by: Okky Madasari

So, what does fiction mean?

This question returned to haunt my mind when someone asked me to write an introduction for her book based on a piece of research about a group of Ahmadi people who have been living at a refugee shelter in Lombok for the last 10 years.

Yes, it has been 10 years since hundreds of people were thrown out of their homes and forced to live in a government building in Mataram, Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara. And it has been four years since my third novel, Maryam (The Outcast), which tells a story about the fate of these people, was published. The novel won the Khatulistiwa Literary Award later in that year and since then has been widely read and discussed in Indonesia and abroad. Yet it has failed to change the conditions of these people’s lives.

These same people are still living as refugees, while their own land and homes are still there – empty and neglected – as they are slowly destroyed by rain and heat as time passes by. These people have lost their rights as citizens and human beings. They have been denied their freedom and right to choose their own beliefs, as well as their right to live safely and freedom to determine their own lives.

Old people die at the shelter while newborn babies become refugees on the first day they step out into the world. Children leave for school from a place that can’t be called a home at all. They live in a large room, with spaces for individual families only divided by a sarong, blanket or any other piece of material. They share an emergency kitchen to cook meals in. Yet, children are still laughing and happily playing around the yard of the building. 

Such are the lives of this particular Ahmadi group that I tell of in my novel – a work of fiction – but also a real story of real people that spend their lives at a refugee shelter in a Transito building in Mataram, Lombok. They have been living there for 10 years, and they still don’t know when they will be able to leave.

The fate of Ahmadis in Lombok is just one real example of a story of injustice in our real world that has been forgotten by our society and neglected by our government. Ahmadi people are not the only group that has faced discrimination and been hunted, persecuted and then killed merely because of their beliefs in Indonesia and around the world.

In today’s world, we can see how hatred and violence occur in many places just because of differences in religion, ethnicity, and political views. From the cruelty of IS in the Middle East to the Rohingya people’s plight in Myanmar, from racial-based shootings in the United States to the immigrant influx in Europe to anti-gay movement in many countries, we can clearly identify these patterns.

Every day, television, newspaper, Facebook and Twitter show us the face of our world that is full of blood and anger, madness and despair, and of course also resistance and hope. News comes and goes, while protests and prayers are also everywhere. Meetings and conferences held in many cities try to figure the situation out.

No one can deny that political power is the key to stop all of the madness. Ahmadi people in Lombok would not still be living as refugees if our government only had the courage to defend their rights as it is a state’s obligation to protect its citizen’s rights.

But what we are seeing now? In many places, in many countries, political power has ironically become the source of madness. Governments, politicians and ruling elites ironically are the weak link and powerless to defend the voiceless people because they are too afraid to lose their power.

We have no choice other than to accept the reality as we realize how small and weak we are, living in the middle of a grand narrative of power and greediness. We have to realize that our cries, anger and resistance are only heard by ourselves and crushed by the powerful majority.

And so what does our writing mean? What is it for all the stories of this madness?

As a fiction writer and reader, the only answer I can offer to myself is: The stories are there to disturb our minds, to cause us discomfort, to interrupt our consciousness. Fiction should continue to be written to encourage us to keep shouting even when we know nobody will hear. It should be there to give hope even when we know there is no hope anymore.

Otherwise, what does life mean? ***

Published by The Jakarta Post Fiction and our despair

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