Escaping the censor

Several Indonesian women are rebelling through literature, and the shock is beginning to reverberate.

monkey book 88 298 (photo credit: )
monkey book 88 298
(photo credit: )
They Say I'm a Monkey By Djenar Maesa Ayu Metafor Publishing 125 pp., Indonesia Rp.69,000 Djenar Maesa Ayu, Indonesia's raunchiest chick-lit writer, jokes that she has two main readerships - sexually empowered young women and repressed Islamic fundamentalists. While Ayu is adamant that extremists devour her work in private, catching a Muslim fanatic reading her latest short-story collection Don't Play With Your Clitoris would seem about as likely as sighting its author wearing a traditional head scarf. Ayu is one of a slew of provocative young female writers who emerged following the demise of Suharto's New Order regime in 1998. Lumped together under the umbrella term sastra wangi ("fragrant writers") - so-called because of their telegenic looks and fashionable attire - Ayu, along with pop singer turned novelist Dewi Lestari and former dissident journalist Ayu Utami, has rejuvenated Indonesian literature with explorations of taboo subjects that would never have escaped the censor's red pen under Suharto's regime. In her 2002 short-story collection They Say I'm a Monkey, Djenar Maesa Ayu chronicles the seedy underbelly of the world's most populous Muslim country. Her stories are soul-howling allegories that depict the sexual exploitation of women in unflinching prose. In her darkly surreal short story "Suckling Father," Ayu uses the metaphor of a girl nourished by her father's semen instead of her mother's milk to portray a woman's violent rejection of traditional gender roles. Ayu has an apt reply to those accusing her of willfully inducing nausea in her readers: "If I've shocked the reader, believe me I'm shocked too!" The controversy that swirls around her work reflects media double standards for female writers, according to Ayu. While conservative critics attacked her short story "Vagina‚" no one raised an eyebrow over male poet Putu Wijaya's poem of the same title. As Ayu explains, "When a female writer writes about sexuality there is public outrage for everything but the work itself - morality questions, such as: Is it proper for women to write about the subject?" So it was perhaps fortunate that, when the Jakarta Arts Council awarded Ayu Utami's manuscript Saman its annual fiction prize in 1998, it was ignorant of the writer's gender. Depicting an affair between a Catholic priest and a sexually forthright woman, and published two weeks before Suharto's resignation, Saman was widely hailed as the most important Indonesian novel in decades. That a novel, whose heroine acts unashamedly on her sexual impulses, managed to notch up sales of over 100,000 copies reflects the reforming zeitgeist of the time. As Utami writes of her protagonist: "She had achieved notoriety in this town for one thing. She was in the habit of wandering around the streets and rubbing her genitals against any suitable object - a post, a fence, the corner of a wall - like an animal in heat. Of course a number of the local boys had taken advantage of this particular habit of hers. Everyone said she enjoyed it too. That's why she keeps coming back to town, they said, in search of an electricity pole or a man. And she would always be certain to find both: a passive pole and an aggressive man." Shortly after publication, allegations surfaced in the press that Saman was ghostwritten by Utami's mentor, Indonesia's preeminent poet Goenawan Mohamad. Doubts were raised about whether a 29-year-old former fashion model could emerge from nowhere to pen such a poetically rich novel. Some were skeptical that a woman could write so openly about sex. "The accusations hinted at an underlying unease about the spectre of a woman writing confidently and eloquently about sex," says Pamela Allen, the Tasmania-based translator of Saman. Utami says that the controversy about her authorship changed her irrevocably. "I used to be humble, but the scandal taught me not to be," she says. "People always discriminate against women, either positively or negatively. First, they negatively discriminated against me by saying that I couldn't be the writer. Later, they positively discriminate me by having a bigger interest in me personally and my work." Indeed, much of the sastra wangis' success can be attributed to their visibility as public figures. "Now, supported by the fast growth of the media, not only our works but the writers themselves become well known," says Djenar Maesa Ayu. "This is what shocked the Indonesian literature world." The sastra wangi are just as likely to be gossiped about in glossy lifestyle magazines as discussed in newspaper book review pages. Dewi Lestari says that the literati initially begrudged her efforts when, aged 25 and established as a singer, she published the first installment of her serial novel Supernova - a sci-fi-influenced romantic saga of superhuman yuppies, narrated by a gay couple. "With the second book, they started taking me more seriously," she says. Drawing on her fame as a singer, Lestari arranged for her band to give a free performance in one of Jakarta's largest shopping plazas to launch Supernova, drawing thousands of students to purchase cut-price editions. Within months, sales had reached 100,000. "For a kid at my time, books had an image as boring and dull," says Lestari. "The book industry didn't do any packaging to interest young people. The book was just passively put on the shelves. As a singer, when we release an album we go for radio promos and we tour major cities. That was the only way I knew how to promote. A lot of students told me: 'Supernova is the first novel I've ever read.' There's a new hype now. People are starting to read more. In my time, nobody was interested in writing, but now interest in writing contests is so enthusiastic. Every time I go for book signings and workshops I see a new spirit." Of the three "fragrant" writers‚ only Lestari sees sastra wangi as a meaningful term. "In the past, the writer was usually a guy and they usually smelt, thinking: "I don't care about how I look. I don't care about how I smell." But now we present ourselves as trendy and, probably, fragrant. It's a new phase of Indonesian literature." Yet, as leading feminist intellectual Julia Suryakusuma points out: "The subjects of their writing is far from fragrant. They should probably be called smelly writers!" Goenawan Mohamad argues that sastra wangi is a chauvinistic term. "To apply it to contemporary Indonesian women writers, as if their works are all associated with perfumes and petticoats, is derogatory," he says. John McGlynn, director of the Lontar Foundation devoted to translating Indonesian literature, dismisses the label as a mere marketing gambit. "Ever since The God of Small Things, every publisher in the world has been looking for the next young, beautiful and sexy female writer. Sastra wangi can be traced more to the efforts of publishers to sell books than to a true trend in the Indonesian literary world." The category of fragrant literature ignores the differences between writers, says Richard Oh, founder of the English-language book chain QB Books: "Ayu [Utami] writes about a woman's independence in a literary way by blending history and Indonesian myths. Djenar [Maesa Ayu] is totally a different creature. She writes from an emotional depth about relationships and illicit affairs. Dewi [Lestari] treads a different path. She is heavily influenced by Japanese comics." Regarding the downfall of Suharto as the sole origin of the literary new wave is simplistic, according to McGlynn. "There are numerous other factors to take into account, including strides in education, widespread Internet use and greater access to foreign literature," he says. As Pamela Allen points out, Saman was written before Suharto's jackboot lifted: "It was coincidence that it was published right at the time the old man stepped down. It's too easy to see the fall of Suharto, like the coming down of the Berlin Wall, as the symbolic removal of all barriers to expression." But Dewi Lestari is adamant that she couldn't have written Supernova under Suharto. "Suharto's fall brought us a new dawn, the freedom to think, the freedom to explore ourselves," she says. "Brave issues about sex lives were a big no-no, but now they're everywhere." Some criticize the sastra wangi for lacking social commitment. For many older Indonesian literati who came of age under president Sukarno (1949-1967) - when art was often viewed through a Marxist lens as a tool for political struggle - the sastra wangi are callow promoters of art for art's sake. As Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia's grand old man of letters, opines: "All they write about is themselves and sex." What Pramoedya fails to appreciate, says Oh, is that "the new generation of writers are very jaded about the conduct of politicians and the state of corruption we're living in now." Dewi Lestari is tired of fending off charges that her books are apolitical: "One of the lamest questions I get in every discussion is: Are you going to write about corruption? Are you going to write about fundamentalism? If you want to write about that, you write that yourself!" Characterizations of fragrant writing as frivolous stem from the prevailing male denial of sex as an important social issue with serious consequences for women, Ayu Utami argues. "It's classic, isn't it?" she says of Pramoedya's remark. "Old men think that sex is a private, domestic problem, too trivial to be opened up. But sex is a problem much more for women than for men." For Djenar Maesa Ayu, whose stories often depict violent sexual relationships, writing is a way of piercing the wall of silence surrounding rape in Indonesia. "My works are warnings that sexual abuse happens often," says Ayu, who is soon to direct a film based on her short story "Leech," about a teenage girl raped by her mother's boyfriend. "Because parents still think that it's taboo to talk about sex, those ignorant children become easy victims to their closest circle." Unlike Ayu, Utami identifies as a feminist, exploiting media interest in her work to challenge the male norms of the establishment. Recently she created a media firestorm when she called on young women to abstain from marrying. "The infotainment doesn't like women with strong opinions," says Utami. "They like nice girls, good wives, or women victims and Britney Spears types - girls wearing oh-so-sexy outfits, but who keep their virginity for their husband." While she denies writing with a political agenda, Utami says that she's not advocating art for art's sake. "When an artist makes an exploration that looks irrelevant to her environment, who can judge that it's art for art's sake?" she says. "You can only guess the artist's motivation and judge whether the work fails or not." Utami and Lestari are level-headed in the face of their conservative detractors. For Utami, conservatives play an invaluable role in forcing artists to justify depictions of sex on artistic grounds, helping them resist the pull to depict gratuitous sex because of its selling power. "Conservatives remind us not to be trapped in the old song 'sex sells‚'" says Utami. "When controversy becomes commodity, you lose the grip and urgency." Lestari believes that the literary old guard's resistance is an inevitable reaction to the power of the new kids on the literary block. "Every cultural movement is going to be resisted from the previous establishment," she says. "But I don't see that as a negative action. I see it as like saying: 'Prove that you're worthy'. It's going to be proven by time."