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Two Contemporary Indonesian Women Writers

August 15, 2013

Book cover "Supernova"Ayu Utami, Saman, 1998. English translation by Pamela Allen, 2005.

Dewi Lestari, Supernova, 2001. English translation by Harry Aveling, 2010.

Two gay men resolve to mark their tenth anniversary by writing a novel that bridges the gap between the various branches of learning. Dhimas is the writer and Ruben the ideas man, a psychologist obsessed with what Dhimas calls “crazy theories” about the connection between physics and psychology. They plan a controversial novel full of social and moral conflict, an unconventional love story that “can reflect the experience of the whole of society.”

In Supernova the Indonesian writer Dewi Lestari is the master puppeteer, manipulating Dhimas and Ruben as they manipulate their characters. The novel alternates between the narrative created by the couple and scenes where they review what they have written, ponder the insights it has given them, and argue about what should happen next.

This sounds as though it shouldn’t work, but it does, mostly. In one strand of the story within the story, Ferré, director of a multinational company, and Rana, a married woman, fall in love. It is a tortured affair because Rana, enchained by family obligations, feels that she cannot leave her husband Arwin. Until now she has always bowed to the cultural pressure on women to put themselves last and always do what others want them to. At various times Ferré, Ratna and Arwin seek help from a mysterious online presence, Supernova, who Ruben sees as a form of turbulence that people can access to amplify their understanding.  Another strand of the story follows Diva, a strongly autonomous and sexually liberated woman who finds it hard to put up with other people’s stupidity. As the story proceeds, these strands not only merge, but also start to interact with their creators.

Photo of Dewi Lestari

Dewi Lestari (Photo by Neal Harrison, CC licence)

So why doesn’t it fully work? Mainly because Supernova, Ruben and Lestari herself are on a mission – to show how we can create a better world. Ruben in particular gives long explanations of the connections between quantum physics, consciousness and spirituality, while Supernova talks of overcoming our enslavement to genes and memes. Both want to answer the question “that unites us all and everything in the universe:” Who am I?

This New Age/self-help earnestness would be fine if it was intended to reveal character. But one lecture from Ruben would have been enough for that purpose. And Lestari is serious – she even includes a “Further Reading” section at the back of the novel. Removing the dissertations would leave a well told story with engaging characters, all that is needed to explore Lestari’s ideas about the nature of freedom and love. Surely fiction, by itself, is the best means we have for examining the human condition.

Lestari is a one of the new generation of female writers who emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These writers challenged long-held norms by asserting the rights of women to sexual autonomy and taking on themes considered taboo, such as sex outside marriage, homosexuality and openly describing female sexuality. Lestari’s novel does all this, and in particular her portrayal of a loving gay couple is shocking for those who believe that homosexuality is a dangerous threat to society.

Book Cover "Saman"The first of the new female writers was Ayu Utami, whose novel Saman was published just before the fall of President Suharto in 1998. Through four self-empowered women, Utami explores female sexuality in a much deeper way than Lestari. But the most affecting part of the book is the story of Wisanggeni, a priest who works with a poor rubber-tapping community and tries to defend them from a company that wants their land. The company is backed by the military, and Wisanggeni is captured and tortured, while the village is destroyed and the villagers raped and killed. This is a moving portrayal of what frequently happened under Suharto’s regime.

Wisanggeni escapes, but loses his faith and becomes a human rights worker, changing his name to Saman. The scholar Nur Wulan points out that through Saman, Utami presents a masculinity quite different to traditional norms, which had been “characterised by self-interest, competitiveness and domination.” In a society where self-sacrifice is seen as more appropriate for women, Saman is willing to sacrifice himself to defend the powerless.

Both writers present a softer conception of masculinity, for example, by reversing the roles of women and men in initiating sex.  But the two books are also very different. Supernova is clever, light and enjoyable while Saman has a more literary style and a much more powerful story. Lestari uses her art to push a message, while Utami creates a heart-rending depiction of the lives of people who were marginalised in Suharto’s Indonesia.

Each book was met with a storm of controversy, with much of the criticism targeting the explicit descriptions of female sexuality. But the quality of the writing was also recognised, to the extent that Utami was accused of not being the writer of Saman, because it was believed that a woman was not capable of producing such a fine novel.

Photo of Ayu Utami

Ayu Utami (Photo by Meutia Chaerani, CC licence)

The wave of bold new fiction by young female authors that Utami and Lestari initiated was dubbed sastra wangi, fragrant literature. Most of these writers reject that label, seeing it as a tactic by male critics to belittle their work.

Despite the patronising attitudes directed towards these women, sexism is no more prevalent in Indonesia than it is in Western countries. In fact feminism has a long history in Indonesia, and had made substantial advances by the fifties, such as a law recognising the principle of equal pay for equal work. These gains were sidelined by the Suharto regime’s return to traditional values, which defined women as wives and mothers and promoted their domestic roles. In the West it was only recently that sexist beliefs began to change, and events in Australian politics over the past couple of years have shown that negative attitudes to women still persist. Both Indonesia and Australia have changed dramatically in recent decades, but many of the old presumptions live on.

Both Ayu Utami and Dewi Lestari, who is popularly known by her pen name Dee, have continued writing novels and short stories, as well as pursuing other interests, Utami as a journalist and playwright, and Lestari as a singer and songwriter. Both will be appearing at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in October.

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