Who is Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Posted: July 24, 2007 in Biography of Author, Indonesian Author, Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s foremost writer whose works have been translated into some twenty languages, has been nominated for the Nobel prize and recognized in Asia with the 1995 Magsaysay award. Much of the sparse scholarly work on Pramoedya has been confined to his stature as a writer of fiction. This panel highlights Pramoedya as a writer and public figure whose writings are banned in his homeland. While he is clearly an artist of international stature, we intend to understand him within an Indonesian context. We feel that what is of significance is his perseverance and passion in testing the limits of “Indonesia.”

Ben Abel, setting up the theme of the panel, illuminates Pramoedya’s crafting of an Indonesian language from a trading lingua franca to a living expression of politics and culture. Julie Shackford-Bradley turns to women in Pramoedya’s work and how they reflect a tradition of women’s critical writing of the 1950s. Sumit Mandal examines how Pramoedya’s book on the Chinese of Indonesia “remembered” things that disturbed the regime in 1960. Alex Bardsley considers what it is that makes Pramoedya an independent, critical, and unnostalgic intellectual figure by focusing on the theme of the autodidact in his life and work. Benedict Anderson, who has a longstanding appreciation of Pramoedya the writer, historian, critic, and political prisoner, will close this panel with a commentary.

Beholding a Landmark of Guilt: 1960s Pramoedya and the Present Regime
Ben Abel,
Cornell University

In this paper I discuss how Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s works of the 1960s have generated major discursive traditions in Bahasa Indonesia and Indonesian literature. His most significant work in this period was the cultural column “Lentera” in Bintang Timur. This work is remembered as a landmark of guilt by the present regime and its supporters. Ironically, the regime which has declared the most vibrant Indonesian literature anathema, has in the same motion made it prominent.

Bahasa Indonesia evolved from Malay which was a language of the bazaar. As opposition grew to Dutch colonial rule, the revolutionary potential of language to unify became clear, especially through journalism. Pramoedya’s works in the 1960s sparked the idea of Bahasa Indonesia not only as a language of unity, but also as a language of disagreement, of struggle, and of liberation, both social and national.

As a creative writer and lifelong autodidact, Pramoedya produced “Lentera” not for an elite or an exclusive class, but for everyone able to read and write. He showed ways of using Bahasa Indonesia to express ideas, concerns, and aspirations. He also challenged the boundaries of official and non-official, formal and informal, kromo and ngoko. Every phrase and expression could be used freely in transforming ideas into a literary form, making creativity the dynamic of new life.

Voices Carried: The Incorporation of Indonesia’s Feminist Literary Tradition in the Works of Pramoedya
Julie Shackford-Bradley,
University of California, Berkeley

The female characters appearing in Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s 1980s novels project a depth and individuality that is rare in the context of what Sylvia Tiwon has termed Indonesia’s “print patriarchy.” Critics have yet to consider the sources of his unique perspective and its historical and theoretical implications. It is my contention that, beyond his realistic portrayals of women and their intellectual role in the development of the Indonesian nation, Pramoedya pays tribute to an underestimated body of women’s writing from the first half of this century.

In my paper I focus upon Pramoedya’s 1950s association with the writer and revolutionary, S. Rukiah. Rukiah, like other women writers including Hamidah and Suwarsih Djojopuspito, realized that her stories could not be told through such “modern” literary strategies as authoritative narration and linear story lines. Instead, these writers experimented with fragmented and polyphonic narratives while exhibiting a radical awareness of the “prison house of (patriarchal literary) language” and its role in Indonesian culture. I believe there is a direct connection to be made between their literary approach to women’s struggle for self-definition and Pramoedya’s use of unreliable narrators and Jakarta slang in his depiction of dislocated and disenfranchised individuals in such works as Tjerita dari Djakarta.

The events of 1965-66 had a devastating effect on what I call Indonesia’s early feminist literary tradition and its writers. To read Pramoedya’s 1980s novels is to rediscover the urgency and experimentation of these women.

“Strangers Who Are Not Foreign”: Pramoedya’s Disturbing Language on the Chinese of Indonesia
Sumit K. Mandal,
Cornell University

On 1 January 1960, a regulation prohibiting so-called aliens from trading in rural areas came into effect and the livelihood of thousands of Chinese Indonesians was taken away. Taking a strong stand against this measure, Pramoedya Ananta Toer wrote nine letters to a friend which were published serially in the newspaper Bintang Minggu. In March, after the tremendous positive response that greeted them, the letters were republished in book form as Hoa Kiau di Indonesia (Overseas Chinese in Indonesia). The authorities reacted by banning the book and imprisoning Pramoedya.

This paper illuminates Pramoedya’s public role as an intellectual by examining how his book sparked an unprecedented debate about Chinese Indonesians. In Hoa Kiau, Pramoedya begins to address racialism while interrogating the notion of Indonesian identity. He locates the 1960 regulation in historical context, thereby stressing its continuity with racially based policies of Dutch colonial rule. In the process, Pramoedya steps outside the overblown public rhetoric of “independence” and “freedom” prevalent at the time, thus gaining a clearer perspective on inherited patterns of power and its abuse. Against the charged anti-Chinese climate which he attributes to a “nationalism suffering from sickness,” he crafts a language that provokes empathy, dialog, and critical thinking. Not merely a history of the Chinese Indonesian community or a simple defense of it, his book created a language which disturbed contemporary assumptions about nation and community.

Pramoedya: Autodidact, Example, Guide
Alex G. Bardsley,
Cornell University

This paper argues that Pramoedya Ananta Toer, as an autodidact, exemplifies the potential for critical and creative appropriation of knowledge; and that in his writings he presents material on the dynamics of learning which is itself instructive. Though his career on the schoolbench was curtailed and apparently difficult, Pramoedya has made himself a considerable historian and critic as well as a formidable writer of fiction. His fictional and non-fictional works have long been informed by issues of pedagogical experience, by the coercions and resistances, humiliations and enlightenments that accompany processes of learning. Authenticity is revealed as a matter of what one has taken to heart and made one’s own. Authorization, then, is not borrowed from an outside source: it is a matter of personal courage.

Pramoedya thus provides example and guidance for Indonesian students caught in the disloyalty to and estrangement from “home” (place, people, language) generated by the exilings of higher education. He challenges intellectuals who through education and position have become complicit in a system that reproduces privileged knowledges, received opinions and official facts. He does so by demonstrating how to win a degree of independent agency in one’s acquisition of knowledge. Precisely because he is politically ostracized and his writings are banned, Pramoedya’s life and work have come to represent the potential for intellectual autonomy in contemporary Indonesia. [source: http://www.radix.net/%7Ebardsley/prampage.html%5D

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