The Literature of Social Engagement: Local Writers Speak Out
Less than three weeks to go and happy punters around the globe have their metaphorical highlighters at the ready, searching for the shining lights of this year’s Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. In a line up that features an international who’s who, let’s focus on a couple of the Indonesian writers gracing this year’s program. Both are women, and neither is afraid of controversy or tackling difficult subjects. Both also came to literature in a roundabout way.
Nusya Kuswatin had long wanted to write a novel but felt she had to wait. She began her writing career in East Java as a regional correspondent with Kompas before becoming a columnist for Surya’s Sunday edition. She predominantly wrote about social issues related to domestic life from the perspective of women in lower middle-class families. At the same time she dedicated herself to working in refugee and migrant institutions, non-government democratic organisations, and with training institutions engaged in development issues. She dealt with people committed to fighting for farmer’s rights, and water sovereignty issues.
Her plan to write a novel set in 1965 clearly presented a number of challenges. It is an especially dark period of history both in terms of its violence and because it is shrouded in mystery with both victims and perpetrators unwilling to talk openly about it. People’s memories long been suppressed, and until relatively recently discussion of the events surrounding 1965 and the killings and persecution that followed, was tightly controlled by the government. For all those same reasons, it is also a subject that a number of Indonesian writers participating in this year’s festival have been drawn to, representing as it does some of the most significant and traumatic events in the independent nation’s 65 year history. For Nusya, researching and writing the novel presented an opportunity to answer some of the questions she had asked as a teenager, questions her parents could not or would not answer.
At first she didn’t feel she was mature enough. Eventually, however, she realised that what she wanted to write about, and the ways she wanted to approach it, were actually not so different in some ways from the work she was already doing amongst activists and people struggling for their rights. Her novel, Lasmi, was begun. It tells the ultimately tragic story of a woman activist caught up in events in Malang between the years 1957-1965.
In the beginning, it was still a difficult period to research, but during the presidency of Gus Dur (Abdurrahman Wahid) from 1999 to 2001, the ban on discussions about the events of 1965 was lifted, the need for reconciliation was even talked about, and Nusya was finally able to access alternative information with the publication of a number of books on the subject. “I also had discussions with, and interviewed, some people who lived through the era and had an intimate understanding of the issues and empirical knowledge about events. And the first draft of my novel was corrected and commented upon by five people including a former socialist party member I have a lot of respect for. His comments encouraged me to thoroughly dismantle the character of Lasmi and to reconstruct her so that she was entirely in keeping with the political context of the era.”
Nusya is currently working on her second novel, about a survivor of the massacres who continues to live in fear.
Medy’s teenage years also provided the impetus for her writing: “I entered the literary world by accident. In 1976, when I was a teenager, I was a pen friend to Kardy Syaid, the writer who is now famous as a movie maker and writer, and who lives far away in North Sumatra’, says Medy, who was born and raised in Surabaya, East Java. ‘He was constantly writing to me and sending me his work, which was published in newspapers or magazines. He always assured me that I could also be an author.’
As a result of his encouragement, Medy, who says she never set out to be a writer, started to write poetry and she is now one of Indonesia’s leading poets. Perhaps as a consequence of her own experience she is now also committed to providing support to other emerging writers. This has led to her becoming known as the “mother of young writers.” She partly achieved this through her active membership of the Indonesian Literary Community (Kesatuan Sastra Indonesia - KSI) an organisation that began in 1996 in an attempt to draw together the scattered strands of the literary community from Aceh to Papua, and to give a voice to the many young writers who found it difficult to break through the hegemony of Jakarta.
‘Now the past dozen years have proved that there are many young Indonesian writers producing works of quality. We pick them up and walk together to face the rain. We provide houses for their shelter. Our organisation also teaches its members to respect each other and we encourage mutual support,’ she says of the organisation and its success.
Medy Loekito is also one of the very few Indonesians of Chinese ethnicity who have succeeded in the world of Indonesian literature. ‘Maybe a lot of people don’t know that I’m Chinese’, she says, although she has never shied away from writing about the events and issues that have directly affected Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese minority. Her poem ‘14 May 1998’ for example, refers explicitly, though with her trademark brevity, to the violent rioting and looting that took place in Jakarta that day targeting Chinese people and their businesses:
14 May 1998
the night has lost its clarity
i reach for God’s hand
it isn’t there
“My poetry is silent poetry. It’s lonely poetry. My poems are short, they really have no relationship with other influences … maybe that’s more because my Indonesian isn’t good!” she says.
Despite her ethnic background, Medy says she has never felt discrimination in the literary world, although her opposition to “sexual vulgarity” in Indonesian literature has subjected her to criticism from a number of well-known writers. She says however that this will not stop her from speaking out against the things with which she disagrees and it has certainly not hindered her work from being published in a range of media. She has several national and international honours to her credit including her selection for the prestigious Iowa International Writing Program.
Nusya Kuswatin and Medy Loekito are just two of the many Indonesian writers offering their unique perspectives at the 2010 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. In keeping with this year’s theme, ’Bhinneka Tunggal Ika – Harmony in Diversity’, the Festival will also feature a literary tribute to former Indonesian president, the late Abdurrachman Wahid, one of the nation’s most fearless harmonisers.