Words Without Borders and the Idea of Indonesian Literature

By Andy Fuller

I want to explore how the idea of "words without borders" might relate to the concept of "Indonesian literature." "Borders" can be political, cultural, social and perhaps, practical. A border is a construct, rather than something natural and self-evident. They are expressed politically and through culture and daily life. Sometimes we need borders in order to clearly define our own identities. We construct "others" who are "different" from us. This is an ongoing and problematic process. The testing of borders is a negotiation of similarities and differences. In looking for similarities we look for a common humanity, a universality of feelings and thoughts. In looking for differences we look for uniqueness, specificity and originality. Throughout the history of modern Indonesian literature borders have been continually constructed, deconstructed and penetrated. The breaking-down and crossing of borders are moments of innovation, renewal and experimentation. To play and to write within borders offers no excitement or challenge.

The borders of Indonesian literature are many and varied. But, the one that must be negotiated first is the term "Indonesia" itself. Indonesia, like all nations, is a nation in progress. The idea of what Indonesia-as-nation would encompass and the ideals it would encapsulate were developed during the early years of the 20th century. This history is explored in a new book by R.E. Elson, The Idea of Indonesia: A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). Although Elson barely discusses 'literature', he does draw on the experiences and ideas of key journalists and writers such as Abdul Muis, Tirto Adisuryo and Mas Marco Kartodikromo. These key early writers who produced a kind of proto-Indonesian literature, were indeed writing before the nation of Indonesia existed. They have since been canonised and drawn within the borders of 'Indonesian literature'. The ideas, style and language of their writings form a part of the discourse on what Indonesian literature is and what the nation of Indonesia is. Henk Maier's entertaining and enjoyable survey of "Malay literature," We are playing relatives: A survey of Malay literature (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2004), generally ignores national borders. Maier asserts that language and writing is fluid and able to penetrate such borders.

Writers of the mid twentieth century such as Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana, Armijn Pane and Sanusi Pane, contributed significantly to debates on the "Indonesian" nation. Their works became mini-worlds of what Indonesia might be like. Later, in perhaps the most popular example of "Indonesian literature" outside of Indonesia, Pramoedya Ananta Toer wrote a quartet of novels, which provided an alternative history of the Indonesian nation. Razif Bahari writes of Pramoedya's use of language in the "Buru Quartet":

the constant references…to language problematise and emphasise questions of difference and the quest for a voice in a social context that denied social expression to the colonised self and hence cut it off from the liberating forms of self-expression which were later to define Indonesian narrative' (Bahari, 2007, p.4).

As a writer who was silenced for much of the New Order era (1966–1998), Pramoedya also sought to emphasise the literary traditions, which existed prior to the founding of the Balai Poestaka (in 1908), as well as to bemoan the failure of the Indonesian independence movement to bring about a just society. This is evident among other texts in Tales from Djakarta. For much of the New Order era, Pramoedya was the most stinging critic of the state of the nation, yet within Indonesia, he remained peripheral to mainstream debates on literature. Bahari sees Pramoedya as occupying the position of both "insider" and "outsider" (Bahari, 2007, p.3).

Indonesian literature, thus, is shaped by varied concepts of the "nation." At the same time it re-negotiates and questions dominant ideas about what the nation is and is becoming. In talking, writing and discussing matters briefly to do with "Indonesian literature," or, kesusastraan Indonesia (to use a rather unwieldy term), critics are challenged to explore the manner in which contemporary authors use words which pay no heed to borders whether they pertain to nation, form or language.

Andy Fuller is a PhD student at the University of Tasmania, Australia. He is currently researching the writings of a contemporary Indonesian author, Seno Gumira Ajidarma and how they represent urban life. He writes on literature, urban life and music. Andy can be contacted at: fuller.andy@gmail.com.


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