Indonesian writer Ayu Utami: 'Love is still the name of the game'

She turned down a career as a model because she didn’t like make-up. She lost her job as a journalist because she refused to back down in face of the censorship of the Suharto military regime. But as an author, she’s the most succesful writer of her generation in Indonesia. Ayu Utami on freedom, monotheism and the expiration date of extramarital relationships.

It’s a pity, says Ayu Utami, that Dutch has been lost in Indonesia. She’s saying this whilst once again looking for the proper word in English to express her ideas. It’s a universal shame that people, including those who possess a rich vocabulary and a wide array of meaning in their native tongue, are forced to speak with easy concepts and seven words sentences in global English. Still Utami manages to nuance her controversial views perfectly.

She has been called a rebel, an iconoclast even. In 1994, she was a front row protester against the decision of president Suharto to ban three critical magazines. Amongst others, she was blacklisted as someone who was no longer allowed to take up a job in the media. In 1998, Utami hit back with a masterful novel, Saman, not only settling the score with years of military dictatorship and censorship, but also with the taboo on sexual language and female sexuality. The novel was published ten days before the Reformasi movement forced Suharto to resign. Not surprisingly, the book became a symbol of the new freedom the Indonesians wanted.

After Saman came Larung, in which she elaborated on the themes of sexual liberation and freedom of speech, using the same characters. It was her response to the conservative obsession with sexual morality, she said in an interview we had nine years ago, while people seemed to forget what she thought were the major illnesses of our society: corruption, poverty, and inequality. In Bilangan Fu, only recently translated but first published in 2008, sexuality and erotic tension are also central to the story; in combination with the three other recurrent themes in Utami’s works: modernism, monotheism and militarism, incidentally the titles of the three chapters of Bilangan Fu.

Outside the box

“I myself was not afraid of my own body or sexuality,” Utami says when I asked her if she had to deal with her catholic upbringing when writing Saman. “But I saw those fears in other women, for example in their strained approach to virginity. That’s why I found it necessary to write about sexuality from a women’s point of view. Talking about our experiences and desires is harder for women, because our sexual organs are internal, which makes them harder to understand. During puberty, boys masturbate together, sharing knowledge and information. Women often don’t understand their own bodies, which makes it easier for men to control female sexuality. This difference in power bothers me.”

Later, Utami nuances her statement. Women do know what they enjoy sexually, they just find it hard to express. She gives the example of a friend who had an affair, and was obviously enjoying it, but wouldn’t admit that to the world, not even to herself.

There’s a lot of thinking outside the box in Utami’s novels. It’s a way to turn the political into the personal, to pull the resistance against imposed norms and values into the personal, physical sphere. In life, she discovered that a love triangle rarely has two equal legs. In one relationship, passion is higher, in the other, security. She talks about her affair as matter-of-factlike as she talks about her journey from Jakarta to The Hague. “An affair is not burdened with the same long-term expectations as marriage. That’s why affairs fail as soon as they turn into a regular lifestyle. You can’t keep up the passion by yourself: sooner or later you want some control over your relationship. And control works better in a monogamous relationship than in an open love triangle. In the latter, there’s bound to be inequality. You will love one more than the other, and that’s untenable.”


What was groundbreaking in 1998, is mainstream today. The muzzled media made way for free press. “In fact, the press is too free, too rude, too bold,” Utami says, referring to the exploitation of sexuality for commercial ends. “At the same time,” she adds, “people and communities function on very conservative software. In 1998, people wanted freedom and tolerance, ten years later they went looking for security. Religious groups are offering just that.”

Women often don’t understand their own bodies, which makes it easier for men to control female sexuality. This difference in power bothers me.

The rise of political Islam in Indonesia started before the calendar Utami uses. Nine years ago I asked her if her next novel would still tackle the period of the Suharto regime, which was already over, or if she would address the challenge of the conservative religious revival. “To respond to the political Islam, a novel seems inadequate. We need a real political movement for that,” was her reaction.

Bilangan Fu gives religion a central role, but doesn’t really contain a frontal attack on groups like Jemaah Islamiyah or Jama’ah Ansharut Tauhid, not even on the broader trend of radical jihadism of which these two are the frontrunners. “I’m very careful when speaking about Islam, because that’s become very difficult,” Utami admits. “In my newspaper columns I write about the logic underneath, but I never mention specific names or problems. That would be counterproductive.” This sounds all too careful for someone who fifteen years ago crushed Indonesian taboos like bull in a china shop. In Fu, there is, however, discussion concerning monotheism. “That’s safer because Islam is not the only monotheistic religion,” she says. Utami is especially bothered by the intolerance and proselytism of the monotheistic religions. “The conviction that there is one God often leads to the belief in one truth: ours.”

The number Fu (the literal translation of Bilangan Fu) in the novel is essentially a mystical number in Javanese tradition. It undermines the central thesis of monotheism. The insight around which the novel is built, is that God is one, but not necessarily the only one. The mathematical concept of one is religiously inadequate, spiritually it has an older and richer meaning, says the main character in Bilangan Fu. ‘God is one’ is not the denial of the plurality of the religious experience, but expresses the experience that God is inclusive, a transcendent combination of human desires and possibilities.

Bilangan Fu is a quest in which the unsatisfying monotheism is exchanged for a far more authentic mysticism. That represents only partially her opinion, Aya Utami reveals. “In practice, monotheism creates unnecessary distance and hierarchy between mankind and the rest of the world, just like modernism. We should learn from traditional religions and cultures that believe that man is part of creation, just like any other form of life.”

The need for silence

The intimidation posed by extremist believers puts writers in a difficult position, but according to Utami, the real challenge for Indonesian authors is the ubiquity of television. “We had no established literary tradition when television and soap operas flooded the country and subsequently culture. Today, if one wants to tell a story, one must take into account the codes and structures of a TV series.”

Nevertheless, great writers like Pramoedya Ananta Toer and W.S. Rendra were writing before Utami and her contemporaries made their breakthrough. Both authors spent several years in the dungeons of the military regime, but never renounced their political engagement, neither in life nor in their works. “We are a different generation,” Utami explained in 2003, “we have different interests. Ananta Toer used prose to express and spread his political views: his stories were linear, with a clear educational purpose.”

“Language is often inadequate for describing reality,” Utami says in 2012. “But there are few alternatives. That is why there’s a need for silence. Silence is not a lack of words; it’s an altogether different level, a reality next to words which we must cherish.” Together, language and silence conjure art: “an attempt to aesthetically conceive authenticity, truth or honesty. Truth can be so ugly or threatening that it’s impossible to even look at it. The artist needs to find a form for that reality, making it negotiable, without lapsing into euphemisms.”

The step from journalism to writing novels was forced upon her by the authorities, but she’s happy nonetheless. Because “as a journalist, one is limited in subject and style. In novels, I am freer and more creative.” When asked what is more important, style or content, Utami answers: “Style changes, content less. The story will always be about love.”


(Proofread by Anya King)

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