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Archive for the ‘Indonesia’ Category

After a hiatus during our move and the holidays, the bookconscious family has returned to our ongoing exploration of the countries of the world. We began enjoying a “country of the month” when the children were small, and over the years this has evolved into a regular part of our life learning together, in some variation.

Over New Year’s weekend I suggested we get back into our armchair tour of the world, (well, nearly armchair: in 2005 we took our learning on the road and visited Greece in what we billed the “Mother of All Field Trips”) and when even the teenager made signs of assent, I hurriedly consulted the world map hanging in our family room. We tag each country we’ve explored with a little arrow, and my eyes landed on unmarked territory in the Pacific: Indonesia.

When you hear that word, what comes to mind? Political unrest? Religious extremism? Natural disasters? Extreme poverty? Barack Obama as a school boy? Our impressions of the world are too often shaped by headlines and sound bites. Yet even these snippets remind us of our interconnectedness, the links that make everything relevant. My own reading of Eat, Pray, Love, as well as National Geographic’s recent feature on “volcano culture” had added to my images of Indonesia, so I was eager to dig deeper and learn more about this incredibly diverse nation.

Since the aforementioned teenager is interested in history and politics, as well as food, and his younger sister is a nature lover who wants to learn about the flora and fauna of each country we explore, both of them saw merit in my suggestion: Indonesia, to them, meant rice, current events, the Ring of Fire, and cool wildlife. Unfortunately, neither of them could remember the amazing Indonesian music we enjoyed during a family day at Benaroya Hall in Seattle several years ago (Katherine was probably only 2 or 3 at the time): a gamelan orchestra and Balinese monkey chant, with audience participation. If you ever get a chance to see or take part in either of these, do. The chant was the most fun I’ve ever had in a concert hall (ok, Sing Along Sound of Music comes close; U2 is on another plane altogether, and was in an arena).

Consensus formed, we dug out of the first snow of 2008, hit the library and the internet, and brought home appealing Indonesia materials for all: a curry cookbook, volumes on volcanoes and endangered species, “fact books” to give us an overview of the country, folktales, websites on the music and art of Indonesia, and more. For myself, I chose a book of Indonesian poetry (have I mentioned lately how much I love Concord and its library?), a history book, and a novel, The Girl from the Coast.

A quick Googling of the author, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, told me that he was Indonesia’s most prominent writer, and a member of the generation that brought Indonesia out of colonial rule (under the Dutch) and occupation (by the Japanese) through the painful transition to independence in the late 1940’s. Besides being a major literary figure, often mentioned as a Nobel contender, Pramoedya was also a political and social activist and as such, he irritated the governments of both Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, and Suharto, who took over when the army ousted Sukarno in the sixties and remained in power until 1998. Pramoedya’s open criticism came at great personal cost.

Suharto jailed Pramoedya for 17 years; despite being beaten and mistreated, and despite having his books banned and manuscripts destroyed, Pramoedya continued to “write” in jail, telling the other prisoners the stories that would become his most famous work, a series of four novels called the “Buru Quartet,” for the prison where he wrote them. After his release in 1979, Pramoedya remained under house arrest until 1992.

During his house arrest he published The Girl from the Coast. It was meant to be the first book in a trilogy, but the other two novels were among the materials the Suharto government destroyed when he was arrested. Like many of Pramoedya’s books, The Girl from the Coast is based on real events — in this case, his own grandmother’s life. The novel deals not only with colonial power, but also with the feudalism of traditional Indonesian culture. Armed with this information, my enjoyment of the novel was even greater.

Rich in details that bring 19th century colonial Java alive even for a person safe in her armchair in New England, The Girl from the Coast is a finely written, emotionally provocative story. It resonated even more deeply with me, knowing Pramoedya’s own life story. I felt for the novel’s title character not only because her class and gender rendered her powerless but also because, were she to step from the pages of the book, our heroine would be proud of her flesh and blood grandson’s tireless struggle against oppression.

In bringing the nameless girl, plucked from her village to be the “practice wife” of an aristocrat in the city, to life in these pages, Pramoedya ensures that no one can forget the marginalized poor, who suffer at the hands of the powerful and the religiously dominant. In his writing, Pramoedya recognized that not only does government have the potential to oppress, but also that religious dogma can reinforce power structures by creating a sense of divine sanction of the actions of corrupt rulers.

In The Girl from the Coast, Indonesia is stratified along economic, religious, and cultural lines. Some of the characters take comfort in this and some struggle with their lot in life, but all of them seem to accept that they are assigned a position and must carry out their role. As my family and I read about Indonesia we’ve learned that while the newly independent nation was founded on an idealist political philosophy of unity called Pancasila, the country has always been multi-ethnic, with hundreds of languages, and many indigenous and imported cultural influences.

It is also home to four of the major religions of the world: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity, as well as other belief systems. According to a book I’m reading aloud to the kids, Cultures of the World: Indonesia, by Gouri Mirpuri and Robert Cooper, the many cultural and religious influences, combined with “adat” — an “unwritten code of traditional behavior,” govern all aspects of Indonesian life. Belief, ritual, custom, social position, conformity to one’s family and village expectations, and allegiance to religious, family, and political leadership are as important to Indonesians as the unity and tolerance of Pancasila.

So even in modern Indonesia, complex layers of religion and custom, with importance placed on adherence to social norms and domination of certain segments of society as well as fear of spiritual retribution not only from God but also ancestors and the spirits (of the sea, the mountains, and other natural forces), make the country’s political and economic structures challenging to navigate, especially for the lower classes or minorities. Add to this the economic and political disparity of colonialism during The Girl from the Coast, and you have a setting where people’s struggle to survive and thrive can bring out the worst in human nature.

But as with anyplace where people face hardship and adversity, the Indonesia of this novel is also a place where anyone, even an illiterate girl from a fishing village, a girl whose value in society is decided entirely by men, a girl who is no more than property, can act nobly. When she realizes she is about to be cast aside by her city husband, the girl decides she will act on behalf of her child rather than herself. She becomes an exile from both her old life and her new one, but she ensures that her daughter will have a better life, even as she struggles to decide what that means.

In an epilogue that Pramoedya and his translator added to the English edition of The Girl from the Coast, readers learn that the girl’s selfless concern for her child ultimately leads her out of her lonely misery. While I regret the loss of the rest of the trilogy, I am grateful that Pramoedya had the forethought to give readers closure, because he died in 2006, never having re-written the lost books.

As we’ve studied the history and culture of many countries around the world, my family and I have been able to see how certain themes (the power of mother love, the struggle between good and evil, and the wisdom of experience, for example) and certain character types (such as an evil overlord, wise old woman, pure-hearted young woman, and fool or jester) appear in literature and folklore everywhere. The Girl from the Coast contains these folkloric elements as well, and Pramoedya uses them to cast light on colonial Indonesia’s inequality and the ways in which people adapt to deal with it.

I was particularly impressed with the empathy with which he writes his female characters, all of whom are important to the outcome of the book. Perhaps his own experience with oppression helped him to describe the lot of colonial era Indonesian women; however, he also nails the innocence and inexperience of his protagonist, and I have rarely read such a poignant description of the heart wrenching, life changing love of a mother for her infant as that which Pramoedya renders in The Girl from the Coast‘s dramatic climax.

In his life and writing, this great writer fought oppression and hoped that with justice and good government (which for him meant one not influenced by the financial corruption he associated with capitalism, as well as one which upheld the human rights of all its citizens) people would finally get along and work together for a better world. When he died, he’d witnessed some of the goodness he knew was possible, in the humanitarian response to the 2004 tsunami, and he’d been able to travel and publish again. But he had also written critically of the Indonesian government in his last years, never ceasing to speak for freedom, and to defend the principles his nation’s founders codified in Pancasila.

In light of both history and current events, one can hope that transparency, tolerance, social justice, and respect for human rights will become the hallmarks of good government everywhere. It is thanks to people like Pramoedya, who are willing to speak up for what is right, that such changes can come about. Read Pramoedya for his humanity, his craft, and his social criticism — but also read his novels for a trip to another culture, right from your armchair, where the universal aspirations of people to live safe, secure, happy lives with their loved ones will remind you that despite our uniqueness and diversity, our flaws and mistakes, humans are one family.

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