“You do whatever you can about the misery that’s in front of you. Add your light to the sum of light.” Billy Kwan, The Year of Living Dangerously
The flickering illumination of a nearby fire filters through a white cloth. Children’s voices accompany the Gamelan, traditional percussive music from bronze instruments. There, on the island of Java, shadow puppets of the Wayang Kulit act out a scene from Hindu mythology.
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This is the opening of my favorite movie, The Year of Living Dangerously. The shadow puppets come to represent the characters in the movie that stars Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver.
Look at Prince Ajuna. He’s a hero. But he can also be fickle and selfish. Krishna says to him, “All is clouded by desire, Ajuna, as a fire by smoke, as a mirror by dust. Through these, it blinds the soul.
The movie contains many stunning and sometimes powerful images. The camera hovers over a mountainous landscape of rich greens as a vehicle moves through it. A grieving mother pours water over her lifeless young son, nestled in white lilies.
In the movie, photojournalist Billy Kwan—a male played by the female actor Linda Hunt who won a best supporting actress Oscar for the role—moves between two worlds in 1965 Indonesia. One world is that of his profession capturing images of a beautiful land on the verge of tragedy. He spends brief moments in the other world trying to improve the lives of one family living in extreme poverty.
Most of us become children again when we enter the slums of Asia. And last night I watched you walk back into childhood. With all its opposite intensities: laughter and misery, the crazy and the grim, toy town and a city of fear.
For a time, Billy navigates both worlds successfully. He occasionally joins in the camaraderie of his journalistic peers while also providing monetary support to a mother and her very young son. When the child dies in spite of Billy’s efforts, and he can no longer ignore the callous exploitation he sees in his colleagues, Billy is thrown into a conflict he can’t resolve, except with one last, desperate act.
Between 500,000 and 1 million Indonesians were massacred during what was known as “The 1965 Tragedy.” “Water from the moon,” one of the Indonesians in the movie says before he goes into hiding. “Something you can never have.”
I took that phrase, “Water from the Moon,” as the title of my first novel, a story of “what if.” What if we lost our precious democratic institutions? What if the United States ever found itself under dictatorship? The story was inspired by what happened when the longstanding democracy of Chile in 1973 was replaced with dictatorship. The main character of the novel, Adrienne Dylan, struggles with choosing the best way to respond to the increasingly oppressive situation of her home country. She can live an isolated life or put herself at risk working with those who want to change the situation. She can choose to react violently or nonviolently.
Always in the back of Adrienne’s mind is her late father’s possible role in the overthrow of democracy, and in the increasing evidence that he was responsible for the death of her birth mother when Adrienne was a child.
On a recent trip to Guatemala, as a van carried me from Lake Atitlan to the colonial town of Antigua, I wanted to immerse myself in music to drown out the incessant droning of a fellow passenger. I chose to listen to the soundtrack I created for Water from the Moon. Each song evoked a scene, and I soon found myself drawn into the emotional story I had created years ago. I sometimes looked around at the mountains surrounding the Pan American Highway and found it hard to believe that not that long ago, Guatemala found itself in the midst of a civil war that had lasted decades. Recently, it has arrived at a place where shoots of stronger institutions that are crucial for democracy have started to grow.
Here in the United States, we live now in turbulent times, and the upheaval has many of us wondering and worrying about the future. We have limited ability to know what will come. We seek the answer as to the best road to take. It feels sometimes we are looking for a few drops on our parched tongues from some lunar spring thousands of miles away.
Friends are reading 1984 by George Orwell. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. The Iron Heel, by Jack London. And It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. I often consider removing Water from the Moon from the metaphorical bottom drawer and rewriting it for our time. That consideration has never been stronger than in the last few months. Storytelling has great power–to both take us to those dark places and give us the opportunity to ponder what we can do to pull ourselves back into the light.