This is the first letter I have written for fifteen years. Since then, the letter as you and I know it has been forgotten, just like people have massively also crossed their private boundaries to migrate, to meet within the crowded virtual public sphere created by advanced technology never imagined by your generation.
My generation has been busy and spoilt by the so-called short, instant and rapid communication. So, why do we need to write this obsolete-form letter when everything can be expressed through electronic messages called SMS, or social media like YouTube, Facebook or Twitter?
But today I miss writing and want to write a real letter, one that can provide me more space for what I have been thinking so that I can write deeply and thoughtfully without a rush and ending up being shallow. For this, I have to get out of this boring virtual public sphere, which is becoming the one you predicted and much more.
The other day someone asked me why I still wanted to write novels. Were novels still needed in this era, when people love television and the internet more than books? Will the digital generation love to read books and love novels like the previous generation did?
These questions have been deeply haunting me since. I need time to think through what kinds of answers I can give. More than that, I need an answer for myself as to why I write novels. What do I need them for?
Every generation dies and changes. Your generation will sooner rather than later also be gone.
I and my peers in Indonesia belong to a generation that was born in blindness during the established system of Suharto’s totalitarian new order era, and when times change, we have to see things more clearly.
Our generation is the one possessing free will. Our breath is energy, ambition and a push to achieve something big.
We are no longer facing soldiers and guns, not like you and the older Jewish-German generation that faced Hitler, a much more ruthless murderer. We don’t need to lie down in fear, hiding from a regime utilising violence to maintain its power. We’re not victims of a communist regime who were killed or sent into exile. We don’t experience a fate like my predecessors, whom I consider heroes. We are not Pramoedya, who was forced to write in prison, or Wiji Thukul, who is still missing now because of speaking against injustice, or Munir, who was murdered because of his bravery.
We are no longer experiencing the time when we had to hide so that we could discuss topics considered subversive, and then became fugitives and hunted everywhere. We are not a generation of the Indonesian past that was forced and surrendered to live in uniformity. We don’t live in the time when we were terrified to have long hair and a tattoo because we could be accused as thugs.
This is the time when we don’t have to hide our protest inside our hearts or are forced to be cautious when making a creation of our own.
Our generation is a generation of technology.
Mobile phones, the internet, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are the power of this generation that has made your generation envy. Criticising is just a click away; so are holding a discussion or creating something. Every barrier has gone, while information has flooded us.
We live as if we had grabbed almost total freedom and conquered all limitation. Each and every one of us has a voice and can speak.
But it doesn’t mean that we don’t have enemies any more, as now we have become silent in complacency. It’s true we don’t have to fight a dictator or soldiers. But it doesn’t mean our duty has become easier, and our efforts end up as a mere entertainment.
I know you believe in democracy. But probably you miss the speed and impact of the technological change we are witnessing.
I witness that democracy, for its own part, brings fears: when everything is decided by number, when the majority always wins.
Inside the democratic system, technology also carries its own threats: when shallowness looms behind easiness and speediness, when the combination of democracy and technology is capitalised upon and used by those dominant groups fully supported by the authorities to dictate to the silent majority.
Democracy and advancement of technology don’t free us from injustice.
Groups with small members are ignored in political calculation and will always become victims. Just because they have a faith different from the mainstream, they can be attacked, and their rights are stripped. Just because they are of certain ethnicities, some people are marginalised.
Your vision of a sphere in which everybody can freely express their ideas for the good of society seems to have been realised with the coming of the so-called social media. However, you probably again miss some points.
Domination of ideas and opinions through mass media, new media or social media often deafens and blinds our minds, blocking the whisper of our own consciences. Ideas are victors just because they are followed by many people, and we end up bandwagon-ing and copycat-ing, becoming part of mass hysteria and hype, then losing our own authenticity.
Individual consciousness and freedom are still too costly, and in many cases unaffordable. Domination of certain groups, shackles of traditional and religious values, as well as illusions of nationalism are still caging us. We have yet to free ourselves from limitation. Meanwhile, big ideas, creativity and great works can be born only out of personal consciousness and freedom of thinking.
Democracy and the so-called free access to information have also made the gap wider between the powerful and the powerless, and between the rich and the poor. Injustice still prevails. How many people can claim their right to a decent and quality life? How many are still struggling just to stay alive? Poverty, inequality and backwardness linger because of injustice: when a small number of people live in luxury and millions of others are fighting against hunger, when some people live lavishly after stealing the state’s money and a grandmother or a peasant goes to jail because she or he is forced to steal to stay alive.
I am a novelist. Within this world of irony and confusion, I am just trying to take a stand with my novels and give my generation different perspectives so that they can see more clearly, hopefully easing their view from the cloud of crowded ideas.
Novels, and literature in general, are not just a collection of words of wisdom. Literature is not a series of motivations to achieve personal success. In the midst of flooded information, literature asks us to listen to our consciences. It reminds us to keep ourselves from mass hysteria and to strengthen our authenticity.
Literature is restlessness and demand. It is altogether bravery and honesty.
It is born from realisation to cultivate new consciences. As when such consciences grow, it’s time to decide and take the side of freedom and justice, and most importantly of humanity.
Now, it’s our turn.
Jakarta, 25 September 2013.