Jesse Q. Sutanto explores themes of misogyny in the gaming community and beyond in her new YA novel, Didn’t See That Coming, her second work set in Indonesia. Seventeen-year-old Kiki Siregar plays her favorite virtual game using the handle DudeBro10 and has persuaded fellow players that she’s a boy—including her in-game best friend, Sourdawg. But she can’t escape harassment IRL after transferring to an ultra-conservative school, where classmates patronize her for her outspoken personality and school administrators do nothing to curb escalating bullying. On top of that, she learns that Sourdawg attends the same school—and might just be the schoolmate she dislikes most. Sutanto spoke with PW about her own experiences as an online gamer, how her school days informed the novel, and how challenges like Kiki’s affect her children in the real world.
Misogyny and harassment based on one’s gender are some of the most talked about issues when it comes to gaming, especially for gamers who identify as female. How much of your own experience influenced the narrative? Have you encountered similar situations to Kiki?
I used to play World of Warcraft and I remember, because I identify as female, I would naturally choose female characters to play. At one point, I was literally just walking across the game map and this random person saw my character and followed me for about 10 minutes. It was really creepy. Even though it was just in-game, it felt so weird—and my character wasn’t even human. So, then I turned around and I was like, “What’s up?” And he I was like, “What’s your name?” I said my name was Bob. He was like, “Fuck you, I’ll kill you, you pervert!” Things like that continued happening, so I kept telling people that my name was Bob. It was surprising how many guys got angry at me for playing a female character and just existing as a female player.
Recently, I moved on from WoW and started playing Overwatch, and I have to say, Overwatch feels a lot better than WoW in terms of the sexism, but it still occurs. If I ever make the mistake of talking with my real voice, mostly male gamers will say, “Why don’t you play a healer?” It’s so extreme and immediate: Oh, you’re a woman, so play a healer. It just seems so ingrained. And then there’s the whole drama with Blizzard about how one of the characters in Overwatch was designed with a very stereotypical, oversexualized pose with her butt out and back arched. People made a fuss over it, which was very warranted. People were saying, “This is so not her character, it’s just so lazy of Blizzard to do that.” And then I felt like there was backlash over the backlash with guys being like, “What’s the big deal? It’s just girls kicking up a fuss over nothing.”
So, everything that’s in the book is based on actual things that have happened and are still happening. I literally didn’t have to make up anything. I just thought, “Okay, so what’s happened to me and my friends?”
You state in your acknowledgments that you originally set out to write “a fun, fluffy book filled with laughs.” At what point did you veer away from that intention and why was it important for you to explore weightier themes surrounding bullying, class differences, and misogyny?
It would’ve been at the point where I wrote the outline. I remember finishing it and getting teary-eyed. I was like, “Oh, no. What’s happening? Why am I getting so emotional about this?” And I read it over and realized that what I created was so much better than what I originally had in mind, which was just a super lighthearted romp. This came out very naturally. I thought, “Why not? Let’s go for it. Let’s just tackle all these themes.”
It’s why it was important to me to set the book in Asia. I live in Indonesia and I’m so tired of the patriarchy here. I have two girls and it is exhausting. They don’t have a lot of guy friends, and I kind of understand why, because a lot of the boys here are being raised with, like, a “boys don’t cry,” “boys will be boys” attitude. I told my girls that they don’t have to hang out with the boys in their classes if they don’t want to; if they’re not being nice, then you don’t have to be nice back. And then with the bullying aspect: my five-year-old, she’s a firecracker. But my seven-year-old is a very sweet, very considerate, very polite kid. And one day she came home and was like, “I have to tell you something. The boy sitting next to me has been hitting me.” I immediately emailed the teacher. And when I told my literary agent, Katelyn Detweiler, about it—she’s so sweet—she said, “I like to remind myself that angry kids are often sad kids.” So, there were just a lot of things going on that contributed to what Didn’t See That Coming became.
This is the second of your novels set in Indonesia, and the first set in a South Asian school environment. Did you have to do any mental reframing to develop specific scenarios or address certain themes? What were some key differences in crafting Kiki’s voice as a native to Indonesia compared to the protagonist of Well, That Was Unexpected, who was raised in California?
It was actually more natural for me to write in Kiki’s point of view because I was raised in Asia; not Indonesia, specifically, since I moved to Singapore when I was very little. That’s why I had Kiki attend a Singaporean school. In Indonesia, there are a lot of, not necessarily international schools, but schools that were brought in from another country. It’s very prevalent in Singapore; we have Japanese schools and Taiwanese schools and all that. So, since I went to a Singaporean school, I had the setting reflect that. It was really fun revisiting my school days, because I actually loved school. I was a little nerd, and I loved the strictness of the rules. I felt like I fit in so well with that structure.
In Didn’t See That Coming, Kiki notices all these rules about how your skirt should be two finger widths below your knee and how, when a teacher enters the classroom, everybody has to stand, and the class monitor leads them in greeting the teacher. And then everyone has to bow. I flourished in that environment. But I remember there was a classmate of mine who questioned everything. And I remember thinking that she was just whining. She got in trouble a lot and looking back now I’m like, “That poor kid.” Now, I admire her because I’m like, she should question everything, we should all be asking why. Why are these rules the way that they are? She was a lot like Kiki—I was the complete sellout.
How do you feel that the current societal obsession with and overconsumption of social media has affected young people?
My oldest kid is still only seven years old; she’s not on social media yet, so I’m not sure about how deeply it’s affected young people. But it’s affected me and I’m in my late 30s. I’ve noticed that my attention span has really diminished and that I’m less present. I’m always thinking like, “Is this an Instagrammable moment? Should I be videoing this? Should I be taking photos?” And I usually have to consciously tell myself to stop, to just enjoy the occasion. I can’t even imagine what it must be like growing up with that. The mom of one of my daughter’s classmates once messaged the class group chat and she was like, “Hey, can everyone click on this YouTube link and just like the video? It’s my daughter dancing. She’s really conscious of the number of views and likes that she gets.” And you know, of course, I did it. But I was also thinking like, her daughter was six years old at the time and she’s already so conscious of the number of likes she gets. I’m definitely very concerned. I don’t even know what my husband and I are going to do with our kids.
You publish several books a year, often across multiple age ranges and genres. How do you maintain that kind of breadth and pace and is there a reasoning as to why your works are so varied?
I don’t maintain that pace, actually. This year, I have four books coming out; last year, I also had four books. But I can only really write like, three books a year. So, next year, I only have two books coming out. I just think that kind of pacing caught up with me. But what you’re interpreting as a fast pace is, I think, a result of me having started seriously writing in 2010, so I had a huge backlog of books. When I started getting publishing deals, I kind of was like, “I have these other books. Are you interested in them?” And that helped increase the volume of titles I published. But I can’t sustain four books a year.
I really love switching back and forth between genres and age ranges, though. It kind of feels like eating something savory and then something sweet. After I write a dark book that’s about like, a bitter, resentful marriage, I’m so ready for something lighter. If I remember right, I wrote Didn’t See That Coming after I wrote my adult thriller, I’m Not Done with You Yet, because I was ready for something full of hope.
Didn’t See That Coming by Jesse Q. Sutanto. Delacorte, $18.99 Nov. 28 ISBN 978-0-59343-401-7; $12.99 paper ISBN 978-0-593-43404-8