ASCJ 2009
Session 11: Room 11-305

Forgotten Words: Revisiting Colonial Indonesian Literature

Organizer/Chair: Nobuto Yamamoto, Keio University
1) Nobuto Yamamoto, Keio University
Reading Boven Digoel
2) William Bradley Horton, Waseda University
Social Novels: Tamar Djaja and the Publishing Worlds of Bukittinggi (1939–1941)  
3) Elizabeth Chandra, Keio University
The Lord of Romance: Njoo Cheong Seng and Chinese-Malay Literature in 1940s
Discussant: Caroline Sy Hau, Kyoto University

The 1930s witnessed an increasing number and variety of literature in colonial Indonesia that provided some of the national bases for Indonesian politics and culture. Various themes, categories, and events privileged the major actors, ideologies, or discourses that were eventually appropriated by the nation. It was also the period when national “forgetting” and “exclusion” began to take place. Popular literature was marginalized and popular voices did not last once Indonesia gained independence.

This panel seeks to reconceptualize Indonesian literature during the colonial period by drawing attention to a wide range of “forgotten” narratives, processes and epistemologies that have remained marginalized by elite, nationalist, or scholarly priorities. Individually, the papers draw from newspaper articles and popular literature, highlighting the wide range of local, religious and ethnic narratives of the period. Collectively, the panel engages with issues of late colonial Indonesia as a crucial period for understanding “modern” Indonesia by asking: (1) how have particular narratives within the period been remembered or excluded by dominant histories; (2) what alternative memories or perspectives emerge from focusing on marginalized literature?


Reading Boven Digoel

YAMAMOTO Nobuto, Keio University

Boven Digoel, in the heart of the malaria-infested New Guinea, was an infamous mass internment camp, built after the “communist” revolts in Java in 1926. There, the Dutch Indies colonial regime banished political prisoners that were considered particularly dangerous. More than one thousand “communists” were exiled in the late 1920s, and in the 1930s these included nationalist leaders like Hatta and Sjahrir. Boven Digoel was a menacing place, but it had another image. The city of Boven Digoel (Kota Boven Digoel) was considered “one of the most developed cities in Indonesia” (satoe kota jang paling ontwikkeld dalam Indonesia kita ini), which seems to contradict the image of an internment camp. After February 1927, local newspapers carried articles on Boven Digoel, letters from the camp, as well as articles by “ex-Digoelists.”

What exactly was Boven Digoel? Why readers and journalists were obsessed by it? And how did they make sense of Boven Digoel? Scholarly works on Digoel tend to focus on the colonial order and policing aspects by relying on Dutch official documents and personal memoirs, thus fail to describe how contemporary media reported it and the audience received it. I will examine articles on Boven Digoel published in two local newspapers, Sin Jit Po (later Sin Tit Po) of Surabaya (East Java) and Pewarta Deli of Medan (East Sumatra), and consider it from “local” perspectives as well as in its “national” connotation.

Social Novels: Tamar Djaja and the Publishing Worlds of Bukittinggi (1939-1941)

William Bradley Horton, Takushoku University

On around September 20, 1940, the Bukittinggi publisher, Penjiaran Ilmoe put out another issue of its twice monthly literary publication, Roman Pergaoelan. This issue presented a novelette by Romanita entitled A. Dahri, Romanschrijver. A story explicitly labeled fictive, this story tried to draw readers to learn more about the writers who presented them with entertaining, and frequently provocative or sensational reading materials several times each month. This is a gratifying story of a fictional character developing an unemployed Bukittinggi youth with a little Dutch language education to his becoming a journalist and founding editor of the first literary publication in Medan. In the end, though, the reader is shown the bad side of the main character, A. Dahri, with the reappearing arrogance, violation of his father's advice and the final damning thoughts of his accepting wife.

Today, the context of publications like A Dahri, the identities of the authors and publishers, their goals, and even titles are largely unknown. How were these stories read or intended to be read? A very few scholarly works present useful information, but are motivated by different, national concerns and thus fail to identify the particularities of each publication and the local contexts. I will thus examine the works of a key figure in Bukittingi, Tamar Djaja, his literary periodical Roman Pergaoelan, and consider these not only in a local context, but also in the wider contexts of late colonial Indonesia and the Sumatran popular literature boom of 1938-1941.

The Lord of Romance: Njoo Cheong Seng and Chinese-Malay Literature in 1940s

Elizabeth Chandra, Keio University

In many ways, the life and works of Njoo Cheong Seng typified the vicissitudes of the Chinese-Malay literature in colonial and postcolonial Indonesia. A substantial textual production between 1880s and 1940s, Chinese-Malay literature declined rapidly and irreversibly after independence. Njoo (a.k.a. Monsieur d'Amour and Munzil Anwar) was among the most prolific Chinese authors between the 1920s and 1930s, churning out a total of several hundred novels, short stories, plays and poems, before retiring in 1951. By then, he had not only penned literary works, but also served as editor for a magazine (Interocean, later Hoa Kiao) and a literary journal (Penghidoepan), and directed theater troupes such Miss Riboet's Orient, Dardanella, Fifi Young's Pagoda, Sandiwara Bintang Soerabaja, and Sandiwara Pantjawarna.

In postcolonial Indonesia, Njoo's works and others of the Chinese-Malay literature disappeared not only from circulation, but also from popular memory. By following the career of Njoo Cheong Seng, my paper aims to examine what happened to Chinese-Malay literature as Indonesia underwent social and political transformations from a colonial state to a sovereign nation-state. What kind of adjustments Chinese authors like Njoo had to make? How did he perceive the great changes around him and his place, if any, in the "new" Indonesia? How are we, scholars today, supposed to make sense of and represent Njoo's artistic legacy?