Toy Guns (Ruby J Murray)

Posted on October 7, 2010 by in Arrests of Attention

Funfair (Ruby J Murray)

Posted on October 3, 2010 by in Arrests of Attention

an interview with Ruby J Murray

Posted on September 4, 2010 by in The Melbourne Review Interviews


Some of us grow up with a sense of crisis. We have a persistent feeling that there’s a looming catastrophe that we need to respond to in whatever way we can. Perhaps the seed to the politically engaged writer is found here, rather than in a more abstract sense of compassion for unknown people and a vast, oblivious planet. So I’m wondering if you’ve ever felt the pressure of that crisis and how you understand your own political motivations as a writer.


An ex-partner of mine grew up in California in the last years of the Cold War, when Reagan was rumbling about Star Wars and the nuclear war was something people thought could happen at any moment.  He and his friends used to tell stories about Duck and Cover, and how they used to practice it in the classroom, jumping down under their tables and putting their arms over their heads when the teacher blew a whistle. I think that’s what it means to grow up with a sense of crisis.

I was born in the early 80s.  I remember sitting on the carpet in the front room of the house I grew up in and having my Mum make me watch the Berlin Wall coming down.  For all we laugh at Francis Fukuyama’s End of History now, for a while people really believed he was on to something.  I don’t know if I have a sense of on-going political crisis, so much as a sense of inevitability: that politics is a process, and that crises will continue to arise.

I did grow up with a sense of the importance of stories, though.  My mother is a writer, and a consummate story-teller, and for a long time it was unclear to me what stories about the world were ‘true’ and what were not.  At eight, I probably would have told you that Hansel and Gretel were historical figures.  And in a way, they are.  All story-telling is political.  The degree to which we’re aware of it while we’re doing it varies, but it’s all political.


Growing up with a writer for a mother must have been interesting. My own parents were immigrants from Serbia and the bookshelves at home were filled with literary artifacts from the life they’d left behind. I didn’t speak English until I went to primary school, so for me, the search for literary identity involved setting out across unknown seas and there was a promise (rather than a threat) of drowning. It’s with a bit of envy that I imagine a childhood with literature growing up around the home like lemon trees planted in the backyard and grass that just needed a bit of a sprinkle of water. But I know there can be other challenges in that kind of life, so I was wondering if you could tell me a little more about that literary childhood.


My mother would never let me sleep if I laid claim to that one.  For the first half of my literary childhood I was what you’d probably call functionally illiterate.  Reading required time, and solitude, and was therefore boring.  My mum spent a lot of despairing time cutting letters out of sandpaper so I could trace them with my fingers in an attempt to get me to read, and I spent a lot of time posting said letters through the cracks in the floors, of which our house had an obliging number.

I was convinced I was going to grow up and be Shirley Temple, and I spent a lot of time at the Camberwell Markets in tap-dancing shoes singing Shirley classics while my younger brother strummed his ukulele in a batman suit and my mother tried to defend us from the hecklers.  (I was pretty tone deaf, too, and missing a few front teeth through no fault of my own.)

Then, pretty much overnight, my parents decided to move us all to France.  It sounds romantic but wasn’t.  None of us spoke the language, my parents included.  Becoming deaf and mute overnight was terrifying, isolating, and I guess I can sympathise in a way with that for you.

On the up-side, I suddenly had a lot of time, a lot of solitude, no one to talk to, and an attic of books.  And so I started reading.  Not because I wanted to, but really because I had no choice: it was that, or shrivel up with my own loneliness.  I eventually picked up the French, as children do, and so the move ended up giving me language in more ways than one, and teaching me about the importance of communication.

But even before I started reading, both my parents read to us every night, or told stories when we ran out of books.  My mother made them up for us, some that lasted months, and which we still try and nag her to write and publish, even though she rolls her eyes at us.  I don’t know what makes for a literary childhood.  I’ve never thought to describe mine that way.  Maybe it was in some ways, although I think itinerant would be better.  My mother, who is the YA writer Kirsty Murray, didn’t start writing for publication until I was in my teens.  She’s now published 13 books, the most recent of which, India Dark, was launched last week.   Before that my parents had eclectic careers, as artists in various guises.  I think what she had was an appreciation of stories, and what they can do for you, how they can pull you through hard times, and help you to make sense of the world.

Quite apart from the fact, of course, that through reading I actually got to be Shirley Temple for a little while, which helped me to get over my urge to curl my hair and sing for sailors.  Mostly.


I remember watching Shirley Temple films, thinking she was adorable, even when I was a child myself. She was such a perfect symbol of innocence; of vivid life and precociousness as well. The world she lived in seemed a brighter dimension of possibility. For me, it was Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince.  In fact, my family called me that for most of my childhood. Late in my teens as well, though that had more to do with me refusing to do things like the dishes because I wanted to read or write. But there was a deep fascination back in my early childhood, for the story and images, but also with the biographical details – the author was a pilot who disappeared over the seas one day. The inspiration for The Little Prince being a crash in the dessert years earlier. There are these kinds of seeds that fall into our minds when we’re forming, that begin growing with us, and become so fundamental to who we are it’s hard to imagine a different future and past without them. So I’m wondering whether there was a particular book that was like that for you, but I’m also wondering what your thoughts are on those childhood mythologies that we sometimes discover in the stories our mothers tell us to send us of to sleep and dreams.


If I had to pick one moment that was a revelation to me, it would have to be the discovery of fantasy and science fiction.  I remember reading the opening pages of Raymond E Feist’s Magician and having something explode in my brain.  I was eleven at the time, and for the next five or six years my reading was pinned to release dates.  I wasn’t super discerning; I took anything I could get.  David Eddings, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Terry Pratchett, Katherine Kerr… I’m proud to say that I did put down Terry Brooks, but still… I used to lie at night sweating at the thought that Robert Jordan might die before he finished the Wheel of Time.  (He did.)  When I ran out I branched into comic books, starting with the X Men and rapidly moving on to anything that could come close to the genre.

People are often dismissive of genre fiction, and it’s true that a lot of bad genre fiction is formulaic at best, and unreadable pulp at its worst.  But when it’s done well, good genre fiction is revelatory.  I think that art often works best with constraints.  I remember a music teacher telling me once that you have to learn the rules before you can learn how to break them, and the best science fiction, the best fantasy, is able to do that.  Take the guidelines, and throw them out.  Make new myths out of the bare bones of storytelling.  Ursula K Le Guin, Roald Dahl, E. Nesbitt, Diana Wynne Jones, Phillip Pullman, Lewis Carroll, Neil Gaiman.  Sometimes it takes leaving the real world to be able to look back and really understand it.

I think the other thing that science fiction and fantasy gave me as a child was the chance to engage with moral ideas.  Not just in my own life, but on an epic scale.  I lived through ancient and future wars, and made terrible decisions, and started to live with life’s paradoxes for the first time, which is something I’m still trying to learn how to negotiate, something I hope I’ll always be trying to do.

Last, but not least, there were awesome women in fantasy and science fiction.  Adventurers.  Women who didn’t sit in dining rooms or hover at parties or moon over the boys, but who threw themselves into the business of living, who rode into battle for the people they loved and the things they believed in, who saved the world.  That was what I wanted to do.  That, and somehow work out how to shoot lightning bolts from my fingers.  Or at the very least, lasers.

I don’t write genre fiction as much as I’d like.  I hope to one day.  As soon as I can get my laser fingers functioning.

Maps to Jakarta (Ruby J Murray)

Posted on September 1, 2010 by in Lies To Live By

Living Without a Map

I’ve always been proud of my sense of direction.  I like that it only takes me once to walk a street and know it.  And that every time I walk it afterwards, I no longer need to feel north or south, and I can walk it that little bit deeper.  I can walk it differently.  Backwards.  Moonwalk it.  From the side.  I can sit in its gutters for a while, and just watch it.

Maps have always played a part in my life: I love their shapes and lines and the shifting world they try to hold down.  I love the sense they give, of possibility, of secrets and lies.  One of the first things I always do when I get to a new city is look for a map.  I need to touch the city on the page. But after that first orientation they are purely aesthetic: maps have belonged on my walls, not in my pocket.  I could always orientate myself. And because of that, I loved to be lost, and I relished the process of losing myself.


There are no maps to Jakarta.  No, that’s not entirely true.  There are many maps to Jakarta.  They can be a bit hard to track down, but they’re around.  It took me a week and a half to find my first maps, on the sixth floor of Sukarno’s once decadent department store Sarinah on Jalan Thamrin.  When it was built, it was a monument to modernity and style and Indonesia. Sukarno named it after the servant girl he loved in his home as a young boy, and it represented the possibility of change and a new, proud world.  These days it’s a shadow hunched down the road from the pristine, towering global glamour of the Plaza Indonesia, a giddy palace inhabited by the sparkling giants of Hermes, Chanel and Vuitton.

I couldn’t look at the maps I bought in Sarinah before I paid for them: they were sandwiched tight in crisp plastic wrap.  There is a mania for plastic in this town.  Everything you buy will be wrapped and bagged and rewrapped, new baby things swaddled in plastic against dirt and use.

I took my pristine maps back to my office and sliced them out and spread them proudly across the desk only to find that they all cut the city in half.  That none of them showed bus routes.  That the marking and naming of streets is a matter of taste for the mapmakers of this place, and that scale is a choice we all have to make when it comes to representing the city.

And I, who usually relish in the lies of maps, in their coy deception and the fact that I have the ability to see beyond them, found myself outraged by this total disregard for convention.

I now have a whole wall of maps, a project helped along by my housemate Claire.  With the five or six maps we have we are able to patch together a vague idea of the contours of the city.

But the project of piecing together this new place goes deeper than the city maps.  There are only a handful of current maps to the public transport system, too.  The ones on the internet date back to 2007.  The up-to-date maps that once adorned the walls of bus shelters have been torn down and are now traded on the streets by desperate commuters.  At parties, it’s a mark of pride to own a current TransJakarta map, and people boast about it over their warm beers.

I need to know places through my feet.  But there is very little walking in Jakarta, even for those who know which way to face.  Sidewalks appear and disappear at random.  Roads can be crossed only by the arching metal corridors that ferry people from one brief interlude of concrete to another.  If you do have pavement, it’s often pitted and interrupted by gaping open drains.  Motorbike ojek drivers and taxis stalk white walkers down the road, hooting, disbelieving what you are trying to do, opening doors and proffering helmets and laughing.

But even with a map, I doubt I would be able to walk this city and not see the obvious parts anytime soon.  Without enough language to be polite, without enough understanding to pick up cues, I’m often adrift as I step from one patch of pavement to the next.  I can’t sing happy birthday to the man in the Police Program at work, I am never invisible in the gutter watching the street as it passes, and I can’t even understand which yes means yes and which yes means no.

On Tuesday, I drove out to the airport to greet a group of women who had been trafficked as domestic servants to Malaysia.  In the car, on the way to the shelter, one of them lay with her head in my lap and cried words I didn’t know and vomited for an hour as we wound our way through the heat and garbage and glamour of the city.

When we got out of the car, I had no idea where I was.  And it made me question whether I ever really did.  And it made me wonder if the maps we have on the inside can lie and deceive as surely as the ones that I’ve spent all these years collecting and blu-tacking to the walls.

Pressure, Updrafts, the Beginning of the Wet

The sky comes down to the 21st floor in wet season.  And Jakarta is beautiful, huddling under overpasses and smoking in the darkness, wheeling lights of the stationary warung in the purple night.  Lightning and thunder like a stage show, smacking and rolling and howling.  People laugh at each other, umbrellas bloom on the pavements in hallucinogenic rainbows of colour and bravado.  Because nothing can keep you dry, not the yards of ponchos that go flapping down the streets or the rolled up windows of the cabs.

People have been whispering about the wet season for ages, every time a storm comes over the city.  No one knows when wet season starts: the month and week shifts every year, a rumour.

Lightning hits Jakarta between one hundred and one hundred and twenty days per year.  Experts say that the high rate is due to a mixture of pollutants like aerosol, humidity, and updrafts that start the wet and the lightning.  But everyone here knows that it starts when Jakarta’s mutterings have reached a breaking point.

And Jakarta is full of mutterings right now.  The corruption commission (KPK) is under investigation, the Indonesian National Police in disarray defending their stance, the televised hearings running until three in the morning, the city a heaving mass of outrage.  Walking in the kampung last night every television was out on the street, people crouching on their haunches to watch in the shifting darkness.  Out the front of the KPK’s building tents have been set up where protestors camp out all night under a row of nooses.

I can’t work anything out.  When I asked my Indonesian friends about what’s going on late this afternoon they shook their heads.  It’s a relationship, they said.  It’s complex. You can’t start.  Outside our window the sky lowered.

Walking into the lobby of my new office building at five thirty this evening I found a milling crowd under the chandeliers, tapping feet on the edges of the indoor garden and yakking into their mobile phones.  Sitting on the edges of the fountain and looking gloomy, clutching laptop bags to their bodies and sighing.

Outside, in the time it takes to be shuttled down from the 13th floor by sparkling elevator, it had become dark.  It took me a moment to realise that it wasn’t real darkness, that it was the weight of water in the air.

I rolled up my slacks and waded across the building’s grounds to stand, already soaked, on the pavement and try to hail a taxi in the stationary traffic.  The security guards watched me from under the cover of the first security entrance, laughing.

My Friday batik welded to my skin I retreated back and stood with them for a while, looking at the lights of the cars and the waves their passage sent up over the street.  An ojek driver came and stood with me.  Macet total, he told me confidingly from inside his swaddling of plastic bags.  You can only go home by ojek.

He was right.  We didn’t so much drive back to Kuningan as wade, trailing our feet through the water that brushed against the engine, shuffling down Sudirman and then Casablanca with mouths and eyes full of stinging Jakarta clouds.

The muttering has broken.  At least until the morning, when the pressure will start to build again.

Pacific Ring of Fire

I’m sitting at my favourite table outside on the central walk-way at the Taman Rasuna apartments armed with three tins of hair-of-the-proverbial-canine.  It’s twenty minutes past six, and at the tables around me people are breaking fast and eating loudly, laughing.  An old Chinese man is swinging his arms and doing calisthenics in his underpants on the side of the pool.

Yesterday, an earthquake breaching magnitude 7 shook the city, and there was an evening of chaos.  For the last twenty-four hours I have lost faith in the ground.  All day, I’ve been watching the world of things closely, looking for ripples in my coffee cup and wondering if I’m imagining the slight reverberations I seem to see in the emptied yakult bottles lining my apartment’s benches.  No amount of beer last night could get rid of my fear and the bitter bite of adrenaline in my jaw, and the eight bottles yakult I downed today did nothing to stop my hangover.

I’ve never been so scared

Not at first.  At first I didn’t understand what was happening, my colleagues J and S jumping from their desks and telling me in closed voices to grab things and walk slowly, walk slowly.  I just stood there with my laptop clutched to my chest saying huh? Huh?  Then the floor heaved and the papers slid off my desk.  Get your bag Ruby, get your bag, J kept on repeating, matter of fact and tight.  It’s an earthquake.  Walk slowly, Ruby.  Don’t panic.  We have to get out.  Outside.  Ruby, we have to get out of the building.  Now.  I stood for a few seconds in the doorframe, people streaming out of their offices and lurching down the hall, before it finally hit me and I began to move again.

Walk slowly

You walk slowly in an earthquake because the world is sliding and heaving around you and any step could take you one way or the other.  You walk slowly because hundreds and hundreds of panicking people running through the twenty floors makes the building shake even more, their panic and fear moving the foundations as surely as the snapping and collision of the tectonic plates below them.

Don’t panic

I vaguely remember my friend V hustling me down the corridor with his arms out, shepherding me into the stairwell, saying go go go in his boomy voice and then he was gone somewhere behind me in the crush.  Thirteen floors is a long way down a tiny, crammed stairwell where the doors are opening onto every level and more and more people pouring in, screaming and crying, shoulders colliding with the concrete walls as they creak and heave and shudder, when the weight of people from the floors above is increasing by the second.  Women struggling with their high heels, trying to get them off and being shoved into the well.  Someone holding onto my wrist dug their fingernails in so deep that today I have a stinging scab where their panic took the skin off.

We have to get out

On the fourth level, I got out of the stairwell and into the car park, where a security guard was yelling for us to take the ramps.  And then I ran, still clutching my laptop to my chest as if it was going to keep the building together.  The car ramps circle in upon themselves down and down, folding in and out again through the levels to the ground.  And I was so relieved to be out of the close heat and the sobs of the stairwell and away from the stink of other people’s fear, just to be turning in the air again was enough.


Outside I stood and watched as people came streaming out of every orifice of the building, sobbing and yelling and stony faced running.  Someone put their hand on my shoulder and shook me and it was B from the office, and suddenly both of us were laughing like maniacs.  That was my first earthquake, he said in Bahasa.  What?  I was laughing too much to understand.  He repeated himself in English, that was my first earthquake.  Me too, me too, I said, which wasn’t true, but which felt true.

And we kept laughing and laughing as other people came down and joined us, and they were looking at us like we were mad people, and we were mad people, and we were lighting all of his cigarettes even though I’m not smoking because who gives a fuck about cancer when the ground is going to kill you?  And we were still laughing when one of the people in charge of our organization came running over and said what do you think you’re doing?  Get away from the building.  What if the building comes down?  Get away.  Now.

And he took my by the arm and pulled me down to a car park further up the road where we sat and stumbled out the aftershocks, the streetlamps swaying with each other and the billboards trembling.  And all around us the soaring might of Jakarta’s business district, suddenly fragile and heavy, kept in a high blue sky by a miracle of engineering and steel.  The ground sobbing away beneath us, hysterical, and finally, finally calming.

We have to get out of the building

Once, driving my brother Billy and his friend Piers through the bush in Northern Victoria, we had a long conversation about the worst way to die.  It’s one my brother and I have had many times since, altering its dimensions slightly but always coming to the same conclusion.  The worst way to die, we always end up agreeing, is as one of many.

The example we use when we’re talking about it is a plane crash.  Billy says he hates the idea because he is terrified of ending his life as a statistic: three hundred people die in crash over the Indian Ocean.  And we both agree that we would want to be the pilot of an empty plane as it went down: that we could have that moment of seeing the world end for us in quiet.

For the few minutes I spent in that stairwell that was all I could think of, that long-ago conversation with Billy and Piers in the dust and low grey of the Australian bush, racketing along a track towards Thurra River in the old Toyota with the sea appearing and disappearing over the dunes in front of us.  I can’t go out like this, in this disgusting well of flesh and concrete, surrounded by other people’s screaming and fear, and with no choice and no time.

The moment I was in the car park I stopped caring.  With space around me and the sun coming in across the ramp I was myself again, and the building could shake all it wanted, and come down as it pleased.  I could jump if I wanted.  I was alone, and I could taste it.

One man who had pushed women over as he tried to get out was standing alone out the front of the building as one of our security guards hustled me, giggling still, past the building and down to the open spaces.  The man was just standing there, his face appalled, not moving or screaming or shoving anymore, just ashamed and shaking, minutes after coming face to face with a part of himself he will never, ever forget.  And I felt so sorry for him, so momentarily heartbroken by his face, that I finally stopped laughing.


Indonesia forms part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a 40 000 plus long kilometer belt of oceanic trenches and volcanic arcs which is home to over 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes.  A shifting, busting place of colliding crustal plates.  This earthquake was a magnitude 7.3 on the Richter Scale, with 69 aftershocks.  Its epicenter was 115 kilometres from Jakarta, 30 kilometres off the West Javan coast.  Over 40 people have been reported dead along the coast so far, although numbers will rise as the missing fail to be found.  But in this wide country where counting lives is so difficult…  Towns destroyed, homes flattened.  In Jakarta, only one person died, of a heart attack from fear.  Who knows how many were injured clawing their way down staircases and out of malls.


Two months into Jakarta, watching the world for tremors and the places where it will give way.