Change, she wrote
WEEKENDER | Mon, 03/29/2010 4:42 PM |
A decade ago, everybody on the local literary scene was talking about it – some with fervent admiration, others with fervid animosity. It was dubbed sastra wangi, or “fragrant literature”, because the new batch of literary offerings was penned by women of modern preoccupations – beauty, fashion, sex – as they delved into issues previously considered taboo. Maggie Tiojakin looks at whether sastra wangi made a lasting impression on Indonesian literature.
On a rainy Saturday, Ayu Utami arrives at Salihara, the community arts center located in South Jakarta’s Pasar Minggu area, in a halter-top, tights and heels. She has long dark hair that falls loosely about her shoulders, and as she walks across the verandah-slash-café facing the building’s entrance, Ayu looks less like the stereotypical erudite literary figure and more like a trendy, young (she’s 41) Indonesian woman of today.
She is, of course, a mix of both. She’s the author of Saman, the 1998 work that many consider heralded a dramatic change in the Indonesian literary scene, as well as Larung and Bilangan Fu. With its mix of politics and candid handling of sex and sexuality, the novel was hailed as a pioneering work, reflecting the radically changed times after the fall of the authoritarian Soeharto regime, and also the changed modern Indonesian woman that Ayu represented.
It was not a one-off, one-woman literary novelty; Ayu was followed by Djenar Maesa Ayu, Fira Basuki, Dewi Lestari and Nova Riyanti Yusuf, among others, all in their late 20s or early 30s at the time. They had their own particular literary styles and explorations but were united in tackling subjects once deemed unfit for female consumption, as well as being young Indonesian women who had grown up in the strictly ordered early years of the New Order and come of age as their generation fought for democracy.
Their writing was fresh, bold, a world apart from the staid, rambling works of respected literary figures (read: male), or the saccharine and/or melodramatic romances that women were supposed to write.
A name was needed to put it, and the writers, in a conveniently defined space. Sastra wangi, sometimes translated as chick-lit, was used, as though this new group of young Indonesian women writers shared traits with their female peers in the West (they were women and they wrote, and that was about all).
Ayu chooses a small corner on the second floor of the building, one of many outdoor spaces at Salihara. Speaking against the patter of the afternoon drizzle, she attempts to define the term with which she has been most closely associated.
“There’s always a tendency to categorize literary work, and sastra wangi is one such category,” she says. “The media came up with [the name] because we weren’t the typical writers who used to lead the local literary scene. Beyond that, I don’t know the meaning or significance of sastra wangi.”
Ayu tells of a group of male writers whose machismo practically defined local literature before she and the other women came along, of whom she speaks with admiration and friendly humor, such as how most of them fit into the mold of the agrarian male, hailing from villages around the country where city folk are treated like gods.
“Is it sexist to label our work sastra wangi?” she asks. “Of course. It’s very sexist, in fact. But then the media has always been biased when it comes to gender issues.”
She notes how national dailies still turn women into objects of intellectual ridicule by having them appear in skimpy outfits and comment on vacuous lifestyle issues.
“I was very vocal on this matter back when I still worked as a journalist,” Ayu says. “But you can’t change the world overnight – it’s not easy to change the way people look at gender issues.”
Perhaps it was inevitable that Ayu’s work would meet with a sexist, hostile reaction in what was a traditionally male-dominated profession in Indonesia. After all, she wrote Saman during a time of political upheaval that eventually led to a national identity crisis. Living under a repressive regime, Ayu saw the need to articulate the roles of women as more than mere sex objects, but as sexual creatures with healthy libidos and the occasional craving for dirty talk.
Djenar, the author of the short story collections Mereka Bilang Saya Monyet! (They Say I’m a Monkey!) and Jangan Main-Main Dengan Kelaminmu (Don’t Play With Your Genitals), went down the same path.
The second-most popular author in the sastra wangi generation, Djenar’s motivation to incorporate explicit sex scenes in her writing was less political than Ayu’s, but she was still making a powerful, very personal statement.
The daughter of renowned filmmaker and artist Syuman Djaya and actress Tutie Kirana, Djenar understands the ins and outs of a bohemian lifestyle, and it’s a theme she returns to again and again in her writing. More recently, it came up in a movie made in collaboration with Harry Dagoe, titled Saia, an independent flick that takes female sexuality away from the public stage and straight into the bedroom, behind closed doors, recorded on a handheld camera to lend an air of voyeurism and objectivism.
“When I was very young, I used to see things that were considered immoral or counter to social values as being very usual or common in life,” Djenar told The Jakarta Post in 2005.
“Both my parents had a lot of extramarital affairs, and what made them stay together was perhaps their common interest in sexuality.
“My work clearly reflects who I am. I just can’t live in between the glamorous world of artists and the serious, intellectual … community.”
However, she flatly refused to be clumped with the sastra wangi generation.
“I’m not fragrant,” she continued, “Neither are my works. I don’t know how or why they categorized my work as ‘fragrant literature’.”
Others at the time weren’t fans of the movement, including several literary heavyweights. Noted poet Taufiq Ismail denounced the inclusion of sastra wangi into literature by renaming it sastra syahwat or “genital literature”.
However, Sapardi Djoko Damono, another well-respected author, argued the new generation of women writers would carry the local literary scene to the next level.
The prolific Fira Basuki’s works include Jendela-Jendela (Windows), several children’s books, short stories, adult novels and chick-lit.
“Literature is always open for interpretation,” says the chief editor of Cosmopolitan Indonesia. “People have always tried to categorize it into different things, but in the end literature is whatever written work speaks to you. It can be heavy or light, depending on your mood.”
She also says she doesn’t mind being considered part of the sastra wangi wave.
“It’s better than being called sastra bau [stinky literature],” Fira laughs. “Sure it’s sexist, but I’d rather not think about it too much. As long as I’m able to convey my thoughts to my readers, I’m happy. I don’t care how the media wants to categorize my work.”
Leila S. Chudori backs Fira’s statement with her own perception of how Indonesian literature has progressed over the past two decades. A writer and journalist whose reputation is closely linked to the venerable political and editorial magazine Tempo, Leila is the author of a short story collection, Malam Terakhir (The Last Night), which has recently been reprinted; a novel, 9 Dari Nadira; and TV and film scripts, Dunia Tanpa Koma and Drupadi respectively.
“As a writer, I don’t really pay attention to how the media bunches together the writers that emerged in the last 20 years,” she says in an email.
“For me, what matters is the work itself and not its appearance or gender.
“I think a lot of these new works are a great read. They’re fresh, groundbreaking and phenomenal – and I don’t concern myself with whether or not they’re fragrant, because I don’t see such categorization as being terribly important to the generated work. What is sastra wangi anyway? It’s not a genre.”
Small, loosely grouped and enjoying a brief moment in the literary sun, the most lasting legacy of sastra wangi, or the women writers who were, like it or not, defined by it, is that it rattled the ivory tower of the previously patriarchal literary realm, leveling the playing field where people – men and also women – could have their say.
Fira agrees that the sastra wangi wave of writers helped many young women launch their own literary careers. Significant results are quite tangible, she says, when one takes into account the high-level of productivity among young writers today in their effort to make a mark on the local literary scene.
“Literature used to be this exclusive thing reserved for a special group of people,” says Fira, who’s working on her next novel, about a sailor. “But now everybody can write their own adventure, romance, thriller – and the readers are hungry for it. I think it’s a good thing.”
Young writers are, after all, the stars of today’s publishing industry. New publishing houses are springing up all over the place, their numbers tripling from the 1990s, encouraging writers of all backgrounds to start writing their best sellers and feeding a highly competitive market where new authors gain fame one reprint after another. No less than 15,000 books are published each year in Indonesia now, compared to a fifth of that back in 1999.
Libraries and bookstores have also resumed their role as a source of information for booklovers, often showing their commitment to preserving and developing the Indonesian literary landscape by inviting well-known authors for meet-and-greets with the public.
Dewi “Dee” Lestari, a singer, songwriter and celebrity figure who found fame on the literary scene after the publication of her much-praised Supernova trilogy, is a lot less inclined to be lumped in the same group as sastra wangi writers. In an interview with The Jakarta Post several years ago, she said the only similarity she shared with the other women writers from that particular generation was the fact that “we’re all young female writers producing work at the same time. But we choose different themes.”
In Ayu’s opinion, literature, much like fashion, ebbs and flows according to trends. If Saman had rebelled against the New Order regime by making the call to liberate women from the claws of their male counterparts, today’s trend has long since forgotten the struggle for which Ayu is best known.
“With the success of Laskar Pelangi and Ayat-Ayat Cinta, the trend has clearly moved on from sastra wangi and teen literature to education and religion,” she says. “Perhaps people are looking for some sense of order after all that enervating rebellion.”
That doesn’t mean, though, that they’ve lost the point made earlier by the success of Saman, Mereka Bilang Saya Monyet!, Jendela-Jendela, Supernova and several other notable works.
“It’s been 10 years since Saman came out,” Ayu says, “And people still ask me how I managed to be so bold in breaking boundaries. The truth is I didn’t know there was a boundary. People saw the glass ceiling and I didn’t. I never intended to break anything – I simply wrote from the heart about something that resonated well with me.”
Ayu believes change is indeed taking place. She says the emergence of confident women writers has inevitably affected the position of men in society. Penned by metropolitan women about – to borrow a phase – fun, fearless, female characters who are into sex and more in their cities, many of the works turn the traditional gender tables by positioning men as sex objects whose physical attributes are constantly debated, evaluated and cut down to size.
Some could argue that it’s merely perpetuating objectification, that two wrongs don’t make a right and ultimately the boys always triumph anyway in the grand scheme of things. Still, it’s stirred something up in male-dominated Indonesian society.
“The impact goes beyond the page,” Ayu says. “The most obvious example is in porn movies – men are now just as vulnerable as women when it comes to being exposed as sexual objects. The public no longer wants only young, sexy women in these films; they want young, sexy men too.”
Asked whether she and the other writers lumped in the sastra wangi generation ever get together to discuss the direction in which Indonesian literature should be steered, Ayu smiles coyly.
“I read their work and they read mine. But we don’t hang out or form an exclusive gang,” she says. “It doesn’t work that way.”
From where she sits, the next decade of Indonesian literature looks very promising. Perhaps she can take some credit for helping write some of the changes.