by: Okky Madasari

NEARLY SEVENTEEN YEARS after the fall of Suharto’s totalitarian New Order regime, Indonesia is a different nation, and many changes have taken place inside South-East Asia’s biggest economy, not least those within its literary world.

Indonesia is now a vibrant democracy – the president, governors, mayors and regents have been directly elected by the people since 2004. At the national level, Indonesia has regular direct elections every five years to elect a president and legislators, while at the regional level, successive elections of governors, mayors and regents take place in thirty-four provinces and more than five hundred cities and regencies across the archipelago.

Since the fall of Suharto, Jakarta has delegated significant power to its surrounding provinces, cities and regencies, while the country’s press freedom is among the highest in the region. Everybody is now free to express themselves – to be creative, write and publish – and the state has little power to ban or even censor literary works.

In this climate of freedom, citizens are able to express their opinions about existing conditions and criticise the government without fear. While a number of books are still banned by the Attorney-General’s office, no one has been detained for writing books or articles in the media. The law guarantees a constitutional right and legal protection for mass media and published material, such as newspapers, magazines and books, without government interference or censorship.

Literary works banned during the New Order era, such as those written by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, can now be found easily in book stores. Writers jailed under Suharto’s regime can now publish their work and are free to speak at events across the country.

New publishers have mushroomed in this open environment; in 2014, there were 1,126 officially registered publishers across the Indonesian archipelago. (The number could have been twice that if unregistered publishers were included.) During the thirty-two years of the New Order, when the draconian regime monitored every publisher and every book published, only six hundred and fifty publishers existed. Companies regarded as dangerous by the state were quickly closed down.

This new publishing freedom has been supported by technological advancements in printing, such as print-on-demand, which enable the production of more books and encourage more writers to aim for publication. In 2014, around eighteen-thousand book titles were published, a jump from around only eight-thousand titles in 1996. 

In the post-New Order era, Indonesia has seen a number of literary works produced that are considered phenomenal not only in term of their sales, but also their influence. I divide these into three main categories: Islamic novels, motivational novels, and romance. 

Many Islamic novels are labelled as such by their publishers, often on the cover. Motivational novels are called ‘novels for the soul’ or ‘spirit-developing novels’, and romance novels – mostly for teenagers and urbanites – are labelled ‘metropop’ or ‘chick lit’, and seem out of touch with reality and the problems faced by society.

These three categories of modern Indonesian literature dominate our bookstores; they occupy the front shelves, next to books on Islamic teachings. One such successful novel will inspire dozens of duplicates written on the same topic using the same formula – as long as they sell.

While formerly, the nation’s standard of a bestseller novel meant reaching sales of ten to twenty thousand copies nationwide, these new novel categories can sell hundreds of thousands, or even millions of copies. To use a Foucauldian phrase, they become the dominant discourse for Indonesian people.

The question is why, after the fall of a totalitarian regime and when the country has such a degree of freedom, are the majority of Indonesia’s writers indifferent to, and even ignorant about, social conditions? They surrender to stories that detach themselves from reality and fall into the realm of soap opera and Islamic moral guidance. Critical thought and questioning social conditions are essential for a developing country like Indonesia to improve its standards of living. The novel in Indonesia might be seen not only as entertainment but also – deliberately or not – as a tool for pushing certain agendas.

Literature portrays a snapshot of life or a mirror of what happens, has happened, or might happen. It represents conditions of a society in a certain period of time. So, it’s a no-brainer that literary works cannot be entirely separated from social reality; they are born from and are shaped by it. However, they also help form social reality. Social changes influence literature and, in turn, these works can influence social change.

Within the context of Indonesian literature, there is a marked difference between literary works created under colonial rule – books published by Balai Pustaka (a publishing company established by the Dutch Colonial government in 1920) and Angkatan Pujanga Baru (‘New Poet Generation’, which emerged in the 1930s and lasted to 1945), for example – and revolutionary works under Angkatan 45 (‘Generation 45’, which arose out of Indonesia’s struggle for independence from just before 1945 into the 1950s). These works are also very different from literature produced by writers affiliated with Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat (‘Lekra, People’s Cultural Institution’, a body established by the Indonesian Communist Party) or literary works that appeared under the New Order regime and current post-New Order Era. Each of the nation’s historical eras has produced literature with distinct characteristics.

NOVELS PUBLISHED BY Balai Pustaka were mostly about the impacts of tradition and local ethnic values, especially the traditions and culture of the Minang, the biggest ethnic group in West Sumatra. Some questioned certain values and practises within the community at the time, such as forced marriage and feudalism. The stories are sentimental and usually end tragically, with characters ultimately surrendering to tradition. The noticeable works during this period include Azab dan Sengsara (‘Punishment and Misery’, 1920) by Merari Siregar, Siti Nurbaya (1922) by Marah Rusli and Abdul Muis’ Salah Asuhan (‘Wrongly Educated’, 1928).

The subsequent generation of writers – New Writer Generation or New Poet Generation – broke this ethnicity boundary. Their literature is optimistic and full of hope, unlinked to local values. Their novels – especially those by Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana, the pioneer and biggest writer of the generation – highlight young people’s enthusiasm to embrace the new world, full of hope and belief in universal values rather than tradition and ethnicity. The poet Amir Hamzah started the country’s modern poetry tradition, using a simple style and diction – his Nyanyi Sunyi (‘Silently Sing’, 1937), for example, is forever breaking free from traditional Malay-style poems.

The next era, known as Generation 45 (1945), described the world as a place for struggle. According to the literature of this time, life is a fight from beginning to end. Poetry dominated the period, with Chairil Anwar, Indonesia’s most celebrated poet, leading the way. He and fellow poets believed they were part of a global community, and claimed not only their identity as Indonesians but also their right as heirs to the world’s body of knowledge and literature. In their manifesto, called Surat Kepercayaan Gelanggang (‘Gelanggang’s Letter of Confidence’, 1950), they made their claim as the voice of universal humanism.

It was in this period that the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) established Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat (known as ‘Lekra’), the Institute for the People’s Culture. It harshly criticised universal humanism and the spirit of Generation 45. Lekra, which carried the tag ‘Literature for the People’, considered universal humanism the extension of colonial power and capitalism. The most famous of it’s authors was Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Supporters of universal humanism became a target of bullying and even violence, and Lekra’s writers became dominant in the second half of the 1950s and the early 1960s.

As a form of resistance in 1963, a group of writers produced a cultural manifesto embracing universal humanism, condemning Lekra’s tactics and rejecting the use of political power over literature. Just a couple of years later, the scene changed dramatically.

Following the bloody anti-communist purge of 1965 and 1966, all writers affiliated with Lekra were jailed without legal trials. The subsequent New Order Regime became more and more repressive. First, the iron-fisted government banned all books related to the PKI and Lekra. Second, it took measures to ensure all books published would not put its supporters in danger. During that period, there was no freedom of expression. Censorship of the media and books was common and considered normal, as people were made to believe that the PKI was still waiting to take over Indonesia – and they would do it through books.

The thirty-two years of New Order government were Indonesia’s literary dark age. Writers in this period generally played it safe; however, several did try to write about what was happening. Ahmad Tohari, for instance, tried to highlight the fate of PKI-labelled victims in his novels, although these underwent heavy censorship. The famous poet and dramatist Wahyu Sulaiman Rendra saw his performances cancelled or banned by the authorities.

Economic crisis, followed by massive demonstrations across the country in May 1998, brought down Suharto and his New Order Regime. A new era in almost all aspects of life began in Indonesia. Freedom and democracy were nurtured across the country, and everybody was able to say whatever they wanted. But…

SEVERAL YEARS AFTER the fall of the New Order Regime, Indonesia remained euphoric. Such euphoria was felt within the literary world. In 1998, Ayu Utami published her novel Saman, which led the way in breaking the taboo of how Indonesian women expressed themselves, especially their sexuality. Saman’s phenomenal success was followed by other bold women writers such as Djenar Maesa Ayu, whose short stories have been described as ‘brave’ and ‘provocative’, and Dewi (‘Dee’) Lestari’s 2001 breakthrough novel Supernova, which mixed straight and gay love stories with science and spirituality. They briefly dominated the discourse within the country’s literary world.

But these too have been swept out by that new wave of Islamic, motivational and romantic literature with phenomenal sales and influence. Among these bestselling novels are two exemplars of the now dominant genres in Indonesia: Ayat-Ayat Cinta (‘Love Verses’, 2004) by Habiburahman El Shirazy, and Laskar Pelangi (‘Rainbow Troops’, 2005) by Andrea Hirata. Both have been adapted for movies and attracted audiences in the millions across the country. The first, a romance, is masked by a conservative interpretation of Islamic teachings. It proposes that a Muslim man – however poor he is – can have more than one wife while still enjoying the wealth of his first wife. The second, a motivational novel, is a dream-come-true tale about a boy living on one of Indonesia’s small islands, who went on to study in Europe and have a successful life ever after. Dozens of titles using the same recipe have crowded the bookstores and preoccupied conversations among many Indonesians. They represent the current dreams of Indonesian people, and allow them to buy their dreams cheap.

With 90 per cent of its 250 million population declared Muslim, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim majority country. When Ayat-Ayat Cinta gained huge success in sales, the publishing companies knew what type of books to sell. At this point, a rare phenomena occurred: the marriage between capitalism and religion, in this case Islam.

The success of Laskar Pelangi was also harnessed by publishers. They realised that, as with soap operas, people are entertained by novels that reflect their dreams, and many Indonesians dream of winning a scholarship to study overseas. The Islamic novel Negeri Lima Menara (‘Land of Five Towers’) blends this dream of studying and working overseas with an Islamic theme.

These novels show perfect union between conservative Islam, young intellectuals who have studied or want to study overseas, and capitalism. The result is the death of serious and critical literature, and the enabling of conservative Islamic teachings to penetrate wider and wider audiences. ***


Published in Griffith Review Islam, Capitalism, and Literature



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