Women reject categorization,
defend literary voice

A. Junaidi, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

They are young and beautiful women writers; thus it was that literary critics -- mostly men -- categorized them as the Sastra Wangi (fragrant literature) generation of Indonesian writers.

The critics classified such writers as Ayu Utami (Saman, Larung), Dewi ""Dee"" Lestari (Supernova, Akar) and Djenar Maesa Ayu (Jangan Main-main Dengan Kelaminmu (Don't play with your genitals) under this so-called fragrant literature.

The categorization started in the early 2000s, when several women writers launched their first books -- whether works of fiction, a short story collection or poetry anthology.

Their book launches -- which were often attended by celebrities -- were usually held at bookstores or cafes and received coverage in both print and electronic media. In this, they had already differentiated themselves, as Indonesian writers did not traditionally host book launches themselves.

The works of this new generation of writers were only displayed in bookstores, and the public learned of them -- such as N.H. Dini, Titis Basino, Mira W. and Ratna I. Ibrahim -- from their critics.

""I'm not fragrant. My works are not fragrant either. I don't know how and why they categorized me as 'fragrant' literature,"" Djenar said in a recent interview with The Jakarta Post.

Djenar, one of whose short stories was selected the best short story by Kompas last year, said that the categorization could be viewed as a kind of sexual harassment of her work.

Nevertheless, the mother of two daughters said she did not care about the categorization and would continue to write as she saw fit and so desired.

Managing editor of Jurnal Perempuan (Women's Journal) Mariana Amiruddin believes the categorization showed that women were once again being evaluated by their bodies.

Mariana herself is set to launch a book titled Perempuan Menolak Tabu (Women reject taboos), which is based on her Master's thesis at the Women's Studies Program of the University of Indonesia.

She said the Sastra Wangi label underestimated women writers' works, as though other literary works, especially those by male writers, were more substantive.

Since the outset of modern feminism, feminist critics have rejected any kind of categorization, particularly those based on binary opposites, such as high culture against low culture, fine arts against popular arts and body against soul, as they only marginalized women's literature.

Djenar and other contemporary women writers have often been criticized for their failure at being ""feminine"" for their use of words such as ""penis"" and ""vagina"" in their works.

In addition, women writers are boldly tackling and exploring themes that had been considered taboo in the not-so-distant past, such as sexuality, male homosexuality and lesbianism.

""Why is it they (critics) question my use of such words when they don't react to male writers? Why is it that hysteria arises when we explore themes such as sexuality,"" Djenar said.

She said she was simply voicing her femininity in her own style, while other women writers also did the same in their own ways.

And the voices of women -- and their experiences -- bind women writers across generations, including authors of the current phenomenon of teen lit, or worse, ""chick lit"".

Teen literature mostly take a look at the life of teenage girls, such as school, hanging out at cafes and boyfriends, and are mostly written by teenage girls -- although a few of them are young women in their 20s.

Some books, such as Eiffel, I'm In Love, have been turned into films and gained success.

In the past, however, books for teenage readership were written by male writers and featured male heroes. Lupus by Hilman and Gita Cinta dari SMA (Love song for high school) by Eddy D Iskandar are classic examples of teen books that made it to the big screen.

Television presenter Tamara Geraldine praised contemporary women writers -- including teen lit writers -- for their courage to express themselves.

""They have tried their best. It's not easy to be a writer,"" said Tamara, who is preparing to launch an anthology of her poems and short stories.

Rejecting such gender-biased categorizations in literature as well as in other spheres, and appreciating and learning about the real experiences of women as told by women writers are useful and meaningful for all.

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