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Faculty of Humanities, University of Indonesia.
Aside from being a novel about a deeply moving saga of an Indonesian-Chinese family during the tumultuous times of war and revolution, as other reviewers have rightly pointed out, Only A Girl also invites us to explore the complexity of the term ‘progress’, as each of the main characters of the novel understands it–and struggles with it. At times, they embrace progress in order to grab what life has to offer; at other times, they have to turn their backs against progress so that they may survive the impossible circumstances of their lives. Lian Gouw has opened up a new avenue of examining the intricate web of class-gender-ethnicity in a trans-national context, while refraining from making any hasty moral judgments on the characters’ views of themselves, and the subsequent actions they take as a result of such personal outlooks.
Executive Editor Jossey-Bass/John Wiley &Sons.
Only a Girl is a terrific book. Lian Gouw is a great story teller and has shown me so much I never knew about the history, people, society and culture of an important part of the world, which is so crucial to know about now, in this time of global connection and transformation.
2010 Healdsburg Literary Laureate
Author of Feeding Strays, Lost Horse Press.
In her debut novel, Only A Girl, Lian Gouw has assembled cultural history, social commentary, and character development skillfully. The thought-provoking novel is an intricate weave of family and civilization coming to terms with the past, the present, the future, and war.
Set in Indonesia between 1930 and 1952, Only A Girl is a finely detailed portrait of three courageous Chinese women trying to find their way in a world of cultural melding and upheaval as Western “progress” clatters against customary Chinese mores.
Only A Girl causes self and societal introspection – we are reminded of the potentially tentative situation of any political system. It is a captivating novel that mines history, heartbreak and humanity.
Award winning author, My Half of the Sky, Komenar Publishing.
Your heart will be torn by the Lee family, citizens of Indonesia during that country’s most dynamic period of history (1932-1952). You’ll struggle with them as they grapple with which rituals to honor when the world is changing beneath their feet year after year, from Dutch control to Japanese control to Indonesian control. Gouw brings this fascinating piece of history alive.
Martha Clark Scala,, MFT.
Editor, Out on a Limb – E Newsletter.
In Lian Gouw’s Only a Girl, you take a trip to Bandung, Indonesia in 1932 without having to board an airplane. You are transported to a scene in which Chinese family values clash amidst the Indonesian Revolution in the colonial Dutch East Indies. You are immersed in a couple of strained households, a tense country, and an intense time of political and familial change. Fasten your seat belt for a rich tale that provides a terrific view of a multigenerational family entering the modern world.
Dr. Lydia Kieven, Cologne, Germany
November 19, 2021
As an expert on Indonesia, in particular Javanese culture, I have recently become more interested in the period of the Indonesian independence and struggle during the revolution against the still-want-to-be Dutch colonialists. I never saw the perspective of Chinese inhabitants of the Netherlands East Indies. This novel by Lian Gouw opened my eyes for this perspective. The novel, written from a very personal viewpoint of three women from three consecutive generations during the pre-war, war, and post-war times in Indonesia – from the 1930s to 1950s, impressed me deeply.
Dutch novels of Dutch writers about their life in the tropics and the sudden break along with their horrifying experience of the Japanese occupation of the Netherlands East Indies during the Second World War and the aftermath are numerous. I am familiar with those books that almost always are written from the Dutch point of view. I also read a few books narrated from the Indonesian frame of mind.
“Only a Girl” interweaves all actors of this time period, the Dutch, the Indonesian, the Chinese, the Indo. The special position of Chinese families, stuck between Dutch-European culture and Indonesian as well as Chinese traditions, is ambiguous or let’s even say “tetra-gous.” During colonial times, there were several classes of Chinese: some were street paddlers and traders, some were rich traders, some were Dutch- and European oriented and had high positions in the Dutch administration and military. Some stuck to their Chinese traditions, and in between there was another peculiar mix of people. For many families this led to conflicts which even became the more visible and existential during war and revolution. The novel tells about a family torn between all these traditions, social positions, and identities.
This question of identity and its process unfolds through Jenny, who attends Dutch schools, speaks mostly Dutch, and opposes the Chinese traditions conducted by her grandmother who practices cultural beliefs and rituals. Jenny wants to be “modern.” However, her ideas, her identity, her wishes, and her “modernity” collapse throughout the political turmoil. Instead of going to the land of dreams – the Netherlands – she chooses to go to America, a kind of “neutral” country during the turmoil of that time.
The book does not relate the story in America, but the reader can easily imagine the difficult process of building a new identity.
Thanks for writing such a gem! It was gripping from start to finish. My favorite character was Ocho — what a horrid villain! Your book reminded me a lot of Pachinko, another multi-generational story of a family from a minority group in Asia. As in Pachinko, the family’s struggles and triumphs reflect the changes in the larger society. This book showed me another side of Indonesia than I’d seen before. I’m glad to have come across it at the Indonesian fair.