Indonesia’s Seno Blurs Line Between Literature and Journalism
Seno Gumira Ajidarma has been writing for nearly 40 years, crafting short stories, novels, non-fiction books and even movie scripts. But the master of self-expression knows his strengths and weaknesses when it comes to sharing his thoughts.
“I write more clearly than I speak,” said the Indonesian writer before excusing himself when it was his turn to speak at the recent Singapore Writers Festival.
Seno was paired with Malaysian writer Marina Mahathir in a session called “Writing for Freedom.”
Having experienced several political eras in his home country, the 54-year-old started to express himself through writing when he was still in his teens. He began writing when he was 16, and became a journalist when he was 19.
Born in Boston, Seno has published more than 30 books. One of his most popular, “Jazz, Perfume and Incidents,” has been translated to English.
Seno’s works provide critical insights on cultural and political issues in Indonesia. For this reason, he is well known as a figure who popularized the concept sastra koran, or newspaper literature, in Indonesia. His famous credo is “When journalism is silenced, literature must speak.”
But now that Indonesia has various media to deliver all kinds of news, what are the challenges for both journalism and literature in supporting the building of the nation?
“I think it’s time to fill the freedom [of the press] with deeper content, such as research,” he said. “We are in dire need to be an academic society.”
Seno added that literature will always be needed to support journalism because journalists are often under attack. He was referring to several recent cases in which Indonesian journalists have faced violence.
Seno sat down with the Jakarta Globe to talk about the current state of Indonesian literature.
Southeast Asian writers seem to have this view that Indonesian writers are lucky for having good role models in literature.
That’s true in some sense, but it does not mean that writers in developed countries cannot write well.
In Indonesia, we don’t have the soil because it has been taken from us, and then it becomes material for literature. But Singapore, simply because it is an established country, can have both poems and stories. [Seno then refers to Singaporean poet Alvin Pang, who wrote poems about real estate and the meaning of ownership.]
So, yes, a bloody history gives more possibilities for writers to write, but sometimes it’s nothing but jealousy.
What are your thoughts on translations of work into different languages?
For people who don’t understand Indonesian, all they get are the more obvious factors, such as politics. For literalists who are being resistant and critical in their work, they are visible.
Of course, this is not the only aspect in literature. There is also an aesthetic matter, for which people are required to understand Indonesian. Even for translated works, mostly they can only spread the discourse but not the nuance of the story.
If I say “jaing,” you cannot immediately translate it into “dog,” but you have to find a swear word in English that is also intimate at the same time.
How do you feel about journalism in Indonesia nowadays?
The difference today is that the state is not doing anything about the press, but the press is still prone to violent attacks.
We also need to slow down [in delivering the news.] We have to work on issues, to contemplate and do research because it is all about quality now.
We are in danger of wasting the chance to dig deeper. Before the reform era, bravery was all that it took. Bravery was a high point. In the old days, you didn’t need to be qualified to be able to speak.
[Poet W. S.] Rendra was criticized by people who demanded aesthetics. He disagreed, saying that his poems are a portrayal of urgency. He called it pamphlet poetry because it was easy to read and the meaning was clear and obvious. At that time, we couldn’t afford to have multidimensional poets who wrote about complicated matters. Now, the reformation era is giving us this luxury.
Do you think the new generation needs to reach the level of senior writers?
I wouldn’t say that. We have different experiences. TV and new media have become inevitable for young people.
I went through the old order, the new order and reform era, but I cannot look down at new literalists. Everyone has to face different challenges.
But then literary experts think younger people don’t care about their history.
I disagree. I just came back from a forum about history in Borobudur (Magelang, Central Java). They had more than 100 writers who like to write about history and our glory in the old days. And all of them were young.
But then their work doesn’t reach literary experts. True, they may not give the quality that critics require, but they are there, and they work with archeologists, and I think this is a new development in literature.
I really think we have to look at literature beyond its aesthetic dimensions. Though we do need to debunk the longing for the glory like we used to have in the Sriwijaya or Majapahit times, I would really regret it if the past became some kind of utopia for our literary writers. I would like them to be critical about our history.
Recently, there is a movement to encourage the young generation to read Indonesian classics and modern literature. What are your thoughts?
I say let the young people build their own literature. Every generation has its own genius.
Their avenue could be film and not books. But if it is a matter of literary teachers who do not understand literature, it is true.
We are very much into the new media right now, and it is a new thing and not scientifically written.
I urge the government to prioritize education above the economy and politics, maybe even above culture. It is better to live in poverty but still be educated, than to live in poor conditions and not be educated.