Whiff of success

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 February, 2007, 12:00am

DJENAR MAESA AYU, Indonesia's raunchiest writer, jokes that she has two main readerships: sexually liberated young women and repressed Islamic fundamentalists. Ayu is one of a number of provocative young female writers who emerged after the demise of Suharto's New Order regime in 1998.

Lumped together under the umbrella term sastra wangi (fragrant writers) - because of their good looks and fashionable attire - Ayu, along with pop singer-turned-novelist Dewi Lestari and former dissident journalist Ayu Utami, has rejuvenated Indonesian literature with explorations of taboo subjects that would never have escaped the censor's red pen under Suharto's regime.

The controversy that swirls around their work reflects media double standards for female writers, according to Ayu. Whereas conservative critics attacked her short story Vagina, no one raised an eyebrow about male poet Putu Wijaya's poem of the same title. 'When a female writer writes about sexuality, there's public outrage and morality questions - such as: 'Is it proper for women to write about the subject?''

So it was perhaps fortunate that, when the Jakarta Arts Council awarded Ayu Utami's manuscript Saman its annual fiction prize in 1998, the jury didn't know the writer's gender. Depicting an affair between a Catholic priest and a sexually forthright woman, Saman was widely hailed as the most important Indonesian novel in decades when it was published two weeks before Suharto's resignation.

Shortly after publication, allegations surfaced in the press that Saman was ghostwritten by Ayu Utami's mentor, Indonesia's pre-eminent poet Goenawan Mohamad. Doubts were raised about whether a 29-year-old ex-model could emerge from nowhere to write such a poetically rich novel. 'The accusations hinted at an underlying unease about the spectre of a woman writing confidently and eloquently about sex,' says Pamela Allen, the Tasmania-based translator of Saman.

Ayu Utami says the controversy changed her. 'I used to be humble, but the scandal taught me not to be. People always discriminate women, either positively or negatively. First, they negatively discriminated by saying that I couldn't be the writer. Later, they positively discriminated by having a bigger interest in me personally and my work.'

The sastra wangi are just as likely to be gossiped about in glossy lifestyle magazines as discussed in newspaper book review pages. 'Supported by the fast growth of the media, not only our works but the writers themselves become well known,' says Ayu. 'This is what shocked the Indonesian literature world.'

Dewi Lestari says the literati initially begrudged her efforts when, at the age of 25 and established as a singer, she published her serial novel Supernova - a sci-fi romantic saga about superhuman yuppies, narrated by a gay couple.

Drawing on her fame as a singer, Lestari arranged for her band to give a free performance in one of Jakarta's largest shopping plazas to launch Supernova, drawing thousands of students to buy cheap copies. 'When I was a kid, books had an image as boring and dull. The industry didn't do any packaging to interest young people. As a singer, when we release an album we go for radio promos and tour major cities. A lot of students told me: 'Supernova is the first novel I've ever read'. There's a new hype. People are starting to read more.'

Goenawan Mohamad says sastra wangi is a chauvinistic term. 'To apply it to contemporary Indonesian women writers, as if their works are all associated with perfumes and petticoats, is derogatory.'

Lestari disagrees. 'In the past, the writer was usually a guy thinking, 'I don't care about how I look, about how I smell.' But now we present ourselves as trendy and, probably, fragrant. It's a new phase.'

Allen says it's simplistic to attribute the rise of the literary new wave solely to the end of the Suharto era. After all, Saman, for one, was written beforehand. 'It's too easy to see the fall of Suharto, like the coming down of the Berlin Wall, as the symbolic removal of all barriers to expression,' she says.

But Lestari is adamant that she couldn't have written Supernova under the old regime. 'Suharto's fall brought us a new dawn - the freedom to think, the freedom to explore ourselves. Brave issues about sex lives were a big no-no, but now it's everywhere.'

Some criticise the sastra wangi for lacking social commitment. Many older Indonesian literati who came of age under former president Sukarno between 1949 and 1967, when art was often seen as a Marxist tool for political struggle, regard the sastra wangi as callow promoters of art for art's sake. 'All they write about is themselves and sex,' said Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia's late grand old man of letters.

Lestari is tired of fending off charges that her books are apolitical. 'One of the lamest questions I get in every discussion is, 'Are you going to write about corruption? Are you going to write about fundamentalism?' If you want to write about that, write that yourself.'

Characterisations of 'fragrant writing' as frivolous stem from a prevailing male denial of sex as an important social issue with serious consequences for women, says Ayu Utami. 'It's classic, isn't it?' she says of Pramoedya Ananta Toer's remark. 'Old men think that sex is a private, domestic problem, too trivial to be opened up. But sex is a problem much more for women than for men.'

Although she denies writing with a political agenda, Ayu Utami says she's not advocating art for art's sake. 'When an artist makes an exploration that looks irrelevant to her environment, who can judge that it's art for art's sake? You can only guess the artist's motivation and judge whether the work fails or not.'

Ayu Utami caused a media storm when she called on young women to abstain from marrying. 'The infotainment doesn't like women with strong opinions. They like nice girls, good wives or women victims and Britney Spears types - girls wearing oh-so-sexy outfits but who keep their virginity for their husband.'

The fragrant writers are level-headed in the face of their conservative detractors. Ayu Utami says they help artists to resist the pull to depict gratuitous sex. 'Conservatives remind us not to be trapped in the old song 'sex sells',' she says.

Lestari says the old guard's resistance is an inevitable reaction to having new kids on the literary block. 'Every cultural movement is going to be resisted by the previous establishment,' she says. 'But I don't see that as negative. I see it as saying, 'Prove that you're worthy'. It's going to be proven by time.'