Literature is what makes
us human

Lie Hua, Contributor, Jakarta

Bakdi Soemanto is known as a short-story writer whose tales contain the dark humor of Russian master playwright and short-story writer Anton Chekhov.

Bakdi always sees the humorous side even in the darkest aspect of life. His short stories, some of which were published in an English translation titled The Magician, abound with examples of dark humor. He also writes widely on issues related to Indonesian culture and literature in the national media.

Born in Surakarta 61 years ago, Bakdi now lives Yogyakarta. He is a former chairman of the Yogyakarta Arts Council and spent three semesters teaching Indonesian literature at Oberlin College in Ohio, one of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the U.S., and at Northern Illinois University, Chicago (1986-1987). In 1995 he was part of a British studies course in Britain and the next year a course on American Civilization in India.

In 2001 he obtained a doctorate degree in literature from the School of Literature, Gadjah Mada University, where he is active as a lecturer and a researcher. His dissertation is on Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

The following is an excerpt of an e-mail interview with him:

Question: Many believe that Indonesian literature is undergoing stagnation. What do you think?

Answer: In my opinion, nowhere in the world does literature move as fast as technology, such as in the computer and automotive areas. You cannot spur literature to make fast progress because literary works are after all individual products. Only when these products are published they can be marketed on a large scale. In short, literature is closely linked with reflection and contemplation.

There is encouraging development in Indonesian literature today. More books on literary genres have been published. While old hands like Goenawan Mohammad and Sapardi Djoko Damono continue to write, there are now new names with extraordinary and unique works, like Dee with her Supernova and Ayu Utami with her Saman and Larung.

Q: What do you think about the development of Indonesian literature after the fall of Soeharto?

A: Although there isn't much difference, of course we have much more freedom now. You can freely talk about Marxist theories and books by Pram (Pramoedya Ananta Toer) are available. It seems now that literature is no longer employed to resist the ruling regime, there are experiments in forms. You have plotless or even themeless stories as further development of postmodern and deconstruction.

Q: What do you think about literary pages in newspapers?

A: Terrific. You can find literary pages in almost all media publications except news magazines. Works published in these media need more serious research because they are usually written in conformity with the space available. It remains to be seen whether this factor influences the style of writing.

One important thing is that these pages allow newcomers to publish their works, therefore creating greater variety in our literary map. In other words, these works enrich the country's literature.

Q: What do you think about literary prizes, especially those awarded by Lontar and QB Bookstore?

A: I believe we must welcome the idea of awarding literary prizes. Every institution has their own criteria for the prizes they award. This shows that beauty is not absolute in standard. Obviously, these prizes will encourage more people to write.

Q: Your comment on the teaching of literature in schools?

A: It's a pity that our education is yet to be based on the realization that the most important part of education is to humanize human beings. Literature helps achieve this goal. Unfortunately, when you seem to be interested in literature, the question usually asked is whether you can count on it as a means of making a living. Students have to be shown that great people -- famous or notorious -- in the world usually love literature.

Q: Your opinion about literature in translation?

A: In the case of the translation of Indonesian literature into English, the Lontar Foundation must be mentioned for its great merit in introducing Indonesian literature abroad. Only in this way can our literature find access into international journals. On the other hand, now it seems that a lot more foreign works have been translated into Indonesian, say the works of Camus, Beckett, Kundera, Haassee. In this way, our writers will have a broader horizon of their minds.

Bakdi closed the interview with his hope that writers here will be better paid so that they can concentrate on their writing. Only in this way, he said, can we expect to have an Indonesian writer selected as a Nobel Prize winner.

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