The Jakarta Post
While Jakarta was transfixed on the Asian-African Conference (AAC) held on April 19 to 24, something literary and cultural in nature was happening: the commemoration of Sitor Situmorang (1924-2014), one of Indonesia's most renowned poets, who died on Dec. 21 last year.
'A Hundred Memories of Sitor Situmorang' was a three-day celebration (April 20 to 22) of an unusual and exceptional man held at the TIM Arts Center. Its subtitle, 'Learning to be Indonesian', suggests that like the AAC, the commemoration was in fact also about nationhood.
JJ Rizal, publisher of Sitor's anthologies of poems and short stories, as well as his biographer, told me that he and Sitor's family decided on the theme of the event, as they felt there is a dearth of occasions to learn about the real meaning of how to be Indonesian. It's true, one is not simply born 'Indonesian'; one has to learn it.
The program consisted of a photo exhibition of Sitor's life by Poriaman Sitanggang, film screenings, discussions, poetry recitals and Batak music performances. The peak of the celebration on the last day was a series of testimonies by friends who knew him well. I felt honored to be one of them.
Born in Harianboho, North Sumatra on Oct. 2, 1924, Sitor was one of Indonesia's strongest poets and certainly one of the most prolific. He was also an essayist, short story writer, playwright, journalist, translator, historian, politician, anthropologist (focusing on his native Batak culture) and film critic.
But according to Rizal, most interesting was his personality. Sitor was one of the few literary figures who did not experience any of the moral and political ambiguities that burden modern secular Indonesian intellectuals. For him there was no 'split' between poetry and political activism.
Sitor embarked on an existential, creative and romantic journey through various historical eras ' the colonial period, early independence, Old Order, New Order and Reform Era ' getting involved in major ideological and political struggles. Due to his leftist politics and his anti-Soeharto stance, he was imprisoned from 1967 to 1975.
Writer Radhar Panca Dahana feels what made Sitor unmatched by other Indonesian poets was the space and time span he moved in. 'He is never bound and always restless, albeit a restlessness that keeps on maturing.'
I knew Sitor in the late 1970s. I had started my writing career in the field of literary criticism while still in high school in Jakarta. As a university student, my sociology studies in London opened me to the world of politics. To combine these two interests, for my final year thesis I decided to write about the League of the People's Culture (Lekra), the cultural wing of the Indonesian Communist Party.
I sought writers from that period to interview, but it was difficult as many were still incarcerated. However, Sitor had been out for a few years. Whilst he was not a member of Lekra, for six years (1959 to 1965) he headed the National Cultural Institute (LKN), the cultural wing of the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI). He was therefore steeped in the heated cultural and political polemics between the socialist-realist camp espoused by Lekra and the universalist-humanist camp espoused by the Cultural Manifesto group (Manikebu), who believed in art for art's sake.
Perhaps because April 21 was Kartini Day, the OC of Sitor's commemoration asked me to give a testimony on Sitor's view on women. I had never specifically looked at Sitor's gender ideology in his poems or short stories, but I was more than happy to do so.
Marsinah was a poem about a worker activist, who in 1993 was raped and murdered for defending the rights of her fellow women laborers. The poem was written very much in the socialist-realist style I associated with the manner of the era when he was head of LKN.
But I was pleasantly surprised to find many more poems on women that were romantic, passionate, sensitive and even subtle ' poems that could easily fall into the category of 'art for art's sake'.
Take La Nuit d'un Poete (The Night of a Poet) on erotic love. Syair Karma di Musim Bunga (Verses of Karma in the Flower Season) is about his deep longing for his loved one. Or Hamilku (My Pregnancy) and Hamilmu (Your Pregnancy), about his involvement and identification with his wife's pregnancy.
I wonder which one, as he had seven offspring: six from his first wife, Tiominar, and a son from his second wife, Barbara!
His short stories exposed his stance on women even more. Sitor may have claimed to be a Sukarnoist, but I found his gender ideology more inspiring and egalitarian than that of Sukarno's. The latter believed that women were 'the pillar of the nation', but that they had too many traditional and religious constraints imposed on them and were too often treated as 'dumb goddesses' (dewi tolol). Sukarno famously wrote a manifesto on women, entitled 'Sarinah' (1947), but his real-life relations with women were not quite consistent with his rhetorical claims.
Sitor on the other had didn't indulge in rhetoric. For example, in Ibu Pergi ke Surga (Mother Goes to Heaven), the titular piece of his anthology of short stories, he expresses his love for his dying mother in a surprising understated way. Other pieces were written in an equally matter of fact, almost flat manner, but his egalitarian stance toward women came through even more. He clearly relates to women as equals, whether in the capacity of a friend, lover, co-creator or fellow free-spirit.
If Sitor was a young man today, I am pretty sure he would call himself a feminist. But ultimately it is not what one declares that is important. It is how one lives one's life. Sitor's feminism was part-and-parcel of his nationalism, as well as his internationalism.
I wonder how consistent those attending the AAC were about their womenfolk in building their respective nations?
The writer is the author of Sex, Power and Nation.
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