Violence in the Writings of Seno Gumira Ajidarma
by Andy Fuller
Seno Gumira Ajidarma (b.1958) is one of Indonesia’s most prominent and productive writers with some 30 books published since the 1980s. His writings cover journalism, novels, short stories, essays and academic studies. Three of Seno’s books have been published in English: Eyewitness (translated by Jan Lingard), Jakarta at a Certain Point in Time (translated by Michael Bodden) and Jazz, Perfume and the Incident (translated by Gregory Harris). As such, Seno’s writings are not yet widely available in English. In fact, a recent article in The Economist states that less than 1% of books published annually in the US and Britain are translated fiction. The Lontar Foundation and academic publications are the main sources of Indonesian literature in translation. Seno’s readership in Indonesia, however, is broad: his stories and essays appear in the mainstream and popular press. Indicative of his popularity is the website Sukab which is dedicated to re-publishing Seno’s articles. Seno’s output has been propelled not only by a broad curiosity and eclecticism, but, also by various publishers, editors and philanthropists who have commissioned him to write short stories and novels.
Seno came to prominence as a short story writer who was able to articulate a degree of criticism and opposition to the politics of the Suharto-led New Order government (1966-1998). This was a government that enforced and practiced a kind of state violence against the Indonesian people. Robert Elson, a historian and biographer of Suharto, writes, ‘one of the many ironies of the New Order was that the security of Indonesia’s citizenry was thought to require appropriate, and appropriately time and calibrated, does of violence against certain sections of that citizenry.’ Moreover, political and cultural analyst Ariel Heryanto writes of the multi-dimensional nature of the New Order’s state violence, which lead to the population ‘reproducing’ and ‘elaborating’ a pervasive sense of fear of the State. Seno’s writings on the state violence committed in the-former-Indonesian province of East Timor, Aceh and Jakarta, are examples of how he has not only documented such violence, but, how his writings engage with the multiple meanings of violence. Short stories such as “Clara”, “Jakarta 2039”, “Phone Call from Aceh” and the Eyewitness collection are a discourse that sought to counter the all-encompassing and grand narratives that legitimised the New Order’s state violence.
“Clara”, written during the economic, political and social crisis of May 1998, and published in the wake of Suharto’s resignation, is one of the few pieces of Indonesian literature that addresses the sexual violence of 1998. “Clara” is a multi-layered narrative that recounts the perspective of an ethnic Chinese woman who was raped during the largely anti-Chinese riots and mass rapes that occurred in Jakarta over the 13th and 14th May, 1998. These riots and sexual violence were orchestrated and facilitated by networks in the security forces that were seeking to destabilise Indonesian society. Throughout the New Order, Indonesians of Chinese background were frequently scapegoated and marginalised in the grand narrative of what and who made up the Indonesian nation. “Clara” makes a significant contribution to recent Indonesian short fiction, because of the way it shows how the narratives of the victims were both denied and silenced by state law apparatus. The ambivalent attitude of the policeman who listens to Clara’s account of her rape, captures both the hatred of Chinese as well as jealousy and attraction towards Chinese:
I saw in her eyes feelings that couldn’t be put into language. Her mouth was cut from being beaten. But, that didn’t mean she wasn’t attractive. A BMW driver must be rich. A female executive. I also want to be rich, but after all these years of taking and forcing bribes, I still haven’t got rich. I’ve never even been in a BMW. Rich people really get to me – especially rich Chinese. I hate them. Her blouse started to slip from her shoulder…her light skin…yeah. (1)
Jakarta at a Certain Point in Time describes the city during the May riots. This story is told from two perspectives. The first is that of a photographer who ventures out into the streets of Jakarta as the city is engulfed in rioting and chaos. The second narrative is that of a domestic setting in which the home of a rich family is looted. In this short story, Seno doesn’t investigate or question the degree to which violence was either spontaneous or planned, but, he merely records a relatively straightforward journalistic account of the violence. Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital and centre of much great national symbolism, is shown to be lawless and subject to the violence of the ‘masses’ (massa). The twin ambitions of the New Order to create a developed and secure society devoid of conflict is shown up to have failed.(2) The photographer describes the photos that he has taken in a simple manner, presenting unproblematic depictions of violence. The violence that has engulfed Jakarta is an opportunity for the photographer to explore the city and to represent the otherness of the rioters. The photographer is enchanted by the violence:
“Using the tele-lens I tried to capture the smoke that was billowing with anger. People were watching from the rooftops. Something like this didn’t happen every day. Yeah. I had taken my car back home and gone out in a taxi with a truly gutsy driver. The taxi weaved in and out of the traffic as we drove on the wrong side of the road.”
State violence, however, made an earlier appearance in one of Seno’s first collections of short stories. In Penembak Misterius – or, The Mysterious Killings – three stories offer differing perspectives on the petrus campaign. The petrus campaign was a series of extra-judicial killings that targeted suspected gangsters in cities. Perhaps the most chilling of Seno’s stories on the petrus killings is “The Sound of Rain on Roof Tiles”. This story not only shows how sound becomes a part of the discourse in perpetuating state violence (Fuller, 2011), but, also shows how ‘fear’ is reproduced and elaborated by the suspected targets and potential victims of state violence. The story is of Sawitri who waits for her gangster, tough-guy boyfriend to return. He is missing and she fears that he has become a victim of the mysterious killings. The story recounts the spectacular nature of the killings. The killings not only sought to remove the gangsters from society, but, also to spread and instil fear amongst the population. The corpses of victims were left in busy intersections and other public spaces as warnings for others. Sawitri frequently sees the corpses left out on the street in front of her house:
“She is always scared, but, she always wants to see the faces of the tattooed-corpses. If the corpse is already surrounded by her neighbours, she always goes out to look at it.”
Violence is slippery and difficult to define. It is both corporeal and discursive – and, in postmodernist thought, it is also hyper-real (3). What makes up violence and how violence is perpetrated, elaborated and countered is something that is changing, shifting and subject to particular social, cultural and political conditions. Literature and literary works are one kind of media that can question, interrogate and counter corporeal and discursive acts of violence. The writings of Seno Gumira Ajidarma addressed above are one such example of how an author has engaged with the multiple forms of violence and the many instances violence has emerged throughout the last decades in Indonesia. The stories are significant rhetorical and discursive acts which seek to fight against forgetting. Seno’s stories do not present a final word on the subjects and cases of violence that he addresses. The stories do, however, counter particular ideologies and narratives that seek to deny the possibility for multiple understandings of Indonesia’s history and identity.
(1) All quotations have been translated by Andy Fuller from the original Indonesian.
(2) R.E Elson (2002). “In fear of the people: Suharto and the justification of state-sponsored violence under the New Order.” In F. Colombijn & J. T. Lindblad (Eds.), Roots of Violence in Indonesia (pp. 173-195). Leiden: KITLV Press.
(3) A. Heryanto (2006). State Terrorism and Political Identity in Indonesia: Fatally Belonging. London: Routledge.
Andy Fuller is a post-doctoral fellow at International Institute for Asian Studies in Leiden, The Netherlands. His translations of poems by Afrizal Malna will be published by Lontar Foundation in 2012.