Indonesia – the world’s largest island nation with more than three-hundred different ethnic groups and an almost equally large number of regional languages and dialects – offers an impressively diverse and impressively old literature. In the west this is still considered terra incognita. To date only a rather small number of modern Indonesian poetry experts in the German-language realm know the name of writer poet Dorothea Rosa Herliany, born 1963 in Central Java. As a Catholic, she belongs to the Christian minority, which in the mainly Muslim-influenced Indonesia represents about 9% of the population. In 2009, a first small selection of her poems was published in a German translation entitled “Schenk mir alles, was die Männer nicht besitzen”. In the same year, Herliany received a fellowship residency at the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Around this time, she was already a frequently seen and welcome guest on the stages of international literature festivals. With Herliany one hears not only one of the few female voices of present-day Indonesian poetry. At the same time, she currently ranks as the most important and unusual writer of her generation – the so-called “Second Generation” of Indonesian writers. This generation grew up in postcolonial Indonesia – the third largest democracy in the world had gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1945. That said, Herliany’s generation experienced neither colonial suppression of the Netherlanders nor the militant furor of the founding generation. For her, being Indonesian went without saying, as did expressing oneself in the Indonesian language. Herliany, who had already begun writing at sixteen, drew much attention to herself on the stage of Indonesian literature with the publication of her 1987 debut volume of poetry “Nyanyian Gaduh” (Boisterous Songs).
Suddenly there was a woman whose voice rose up. Loud and distinct, in a society in which women were considered inferior citizens and expected to remain silent, she spoke of things never spoken about in the society of her birth: sexuality, the body of the woman, violence against women, society-related and social inequality, and the political abuse of power. In other words, as a poet, Herliany inverts all the rules that should have applied within standard patriarchal gender concepts and the religiously coded society of her culture’s birthplace. In her poetry, however, the woman is not the conquered, the desired male object. In her case, the woman is the hunter who, for her part, turns the man into a servant: “I did not become your woman in order to be faithful / I claim the right, on every battlefield, to wage my struggle. Troops/ of wild beasts are led by me/always intent/to look upon you on the dinner table/by now I embrace you/before satisfying my voracious hunger!” is how matters are expressed in the poem from “From the Diary of a Marriage” translated into German by Berthold Damshäuser. In “Sita’s Elegy”, for example – in Hinduism, in one of Indonesia’s five officially practiced world religions, Sita embodies the epitome of the self-sacrificing and chaste women – Sita refuses until death to give her allegiance and scolds her husband Rama, who puts her marital fidelity to the ultimate test of literally a fire proof, by being “the most cowardly of all men.” But even when Herliany critically questions her society from a woman’s standpoint and the passed down gender relationships for being old-fashioned and shameful, it would be inappropriate to call her, in the western sense, a feministic author. She has always rejected this categorization. Herliany was never interested in self-contemplation, but in lending her voice to those who mostly are not able to make themselves heared. And even if she speaks “militantly” with the voice of women – in the end, she raises the question of an egalitarian society beyond every dichotomy and thereby of a humane existence in a literally utopian “no man’s land”. Her language is correspondingly shocking and direct, and though full of provocation never vulgar. More often than not it is possessed by a subtle, astounding tenderness. Even in her politically-motivated poems, in which Heliany confronts the problematic of the turbulent and difficult younger history in Indonesia, she proceeds on cat’s paws. Almost never does she convey the character of a political pamphlet – instead, one must know the historical context of the respective situations she refers to between the lines. “A Day in July” alludes to July 27, 1966, when General Suharto, who ruled the land as a dictator from 1967 to 1998, authorized an assault on the female leader of the oppositional Democratic Party. Herliany witnessed how, not much later, the militia brutally massacred a great many peaceful demonstrators. By comparison, “A Day in November” tells, in a kind of negative illumination, of the moment when Suharto surrendered his power on May 21, 1988: “A radio broadcast, morning, newspapers on the table/I heard nothing, the telephone rang/the postman came. … life moved from sunshine to shadow/from wakefulness to the world of dreams/forming boring lines of notes/pages of trash not worth keeping“ (Translation: Harry Aveling) – is how the text unfolds. In a 2000 lecture which the far-traveled poet held at the University of Western Australia, she emphasized the imaginary, but meaning the fictional character of her poetry even at the point where her poems establish a connection to verifiable facts of reality, of existing history: “The reality of a work of literature is not factual reality but a fictional form of imaginative reality. And the reality of a work of literature will always create new realities when a reader enjoys it thorough her own worlds of experience and thought. This is also to say that literature is always a realm of symbols which opens itself and its readers to various different interpretations. The reality in my poetry is a transitory reality readers are free to use to create their own reality.” (English translation: Harry Aveling). One should follow this invitation to a dialogue. As Herliany, who in her home country has received every important literary prize, truly crosses borders with her visually rich poetry. Yet she does so not only in her birthplace, but also between cultures – in search of a global condition humaine.
Text: Claudia Kramatschek
English translation: Karl Edward Johnson