the way that Nusantara folklore about the spirits can be dark — dealing with humanity’s interaction with otherworldly beings, as well as the more frightening aspects of ritual and of tradition. The strength of the story is in the pacing and the way in which the otherworld is introduced in a very subtle way, alongside the very human actions and interactions with nature.
Soejono also engages with a very current concern in our neck of the woods — the tradition of burning forests for farming and how this is exacerbated when there is drought. There is therefore a very strong environmental discourse happening in this story — about what happens when humans ignore the imperatives of nature and how important it is to preserve our surroundings. She juxtaposes this with the struggles of the village people. I tore through this graphic novel in record time because I wanted to know what was going to happen next. All in all, I thought this was an enjoyable piece of work and I’m looking forward to reading more by the artist. Overall I think it is important to get more international attention to the wealth of creative work related to regional folktales and tradition found in the Global South. Works like Soejono’s deserve further notice and support.
Nin Harris is an SFF author and poet. In her day job she is a literary academic with a focus on the Postcolonial Gothic. Nin writes Gothic fiction, cyberpunk, nerdcore post-apocalyptic fiction, planetary romances and various other hyphenated weird fiction. Nin’s publishing credits include: Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Lackington’s, Uncanny and more.