Ubud, 6 November 2015 — Meet Andina Dwifatma, a communications specialist with a passion for journalism who became an award-winning novelist and then founded a collaborative platform for lay writers. What can we learn from her leadership journey, and what are her 3 recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
Andina was born in Jakarta in 1986, as the second of three siblings. She grew up in a mixed cultural background, with her father from Ternate, one of the spice islands in the northern Moluccas, and her mother from Aceh, Indonesia’s semi-autonomous region on the northern tip of Sumatra.
She describes her upbringing as liberal and her parents as supportive.
“Since I was very young, I developed an interest in reading, and my parents and I had this game. When I behaved well enough, they would take me to the bookstore and I could buy what I wanted there. This boosted my interest in reading."
While her father, a politician, read magazines and her mother, a pediatrician, read medical books, Andina started early on to explore a wide range of books and comics.
“My parents let me choose my school and profession, and they didn’t interfere with my choices. Even if they didn’t understand them, they were supportive."
Interviewing cartoon characters
She was raised and attended school in the city of Semarang in central Java.
“At that time, I developed a lively interest in the characters of the comics I read, like Asterix, Donald Duck and his uncle Scrooge McDuck. I remember starting a dialogue with them to explore how it felt talking with them about their lives, as if they were real persons. One of the most memorable cartoon characters for me was TinTin, the roving reporter from Belgium. He made me want to be a journalist because his adventures seemed so cool.”
Andina was restless in school, and she remembers how her elementary school teacher Mr. Immanuel Tri Suyoto would try to keep her calm by ordering her to read books and then summarize them in writing to him, as a kind of punishment. This led her to delve deeply into the classics of Indonesian literature, including works by Marah Rusli, Achdiat Karta Mihardja, and Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana.
What started as a way to keep her calm then fueled her hunger for reading and writing, and her instinct for fiction.
Discovering the voiceless
Along the way, she studied the work of author and legendary journalist Mochtar Lubis, and discovered how he gave a voice to the voiceless in Indonesian society. This inspired her to look into the plight of oppressed communities in her country and become an advocate for their freedom and development.
After high school, Andina took up communications at Diponegoro University in Semarang, where she graduated in 2009. She then moved to Jakarta to pursue her passion for journalism.
Rather than writing about social issues, however, her first opportunity came when she took on an assignment as an economic and business journalist with Fortune Indonesia magazine under the influential Kompas-Gramedia group.
The work turned out to be different from what she expected. First, she learned to master deadlines (“Which TinTin never did in his comics!”) and then she covered stories in finance, the stock market, and on macro-economic issues. However, she found ways to go beyond reporting the views of corporate and government leaders, by covering the perspectives of small business entrepreneurs, laborers, and communities.
Taking on challenges
While working as a journalist, she made time to write a novel and also pursue a master’s degree in communication at the University of Indonesia, which she finished in 2014.
“I began writing my first novel in 2011. It would be my tribute to Albert Camus, who wrote The Outsider, which is the best novel I read in my life so far. But I left my draft unfinished for some time. I was running out of ideas and could not adjust my work time. In 2012, the Jakarta Arts Council announced a novel-writing competition. This prompted me to finish my draft."
All that mattered then was to enjoy the work and finish it, which she did in six months. Her novel ‘A Season and Then Another’ won the first prize in the competition, drawing accolades for being written “with a storytelling technique that is at once intense, serious, explorative and intriguing."
Not satisfied with writing by herself, she sought to expand her role and bring writers from different backgrounds together with a variety of formats, from stories to issue, Q&A and photos, each with a limited number of characters.
“Working in the same office as my childhood hero, the writer Seno Gumira Ajidarma, inspired me. I noticed how people were increasingly drawn to short articles, and I wondered if I could challenge writers in the opposite direction, to longer form."
Together with communications practitioner Patrick S. Hutapea and graphic designer Angga Rahadi, they launched PanaJournal.com in 2014, and were pleasantly surprised when it attracted writers not only from Indonesia but also from other countries. Noting that 80% of the readers use smartphones and tablets, her feedbacks are showing that people still welcome longer stories, as long as they are interesting and enjoyable on those formats.
“People look for alternatives, other points of view in stories, either fiction or non-fiction. They want to be inspired. Another thing we discovered is that people from all walks of life can create beautiful stories, like the migrant laborers in Singapore who created their own poetry competition."
Writing doesn’t come naturally to Andina, even as she calls herself a writer.
“We have so many distractions that can add to writer’s block, especially today with all our social media."
She now dedicates specific hours for her writing. Her favorites are from 8 to 10 in the morning, before she goes out to her teaching job. Write first!
Putting on some jazz music helps her to get started. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk are among her favorites, because their improvised form helps to trigger the creativity she needs to write. Black coffee helps too.
Occasionally, when getting started is hard, she resorts to writing whatever is in her mind, freely, like a stream of consciousness coming out. Then, when the juices start flowing, she gets to her novel, essays, or blog.
“Whatever your passion is, don’t wait until you are in the mood for it. Writing time is very precious, especially when you have a day job. Make it happen. Everyone can find his or her way to get started."
Teaching communication and values
Besides being a writer, Andina teaches at the School of Communication of Atma Jaya Catholic University. This job lets her talk to many young people, with lots of opportunities to inspire them.
“I teach about media, and share my experience in journalism. I want my students to think that they can be more than they are now. The key is to get them interested and curious. They are busy with their social media and there are many issues they miss out on, like the challenges of our minority groups, issues of freedom of speech and justice, which are important to our society. My goal is to get them to do something with what they learn, to make a difference."
Andina has learned to adapt her teaching style to her audience, to start with examples, ask questions, and provide challenges. For one of the subjects, her students have to develop online campaigns for a cause they care about. They came up with new ideas, like stacking up their phones when meeting among friends over coffee, so that they can actually talk, and agreeing that the first one to reclaim their phone will be the one to pay the bill. Another student singled out how media influence the way women think about their body.
“I tell the students that what they learn in college will come back to them in their career, where they will make choices based on the values they embrace and stand for. It will be their call then. My message is that they have to contribute something good to society!"
She underlines how values and communication skills are the core of leadership, and shares how she learned to develop her thought leadership by writing opinions for various media like the Jakarta Post, Prisma journal, and TheConversation.com.
“I want to make a difference by offering alternative ways of thinking, and inspiring readers that they can do something to make things better. In comparison, my fiction writing is more like a playground for me, to explore different possibilities."
Three recommendations for aspiring leaders
So what are Andina’s three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
First, read a lot.
"Read whatever you can get your hands on, including fiction, non-fiction, articles, newspapers, and blogs. And follow smart, resourceful persons on social media."
Second, write a journal.
“This is hugely important. Writing helps you express and document your thoughts and ideas. It also helps you to shine a light on your sadness, anxieties and frustrations, so that you can let them go. Writing helps you understand yourself and other people better, and your environment. When you write, you will find out where you want to go."
Third, get out of your house.
“Playing in our mind is one thing. The next is to get out and actually do something. Get involved in your environment, a community, get to know them, listen to them and help them. Ultimately, it all comes down to action."
As I met Andina on the sideline of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2015, she had already completed the first 20 pages of her second novel. That’s 10 percent done, she said, commenting that she felt more pressure for the second novel than her first, when she wrote without expectations or care what people would think.
“Will my second novel be better than my first? I want it to be better. Writing is a game of endurance now. It is me against my draft. I need a different approach, with more discipline."
Thomas Edison once said that success comes from 1 percent talent and 99 percent hard work.
“Building on that, I now see my next writing challenge as 1 percent talent and 99 percent not being connected to the internet."
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