The Jakarta Post
Literature is born in social context and thus will always be tied tightly to society and social issues. Literary works, therefore, according to author Wijaya Herlambang, cannot be separated from politics.
'Literary works are created with an audience in mind, whether that's a real audience or imagined audience. A good literary work, then, needs to speak about what is going on in the society and the issues the people are facing,' the author, whose nickname is Jay, told The Jakarta Post in a recent interview.
Jay, who teaches at Jakarta-based Gunadarma University and Pancasila University, said that literature had to touch problems in society in order for it to be relevant.
'Literature can be detached from the people. It can be difficult to understand, employing difficult logic; but then only a few people would be able to understand it. Farmers and pedicab drivers would throw these kinds of works away,' the 40-year-old said.
Jay has been in the local literary spotlight after the Indonesian version of his book Cultural Violence: Its Practice and Challenge in Indonesia was published in late last year. The Indonesian version of the book is titled Kekerasan Budaya Pasca 1965: Bagaimana Orde Baru Melegitimasi Anti-Komunisme Melalui Sastra dan Film (Cultural Violence Post-1965: How The New Order Legitimized Anti-Communism through Literature and Film).
'The book is controversial; it has attracted an equal number of positive and negative responses from many parties. Many agree with the book; not a few reject it,' said the author, a freelance editor for English-language publications, including Forbes Indonesia.
Cultural Violence was based on research he did for his doctoral study. Jay completed his PhD in 2011 at the School of Languages and Comparative Cultural Studies of the University of Queensland, Australia. The English version of the book was published not long after.
In the book, Jay argued that anti-communism was still thriving in Indonesia due to frequent political campaigning and cultural aggression against communism. Much of the anti-communism propaganda was used to justify the systematic purge of hundreds of thousands of alleged members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) between 1965 and 1966.
'The regime justified its violence through cultural products like history books, literature, films, museums, dioramas, monuments, commemoration days. The New Order showed the film The Treachery of G30S/PKI each year, promoting how the army generals were martyrs and communists were the devil,' said the father of two.
As a result, the tradition of leftist literature was sidelined, if not swept away, in Indonesia, he said.
Cultural Violence was the continuation of Jay's prolonged digging into the Indonesian literature of the New Order era. He started by mapping the Indonesian literary scene under the regime.
'I started with an undergraduate study focusing on the works of writer and artist Danarto. Danarto is a prominent New Order literary figure. His works represents the mainstream New Order literary produce. His works dwelt in the fantastical and the magical with unclear flow where trees can speak and mountains can move around,' he said.
'Realism literature was identified as leftist literature during the regime, and therefore it was sidelined.'
Jay then focused on blacklisted literature dealing with the real problems faced by Indonesians during the New Order for his graduate study in 2003 at the University of Queensland.
'These include works by writers and poets such as Widji Thukul, Seno Gumira Ajidarma and Ratna Sarumpaet. Seno wrote about the violence in East Timor [now Timor Leste], Ratna about the iconic labor activist Marsinah and Widji about structural violence.
'Widji's works, for example, were degraded during the New Order era. They were considered cheap and shallow works of a plebeian,' Jay said about the activist who has been missing since 1998 when the reform movement violently threw out the Soeharto regime.
Jay said that his deep research into Indonesian literature was a result of coincidence. After graduating from high school in the early 90s, he took a test to study economics at the University of Indonesia (UI).
'I was not accepted at UI but enrolled in my back-up choice: Indonesian literature studies at Diponegoro University in Semarang, Central Java. I had begun reading serious novels during high school, but the main reason it was my backup choice was because there weren't many others applying there, so I had a better chance,' he said.
Jay said he knew nothing about Indonesian literature and no idea about what to do with it in the future. But an incident involving the arrest of students at his campus for protesting the 1992 general election opened his eyes.
'I was just a freshman when dozens of soldiers came to the campus. I was confused: What does literature have to do with politics? It sparked a curiosity that I have been looking into ever since,' he said.
Jay stayed true to his choice even when he was enticed into the music world during his doctoral study. Jay joined a metal band as a bass player during his stay in Brisbane. The band had released two albums and gained a formidable following and was ready to go touring across Australia, New Zealand and the US.
'But I was deep in my research and I had to decide to focus on just one. It was a very hard decision but I didn't want to waste what I had already done. I decided to quit music then,' he said.
Jay said that in the foreseeable years, he would like to continue his research and publish more books. 'I'm now working on turning my graduate research into a book,' he said.