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Writing the Book on Mother-Daughter Relationships

COMMUNITY | 16 April 2021
Leila and Rain Chudori
Photo by Faizal Amiru

Mothers and daughters can have complex and difficult relationships, but Leila and Rain Chudori have reached a level of mutual understanding that has helped them to be extremely appreciative of one another – after all, they are both writers and share a love for literature.

“We have a very open, lively relationship,” Rain says. “It doesn’t feel like a conventional mother-daughter relationship. There are times when we definitely feel like friends with a considerable age gap.”

Sometimes, she adds, they jokingly wonder whether they would be friends if they were the same age – they are both not sure about the right answer to this question, as they have very different characters.

“When I was pregnant with Rain [in  1994], I was still working as a journalist for [Indonesian weekly magazine] Tempo,” Leila, who recently won the 2020 Southeast Asian Writers Award, recalls.

Four months into her pregnancy, Tempo published a cover story deemed too controversial by former President Suharto, and consequently, the magazine’s license was revoked.

“We all decided to go down and protest in front of the Ministry of Information – not only the journalists working for Tempo, but also the magazine’s readers, NGOs, human rights activists and lawyers,” Leila says. Unfortunately, the protests were to no avail: Tempo remained banned and officially disbanded in November.

It was the same month that Rain was born – which is also how she got her name, because she came into the world during rainy season. Leila mainly stayed at home with her newborn while continuing to work as a freelance writer. She admits that she was nervous about having a baby and being a mother but quickly adapted to her new role.

“When Rain was around four years old, I started working full time again,” she says. Her decision coincided with the re-establishment of Tempo in 1998, after Suharto’s fall from power.

Rain was exposed to books and literature from a very young age. With avid readers as parents, she grew up in a household where the culture of reading was not only encouraged but celebrated and quickly became a part of Rain’s daily life.

“We always brought home a lot of books whenever we travelled, and Rain already had her own library as a kid,” Leila says with a laugh. “We also enrolled her in an international school where reading was compulsory. I liked that approach because in most Indonesian public schools, everything is focused on science.”

Rain confirms that she has always enjoyed reading, writing and creating in all forms. When teachers or other people asked her what she wanted to be when she was older, she’d always say that she wanted to become a writer.

“In my mind, you can only make a career out of something that you love,” Rain says.

When she was 14, Rain had to write a story for her English class. Shortly after the students submitted their assignments, Leila received a call from Rain’s teacher who was impressed with the young girl’s writing and recommended getting it published.

“Her father and I asked Rain if we should send it to a publication on her behalf, but she refused, insisting that it needed more editing. Even at that time, she was a perfectionist,” Leila says.

Leila, however, didn’t take no for an answer and sent the piece to an editor at the Jakarta Post without mentioning that it had been penned by Rain. The editor liked the story and wanted to run it for the Sunday edition. Rain was baffled when her mother told her. She made some final changes, and shortly after, was a published writer at the age of 14.

“Since then, Rain kept writing and never stopped,” Leila says, adding that she also had an early start–she was 12 years when she published her first story – but with a major difference: “I wrote children’s stories, which were published in kids’ magazines. But Rain’s stories were for young adults and adults. The issues she wrote about were very serious.”

Photo by Faizal Amiru

Even though Rain followed in her mother’s footsteps as a writer, she needed some time to find her own place in the world. Being the daughter of a renowned journalist and author came with many expectations.

“It was never my family that pressured me, but the outside world and society,” Rain says. “I learned very early how to disregard this pressure, but there were times, mainly when I was still a teenager, when it was difficult.”

Breaking free from expectations, Rain immersed herself in the lifestyle industry and the world of advertising for a while.

“There was a sense of liberation,” she explains. “I deliberately found another industry where I felt more welcome and could be myself. Of course, at that age, you also still want to have fun. The fun of creating, the fun of connecting with others.”

Stepping out of a parent’s shadow is something that Leila herself is familiar with: Muhammad Chudori, Leila’s father and Rain’s grandfather, co-founded the Jakarta Post and served as the newspaper’s first general manager. When Leila started to work on a journalist, she had to deal with the same kind of pressure Rain was facing.

“She told me that this is something I have to go through, unless I wanted to choose a different career, but once you really find your own identity, this feeling goes away quickly,” Rain says.

In the end, Rain came back to her first love, writing–and also began to learn more about the work of her father, Yudhi Soerjoatmodjo.

“My dad is a curator, but when I was younger, I didn’t really understand his job,” she recalls. “It was only in my 20s that I was really drawn to his work. I learned that being a curator isn’t limited to fine art and photography. That’s when I decided to become a literary curator. “That way, I followed both my mom and my dad.”

Rain is the founder and curator of Comma Books, a division of Penerbit KPG (Kompas Gramedia), and established a creative consultancy for content creation, Moment Studio, where she works with brands, businesses and creatives, produces podcasts and videos and teaches courses. In addition, she is working on a new book.

When she writes, Rain says, she regularly shows her mother individual chapters and asks for her advice. At the same time, she adds, they are both aware of the fact that they are very different writers, with a distinct voice and a focus on different topics.

“Rain writes in English, I write in Indonesian. Her themes are very personal, while my writings always include socio-political elements,” Leila says, adding that this might stem from her background as a journalist.

“Rain is a millennial, she comes from a different generation,” Leila laughs. “At the beginning, I always wondered why millennials have such different values on working. I saw it when I still worked for Tempo–young journalists moved between media outlets every two or three years, whereas I was with Tempo for 28 years. I put great emphasis on loyalty. But the young generation has other priorities. They don’t mind working hard but also enjoy having time for themselves.”

Even so, the mother-daughter duo never shies away from discussing their differences and also learn from one another. Since they are both writers, they are often invited to the same festivals and events and have the chance to travel together. When asked separately about their happiest memory together, they both gave the same answer: their trip to Germany and in particularly the time they spent together India.

“We were in Kolkata, and I immediately fell in love with the city,” Rain says. “My mother played a big part in that. We stayed there for a weekend and went to bookshops and cafés – it was simply beautiful. I have returned to Kolkata regularly since.”

Leila concurs but adds another favourite memory. “This is a typical Mom answer, and Rain of course doesn’t remember, but I will always cherish the day she was born. I never really imagined myself as a mother, so when she was there, a healthy baby girl, it was an indescribable feeling.”

Of course, their relationship isn’t always love, peace and harmony.

“We fight in the same normal way everyone else does,” Rain says. “But I really like our unique dynamic and that I can always be myself around her and vice versa.”