Ayu Utami was one of the big draws at this year’s Ubud
Writers and Readers Festival and launched the publication
of the English translation of her first novel Saman, which
was written seven years ago.
Ayu is frequently referred to as one of the most controversial
authors in Indonesia because she writes graphically about
sex and its pleasures from a female perspective.
Jaded readers from outside Indonesia might wonder what all
the fuss is about. After all Germaine Greer wrote The Female
Eunuch 35 years ago, becoming an icon of the feminist movement
at the time and Anais Nin’s sensual and sexually charged
Delta of Venus: Erotica was published 28 years ago. There
has been a deluge of books since then written by women giving
graphic and often joyful accounts about the heady delights
But as Ayu explained recently, it is still a taboo in Indonesia
to make women the subjects in sexual matters and there is
plenty of ground to cover in her self proclaimed struggle
to overturn the repressive attitudes of a patriarchal society.
Saman does not shy away from explicit references to male and
female genitalia which is unusual in a culture more used to
euphemistic references and has a passionate account of an
extramarital affair, which is generally a subject avoided
in Indonesian writing.
However what is most striking about Saman is its often lyrical
and mature style, with a powerful depiction of a Muslim village’s
stand against a plantation company in Sumatra which uses intimidating
methods to force the villagers to destroy their rubber trees
to make way for a palm oil development.
Under the brutal regime of President Suharto, the eponymous
Catholic hero of the novel is tortured for his support of
the remote village’s fight and undergoes a harrowing
experience at the hands of his captors before being rescued
from his cell.
The friendship of four young women weaves its way through
Saman’s story as he moves from the priesthood to become
a fully fledged human rights activist on the run from the
The thread of a quest for justice, gender equality and multicultural
tolerance makes it a thoroughly rewarding read.
However the time shifting structure of the book can be confusing
at times. The reader is a required to work hard at deciphering
a fragmented selection of events with changes in narrative
voice, alternating from one character to another seemingly
at random and from the intimately personal to the distantly
narrative third person.
Ayu, who has recently completed an International Writing Program
in Iowa City says in a paper she wrote there that she chose
to write in a non-linear form in order to “negate”
her background as a journalist.
She is 36 years old and was born in Bogor, West Java. She
graduated in Literature Studies from the University of Indonesia
and went on to become a journalist on the now defunct Forum
Never afraid to express her political opinions, she actively
campaigned against the closure of the Tempo magazine, Detik
tabloid and Editor magazine by the administration of President
Suharto in 1994.
Saman has several polemical passages about the need for press,
religious and cultural freedom. There is a large legacy from
the Soeharto era which she believes may take generations to
clean, as she puts it.
“So many dishes should be washed”, she said in
a Jakarta Post interview recently.
She’s busy finishing her third novel which has as its
working title Jalan Hanna (Hanna’s Way). It tells the
story of four people who are romantically entwined against
the backdrop of the Soeharto era to the reform era. The aim
is to publish it early next year.
What is clear is that this striking looking woman has plenty
more to say and will not be remotely worried about forcefully
expressing her point of view within the body of what will
hopefully be a highly readable book.
Now it only remains to have her second novel, Larung, translated
into English for a wider audience to access. And perhaps that
might be launched at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival
in October next year?