By Soe Tjen Marching
What’s wrong with sex? Of course, there is nothing wrong with it. For me, sex is just one of numerous human desires. But why is it considered taboo by several parties in Indonesia? Recently the Indonesian government issued a draft bill called “Rancangan Undang-Undang anti pornografi dan pornoaksi” [The anti pornography and pornographic action bills] or RUUAPP, which is comprised of 11 chapters and 93 sections.
It defines pornography as “substansi dalam media atau alat komunikasi yang dibuat untuk menyampaikan gagasan-gagasan yang mengeksploitasi seksual, kecabulan, dan/atau erotika” [materials in the mass media which are created to deliver ideas which exploit sexuality, pornography and/or eroticism]. Pornographic action is “perbuatan mengeksploitasi seksual, kecabulan, dan/atau erotika di muka umum” [action which exploits sexuality, pornography or eroticism in public].
Sexual activity seems to be worse than any other crime in the eyes of the Indonesian government, as its regulation has been dominating the agenda of legislation for years. Why is this desire considered dangerous? A careful examination of the draft of RUUAPP and the fact that, if passed, it will lead to the arrest of some women with short skirts and the persecution of Inul, can only lead to the conclusion that what is considered problematical is women’s sexuality.
This, I find, is also rather paradoxical. In Indonesia, the position of women as mothers (ibu) is important. This means that women are expected to have children, but they should not enjoy the pleasure of making them (read: sex). However, the story in Indonesian literature is rather different as female authors who describe sexuality and female sexual pleasures openly are gaining popularity. The publication of Ayu Utami’s Saman in 1998 is considered to have been a turning point in the expression of female sexual identity in Indonesian literary tradition. After Saman, several Indonesian women authors such as Dewi Lestari, Dinar Rahayu, Djenar Maesa Ayu and Herlinatiens have been published. Most of them depict sex and female sexual pleasures much more boldly than previous Indonesian authors, and for their “bravery” they have received praise from several critics such as Barbara Hatley, Pamela Allen, Gadis Arivia and Julia Suryakusuma. These authors are known as “sastra wangi” [the fragrant literature] group, although most of these authors expressed their discontent with this term, as they consider it sexist.
On the other hand, another “trend” from a group of Islamic women has also come up. In 1997, Forum Lingkar Pena (FLP) was established by several female authors including Helvy Tiana Rosa, Asma Nadia and Maimon Herawati (Mutmainah). Helvy Tiana Rosa has been the Forum’s President. Forum Lingkar Pena and Helvy Tiana Rosa’s works have exemplified the emergence of the New Islamist literature in Indonesia through the promotion of what they identify as Islamic values. These Islamic values are considered as a means of ideological resistance to globalisation and the vast influence of the West. This new Islamist literature often quotes the Koran and the Hadith (the sayings and stories of the Prophet Mohammad) in their works. One of the ways in which they demonstrate their commitment is through their donation of the royalties of all FLP Islamic books to Palestinian children through MER-C (Rosa, 2002). Several FLP writers also address problems and/or oppression faced by Muslims in Aceh, Maluku, Chechnya, Bosnia and Palestine.
The FLP writers’ intention to demonstrate a distinction between themselves and the so called sastra wangi writers is made apparent through their website which has published an article criticising “sastra wangi”. Written by Ahmadun Yosi Herfanda (a poet, journalist as well as editor of the newspaper Republika), the article states that these “sastra wangi” authors “‘mempromosikan’ kebebasan seks dan cenderung anti-agama” (http://www.forumlingkarpena.net/sisi-gelap-dan-sisi-terang-sastra-indonesia). On the other hand, the writings by FLP are “penuh rasa dan idealisme untuk mencapai tujuan yang luhur” [full of sensibility and idealism directed towards honourable purposes].
The “competition” for popularity was sharpened by the publication of the novel Ayat-ayat Cinta [Verses of Love], written by Habiburrahman El-Shirazy. First published in December 2004, Ayat-ayat Cinta is a love story about a devout Muslim man named Fahri. The emphasis on Islamic values is made obvious by the many quotations from Quranic verses and hadits, and the efforts of the main character to follow the texts quoted. The novel soon gained popularity amongst the Indonesian public and is considered to be a best seller, having sold 160,000 copies in three years. For this reason, several critics have compared its popularity with that of Ayu Utami’s Saman. The novel was made into a film, directed by Hanung Bramantyo, which premiered in Indonesia on 28 February 2008, enjoying a strong box office performance.
In comparison with these two different literary trends, Ratih Kumala is like a little wild flower. She is rather lonely, but astonishing. While she has a style of her own, her works of fiction are not as sexually detailed as the so-called “sastra wangi” writers, but nor do they indicate any aversion to sexuality or sexual pleasure. Somehow her works cannot be classified. But who needs classification? It is her difference from most other writers that has attracted me to Ratih as an author.
Although there is a line uniting her stories, the fourteen stories in this collection are also quite complex and offer different perspectives. In her short story, “The Full Moon in Borneo”, Ratih creates Angga, a Javanese man working in the forest of Kalimantan, who is chasing an enchanting but somewhat dangerous lady. The traditional depiction of a femme-fatale is what comes up in this story. She is Pongga, the lady with wings and gowns the colour of leaves, the creature who can make him fly, but also the one who brings him to doom. Because of her he is completely broken hearted and can no longer work properly. As a result of this, Angga decides to go home to Java, but soon after he arrives his nose is bleeding heavily. This also explains the fate of his father who got a job in the same place, and returned with a bleeding nose. The bleeding was getting heavier and heavier, and in the end his father died from it. Thus both men have been adventurers who were later victimised by femme-fatales.
On the other hand, Angga’s mother is depicted as a pure woman who waits. She does not get remarried after the death of her husband, despite the gossip that he had betrayed her. She dedicated her life to the two men, her husband and her son, one of whom she has already lost and the other whom is about to be lost.
In “Schizophrenia”, Ratih creates a character who is a female doctor in a mental hospital. In the story she conducts interviews with several patients. In the end, the reader finds out that she is actually not a doctor, but one of the patients. She is able to deceive several people in the hospital and make them believe in her “game”. However, the main party being deceived is actually the reader. Unlike “The Full Moon in Borneo”, the deception lies not in the physical charms of the character but in her clever wit and talented discourse which make the reader wonder whether her apparent sanity is also deceptive, like her intelligence.
Genius and madness are indeed mixed up in Ratih’s texts. It is through Angga’s delirium that the reader can experience the beauty of his imagination in “The Full Moon in Borneo”. The schizophrenia of the character depicted in the story takes the reader into its own world: the world of “extreme” or abnormal sensations.
The short story, “Coffin For Sale”, is another example. It starts with a description of how the coffin seller wants to sell his coffins to make a profit. However, the coffins become both alive and more and more powerful, and are able to control human beings. Indeed, it is the desire and greed of human beings which somehow reverses the roles, and so the coffin seller becomes the object of the desires of the coffins. In the short story the seller is thus controlled by the object he is selling, the coffins. He belongs to his desires.
Another reversal (though of a different kind) also happens in the process of translating “Larutan Senja” or “The Potion of Twilight”. As I told Ratih, this is my favourite short story in the collection.
In “The Potion of Twilight” the main characters are god (written with a lower case letter ‘g’) and an anonymous creator, referred to as “dia”. In Indonesian, the third person pronoun “dia”, can be used in both male and female contexts. Indeed, the English language is more gendered than Indonesian. The third person pronoun in English is more capable of gender discrimination. For example, the word “he” used to be and in some cases is still considered to be the general pronoun for male and female. God is still often referred to as a “he”, demonstrating that the highest substance of all is male.
Although in the original version the gender of the character called god cannot be defined clearly, in the English translation I refer to this character as a “he”. The character called god in this short story is an ambitious creator whose intention is to get admiration from others. His creation, which is named as the world, is considered to be a masterpiece. However, god’s masterpiece is in fact not original, some of the components in it are stolen from another much smaller and anonymous creator. Yes, god paid the small creator a small fee, but he never acknowledges that his masterpiece has been enriched by this small creator.
In the Indonesian version, the gender of this small creator also cannot be defined clearly. I decided to refer to this character as a “she”. This she-creator is different from god and enjoys the process of creation rather than the result. She loves the journey itself, not the destination. She never pays attention to promoting the result of her work. For this reason, she does not get applause like god does.
Could it not be argued that most women in Indonesia could be compared with this small creator somehow? Many Indonesian women support their men (be they their father, husband of brother), and rarely get recognition for their work. It is men who get applause and fame, while women stay behind the screen. It is ironic that in the language in which the third person pronoun often discriminates against women (English), that the feminist theme in this short story becomes more obvious. In my discussion with Ratih, she told me that she indeed intended the gender of this anonymous creator to be female, and the god to be male. She also mentioned that amongst the critics who have written about this collection of short stories, only Triyanto Triwikromo argued that this is a feminist story, and she agrees with this opinion. Not only does Ratih challenge the supremacy of patriarchy in this short story, she also questions the idea of any monotheistic supremacy or absolute power. Ratih turns God, who is usually considered to be the highest and the all knowing one, into “god” ( written in lower case) and this god’s genius is in fact not supreme and pure, but adulterated with his tricks on and treacheries against a woman.
The small creator finally decides to keep everything secret from him, especially after she created “The Potion of Twilight”, which certainly makes the world of god more beautiful. However, god finds out about this potion and wants her to surrender her creation without intending to acknowledge her name. Because of her persistence not to give up her creation, god finally steals her potion of twilight.
Because of this potion, god’s world wins “the most outstanding invention” by the inventors’ group. It is considered as, “the most wonderful invention ever. The perfect invention”. However, the small creator finally rebels against god by claiming ownership of her work in front of the inventors’ group. As god keeps denying her share in his work, she spoils god’s “perfect” creation by pouring a bottle of dark potion into it. As a result of this the twilight in god’s world will no longer be forever peaceful. Humans will experience thunder and catastrophes, not because of their sins, but because of God’s sin.
Somehow the experience of humans in “The Potion of Twilight” is parallel to those of the characters in Ratih’s stories. Most of the characters in this collection have been disappointed by life: their existence is somehow meaningless.
The characters experience catastrophes and tragedy, not because of their faults but because the world is somehow chaotic. The woman in the short story “The Woman with a Disfigured Face” has to live like an animal, chained and caged. She dies of neglect, hunger and loneliness in the end. The story, “In a Cul-de-Sac”, also portrays the cruelty that arises from poverty and the economic gap between rich and poor in big cities in Indonesia.
Ratih does not confine herself to writing only about Indonesia. She also travels to Europe and explores the dreadful fate of several East Germans who try to cross the Berlin Wall in the story, “Nach Westen”. Her characters are victims of injustice and oppression, who strive hard in their lives, but who ultimately meet a meaningless death.
And why is the world so unfair and cruel? This makes me wonder: what kind of God (if there is one) has created this world? Who can guarantee that our God is indeed the greatest and the most holy? The short story “Larutan Senja” can provide some possible explanations to all of these questions.
Like the story of god in “Larutan Senja”, if the story of our creation is indeed rather bleak, if our God is dishonest and scapable of betrayal, what can we do about it? Writing seems to be the answer for Ratih Kumala. In writing, Ratih gives meaning to these people’s lives and deaths. As an author, she also has the opportunity and capability to create God in her image: she reveals his true character, she belittles him and somehow she takes revenge on him. Imagination is indeed boundless!
Journal of Southeast Asian Literature Vol. 38, No.1, February 2007, Singapore: The National University of Singapore, p. 135.
Dewi Candraningrum, “The Unquestioned Gender Lens in the Contemporary Indonesian Sharia-Ordinances (Perda Sharia)” in Al Jamiah Vol. 45, No. 2/2007, Yogyakarta: Universitas Islam Negeri Sunan Kalijaga, p.110.