Summoning Literary Witches: Intan Paramaditha Rethinks Her Personal Canon


This essay is based on a Master’s lecture delivered at the Conrad Award Gala, Conrad Festival, October 29, 2023.

Gloria Anzaldúa, a queer Mexican American author with indigenous heritage, tells us about why she writes: “I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me, about you.”

I am not writing alone. I am writing with witches—those who have gone before, those who are brewing, and those who will rise.

Anzaldúa, born in 1942 and died in 2004, is one of those witches. I carry her traces with me as one of my literary influences—or rather, literary witches, whose spells of dissent guide my pen. I summon her to contemplate the importance of rethinking, questioning, and denaturalizing literary influences as a creative practice and a political act.

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In his Master’s lecture at the Conrad Festival Gala, Jonathan Franzen addressed the issue of literary influences, one of the difficult questions that writers often receive. For many writers, thoughts around influences plunge them into the domain of creative process, a question of craft, not politics. We might remember authors we read religiously at the age of 19, those who cast light upon the dark corridors when we tried to make sense of the world.

I am writing with witches—those who have gone before, those who are brewing, and those who will rise.

But why are some writers influenced by E.M. Forster, Joseph Conrad, or Jonathan Franzen, while for some others, Toni Morrison, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Nawal El Saadawi have left a tremendous impact? And still, there exists another pantheon of lesser-known sorceresses: Marianne Katoppo, Toeti Heraty, and Siti Rukiah.

In his lecture, Franzen briefly mentioned the theory of literary influences by esteemed critic Harold Bloom. “The anxiety of influence,” Bloom writes, is a writer’s fear of not being able to free himself from the works of the previous writers who inspire him. A strong writer, however, can justify the validity of his writing by engaging in a creative struggle against his literary predecessors. Please note that I use the pronoun “he” because Bloom describes this relationship between writers in gendered terms, a battle between fathers and sons.

Bloom’s theory of literary influences has been criticized for its patriarchal underpinnings. Susan Gilbert and Sandra Gubar, who researched 19th-century women writers in English literature, argue that the women writers they studied did not fit Bloom’s masculine model of literary genealogy. How do you challenge your literary foremothers if they are not presented to you as influential works—to study, admire, and question? How do you know what to do with literary influences when ideas of great models for literature are very much constructed, based on selection, exclusion, erasure?

Younger writers, Franzen suggests, would start by studying the works of their favorite authors closely and imitating their styles, ideas, and methods. But how did these authors come to us?

We learned them at school. They were recommended by our teachers, mentors, other writers. They won The Nobel Prize for literature. They were on the Booker Prize list. Canonical works, however, reflect particular tastes, political and economic interests, and accessibility. What books are available in the bookstores? What books get translated? As a writer, I am lucky to have my book translated into a few languages, but I am aware that not all authors have this privilege.

The problem gets more complicated for women of color. The names of women of color, especially from the Global South, are often ignored, forgotten, and even deleted. In my home country, Indonesia, learning about women writers from the past—especially the leftist women—requires a long, collective process of digging the graves because the authoritarian regime under Suharto crushed the women’s movement in 1965. Women associated with the communist movement were imprisoned, demonized, violated. Their books were banned for decades, their words buried. The erasure was structural.

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The act of choosing great literature—to read, emulate, or challenge—is a violent one. We need to reflect on our literary influences in ways that are more active, political, feminist, and anti-colonial, and in so doing, we should embrace the fluidity of literary influences.

First, we need to make a commitment to read widely and wildly precisely because access must not be taken for granted. For my younger self, growing up in what was known as a Third World country, great books were not always accessible. This history of impoverished knowledge, shaped by global inequalities and legacies of colonialism, taught me that cosmopolitanism—and more crucially, cosmopolitan solidarity—must be reclaimed through reading. Yet in a world where free speech equals free market, not all voices are heard.

The next thing we can do is to see literary influences not as a fixed but fluid state, a work in progress, a constantly shifting constellation of mentors, friends, and weird sisters in our minds. I call it a constellation because each book in your bookshelf is part of a larger system, a paradigm. A change in the bookshelf reflects a paradigm shift.

Beginning when I was in my 20s, my literary pantheon consisted of feminist Gothic luminaries: Mary Shelley, Margaret Atwood, and Angela Carter. I even call myself the “Madwoman in the Attic,” an homage to Bertha in Jane Eyre. I was different from many young writers in Indonesia at that time because my favorite authors were women, while most of my peers cherished only male authors. And yet, my early literary altar lacked names of women writers of color; it was feminist but not anti-colonial. It took many years for Gloria Anzaldúa and others to be on my list of literary influences. It took some paradigm shifts.

In my life I have experienced two major paradigm shifts that changed my constellation of literary influences. The first one was when I traveled, initially as a student, then as a migrant. The more I travel, the more I see that the global world enables the flows of some people and ideas, and yet borders persists, drawn to keep away some others: the dangerous ones, the undeserving ones.

Migration creates many ghosts. My novel The Wandering explores the concept of “gentayangan,” which in the Indonesian language means wandering, but it also explores the condition of ghostliness experienced by travelers and migrants: in between homes, more often homeless, neither nor there. This was the time when writers—many of them are people of color—writing about travel, migration, and borders, entered my list of literary influences. 

In her book Borderlands/ La Frontera, Anzaldúa paints a portrait of the US-Mexican border as a space where “the Third World grates against the first and bleeds”: “Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them.” Anzaldúa differentiates a border, “a dividing line,” from a borderland. The latter is often produced by violence taking place at the border, but it has some political potential. Borderland is a liminal site for shifting and multiple identities, a place of possibility to disrupt dichotomies and boundaries. Border thinking is a way to interrogate anything we assume to be unchanged, including literary influences.

The second paradigm shift unfolded when I defined my kind of feminism more firmly and used it as a compass for my creative endeavors and collective activist work. I believe that this form of feminism—a decolonial feminism, critical of the intersection between forces of colonialism, capitalism, and racism—must inform every choice I make, including in selecting my literary influences. Instead of saying “I was influenced by so and so, whom I read 20 years ago,” I actively curate, renew, and reconfigure my literary influences.

Was I, in my early 20s, influenced by anti-colonial feminist theologian from Sulawesi Marianne Katoppo, or by Siti Rukiah, a leftist feminist author and intellectual who was imprisoned by the Indonesian authoritarian regime, forced to stop writing for the sake of her children’s safety? I was not. I had no knowledge that Katoppo was known outside the country for her concepts around Asian feminist theology, and like other Indonesians, I did not read Rukiah’s books because they were nowhere to find in the libraries or history books. Two decades later, I embrace them and claim them as my predecessors.

Rethinking our literary influences means having the audacity to confront ourselves and ask: Who are we reading?

Paradigm shifts have changed the constellation of my literary influences. I have summoned a new coven of bold, raging literary witches.

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Literary influences are forms of knowledge production. And knowledge production is not neutral, as we learn from indigenous scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith, who reminds us that the word “research” is “probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary.” Knowledge production, often patriarchal, colonial, and racist, exploits and disposes depending on the masters it serves. Some forms of knowledge live and thrive well under global capitalism, while others are crushed.

Institutional erasure of voices that do not align with the global network of capitalist settler colonialism is ongoing. We are reminded of recent events of silencing, such as the cancellation of the award ceremony for Palestinian author Adania Shibli at the Frankfurt Book Fair, in a time when we are witnessing the erasure of Palestinian existence.

More writers will come to enrich, complicate, and dismantle our beliefs and our literary heroes. Often, we need to demolish the statues of writers we once held in veneration. Rethinking our literary influences means having the audacity to confront ourselves and ask: Who are we reading? Whose voices are we not hearing? Why?

Rethinking literary influences is a form of border crossing: the act of questioning fixed ways of looking, the act of de-naturalizing categories, and the act of challenging the boundaries of the self.

In actively reshaping our coven, we reclaim our literary lineage and stitch a tapestry of defiant voices. We summon literary witches to traverse, defy erasure, and to borrow from, Gloria Anzaldúa, to rewrite the stories that others have miswritten.

And so, I conclude this essay with a quote from another woman writer of color who interrogates borders. Adania Shibli is one of the brave literary witches we should listen to today in the time when borders are fortified and some bodies are allowed to die.

Here’s a thought about borders from Adania Shibli’s book Minor Detail:

“The borders imposed between things here are many. One must pay attention to them, and navigate them, which ultimately protects everyone from perilous consequences. This grants a person a sense of serenity, despite everything else. There are some people who navigate borders masterfully, who never trespass, but these people are few and I’m not one of them.”



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