Djenar Maesa Ayu – one of Indonesia’s exciting new female authors
Michael Nieto García
The resignation of President Suharto in May 1998 after three decades of authoritarian rule precipitated a period of dramatic political transformation. As with previous moments of great historical change in Indonesia, this political upheaval was mirrored by the emergence of a literary ‘angkatan’, a ‘generation’ or ‘movement’. And although the sheer number of new writers precludes the kind of cohesion and personal affiliation that the label ‘angkatan’ suggests, it is the most apt rubric for the recent dramatic shift in Indonesian literature, given the past use of the term in Indonesian literary history.
This new literary sentiment accompanied democratisation of the press and governance. More people started writing, more books were published and a wider range of topics were written about. Generation 98 was born.
Before 1998 there were few well-known women authors. Now, female writers regularly dominate book sales, with sex as their most common theme. Sex, that is, in the wider sense of the word, from gender relations to love interests and even as a metaphor for individual freedom.
Sex in this wider sense saturates the pages of Djenar Maesa Ayu’s fiction. She uses it as a vehicle to criticise hypocrisy, parental neglect, childhood abuse and the seedier side of modern urban lifestyles in conflict with more traditional values. Taboo subjects such as promiscuity, incest and female sexuality are foregrounded, while prostitution, homosexuality and sexual exploitation make appearances as everyday facts of life.
Often told from a child’s perspective, the stories have universal appeal. Like Jakarta, in which they are set, the stories can be both tragic and surreal, and are permeated with a subdued, sometimes twisted, sense of humor.
Her characters are emotional creatures with active imaginations and it is this which becomes the means by which oppressed and neglected characters can create a better world for themselves. This celebration of imagination offers the same hope for many Indonesian readers and no doubt accounts for some of the popularity of Djenar’s fiction.
The following is an excerpt from one of Djenar’s short stories, ‘Her Name’.
Memek* didn’t know why her parents had given her that name. There were lots of other names that could have been made from just the first two letters me, such as Medy, Melly, or Merry. Why did it have to be Memek? What’s more, her name was just like her father’s, Memek Sumarno. Naturally, her friends often teased her, ‘You’re daddy’s memek, huh?’
When she was still in grade school she was so proud whenever people teased her like that. She didn’t know then what memek meant. It means darling child, thought Memek. So ‘daddy’s memek’ means ‘daddy’s little darling’. ‘Yeah, I’m my late daddy’s little darling’, she exclaimed with pride.
But as she got older, by the time she was in junior high, she no longer felt comfortable being called that. First, she realised that she was not her daddy’s little darling. And second, she learned what her name meant.
One day Memek just had to know more, so she asked her mother why she had been named Memek. Her mother answered with a few questions of her own, ‘You already know what memek means? Where did you learn that? Who have you been hanging out with?’
For the first time in Memek’s life her mother yelled at her, scolding her harshly and angrily hitting her over and over again. She did not understand why her mother’s reaction was so extreme. She just wanted an explanation. Didn’t every child have the right to ask questions? Hadn’t her mother always brought her up to be open? Time and again her mother had impressed upon her the importance of trusting in family more than her friends. Family, which meant her mother as single parent, would never lead her astray or hurt her own child. But still Memek always felt hurt whenever her mother said, ‘Your father was a bastard! He took no responsibility for you. For your own good, it would be better to just say that your father is dead. I’m not teaching you to be dishonest, but there are times when we have to lie for the sake of kindness.’
Memek didn’t know what it meant to lie for the sake of kindness. Her mother explained that she didn’t want to see Memek humiliated should anyone find out that she was an illegitimate child. She understood even less now. Why hadn’t her mother simply lied to her, as she had told Memek to lie to others? Why hadn’t she just said that her father had passed away, instead of telling her the truth about being born illegitimate?
There was a lot that Memek did not understand, including why she had been named Memek.
Michael Nieto Garcia (email@example.com) was the translator of the recently released English language version of Djenar Maesa Ayu’s novel, Mereka Bilang Saya Monyet. They Say I’m a Monkey (Jakarta, Metafor, 2005) is available in Australia at Gleebooks in Sydney and Asia Bookroom in Canberra.
* -‘Memek’ is a vulgar term for the vagina.