Nov 29, 2015 Last Updated 11:39 PM, Nov 25, 2015

More than just sex

Michael Nieto García

Indonesia’s most internationally-acclaimed novel in the last decade was written by a woman — it was a sign of what was to come.

Since 1998 the best selling Indonesian fiction has been disproportionately written by women. Last year’s best short story as selected by the nation’s most important newspaper was written by a woman. And the bestselling self-published novel in the nation’s history was written by a pop singer — who is also a woman.

With the end of the Suharto regime, and the social and cultural shifts that followed, Indonesian literature took a sharp turn in themes, style, and authorship. Three women writers in particular — all publishing their debut works before the age of 30 — have stormed onto the literary scene.

First, in 1998, Ayu Utami’s novel, Saman, captured international attention for pushing the contemporary limits of cultural and sexual boundaries in predominantly-Islamic Indonesia. Dewi (‘Dee’) Lestari followed in 2001 with her novel, Supernova, which features an extramarital love story narrated by a gay male couple. And erupting onto the literary scene in 2002 was Djenar Maesa Ayu with the publication of her first collection of short stories, Mereka Bilang, Saya Monyet! (They Say I’m a Monkey).

In demand

Most Indonesian fiction is never reprinted. Yet Supernova and Saman have both sold almost 100,000 copies. This is an incredibly high figure in Indonesia, where the first printing of works of fiction by even the biggest publishers rarely exceeds 3000 copies.

Mereka Bilang, Saya Monyet! is headed for similar success. Within a year of publication the book was in its fourth printing. In mid-2003 Djenar’s story ‘Waktu Nayla’ (‘Nayla’s time’) was selected as best short story by the daily newspaper Kompas and given the accompanying honor of title piece for the annual volume of the best stories printed in the Sunday editions of Kompas in that year.

Djenar’s fiction had also, by that time, been published in a wide range of other major Indonesian literary venues, including the magazines Horison, Basis, and mass circulation newspapers such as Media Indonesia and Republika. In January of this year her new collection of short stories, Jangan Main-Main (dengan Kelaminmu) (Don’t Play [with your Genitals]), had to be reprinted just two days after the initial book launch.

Djenar is still riding the crest of the wave of her popularity, while Ayu and Dee have both already had the privilege of seeing their books among the five finalists for Indonesia’s most lucrative literary honour, the Khatulistiwa award.

Sex sells

What is it about the bold new fiction of women authors — which some have taken to calling sastra wangi (‘fragrant literature’) — that has so captivated readers?

Many are quick to say that writing so frankly about sex is bound to sell books simply because of the controversy it generates. Indonesia boasts the largest population of Muslims in the world, but it has long been open about sex in ways that defy the moral puritanism Westerners normally associate with Islam. Reruns of 1970s television shows suggest that the most popular plot was one involving a comical attempted seduction of a man dressed as a woman by another man who is all the while trying to avoid being caught by his wife.

Nevertheless, recent events suggest that sex can certainly be controversial. Djenar’s rise to literary fame occurred at the same time that dangdut star Inul Daratista’s gyrating backside became the moral battleground of the nation. The Indonesian word ngebor (drilling) is a more apt term than the English word ‘gyrating’ to describe the movement of Inul’s lower regions. And this drilling led, in the early months of 2002, to Inul becoming a symbol of the assumed sexual immorality of the new generation — something stridently condemned by the more conservative members of society.

These women writers — Ayu, Dee, and Djenar — are most often praised, and simultaneously condemned, for their exploration of sexual issues. This is not the sole source of their sudden success, though the treatment of sexual issues may be their main link to past generations of Indonesian women authors.

In many ways Nh. Dini is the link between the older generation of women writers and the new. She was writing about sexual issues from a female protagonist’s point of view decades ago. Her fiction also appeals predominantly to younger female readers. Dini’s 1973 novel, Pada Sebuah Kapal (On the Ship) is one of her more acclaimed books. Its appeal lies in how the book grapples with sexuality and the inner life of women.

The link with an established tradition of women writers ends with the use of romantic relationships to advance the plot. Where Nh. Dini and other women writers of old largely constrained their narratives within accepted societal limits, new women authors seem to seek out controversy.

The writers of ‘fragrant literature’ have conscientiously rejected traditional sexual mores and tried to offer alternative moral schemes in their stead. The sexual liberation of women is a unifying theme in their work — a rejection of the sexual double standard and sexual hypocrisy that some have mistakenly interpreted as a call for free sex. It could be argued that their controversial plots are not so much an effort to sell books as a reflection of the new zeitgeist, or worldview, of post-Suharto Indonesia.

Getting out there

Part of the new attitude toward literature in Indonesia has been to popularise it by making authors public figures. Ayu, Dee, and Djenar all actively promote their books, with frequent book launchings and other public appearances. They have even been interviewed by the popular men’s magazines.

What’s more, the three authors all have broader public personas. Dee was a singer in the pop trio RSD before writing her novel and both Dee and Djenar have worked as television presenters. Ayu first wrote most of the essays in her non-fiction collection Si Parasit Lajang: Seks, Sketsa, & Cerita (The Parasitic Spinster: Sex, Sketches, and Stories) (2003) for the hip cultural magazine djakarta!.

Their appearances in various media other than print are reflective of the breadth of their artistic talents. Ayu illustrated her collection of essays with her own sketches and Djenar plans to test her filmmaking talents by personally adapting her fiction to film. Meanwhile, Dee went on to release a solo album after publishing Supernova. She also admits to wanting to try her hand at poetry and nonfiction, though she has no ambition to become a television actress.

Another aspect of popularisation is the commercially-obligatory sequel. Ayu and Dee have said from the beginning that their novels were just the first in an intended series. Readers of Djenar’s new collection of short stories were quick to note that it is a continuation of her previous themes, particularly sex.

Adaptation to film promises to broaden the appeal of the new fiction even more. Ayu is currently working on the screenplay for one of her novels, while Djenar (the daughter of famous filmmaker Sumanjaya and actress Tuti Kirana) has enrolled in directing classes. She plans to direct, as well as write the screenplay for, the adaptation of the title story of her first collection, Mereka Bilang, Saya Monyet!.

With the popularity of teen films, including Ada Apa Dengan Cinta? (What’s Up with Cinta? — where cinta also means love) in 2002 and film adaptations of teen fiction, such as Eiffel, I’m in Love in 2003, chances are the film adaptations of the new women’s fiction will be equally successful. If the 2003 box-office success of Arisan! (The Social Club) is any indication of the growing appeal of films for more mature audiences, then the work of these authors is bound to be immortalised in celluloid as well as in print.

It is only a matter of time before all three debut books by Ayu, Dee, and Djenar are available in English. Djenar may be the first to have her work translated into English, making her accessible to the international English-reading public. A translation of Ayu’s Saman is rumored to be in the pipeline, but Djenar’s Mereka Bilang, Saya Monyet! is much nearer to promised publication thanks to the man that Daniel Ziv dubbed ‘the Godfather of Jakarta’s book scene’. Richard Oh, owner of QB World bookstores, has assiduously worked to ensure the publication of the translation and promises its imminent release by his own publishing house, Metafor Publishing.

Those who can read Indonesian should put Saman, Supernova, and Mereka Bilang, Saya Monyet! on their list of priority reads. Otherwise look for the forthcoming English translations to get a fine introduction to the leading edge of contemporary fiction as Indonesian literature takes it first big turn in decades.

Michael Garcia ( is a PhD candidate at Cornell University.

Inside Indonesia 80: Oct - Dec 2004

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