Conversations with Difference: Essays from Tempo Magazine is a collection of essays written between 1968 and 2002 by the influential Indonesian journalist, intellectual and poet Goenawan Mohamad. The essays were originally in the form of a weekly column he wrote for the Indonesian news magazine Tempo. The magazine, co-founded by the author in 1971, was closed down twice by the Suharto regime and eventually reopened in 1998.
Thematically the essays are wide-ranging, but collectively they investigate the meaning of difference in many forms: identity, nationhood, religion, geography and philosophy. As Goenawan himself notes, in an essay entitled ‘Differing’, ‘If there is anything that constantly teases us, it is the matter of ‘differing’ and its meaning in life.’ The essays capture the author’s probing insights and creative use of grammar and rhythm. There are no easy answers here. As Goenawan himself claims, his essays are not written to provide ‘an unbreakable crystal of answers’. Instead, readers are prodded, through the striking use of language, century-hopping global literary references and topical news events, to probe ever deeper into the meaning of difference.
Throughout his forty year career, Goenawan has maintained an independent voice. In this collection, Goenawan presents musings, or as he labels them, ‘thought pieces’, which are instructive in exploring the differences evident within Indonesia, in Asia, around the world and most of all, within ourselves.
Goenawan Mohamad, Conversations with a Difference, translated by Jennifer Lindsay, Jakarta and Singapore, PT Tempo Media and Singapore University Press, 2002 ISBN 9799065224, A$36.00.
Reviewed by Kristin Gapske (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Review: Gibson's book contains fascinating information about Ara, a Makassarese speaking area in southeast South Sulawesi.
Several important contributions to Makassarese studies have emerged in the past few years. Two examples are the historian Willam Cummings’ Making Blood White (2002), and the ethnomusicologist R Anderson Sutton’s Calling Back the Spirit (2002). Anthropologist Thomas Gibson’s And the Sun Pursued the Moon: Symbolic Knowledge and Traditional Authority among the Makassar also uses the South Sulawesi context as an example for making broader theoretical observations – in this case an examination of what Gibson terms ‘symbolic knowledge’.
The book is impressive on many fronts. Based on participant observation and a close examination of texts (Gibson argues that both approaches are essential), it contains fascinating information about the ceremonial practices and history/mythology of Ara, a Makassarese (or more specifically Konjo) speaking area in southeast South Sulawesi. Ara has a distinct identity as a centre of boatbuilding, with its own set of origin myths and detailed genealogical and historical chronicles. Gibson uses this ethnographic and historical information to argue that ‘symbolic knowledge’ is an intermediate level between practical and ideological forms of knowledge. He examines Ara’s ‘symbolic infrastructure’ and its origins, including pan-Austronesian myth, Majapahit influence and Bugis cosmology. He argues that with these competing models, Makassarese history ‘cannot be reduced to a single grand narrative’.
The book is clearly written, with depth of analysis and quality of scholarship. That said, the book is not without flaws. As Gibson acknowledges at the beginning, ‘there is little discussion of Islam’ (p 1). In a study of the ‘symbolic knowledge’ of a South Sulawesi community this is a significant omission. Another obvious criticism is that Gibson does not seem to have learnt Makassarese or Konjo himself, relying on informants for translation of manuscripts or ritual speech into Indonesian, which was then translated into English. Apparent lexical correspondences between Makassarese and Indonesian can be misleading, and learning the language will give better insights into a culture. But these relatively minor criticisms aside, this is an extremely valuable addition to studies of South Sulawesi.
Thomas Gibson, And the Sun Pursued the Moon, Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press, 2005 ISBN 0824828658, A$75.00
Anthony Jukes (email@example.com)
Review:This book contains fifteen essays covering a wide-range of topics from from close studies of royal elephant processions to overviews of changing population patterns.
Anthony Reid begins the anthology An Indonesian Frontier: Acehnese and Other Histories of Sumatra by noting that there is a dearth of books providing general histories of Sumatra, despite its importance in the history of the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. The book contains fifteen separate essays, all of which have appeared over the course of the last forty years, although many have been substantially revised. They cover topics ranging from close studies of royal elephant processions and opulent court celebrations in seventeenth century Aceh, to overviews of changing population patterns, whereby Sumatrans were mostly clustered in upland valleys before the twentieth century, but moved in greater numbers to coastal strips thereafter.
Readers will be particularly interested in the essays about Aceh. Perhaps most striking is the newest essay in the collection (chapter 15), in which Reid examines the roots of the contemporary separatist conflict. In all of Indonesia, he writes, ‘Aceh is alone (in common with Batavia/Jakarta) as an identity fashioned by a coastal state over four centuries, the memory of which was still vigorous in the 20th century’ (p 339). This difference, he implies, accounts for why separatist ideas have found a ready audience in the population. Here Reid refines his earlier interpretation of Aceh’s history. In his classic books, The Contest for North Sumatra (1969) and The Blood of the People (1979), Aceh’s resistance to Dutch colonisers is firmly placed within a wider story leading to Indonesian nationhood. The subsequent emergence of Acehnese separatism has made Reid look back at Aceh’s history in a new light.
The point Reid makes about Aceh’s ‘exceptionalism’, as well as the extraordinary range of topics he covers in the book, is surely also one explanation for why there is yet no accessible general history of Sumatra: its very diversity means the island does not form an easy unit for historical study.
Anthony Reid, An Indonesian Frontier, Singapore Singapore University Press, 2005 ISBN 99716929988, A$ 58.50
Reviewed by Edward Aspinall (firstname.lastname@example.org).