The RMIT Gazette is a dynamic daily newspaper produced, published and distributed around Melbourne during the Emerging Writers’ Festival. We’ll publish the Gazette’s top stories online during the festival.
Azri sits beside me, legs crossed and arms folded, listening to a panel discussion on whether writing can be taught with what appears to be detached reserve. Yet her body is always centred towards whoever is speaking at any given moment; shifting in fractions like a wind gauge teased by a breeze.
At the end of the session, Azri puts her hand up and addresses the panel––a boomerang on the return. Her hands sweep and slice the air in front of her as she declares writing cannot be learnt exclusively within the four walls of a classroom. It cannot be reduced to the principles of craft. She tells us how when she was a child, she was taken to the hills and left to sit blindfolded on some slope, whipped by the wind. She tells us how closing off one sense opens the others. How sensorial writing can only come from real sensory experience.
Her words settle over us like winter’s first snow painting the landscape anew. Members of the panel are nodding and one picks up the thread and runs with it until the session draws to a close.
Azri Zakkiyah is a twenty five-year-old “Muslim–Indonesian woman”. She proclaims this after an emphatic pause at Lunchtime Lit: Stories from the Archipelago. Azri considers her novels to be a product of “Javanese wisdom”. For Azri, being Javanese is fundamentally rooted in a profound and mystical connection to God. “God is the director; I am the actress. He gives me many roles: scientist, writer, teacher.”
She is passionate about her commitment to the Islamic faith. As she converses, it becomes clear that for Azri, being bound to an omniscient and transcendent God means she alone is responsible for her own future. For example, in response to whether she employed a translator when she participated at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival; she was indignant. “All the other emerging writers used translators, but I decided not to”, she says. “I was afraid the translator[‘s words] would be more beautiful than mine!”
She is adamant about calling her faith “spirituality” rather than “religion”, lending it a porousness that enables her to remain open to all possibilities. It is as if the world is God’s open palm and Azri traverses it without fear, because he is always holding her and watching.
At one point in the Lunchtime Lit discussion, Azri sweeps her hands outward as if summoning a path to be cleared and says, “I am you, you are me … [we] become one with God.” Later, it becomes clearer what she means. In the post-event interview, I ask her about her parents and what role they have played in her success. She leans over the table, eyes glistening. She tells me that at boarding school she had to sleep on a mattress on a hard floor and as a show of solidarity her mother did the same.
Azri wrote her first book at age 15 because she wanted to make a name for herself amid a sea of talented students at high school. But she kept her ambitions a secret from her parents, so that on the day the novel was published, it could be revealed as her greatest gift.
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