History and Writing in Indonesia
- Susan Rodgers (Author)
Telling Lives, Telling History. Autobiography and Historical Imagination in Modern Indonesia. University of California Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Nancy K. Florida (Author)
Writing the Past, Inscribing the Future, History as Prophecy in Colonial Java. Duke University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Tineke Hellwig
The average reader in Canada may not be very familiar with literature from Indonesia. He or she may not even know where to locate this archipelago geographically, or how to frame it historically and culturally. Those who have been introduced to Indonesian literature most likely have read translated works of modern fiction, such as Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Quartet from Buru: This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and Glass House, or Mochtar Lubis’s Twilight in Jakarta, or one of the many publications by the Lontar Foundation, amongst others the anthologies Menagerie 1 and 2 (ed. John H. McGlynn). Indonesian poetry, too, has found its way to readers of English, most notably poems by the revolutionary Chairil Anwar (The Voice of the Night) and by W.S. Rendra (Ballads and Blues: Poems), who every so often finds himself arrested when he expresses a dissident opinion. More recently, scholars in Australia, one of Indonesia’s closest neighbours, have made writings by women available in English,
e.g. Women’s Voices (ed. Pamela Allen) and Letters From Kartini (ed. Joost Coté).
The two books under review examine non-fictional texts from Indonesia. These thorough studies by American researchers are intended for experts in the field. Susan Rodgers discusses two autobiographical narratives from the island of Sumatra, whereas Nancy Florida examines a historical poem in Javanese. Both authors offer fluently written translations of the original works. More importantly, however, is that through their approach to the texts they engage in a discussion around issues of history, national identity, and postcolonial discourse.
Rodgers presents the reader with two childhood memoirs published in 1950. Me and Toba by P. Pospos and Village Childhood by Muhamad Radjab give an account of what life was like growing up from the mid-1910s to the 1930s in North and West Sumatra respectively. The worlds of the two boys differ in substantial ways: Pospos is born into the Christian Toba Batak community which is patrilineal, while Radjab’s Muslim Minangkabau soci- ety is matrilineally organized. Both areas, however, are part of the Dutch East Indies and the boys go through a series of similar experiences. Relating their passage through childhood into maturity, they reflect upon their families and crowded households in small village settings, their personal relationships with their fathers, Dutch colonial education, and the influential role of religion and local customs in their communities. The issue of language is an essential one, too. Both authors have chosen to write their memoirs in the national language, Indonesian, rather than in Batak or Minangkabau. And it is precisely the awareness of their respective individual identities, connected with the imaging of a modern society, that is an independent nation free of Dutch control and not restricted by narrow ethnic traditions, which is at the heart of both narratives. By writing about their childhood years in late colonial times Pospos and Radjab foreshadow the future of an imagined Indonesia.
Here we find parallels between the study of Rodgers and of Florida. Writing the Past, Inscribing the Future is an admirable study of the anonymous epic poem in Javanese, Babad Jaka Tingkir, which relates events during the time when Java was converted to Islam, around the turn of the 16th century. It is the text’s prophetic tendencies, however, which compelled Florida to this research. She discovered the manuscript among the correspondence of the Sultan of Surakarta (1807-1849) who was sent into internal exile to the island of Ambon by the Dutch in 1830. The manuscript is incomplete as it abruptly breaks off in mid-sentence even before the protagonist Jaka Tingkir has fully emerged in the story. Florida finds indications in the text which lead her to believe that this manuscript was written on Ambon between 1848 and 1850, and that its author was either the Sultan himself or his daughter who was with him in exile. In the second stanza of the poem there is the confusion as to the dating of the writing. Then there are four pen and ink drawings which suggestively interpolate the text and refer to a dream of the young king in exile. Florida argues that the Babad Jaka Tingkir be read as the prohecy of the young Sultan’s fate to live and die in exile. A number of episodes in the poem foreground the potential scenarios of the future for Java and disclose that the writing of history is writing the future.
In my view Florida has successfully given meaning to "a text that itself both explicitly and implicitly questions the centrality of any center that would attempt to exclude margins" in order to "provoke a stutter in the universalizing projects of a dominant discourse that effaces marginal voices even as it would speak for exoticized others." Through these studies both Florida and Rodgers make literary texts from Indonesia a serious part of postcolonial discourse.
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MLA: Hellwig, Tineke. History and Writing in Indonesia. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #156 (Spring 1998). (pg. 127 - 128)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.