TALE OF THE BIDADARI
Author/artist: Stephani Soejono
Publisher: Maple Comics, 110 pages
Erlang visits a remote village with his father, a doctor, on a mercy mission. From the architecture and headdress worn by the womenfolk, this community seems to be Minangkabau. Furthermore, the village chief is a woman: the Minangkabau are largest matrilineal society in the world.
Drought has left the villagers hungry and sick, so Doctor Tanuwe’s skills, as well as the medicine and food he has brought with him is well received although there is some indication that there are those who are resentful of his ‘modern’ ways.
Old beliefs and practices are still a feature in the village, and there is even (rather mysterious) talk of ‘sacrifice’ to address the drought.
Meanwhile, big city boy Erlang, is not enjoying himself. Not only does he find rural living and the villager’s traditions alienating and boring, he can’t even have something as simple as a bath because the water sources are dry as a result of the drought. Luckily, he meets Upik, a precocious little girl who proves to be a welcome distraction.
Erlang and the doctor are staying with a villager named Aminah and Upik is her daughter. There are hints that Aminah is supposed to keep an eye on the father and son, and that this is something that she needs to do to keep Upik safe: what is going on? Has it to do with Mayang, a young girl who is kept prisoner by the village chief and whom Upik sets free?
The chief tells Erlang that he should keep out of the village temple and the forest, but while playing with Upik, the boy finds himself led into the woods. There, they are met by Mayang, who opens Erlang’s eyes to the beauty of nature.
Who is Mayang? Well, the title of the comic hints at her supernatural nature. Bidadari are fae and, in Indonesian and Malaysian folklore, they are also known as Bunian. However, despite its title, the story does not really focus on the character, does not delve into what she is, where she’s from, nor the complexities of her relationship with the village and villagers.
I see this story as an account of the experiences of a city boy in a small Indonesian village rather than the tale of a fairy. I admit that the title’s focus on the ‘bidadari’ is potentially more intriguing to readers, but I feel that it is less Mayang’s nature that is interesting than the villagers’ beliefs, including the practice of blood sacrifice to ensure favourable weather for a good harvest. I am curious if this is based on historical fact, or if it’s pure fiction.
As a reader I found this a charming, engagingly illustrated story, but as an editor, I wanted more character development, more exploration of subject matter and themes, and more details in both the illustration and text. I was left with many questions about the nature of Mayang; the village’s past, including the reasons for Aminah’s apprehension; and even a suggestion of what the future has in store for her and Upik, bearing in mind the decision they make at the end of the book.
Finally, I was pulled up short on several occasions because of distracting typos so I hope Maple Comics gets their publications thoroughly proofread in future.
Apparently, Indonesian author/artist Soejono will be publishing another comic with Maple soon. Looking forward to it.