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Women writers talking

Indonesian author Okky Madasari

Last Tuesday at the Singapore Management University’s Administration building, in a capacious sixth-floor lounge overlooking the center of the city now often blanketed with seasonal haze from forest fires in neighboring Kalimantan, Indonesia, clarity prevailed throughout a two-hour literary symposium that featured three visiting writers.

This writer from Manila happened to join a couple of much younger writers for an activity simply billed as “Writers Talking.” The brainchild of creativity guru Kirpal Singh, director of the Wee Kim Wee Centre, it’s one of several projects he has developed as serial offerings for SMU’s students, as well as Singapore’s literary community, foreign journalists and visiting scholars.

“Writers Talking” began earlier this year, with trios of writers speaking before audiences on how they conduct themselves literarily, then giving a sampling of their works with brief readings before engaging the listeners in lively forums.

The Wee Kim Wee Centre hosts other such serial activities throughout the year, headlined by an ongoing calendar of colloquiums where diverse personalities from all over Asia are invited to speak on a particular feature of their successful careers.

Last May, this writer was around to cover our very own legend-in-his-lifetime Freddie Aguilar when he delivered a talk on “Anak: The Untold Story.” This was part of the Lien Fung colloquium series that has been going on for 14 years since it was established by Mrs. Ho Lien Fung (since departed) “to enhance public understanding and appreciation of culture and society through lectures, talks and other events, with a particular focus on everyday life, while not being dominated by academic or philosophical topics.”

Next month, another Filipino invitee for yet another series, this time on various facets of art and culture, is our brilliant and passionate culture advocate, museum conceptualizer, art curator and heritage activist Marian Pastor Roces. Surely she’ll blow her Singaporean audience away, as I assured my poet-friend Kirpal last week.

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Back to the “Writers Talking” series, ours was the fourth for the year. The two young ladies I joined as the featured foreign writers were Sujata Parashar who planed in from Delhi and Okky Madasari who came from Jakarta with her husband and fellow journalist Abdul Khalik and their year-old daughter Raya.

Each of us spoke briefly on our writing careers and read poems or prose excerpts from our works. The last hour was taken up by a spirited discussion with the audience.

Sujata Parashar started the ball rolling by declaring how she considered herself to have been an “accidental writer.” She had been an activist on social issues until she latched on to the “man-woman relationship outside the institution of marriage from a modern woman’s perspective.” She wound up writing a draft for a novel, submitted it to 10 publishers, and received positive responses from two of them.

Her debut novel, In Pursuit of Infidelity (Rupa and Co., 2009), struck gold as a best-seller, while earning her numerous angry letters from male readers. She went on to author In Pursuit of Ecstasy (Rupa and Co., 2011), which delved into “the youth-parent relationship in modern times and made an attempt to portray how the seeds of dissension between the two impacts society at large.”

The book was long-listed for the Economist Crossword Book Award 2012. Her latest novel, the third in the “Pursuit” series, In Pursuit of a Lesser Offence, released last year (Alchemy), “explores the relevance of the institution of marriage in current times.” She has also written short fiction, “Wake me only when the sun is high,” (2011), and a book of poems that started the series, Poetry Out and Loud (2012), with both winning awards.

Presently, Sujata’s working on her first collection of short stories to be launched this December. The nine stories in the collection “focus on the modern Indian woman who is bold, aspirational and expressive,” with themes varying from office politics to color bias, love, marriage and modern-day relationships. She has also been active in literary circles and is on the planning board of both the Kumaon Literary Festival (KLF) and Delhi Poetry Festival (DPF), as well as that of Empowering Minds — an NGO based in Delhi that is one of the few national-level organizations providing psychosocial care and support to the bleeding disorders community.

Here’s an excerpt from her second novel, In Pursuit of Lesser Offence:

“I think, with the passage of time, marriage as an institution will either fade away or people will start getting married on a contractual basis. The contract will end with something like: For the next 10 years we promise to remain committed to each other. After the stipuated time period expires, both the parties will review it and then decide whether to apply for a renewal or say goodbye to each other amiably.”

And from Poetry Out And Loud – III, here’s her poem “A Breakaway”: “From my standing at a distance from them,/ I looked their way/ Need to belong strong,/ I made a wish.// The wish wished,/ I stood my ground/ A part of the crowd/ I belong to a group with blown out candles.// Where am I?/ All that glitters bright;/ dark inside/ I turn around; a breakaway.”

The women writers in our panel were equally outspoken, articulate and effervescent, so that this co-panelist wound up joining Kirpal Singh in asking them questions on the matter of their craft before the audience could take their turn.           

At only 30 years of age, Indonesian author Okky Madasari has already won her country’s most celebrated literary prize, the Khatulistiwa Literary Award, for her third novel Maryam, which was released in 2012. She was the youngest ever to win the prestigious award, at 28. Her novels were shortlisted three years in a row for the same award.

Her first novel Entrok, on life under totalitarianism and militarism during Indonesia’s New Order era, was translated into English in 2013 under the title The Years of the Voiceless. Two other novels, Maryam and Pasung Jiwa, have also been translated into English under the titles The Outcast and Bound, respectively.

Okky became a journalist upon graduation with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science. She then took sociology for her master’s degree from the University of Indonesia and graduated in 2014 with a thesis on “Genealogy of Indonesian Novels: Capitalism, Islam and Critical Literature.”

Her novels are said to consistently uphold human rights and freedom, and are always against any form of repression, while delving on issues that “showcase basic and universal humankind’s problems.” Indonesia’s prominent literary critic Apsanti Djokosujatno claims that “they are already categorized as canon and will become classic,” while dubbing Okky Madasari as “the next Pramoedya Ananta Toer.”

During the forum, Okky expressed how she believes that “writing is a way of fighting for the advancement of humanity.” Her novels, she added, always attempt “to voice out problems within the society, including discrimination, oppression and unjust treatment by the state or the ruling elites.”

Her latest novel, Pasung Jiwa, released in 2013 and translated into English as Bound the following year, “addresses individual struggle to break free from his or her own individual limitation as well as the containment of norm, tradition, religion, state and economic dominance of the few rich.” It quickly gained controversy and much interest as a book featuring a transgender as the protagonist.

Here’s an excerpt:

Father suddenly started crying. Mother and I were shocked. Here was my father, a man who had always been strong and firm, now crying. I didn’t even know he could cry. He always seemed so rock-steady and ready with a solution for every problem. Those were the same values he tried to teach me from a young age. A boy mustn’t cry, mustn’t mope, mustn’t be weak. But now he was crying, right here in front of Mother and me. He was sobbing loud and deep.

Mother, confused, went up to him. She sat next to him and stroked his back, and then began crying, too. My own eyes started to mist up. It was hard to see my parents like this.

“They came to my office and threatened me…” Father said between sobs. He straightened himself up and came over to me. He hugged me and said, “Forgive me, Sasana… I wasn’t able to defend you…”

I started crying. Great, big, heaving sobs. It wasn’t because I was upset that those wretched punks would never go to jail, but because of the sheer compassion I felt seeing my father like this. He felt useless, ashamed, powerless.

“But they were expelled from the school, weren’t they?” Mother asked suddenly. She seemed to believe there was at least something that could salve our deep disappointment.

Father turned to look at her. He was quiet for a moment, and then he hook his head. “The school board didn’t dare. They asked that Sasana be moved instead. For everyone’s sake…”

CRASH! Mother sent a ceramic ornament on the table next to her crashing to the floor. She ran from the room, cursing. She shouted out all her anger, against the bastards who had hurt her child, against the police, against the school, against circumstance. She was no longer angry at Father. Nor was I, not in the least. Now I understood why Father all of a sudden wanted me to switch to a better school, one with girls in it. He wanted a school that was gentler, more beautiful, averse to violence.

Aaah… I was regretting more and more being born a boy.

 

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