‘If Indonesia were a person,’ a good friend in Jakarta said to me, ‘it would be Goenawan.’ I know what she means. There is nothing black and white about him. He is a complex man, multi-faceted, charming and exasperating, full of conviction and contradiction, at once deeply patriotic and critical of his nation (which was born just five years after he was), someone who has weathered and helped forge the upheavals that Indonesia has undergone since then.
Activist, journalist, editor, essayist, poet, commentator, philanthropist, theatre director, and playwright, Goenawan Mohamad is a charismatic and controversial figure in the Indonesian cultural scene. To some he is a hero of free speech, a man of principle and champion of difficult causes; to others, a pretentious Western-oriented intellectual who surrounds himself with acolytes. Admired or derided, he has been at the forefront of Indonesian intellectual and artistic life for the past fifty years, and, at seventy-one, shows no sign of slowing down.
Born in Batang, on the north coast of central Java in July 1941, Goenawan’s childhood name was Susatyo. This may read as a simple sentence, but each fact tells a larger story. In 1941, Indonesia was still the Dutch East Indies, and Batang, which is about 100 kilometres west of Semarang on the north coast of Java, was outside the area indirectly ruled by the central Javanese courts. To come from the north coast was to be beyond the reach of ‘correct’ Javanese speech and behaviour, as those in the court realms perceived them. You were Javanese, but your speech and manner marked you as from the margins, the sticks. Like another famous Indonesian writer, Pramoedya (1925–2006), who also came from the north coast of Java, Goenawan found liberation from what he has called this ‘cultural trauma’ in mastery of the national language, Indonesian.
In 1941, and during Goenawan’s childhood, the languages on offer in Batang were Javanese, Indonesian Malay, and Dutch. Javanese was Goenawan’s first language – the language of everyday life in which he thought and spoke, the language of family, feelings, theatre, music. Rich in vocabulary and expression, and with a long written and oral literary tradition, Javanese is a stratified language. It is impossible to speak without expressing one’s position in the social structure and one’s relationship to the person addressed. The Javanese language can express great intimacy, but also imposes a declaration of status. Indonesian, on the other hand, which is a version of Malay (renamed ‘Bahasa Indonesia’, or ‘the language of Indonesia’, by young nationalists in 1928) allows freedom from all this. It too can express status, of course, but this is not built into the language in the complex and unavoidable way that it is in Javanese. Indonesian Malay was therefore an ideal modern language for young nationalists communicating across ethnicities (and languages), and across class.
While Indonesian Malay was the language of resistance to colonialism, its position in the colony was ambiguous. Dutch-sponsored projects to promote ‘High Malay’ – for instance, publishing literature and translations in ‘good’ Indonesian Malay to elevate the written language – stood alongside policies of virtual linguistic apartheid. The education system differentiated between schools teaching in Dutch, Chinese, or Malay. Schools for ‘natives’ – those at the bottom of the ladder – taught upper grades in Malay, and vernacular languages in elementary levels.
Dutch, the language of the colonial masters, was the reserve of a small élite. It was the language of education for those privileged enough to obtain entry to Dutch-language schools, especially the traditional ruling classes propped up by the colonial state, but also Arabs and Chinese. Unlike the French or the English in their colonies, who viewed the spread of their languages as part of their civilising mission, the Dutch discouraged the speaking of their language by ‘natives’. When the Japanese invaded the Indies in 1942, it is estimated that only around two per cent of the total population in the Dutch East Indies spoke Dutch, including around one million Indonesians. Addressing the Dutch in Dutch was considered particularly presumptuous.
Between Javanese and Dutch, then, speech was hazardous. Indonesian Malay promised escape. But in the 1940s this was still a promise, as Indonesian Malay was still stigmatised. ‘[W]e came to accept awkward speech as something natural,’ Goenawan wrote in his acceptance speech for the Professor A. Teeuw Award in 1992, ‘… [y]et we clung to an illusion of freedom in speech, as if by holding on we would be able to participate in the ceremony of self formation.’
Goenawan did not start learning Indonesian formally until his third year of primary school, in 1949, when he was eight years old. By then two momentous events had happened: the Japanese occupation of the Netherlands East Indies during World War II from 1942 to 1945, and Indonesia’s declaration of independence on 17 August 1945, just two days after Japan announced its surrender. One of the most significant acts of the Japanese occupiers had been to ban the use of Dutch. This immediately ended all use of Dutch in schools, radio, and print, and effectively forced the spread of Indonesian Malay. It meant that Goenawan escaped exposure to Dutch. By the time Indonesian sovereignty was officially recognised internationally in December 1949, the Indonesian language was firmly entrenched as the national language of unity over the archipelago, and was used in the entire education system beginning in the third grade.
Goenawan is a member of the first generation to directly experience these changes in language policy and the opportunities they brought to young writers such as himself to shape the Indonesian language in the new republic. It was an exciting challenge and one that young writers grasped eagerly at the time, but it came at a cost. In his Teeuw Award speech, Goenawan described the pain of ‘being forced to write in an environment of linguistic collapse’, and the in-betweenness of writers of his generation – learning to speak in one language, and writing in another – as producing ‘stammerers’.
Other famous writers have, of course, written in adopted languages; Conrad, Kundera, and Nabokov come to mind. But they were not escaping the ‘cultural trauma’ of humiliation in their first, spoken language. Nor were they dealing with the heavy shadow of colonialism. And while other writers from post-colonial nations (India, Vietnam, Africa) escaped that shadow by writing in the language of their former colonial rulers (English, French), these were languages their nations had adopted after independence. This was not the case in Indonesia. The Dutch language was relegated to the dustbin of history within a generation. Indonesian writers like Goenawan embraced the challenge of forging a new identity, language, and literature all at once.
Goenawan’s transition of eras is reflected in his name. His childhood name was Goenawan Susatyo. The ‘Goenawan’ uses the old colonial era ‘oe’ spelling for ‘u’, whereas ‘Susatyo’ was written with modern spelling. These are both what we would call ‘first names’, as Javanese do not use family names or ‘surnames’. Each person is an individual with his or her own name. In his teens, Goenawan dropped the ‘Susatyo’. This is common practice in Java. People take on new names at important times in their lives – when they marry, for instance – and drop childhood names. Goenawan then took ‘Mohamad’ as a second name, following the example of his older brother, Kartono, who had already moved to Jakarta and had adopted the name ‘Kartono Mohamad’, with the unusual spelling of ‘Mohamad’ using only one ‘m’. It was a modern-looking name.
‘Mohamad’ (or perhaps ‘Mohammad’) was also one of Goenawan’s father’s names. He was known as Agus. Goenawan’s mother, Siti Rohayah – who was Agus’s second wife – came from a relatively well-off family, and her marriage must have been a love match, as her husband was a divorcé with two children and already frequently in trouble with the authorities because of his nationalist, leftist views. The couple had eight children who survived to adulthood: five girls and three boys. Goenawan was the youngest child, and very close to his mother.
Goenawan barely knew his father, who died when he was six. His father was an activist, a fierce nationalist, and wrote articles in Malay-language newspapers. He had a considerable library for the time, including works of Karl Marx and books in English, which he read well without any formal training. After the communist uprising in 1926, when the Dutch rounded up leftists, he was exiled to Boven-Digoel in Papua, the prison camp for opponents to the colonial government – as far distant as possible from hotbeds of radicalism in Java and Sumatra. Whether or not he identified with the communists is unclear, but according to Goenawan he did not agree with the 1926 rebellion. Perhaps, like many on the left, he thought the strike was mistakenly premature, but as a known activist he was arrested and held in Boven-Digoel for five years. Remarkably, rather than return to her family, Goenawan’s mother went with her husband, taking their three small daughters. A son was born in the prison camp.
Goenawan’s father’s opposition to the colonial régime was in no way diminished by his imprisonment. The camp at Tanah Merah was almost a graduation school for ‘subversive’ nationalists. He continued his underground activities after his release in 1932. During the Indonesian national revolution (1945–49), when the Dutch were fighting the Indonesian republican forces to regain their colony, he was arrested and shot. It was a severe and lasting life lesson for the young six-year-old Susatyo. ‘Late one afternoon in 1947, my father was executed by the Dutch troops who had occupied our town,’ Goenawan writes. ‘From then on I knew that violence and death happen when there are unwanted people and a power gets nervous.’
Books were part of that world of power. Goenawan recalls the Dutch soldiers ransacking the house. ‘After they had bound my father’s hands and put him on a truck, our family sat terrified. I still remember one thing clearly: two soldiers took some books from my father’s study and threw them down the well.’ The association of texts with danger would remain with Goenawan in his life as journalist and writer.
The family went on the run, moving out of Dutch-occupied territory. His mother had to support eight children and times were hard, but his father’s memory left a deep legacy. Goenawan writes:
These days I try to understand what made mother so strong. Perhaps she already knew that her husband’s life would end in such a way, or perhaps in a way a little better than being shot. Mother had seen father go in and out of prison; she had even accompanied him into exile in far off Digul, Papua, further than anyone could imagine. Was she resigned to all this? …
Mother raised the rest of her young children in a practical way: they had to eat and go to school. It was almost no more than that. In our family conversation there was never any instruction to love our homeland. But I was raised, and I think my brothers and sisters too, with the memory of our father – and together with that, quietly, ‘Indonesia’ hung about us, involved us. In the sense that it became intensely meaningful. At least, I cannot imagine myself living without bonding with ‘Indonesia’ (‘Homeland’, 2009).
When hostilities ceased, the family returned to Batang and Goenawan attended junior and senior high school in Pekalongan, a town ten kilometres away. It was the 1950s. Indonesia was independent, and there was a sense of enthusiasm about building the nation. School teachers were poorly paid, but were committed and eager to share their learning. Goenawan recalls the music teacher at his junior high school in this small town teaching Negro spirituals and introducing the students to Bartók. He studied French, German, and English, excelling in German. His older brother, now in Jakarta, sent him books in English. By his last year of high school, like many young men of the day, Goenawan was fascinated with poetry, and already trying his hand at translating Apollinaire and Emily Dickinson. To get published was the ultimate dream – poems were a good place to start.
The 1950s saw an explosion of print. Newspapers, magazines, and literary journals appeared all over Indonesia, and writers enthusiastically displayed their skills at writing in Indonesian, interacting with each other and with the wide world of ideas outside. The publication medium encouraged the development of creative writing in short literary forms – short stories, essays, poetry – and is one reason why most creative and experimental writing in Indonesian, even today, is in shorter forms. At this time, too, there was a veritable fury of translation of foreign writing into Indonesian, also published in journals and newspapers, from a wide array of languages including Russian, Chinese, French, English, Spanish, German, Italian, Dutch, Arabic, and Urdu. Poems, stories, plays, and extracts from works by writers including Gorky, Lu Hsun, Lorca, Schiller, Iqbal, Rumi, Sartre, Chekhov, and Shakespeare frequently appeared in the press. Indonesian writers were confidently sensing their place in the world.
Journalism was the career path for many aspiring writers, as is still the case in Indonesia (although today more film and television than print media). Then, as now, the line between journalism and literature was fluid. Journals and newspapers devoted a large amount of space to creative writing, essays, and discussions about culture, as indeed they still do. Young writers – then almost exclusively men – debated ideas in the press, and competed to get their poetry and short stories published in the more prestigious journals published in Jakarta. The ideas they discussed and debated – the great cultural currents of the era, where the nation was headed, what was shaping it – were in no way marginal or relegated to ‘the arts’. These ideas were matters of great national importance.
Like many young people eager to participate in the cultural and political life of the new nation, Goenawan moved to Jakarta as soon as he finished high school in 1960 and enrolled as a student at the University of Indonesia, where he studied psychology and philosophy. He also took up writing, and contributed poems and literary criticism to various journals. He began to get a name for himself. In 1961 the most prestigious literary journal, Sastra, published his first essay (‘Landscape Colour in Poetry’), followed in 1962 by two essays (‘Religion in the Creation of Art’, ‘Literature as the Voice of Optimism’), five of his own poems, and an essay on Emily Dickinson with his translation of ten of her poems. He was only twenty-one and flying high. In 1963 he dropped his studies to pursue writing full time.
But the Cold War was closing in on Indonesia. By the early 1960s the heady debates of young men were becoming increasingly politicised in Cold War rhetoric. Indonesia was a leader of the non-aligned Third World, but its local politics steered a precarious path between communism, Islam, and secularist nationalism. Although not a communist country, before October 1965 Indonesia had the third largest communist party in the world (after the USSR and China), and tension between the communists, the army, and the Islamic parties, all jockeying for power, was running high. President Sukarno, facing a disastrous economy and regional rebellions – not to mention middle age – became increasingly autocratic. In 1959 he disbanded parliament and brought in ‘Guided Democracy’ under his guidance as ‘Great Leader of the Revolution’, and ‘President for Life’. Press censorship was tightened, and writers who dared to criticise him or his policies were in serious trouble.
Artists and writers sought protection. Goenawan aligned himself with those who openly rejected Sukarno’s call, driven by the left, for art to be hitched to politics. ‘Politics is the Commander’ was their catchcry. Art was expected to serve political directives, and artists had to affiliate with one part of the sacred indivisible ‘trinity’ of Sukarnoism: nationalism, religion, and communism. The left, influenced by the USSR and China, adopted socialist realism as its cultural credo.
Debates of ideas now turned into vicious personal attacks, and groups of artists and friends became opposing camps. Goenawan, with those defending ‘universal humanism’, spoke out against the subjugation of art to politics, and the politicisation of language and Indonesian cultural life. In 1963, aged twenty-two, he was one of the signatories to the ‘Cultural Manifesto’, a document drawn up by thirteen artists (predominantly writers, all but one of them male) defending the independence of art from directives of political ideology. The Manifesto was published in a literary journal in October 1963, and immediately attacked by the left. Signatories were hounded and intimidated. President Sukarno officially outlawed the Cultural Manifesto credo in early 1964, and the writings of its signatories and supporters were banned. Goenawan experienced for himself the power of texts: like his father’s books, thrown down the well, they could be dangerous.
Goenawan stayed on in Jakarta for another year, occasionally writing under a pseudonym but unable to earn any money. There seemed to be no hope of change. A friend helped him apply for a scholarship to study political science at the Collège de France in Bruges, Belgium. Although it was not Goenawan’s choice of subject, it was a chance to get away. He enrolled for the 1965 semester that started in September, but his departure was delayed, and he almost did not make it at all. On the night of 30 September 1965, long-running political tensions erupted in a violent coup that was attributed to the communists. In the days that followed, it was difficult to leave the country. He finally left less than a week after the coup, before the ensuing bloodbath began.
Goenawan’s association with the Cultural Manifesto in 1963 is what he is still best known for in Indonesia. The divisions and bitternesses of those years run deep. Indonesia’s ideological rift was part of the wider cultural Cold War, the politics of influence being fought out between the USSR and the United States. The CIA was secretly channelling funds globally via the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), which involved luminaries like Stephen Spender, Malcolm Muggeridge, Nicolas Nabokov, and Frank Kermode. Asia was well in the CCF’s sights. An interim committee had been set up in Jakarta in 1956, and Wiratmo Soekito, who later drew up the first draft of the Cultural Manifesto, was a member of that committee. Goenawan’s study in Belgium was also funded by the CCF. He was aware of this, but at that time the CIA’s backing of the CCF had not yet been exposed (the news broke globally only in 1966). Suspicions were already rife, however, as was the claim that the Cultural Manifesto signatories in Indonesia were linked to the army. To be apolitical was an extremely political stance at the time.
While Goenawan was busy at the Collège, attending debates about the meaning of ‘Europe’ and the grand design for building the European community, Indonesia was being torn apart. After the coup there were mass arrests and massacres of communists and communist sympathisers. Artists and writers affiliated to the left were on the run. They were now the ‘unwanted people’.
From October 1965 there was a total shutdown of any public engagement with socialist or communist ideas. Leftist writers and artists who happened to be abroad found that they could not return, and lived in forced exile. Those in Indonesia, if not murdered in the post-coup frenzy, were arrested and imprisoned without trial. For those on the ‘winning’ side, there was a sense that the leftists had got their just deserts. There were no expressions of sympathy, but rather relief, even glee. No one knew then, of course, just how long those imprisoned would be held without trial, nor the terrors of Suharto’s military régime to come.
As the years dragged on – prisoners began to be released only in the late 1970s – and as the global Cold War weakened and the anti-Vietnam War movement gathered strength, the position of the Manifesto group became more ambiguous. Some remained vocal, rabid anti-communists, maintaining a vendetta against their former opponents. Goenawan came to see the wider historical context that had shaped those tragic divisions. He made his position clear thirty years later, when in 1995 Indonesia’s most internationally famous writer, Pramoedya, who had been one of those political prisoners and imprisoned without trial for fourteen years, was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. There was an outcry in Indonesia. A prominent writer and former recipient of the Award, Mochtar Lubis, returned his award in disgust. A group of twenty-six writers, including some of the Cultural Manifesto signatories, incensed that the Award had been given to someone renowned for having in his time intimidated ‘counter-revolutionaries’, rushed to draw up a letter of protest to the Magsaysay Committee. Goenawan refused to sign it. ‘[T]o join Lubis in condemning Pramoedya’s past is to me morally and politically unacceptable’, Goenawan wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review (28 September 1995). ‘The political transformation … in 1965 did not stop state repression against free expression. If anything, the change has created a more ruthless kind of coercion. In a painfully ironic turn of fate, it is now Pramoedya who is the victim of intolerance. To attack him today is to give a new layer of legitimacy to the prevailing government’s repression.’
Back in early 1967, when Goenawan returned to Indonesia from Europe, however, his group was in the ascendant. Cultural Manifesto signatories were heroes then. There was a euphoria of freedom after the tense late Sukarno years of heavy ideology, slogans, and censorship. The real grip of the Suharto régime and army was yet to be felt. The mood was similar to that of thirty years later, immediately following the fall of Suharto in 1998. Language itself was freed from political jargon. It was a good time to be writing. It was also a good time for love and new starts. Goenawan met his wife Widarti at a seminar in Jakarta. She was a young graduate in Indonesian literature, just twenty-three. They married a few months after they met.
Goenawan joined the editorial staff of a daily newspaper that was the mouthpiece of the student movement opposing Sukarno (who remained nominal president until 1967, when Suharto took over). Over the next four years he moved to two other publications, and then in 1971 became chief editor of a new weekly magazine, Tempo. He was thirty years old and it was the beginning of an intense involvement that lasted until he stepped down as chief editor in 2000.
Although many working at Tempo had been anti-Sukarno activists, the weekly was early to criticise the Suharto military régime and, over the next two decades, pushed the limits of criticism of the régime’s corruption, terror tactics, and authoritarianism. In 1994 the government finally banned the magazine. After the fall of Suharto, Tempo resumed publication, and is today Indonesia’s most prestigious weekly, with both print and online editions and an English-language version.
Modelled on Time, as its name suggests, the magazine focuses on Indonesian and international news, and gives considerable space to culture and the arts. When it started out in 1971, its editorial staff had little experience in news journalism. Like Goenawan, many were writers and it was more a case of creative writers forming a news magazine than hardcore journalists establishing an outlet for their journalism. The first editorial, in manifesto-like language, defiantly set out their ideals and their rejection of the politicisation of journalism and bitter polemics that had characterised the pre-coup years:
Our journalism will not be one-sided, or based on the policies of a single group. We believe that neither virtue nor the lack of virtue is the monopoly of any one side. We believe that the duty of the press is not to spread prejudice, but rather to wipe it out, not to sow the seeds of hatred, but rather to communicate mutual understanding. The journalism of this magazine will not be sneering or insulting, obsequious or slavish. What gives us jurisdiction is not power or money, but rather good intentions, a sense of justice and healthy thinking – all of which will be the basic philosophy of this magazine.
Throughout the Suharto era, Tempo negotiated a precarious path between pursuing journalism and staying alive. At a time when the radio and television were state-controlled or in the hands of the Suharto family, the press was the most independent form of media, but its situation was always fragile. There was no pre-print censorship, but the government could withdraw publishing licences at any time if coverage were considered too invasive. Negotiating with those in power was essential, and learning to play one off against another was an art. So too was the skill of writing allusively, like the theatre of the time; writing to the limit. Readers became expert at reading between the lines.
As chief editor, Goenawan established a strong code of ethics for Tempo staff. A rigorous selection procedure was established for applicants wanting to work at the magazine. Journalists and editors were forbidden from accepting bribes of any kind; anyone found to have taken bribes faced instant dismissal. Goenawan also established a strong democratic work culture, with shared decision-making about which stories to cover and who should cover them. The sense of community this fostered later proved important during the hard years of the banning, when staff formed a type of cooperative after losing their jobs. The legacy of ‘Tempo culture’ remains strong today. To be accepted at Tempo is still considered the pinnacle of achievement for a journalist in Indonesia, and the sense of community of the ‘Tempo family’ remains strong.
From 1971–94, Goenawan focused on developing quality journalism in Indonesia in increasingly difficult conditions. Apart from establishing journalistic ethics and pushing the boundaries of investigative writing, he promoted a new kind of journalistic writing, keeping the language clean of polemic and jargon. He and the other creative writers on the staff cared deeply about language. The Tempo advertising motto was enak dibaca dan perlu – ‘nice to read and necessary’ – with the ‘nice to read’ coming first. In her comprehensive book about Tempo (Wars Within: The Story of Tempo, an Independent Magazine in Soeharto’s Indonesia, 2005), Janet Steele notes the magazine’s narrative style, particularly in its early years. Stories might be about political issues, but the writing style focused on characters, settings, and stories – the language of dramatists and short story writers.
While Goenawan, as editor, drove the search for facts and answers to questions, he rarely wrote such journalism himself. His own contribution to Tempo was of a different kind: a weekly essay that was more reflective and raised deeper philosophical questions without giving or seeking answers. Even though he retired as editor-in-chief in 2000, he continues to write this weekly essay to this day.
His Tempo column is titled ‘Catatan Pinggir’, which literally means ‘notes on the margins’, but, as the regular translator of this column, I have chosen to translate into English as ‘Sidelines’, conveying also his position of speaking not directly, but from the side. In a mere 800–1000 words, his essays convey an insight, a comment, or a query, on issues as wide-ranging as the Israeli occupation of Gaza or a criminal charge of apostasy in Malaysia, to a film he has just seen, a traffic jam that morning in Jakarta, or sunrise on a mountain in Flores. Recent events, his reading, and personal experience are triggers to reflection. The short essays are deliberately non-polemic and non-committal – his critics would say they are ambivalent.
More than any other writer in Indonesia, Goenawan has developed the essay to a highly sophisticated literary form. The essay has developed alongside journalism, print media publishing outlets, and public reading habits, but Goenawan’s short Tempo essays push the boundaries in both form and content. He shows, within a strictly defined word limit, how to expand or contract from an initial idea, zooming out into the world at large and backwards and forwards in time, or zooming in to something very near and intimate. He stretches the Indonesian language, showing how its resources can be used to convey deep ideas and thinking. He extends vocabulary – coining words and drawing particularly from Javanese, Malay, Arabic, and English – and pays great attention in his prose to rhythm and balance. He experiments with different styles of language – from highly poetic tellings of wayang stories or the intensity of spiritual experience, to more prosaic discussion of domestic and world events, or the restrained narrative of memoir.
To produce a weekly short essay for thirty-six years (and counting) is an amazing feat. I have been translating them regularly since 1992, and have followed his experiments in style and content. Of course there are times when the writing is more belaboured, and sometimes pretentious or derivative. Goenawan’s best short essays, even when abstract and philosophical, are grounded in some way – in a local or world event, or something he has read, witnessed, or done. His best longer essays, such as the one on language written in 1992 from which I have drawn earlier, are beautifully crafted pieces; paced, unpretentious arguments that draw on personal experience, deep thinking, and dazzlingly wide reading.
During the Suharto régime, Goenawan was able to maintain his personal balanced philosophical voice, even as the magazine he edited was uncovering facts about the régime’s ruthlessness. In 1994, however, Tempo’s luck ran out. A feature story about the purchase of thirty-nine East German war ships highlighted corruption and conflicts within the government. Reprisal was swift. Tempo’s publication licence was revoked. Unlike an earlier banning in 1982, it soon became clear that this time no amount of talking to officials was going to save the day. Tempo did not publish again until after the fall of Suharto in 1998.
Tempo also did not give up easily. Goenawan and forty-three ex-Tempo journalists decided to challenge the banning and sue the Department of Information in an open court. This was an audacious move with little chance of success. Their case was based on the claim that the withdrawal of the publishing licence was, in effect, a banning that violated the Basic Press Law. In May 1995, to the great surprise of the plaintiffs and the public, the court ruled in Tempo’s favour. The chief judge in the panel of three that made the decision, Benjamin Mangkoedilaga, was hailed as a hero of reform (he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2000). Goenawan’s own public profile as a spokesperson for the opposition to the New Order soared. Not surprisingly, the decision in Tempo’s favour was finally overturned by the Supreme Court, but Goenawan and the ex-Tempo journalists had used the courts to draw attention to the tight vice of New Order control and to validate the opposition tactics of the underground. Standing outside the Supreme Court after the announcement, with his hand raised in defiance, Goenawan made a public statement: ‘For me, the struggle for the freedom of the press by legal means ends here. Now the struggle must take another form.’
For Tempo staff, the banning was a disaster and led to a nasty rift as some went to work for a new rival journal bankrolled by a Suharto crony, but for Goenawan himself it was in many ways a release. Freed from his responsibilities and able to speak out, he became an activist, like his father, and spent the next four years with the underground movement resisting the régime. It was a dangerous time, working with people who could be ‘disappeared’ at any moment. Goenawan’s own high profile and international prestige protected him. The underground seized opportunities offered by developments with the Internet; clandestine publications were circulated by email from secret addresses, printed out, and circulated. Goenawan wrote for these publications using his own name, in order to defy the authorities.
At the same time, he founded an art centre, called ‘Komunitas Utan Kayu’, or KUK, after the street name (Utan Kayu) of the venue. In another of history’s ironies, KUK was just down the road from the house owned by Pramoedya where he had been arrested and his books burned in 1966, and where he was now living again after his release. Goenawan negotiated funding to buy the land and construct a small theatre, gallery, office, shop, and outdoor café. It was fulfilment of one of his dreams – to have a centre where intellectual and cultural activities mixed with politics and journalism. But the centre was also a cover for underground activity. Behind the Honda showroom on the street at the entry to the complex was an Anne Frank-like secret staircase to a hideout ‘annexe’.
‘Tempo negotiated a precarious path between pursuing journalism and staying alive’
Various interrelated activities were based at the Utan Kayu centre, including a community radio station and the Alliance of Independent Journalists (Aliansi Jurnalis Independen or AJI), which some ex-Tempo journalists had founded after the magazine’s banning. Together with members of AJI, Goenawan established the Institute for the Study of the Free Flow of Information (Institusi Studi Arus Informasi, or ISAI). It documented attacks against free expression in Indonesia and circulated news nationally and internationally via the Internet. Goenawan’s concern was to make the opposition organisationally strong. He put his own funds into ISAI, but its largest funder was USAID – something with which many in the underground felt uncomfortable, and which revived old suspicions of American and CIA links. The Ford Foundation was also a donor. The Utan Kayu complex, with ISAI also headquartered there, was a hub of anti-régime activity.
The years 1994–98 were intense in Indonesia. I was working in Jakarta at the Ford Foundation at the time, and the tension was palpable. People were fed up with the régime, but there was no glimmer of possible change. Protests against Suharto intensified, as did the army’s campaign of terror and intimidation. Murders of journalists and critics were common, and the army acted with impunity. Goenawan was at the coalface of change, a member of the underground, and a spokesperson for freedom of expression. He was hailed as a man of principle and was a public figure of opposition. It was also an intense time in his personal life as his more public affairs with young women and his frenetic underground activity led to estrangement from his wife, successful in her own right as editor of Femina, a prestigious women’s magazine.
Goenawan’s refuge from his role as public figure was poetry. In the 1990s he returned to poetry, after writing little during the Tempo period. Poetry is an escape for him, where he can relinquish his role as master of big issues; a refuge where his mystical, religious, and erotic life glows in surrender to the power of words. ‘Poetry celebrates life, with small-scale moves of intensity,’ Goenawan wrote (‘Zhivago’, 2004), and elsewhere, ‘In poetry, the “I” is no longer the captain of words’ (‘28 April’, 2011).
Goenawan had started out as a poet. He wrote his first poem when he was seventeen, and his first collection of poetry (Parikesit)was published in 1971. His early style was lyrical and contemplative, influenced by the two poets he translated, Dickinson and Apollinaire, and also Indonesia’s famous rebel poet, the James Dean-like figure Chairil Anwar, who died in 1949 aged only twenty-six. There were also often echoes of classical Malay poetry in Goenawan’s early poems. In the 1990s his poetry became more emotionally intense, often celebrating eroticism, with tight rhyme and assonance.
Another haven from his public persona is mysticism. He is an intensely spiritual man, though not devout or religiously observant. He is a Muslim, and had a normal Javanese village exposure to Islam in his childhood: a light dose of prayers and teachings at the local mosque, and some observance of the fasting month. But his spiritual life, as he describes it, is closely entwined with his experience of poetry – in the sense of surrender.
Prayer is always moving between copious expression and quiet, between the impulse to comprehend and a sense of wonder that is also reverent. Before the Divine, the All-Incomparable, the tongue cannot put on airs.If religious institutions are antagonistic towards poetry, it is because they forget that it is also a kind of prayer. ‘I am knocking at Your door / and cannot turn away’ Chairil Anwar wrote in his most religious period (‘Prayer’, 2005).
Like Chairil Anwar, the Indonesian poet he most admires and frequently quotes, Goenawan’s spiritual experience is private and intense, in the existential tradition of Iqbal, Rumi, Ibn Arabi, Meister Eckhart, and Aquinas.
I was walking there that evening, along the lake in the hills of north Bali, forging through the undergrowth and losing a sense of distance in a solitude disturbed only by the sound of my tread. Far to the east, on the edge of the lake, was a small temple, entirely protected. At that moment, in the green half-light, the everlasting appeared. Eternity moved. Each second seemed to slip and fuse into the chlorophyll of the trees. Centuries seemed to tremble in the forks of the tree trunks …A Sufi, it is said, will say that this is the moment he discovers tajallī, the self-manifestation of The Ineffable. The Sufi will recall one of the Prophet’s sayings, that God hides himself ‘behind seventy thousand veils of light and darkness’. He immediately senses how true and beautiful that phrase is: both elements in that veil are present, and the dark will not expel the light, nor the light the dark (‘Trees’, 2003).
This is very far from the public man – the man in control, the editor, the activist, the intellectual, the man of principle, and moral voice of the opposition.
In the mid-1990s, Goenawan was living an intense underground life – as an activist, lover, and poet. But he was about to be called back to centre stage. In May 1998, Suharto resigned. The end to the régime came suddenly, following close on the financial crisis of 1997. Many were caught off guard, but the activist journalists were ready to seize the moment and push for an end to the hated media regulatory system. The importance that Goenawan had given to strengthening the organisational side of ISAI was now vindicated, and in 1999 the entire Department of Information – the edifice behind the media regulatory system – was dismantled. Tempo staff did not wait even for this. After Suharto’s resignation, they immediately gathered and planned to revive the magazine, expecting Goenawan to return as chief editor. He was initially reticent. He had spent the last four years in the heat of action, and had revived his own creative life. Finally, he reluctantly agreed to step in on a temporary basis until the journal was re-established. Tempo resumed publishing in October 1998.
The initial ‘Reformasi’ years after the fall of Suharto, like the early years after the régime change three decades earlier, were euphoric. There was openness and excitement about change. At first, it seemed that there would be an end to endemic corruption and entrenched power systems. The heavily centralised state system crumbled, and Indonesia’s regions were given more autonomy. The arts broke out of the state-sponsored system and flourished in private, alternative spaces – small galleries, cafés, and theatres. Community media and indie film boomed.
Goenawan turned once again to his dream – to create a space for cultural and intellectual activity that would be his legacy. He wanted a space larger than Utan Kayu with its tiny multi-purpose theatre, and in a different area of town. He wanted a vibrant artistic program with local and visiting artists, and public discussions on current affairs, philosophy, the arts, and ideas. He wanted to nurture and be nurtured by a young, energetic intellectual and cultural community.
Funding for the arts in Indonesia is both private and public. There are government-funded arts centres staffed with civil servants, but with minimal funding for activities. There is no grant-giving mechanism for artists. There are no full-time resident arts companies. There is nothing like the Australia Council or Australia’s state-level arts ministries, which receive government funds and operate grant schemes with arm’s-length decision-making. Nor are there anything like the large, private US non-profit foundations that fund the arts. Indonesia has no tax incentive scheme to institutionalise philanthropy or to distance the giving from the giver.
However, while formal funding for the arts is small, informally there is a lot of money slushing around. Arts sponsorship is part of advertising, and businesses routinely give sponsorship for arts events, the largest sponsors being the print media (Tempo is a sponsor), and cigarette and medicine companies. In many ways the arts in Indonesia, even in urban settings, still function in a more traditional framework of sponsorship. Wealthy art collectors build galleries. Artists themselves create galleries and performance spaces for their own artistic communities. Since the end of the New Order this trend has boomed, mainly because of the loosening of the permit process for public events. Earlier tight controls for public assembly have not been wiped from the books, but now they are largely disregarded.
Goenawan is also an arts patron. In 2000 he stepped down from editorship of Tempo and began the process of designing a new cultural complex in south Jakarta, called Salihara (after the name of the street), and forming the community to run it. He sank some personal funds into the building project, and continues to help with operating costs. But, apart from being a donor himself, Goenawan attracts funding. The media group that publishes the newspaper Jawa Pos (in which Goenawan has shares) was the major funder of Salihara’s establishment, and continues to fund activities alongside other sponsors.
Salihara officially opened in 2008. It is a complex of three buildings on 3800 square metres of land, and houses a black box theatre, a gallery, a discussion venue, office space, a shop, and an outdoor café. In just four years it has become the major arts venue in Jakarta, and is the centre for cutting-edge arts activity. Its official name is ‘Komunitas Salihara’ (The Salihara Community) and it describes itself as a ‘cultural enclave’. It presents performances, book launchings, discussions, films, art exhibitions, and workshops. The biennial ‘Salihara Festival’, which presents ‘the best works from Indonesia and abroad’ (Australian participants have included the quintet Topology, Chunky Move, and Jennifer Claire), alternates with the Salihara International Literary Biennale, which started out at Utan Kayu (Australian writers have included Jan Cornall, Sandra Thibodeaux, and Steven Conte).
Arts events at the Salihara complex are only one aspect of its life. Equally important are discussions on current issues and ideas, philosophy, and writing, and as a space for young people to meet. Salihara presents itself as both a centre and a bastion. Its statement runs:
The vision of Komunitas Salihara is to maintain freedom of thought and expression, respect differences and diversity, and to foster and spread artistic and intellectual resources. We need to assert this vision, because in Indonesia today … freedom of thought and expression is still threatened from above (by instruments of the State) or from the side (by sectors in society itself, especially groups acting in the name of some religious or ethnic group).
The threat ‘from the side’ entered the Salihara complex in May this year, when a group of thugs claiming to act in the name of Islam attacked a discussion being held with a visiting Canadian writer, Irshad Manji. Manji, who is Director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University, was at Salihara to discuss her book Allah, Liberty and Love (2011), but her talk was interrupted by a police officer demanding that the discussion be shut down in response to complaints by local residents. Meanwhile, a mob of hardliners shouted and rampaged, claiming that Manji was promoting lesbianism. The police merely stood by. Manji had visited Indonesia four years earlier and there had been no trouble. This was Salihara’s first direct attack by rightist Islamist thugs and it deeply shocked the staff, including Goenawan.
Since Reformasi was heralded in back in 1998 with its promise of change and openness, the fight against authoritarianism – so embedded in Indonesia’s history – has shifted from a fight against the state or the army to a fight against thugs (well-connected politically) acting in the name of ‘morality’ and religion. With the courts corrupt, the police afraid of the power of mobs acting in the name of Islam, and politicians finding opportunities in this situation to further their own pursuit of power, those attacked or threatened are increasingly cornered. And, unlike during the New Order time, these days the ‘enemy’ doing the terrorising is more diffuse.
Once again, Goenawan has had to take a stand against intimidation and encroaching repression. Over the past decade he has given space (at Utan Kayu) and funds to the Liberal Islam Network, a forum that grew out of discussions among young Muslim intellectuals in ISAI. Goenawan himself frequently writes and speaks out in defence of tolerance and pluralism. This is not without danger. A major figure of the Liberal Islam Network, Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, was targeted in 2011 with a letter bomb sent to him at Utan Kayu. He escaped unharmed, but a police officer was seriously injured.
Goenawan is in a delicate position publicly combating this most recent threat to free expression. The most effective opponents to militant Islamist thuggery are those with Islamic credentials. But Goenawan has no such credentials – he never studied at an Islamic boarding school as a child, nor has he pursued study of Islamic theology or law, or been a member of any Islamic organisation. Furthermore, his links to ‘Western’ funding and networks, and to the old shadow of CCF/CIA support make it difficult for him to be at the forefront of groups such as the Liberal Islam Network. ‘Liberal’ is a dirty word these days in Indonesia, branding one as a Western puppet and a target for attack.
Back in the early 1960s, when Goenawan was standing up against the authoritarianism of the left, he knew where his opponents were coming from. His father had been a leftist activist and was murdered for it. His brother had joined the 1948 communist rebellion during the Indonesian Revolution and had been stood down from the Indonesian army. Goenawan could take an oppositional stand with authority. Later, his moral authority as opponent to the New Order was strengthened with the Tempo banning. But now he lacks authority in the fight against militant Islam. He is careful to add his public support, where he will not be a liability.
Despite the inroads of electoral democracy since 1998, Indonesia’s rampant corruption and the undercurrent of authoritarianism and terror emerging in its latest guise of militant Islam have led to dashed hopes for reformation. Goenawan has seen huge swells of optimism and disappointment in Indonesia over his life. He has been part of those swells. He is at his core a patriot, with a deep love of his country. But how can he fight disillusionment?
Can you stop thinking about Indonesia for a while? Yesterday, this question came to my head. I wanted to say, ‘yes, sure, why not?’ For I sometimes want to lose myself in forgetting, hide in a corner far away. I want to pull the curtains, sleep, dream perhaps, and not think again.But Indonesia always comes. Indonesia always knocks. And precisely when we don’t want to care. Uncertainty makes us wary. The moment hope becomes hard, despair is terrifying. I cannot run from this. A country, a history, a name …Native land, body: the two can be separated by thought, but not experience. And I find that as time goes on, more and more I cannot deny either of them as a representation of me, whatever ‘me’ means. Of course I could go and live in some cave in Lebanon, or an apartment in the old city of Prague, change my passport and eating habits. But what would I do with the accumulation of reminiscences, memories of experience both beautiful and bad, that together help form a native land, an engagement? (‘Native Land’, 2000).
Over the past decade, Goenawan’s writing has at times revealed the effort of keeping hope, by intellectualising the issue of hope itself. He questions the value of political action, and draws back to broad historical lessons. His essays often betray a wrestling between commitment and ambivalence, with a tone of melancholy and resignation. It is a battle against cynicism. Whereas in his earlier writing his stance of distance was more a stepping back from immediate events to raise philosophical questions, recently his distance is more often that of detachment, and seeking justification for that detachment.Theorists like Habermas, Rorty, and Badiou are brought into discussions about what is actually Goenawan’s own basic dilemma – how much to get involved. How much does action matter?
Is he tired of the fight? Or is his fight now also the fight for the right to detachment? ‘The problem is how to draw a limit between private moments and political commitment,’ Goenawan wrote in 2004, ‘in a society where terror and restraint can infiltrate one’s most inner, solitary thought’ (‘Blood’). At one end he is the activist and journalist, at the other, the mystical man and poet – and in the middle, the essayist and theatre man. In his short essays he has always resisted being categorised or circumscribed. And his fight for freedom of expression has been not only the fight to resist the crushing forces from both the right and the left, but also the freedom to not find or provide answers – the freedom to remain on the margins. Yet he is constantly called to take a stand, to be the moral voice, and to act as man of principle. This calling is not only from outside, but also from himself:
Faced with the undergrowth, we gamble with the future. Those who demand complete certainty from history deceive themselves. There are always times to act and times to take sides – also when we refuse to act and take sides.But there are also times to stand a little apart. Sometimes with irony, sometimes with reproach, but always with loyalty: in this sinful world, the choice of words can be wrong, but duty never stops calling and politics always begs. Maybe we will fail. Even so, there is still something worth fighting over (‘Taking Sides’, 2009).
Goenawan is a democrat who realises that democracy is dirty, tragic, flawed, but also necessary. He shuns certainties and abhors absolutism of any kind, whether it be the utopianism of communism, fascism, or fundamentalism. Yet he acknowledges the need for moments of fervour, the moments that motivate revolutionary change. How, then, to explain those moments, knowing they are transient, and knowing that disillusionment will follow? This, he argues, is the kind of hope to maintain, not the fire of idealism that can lead to absolutism, but the realisation that hope is transient and unattainable: ‘history seems to move because we have hope – impossible, and necessary’ (‘Owls’, 2000).
Goenawan maintains hope in the possibility of connection between human beings, often sensed in moments of fervour, when barriers between one and ‘the other’ are broken down, and people connect as fellows. Perhaps this faith in the possibility of human connection is invigorated by his private spirituality. His own faith in universalism has emerged in different contexts during his life and Indonesia’s history. Today, it has to be shored up against forces of fundamentalism and the fractures of globalism. He writes, ‘A historian complained that what unifies mankind these days is actually the awareness that mankind is no longer one – and I think there is nothing more sad than this’ (‘Visnu’, 2000).
There is another way of maintaining hope – through creativity – but these days Goenawan’s creativity is charged in the community of performance rather than in the solitude of poetry. In the early 1990s he had already turned his hand to performance, collaborating with composer Tony Prabowo and choreographer Sulistyo Tirtokusumo on a meditative, erotic dance piece based on traditional Javanese dance movement titled Panji Sepuh (which was performed in Melbourne in 1994). Events then intervened and during his activist years and return to Tempo, performance was put on hold. Since he stepped down from the editorship of Tempo, Goenawan’s creative life has turned to performance, as writer and director.
Since 2000 his most constant collaborator has been the composer Tony Prabowo (who is curator for dance and music at Salihara). The two have worked on two operas; Kali (with American composer Jarrad Powell), performed in Seattle in 2000, and The King’s Witch, performed in New York in 2006. In 2010 they collaborated again on a piece of musical theatre centred on the famous Indonesian communist figure, Tan Malaka. In the same year, Prabowo presented in Tokyo a concert of his music with Goenawan’s poetry. Apart from opera libretti, Goenawan has recently turned to drama, writing, and directing his own plays, performed at Salihara with mixed success. He has also written texts in Javanese for performance by shadow puppet masters.
In 2011, Goenawan’s seventieth birthday was marked by events the year long, many, his critics snidely commented, commissioned by himself. There were launchings of his new books, as well as reprints and translations. A collection of his Twitter messages was published (he began using Twitter regularly in 2009 as an alternative communication method to Facebook, where he has a huge following). There were performances at Salihara of two of his plays and a revival of Tan Malaka and Panji Sepuh, as well as the première of his new play Karna, about the famous figure in the Mahabharata who is torn between two sides. Outside Jakarta there were related events, for instance an art exhibition in Surabaya of paintings by young artists who were inspired by his poems. The year of events was a celebration of an astounding body of work and a lifetime of exploration that shows no signs of diminishing.
I am sitting in the café at the Salihara complex in south Jakarta on a hot Thursday afternoon. I have an appointment with Goenawan at four, but we both make calculations about the Jakarta traffic, as one does continuously here, revising plans from hour to hour. On the wall are posters for various events: discussions on the works and ideas of Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt, Judith Butler, Seyla Benhabib, and Ziba Mir-Hosseini; a week of performances of foreign plays adapted into Indonesian; and a discussion about dramatic adaptation. I pull out my laptop and check my email with the free wireless connection. I have barely started when Goenawan arrives – the car pulling up outside the café at a reserved car space. His driver, who has worked for Goenawan for years, waves hello as he carries an array of bags upstairs.
Goenawan comes over at once, gesturing me to a quieter place to talk. A ripple goes through the café as he arrives. He is a wiry man, of small, trim build, with darting eyes, large ears, and a whiskery chin. He is wearing jeans, an open-necked shirt, and sandals – exactly the same style of dress he had when I first met him thirty years ago. His hair is thinning, but his face is full of energy, and the only betrayal of age is when he stands after our hour-long conversation, and slowly straightens his back.
As we talk, his muted phone buzzes, and messages come in constantly. A secretary enters with something to sign. Others are waiting to meet him. Tonight is the eighteenth anniversary of the banning of Tempo. There will be an event upstairs on the roof garden – the sign says it is a commemoration of ‘The Tragedy of the Banning of Tempo’ – and there will be the launching of a boxed edition of the full nine volumes of his short Tempo essays. I had not realised this, nor that the latest collection of my translation of his recent essays, Sharp Times: Selections from Sidelines, would be ‘launched’ at the same time, although it was published in 2011.
Goenawan sits here quietly chatting with me about his childhood, with activity swirling around him. His past triumphs and present battles converge. I ask what he is working on. He has been invited to adapt a play by Schiller, but has decided not to do it (he didn’t like the play The Robbers). He has to write his weekly short essay for Tempo tonight, and will probably write about Schiller. In September he will direct an Indonesian-language version of Murder in the Cathedral. He is working on a performance with music about a character (Sukro) from the Babad Tanah Jawi (Java Chronicles) and on a new opera with Prabowo on the death of the Indonesian heroine Kartini, who championed education for girls in the late-nineteenth century. Next week he will make a discussion about recent threats to freedom of speech. And he has decided to go to court again, this time to file a suit against the police who offered no protection to Salihara when the mob forced the shutdown of the discussion with Irshad Manji. These are dangerous times, he says, and we must fight back using all means. These days he uses Twitter to counter polemic with polemic, keeping in touch with young people using their technology.
When I meet him again a month later, he says that Salihara is not pursuing the court case. They were advised that it would be futile. (Twenty years ago, I note, futility of outcome would not have been a reason to drop the case). The Salihara staff decided to take another path – power play – inviting the Jakarta district police chief (the top brass and thus superior to the local police chief, whose men did nothing to stop the attack) to Salihara’s annual birthday party. At this event, video clips were shown of past events at Salihara with the president, vice-president, and other powerful people in attendance. The local police chief, who was there with his boss, evidently got the message.
I ask Goenawan what he is most proud of in his life. Without missing a beat he replies – ‘That I am still writing’. He is proud of Tempo; that when he left the magazine it was intact, and that the staff have pride in their profession and the courage to defend journalistic integrity. He is proud of his friends in the Salihara community and of their work for the arts and their insistence on excellence. He is proud of the commitment of the underground in the years when he was involved, and he is proud of his creative teamwork in theatre. As for poems, he adds, there are a few good ones here and there.
The one thing that he does not mention is family. Indeed, one senses that despite the swirling of activity around him, the community of friends, and his own boundless energy, there lies within a well of melancholy, even loneliness. He has a strained relationship with his wife and difficult relationships with his two children. He is a man of charisma who likes being around young people and enjoys their energy, and the admiration is mutual. He needs a communty around him, but that community can also be a cocoon within which he is alone. He is drawn to activism and acclaim, yet is also seduced by solitude.
Despite being tired of the fight, his time of being called to action is not over, it seems. The fight for freedom of expression is again urgent in Indonesia. At seventy-one, Goenawan has earned the right to rest from protest and to indulge his creative life, but yet again he is chased by the debris of the past:
I am reminded of the angel of history in Paul Klee’s painting – but with a different narrative to Walter Benjamin’s. The angel does indeed look backwards, while he flies forward. And he is accompanied by the remnants of the past he has destroyed – debris that keeps piling higher and becomes more urgent, pushing him to fly forward, over-taking one event after another (‘Debris’, 2008).