Years have passed, thoughts matured, places left and revisited. Eighty-five times has poet Sitor Situmorang celebrated his birthday and his works, but one thing has remained the same: Always a traveler, always a wanderer.
So he has been, literally and spiritually.
“When your brain stops wandering and your mind stops working, you stop living,” the renowned writer said on the sidelines of his 85th birthday celebrations at Erasmus Huis last week.
Sitor has literally wandered from Harianboho, a small village in a valley west of North Sumatra’s Lake Toba (where he was born), to Medan, Jakarta and Yogyakarta, and then on to several cities in France, Pakis-tan and Holland.
Professionally, he left all the privileges of being an heir to a clan leader to become a journalist, a poet and, most recently, a self-made anthropologist whose work on the socio-political institution of Batak culture is as celebrated as his poetry.
Toba Na Sae, his anthropological work first launched in 1993, is being reprinted for the third time in
line with his birthday celebration this year.
“He’s indeed a man who never stops thinking,” wife Barbara Brouwer said of the poet. “Sitor always holds his tongue before uttering his thoughts. His mind is always at work.”
All the professional labels the public has given Sitor boil down to exactly that — a wandering mind.
This chosen fate was indicated in one of his early poems:
“Alone an eagle soars, chest open to receive the light, on the wing of the morning breeze pure and white, where inside again life shines.”
Perhaps his continuously being “not at home” is a trait shared with other renowned writers. Seeing different things in different places, while carrying a longing for a place called home, seems to have enriched his literary work.
“One of Sitor’s achievements unmatched by other poets is his span of space and time,” writer Radhar Panca Dahana writes.
“He is never bound and always restless, albeit one restlessness that keeps on maturing.”
Sitor perhaps got an early start. His journey began at the young age of seven.
Born the son of Ompu Babiat of the Situmorang clan, Sitor had the privilege of attending Dutch schools in Balige and Sibolga, where his world opened up to the Malay as well as Western cultures. He went for a while to then-Batavia, but had to return to Sibolga during the Japanese occupation in 1942.
During his school years, Sitor’s interest in literary works developed. Sitor’s first take on it was perhaps his translation of Multatuli’s Saijah and Adinda.
Later, in Sibolga, his journalism work that was mixed with a penchant for politics — a trait apparently inherited from his family — began to reach its peak. At the age of 19, Sitor was already leading a local newspaper Suara Nasional.
Later, in 1947, he moved to Medan to work at Waspada daily, and continued on to Yogyakarta and Jakarta.
Politically, Sitor is always a nationalist. A Sukarnoist some people say, despite his own personal view that being a nationalist is irrelevant to the existence of Sukarno’s Indonesian Nationalist Party — of which Sitor was a member in the 1960s.
Sitor is one fearless and outspoken nationalist. His political work written in 1965, titled Essay on Revolutionary Literature, took him wandering even further.
It was a period that sent him to imprisonment without trial under the Soeharto regime until 1975. It was also a period that set him off to wander far and wide as he left for Paris after another two years of house and city arrest that ended in 1977.
More than three decades he wandered, accumulating masterpieces along the way.
Aside from earlier works like In Verse (1955), Sitor is known for his works in prison and in “exile” like The Wall of Time (1976), To Love to Wander (1996) and Paris La Nuit (Paris at Night, 2001), a collection of poetry that has been translated into French, English and Russian.
Those were the years that the literary world found a gem. And those were the years that Sitor became the “lost son of the tribe” as well as the “lost father” for his six children.
It’s sort of like history repeating itself.
Sitor as a son has always been awed by his father, the leader of the clan, but was never close. So
are his children who are always proud of Sitor the poet, but had lost him as a father, especially after his incarceration.
“I was probably the one without any memories of Sitor the father, as I was only a little boy when he went to prison,” said Logo Situmorang, Sitor’s youngest son from his first wife, the late Tiominar. “All I know is Sitor the poet.”
It was only four or five years ago that the family grew closer as Sitor spent nights at Logo’s house, playing with his grandchildren during his visits to Jakarta. As of today, Sitor and his wife Barbara still travel back and forth between Holland and Indonesia.
If his distance with his children was slowly patched up by his more frequent visits to Jakarta, his attempts to make up for being the lost son of the tribe have long been reflected in his work. He’s always away from his roots, but proud of it, nevertheless.
For Sitor, proximity is measured at heart and not by physical distance. His identity is more a “spiritual one”, he says.
Aside from the historical-anthropological work of Toba Na Sae, Sitor also wrote Pulo Batu, a Batak opera, a fragment of which was performed during his 85th birthday celebrations.
A wanderer he will always be, with a longing for home.
“If my time shall come, bury my ashes in the soil of Toba, in the land of the mighty, …,” he wrote in 1998.
“When my time comes, place a stone on my tomb,….with nothing but my Mother’s engraved blessing.”
“The Lost Son has returned! On my lap he returned!”