Mon, 21 Jul 2003

Allen uses literature to portray RI

Dewi Anggraeni, Contributor, Melbourne, Australia

There are numerous ways to learn about the culture of a people, the most obvious being through their language, history and politics. Pam Allen, a lecturer in Indonesian at the University of Tasmania in Australia, skillfully combines all three in her Indonesian language program.

Being a literature aficionado, and having been an authorized translator of a number of Indonesian literary works, Allen in fact has a dedicated literature course. She is adept at reading beyond the text. Literature to her is like a prism which reflects different facets of a particular society in a particular era. The beauty of it in terms of teaching language, of course, is the fact that the prism reflects all that, through language.

So in teaching the language, Allen sees literature as an important tool for enabling students to see contemporary Indonesian reality, and the material condition of Indonesian life. While each sentence is constructed of individual words, it is connected to something wider and bigger.

Another advantage of learning a language through literature is how the text actually tells a story, which happens in the cradle of the culture, reflecting the people's happiness, anxiety and other emotions, and the way they see things and the way they react to events around them.

Presenting a paper at the 7th Australian Society of Indonesian Language Educators Conference in Adelaide from July 7 to July 8, Allen gave an apt example of literature as an immediate chronicle of political events and situations.

The Bali bombings of Oct. 12, 2002, have been quickly recorded in contemporary Indonesian literature. After the initial response of grief, confusion, then anger, the healing process went beyond the necessary religious cleansing ceremonies.

There were creative manifestations such as theater performances and poetry competitions, like the ones organized by the Udayana University, where horror, shock, sadness and anger, even humor, were played out. Its inclusiveness was proven by the fact that even a poem by Imam Samudra, one of the bombing suspects, was published in several publications.

The use of language in these events was cathartic in its poignancy.

Allen sees most serious literature as a very real engagement with what is happening in Indonesia.

"Even the sort of experimental literature from the 1970s, like works of Putu Wijaya, can be read as a metaphor, as a critique of contemporary Indonesia, or an allegory of the real situation," she said.

In her dedicated literature classes, the students are required to read works she regards as important Indonesian texts. Though these are advanced level students, Allen tries to select works for which there are English translations available, in order to help the students grasp the contents and nuances fully. In the class, they read the texts against the sociohistorical background, so the reading opens up a window to what was happening in Indonesia at the time.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer's works are good examples for use in this context.

Allen also uses short stories or excerpts of longer texts in her regular language class.

"Many Indonesian short stories are very short and ideal for use over a class period or two. You can turn the text into a language exercise, including vocabulary list, then introduce various exercises such as retelling and comprehension." Most students take part in the activities enthusiastically, despite the fact that these are not easy.

Developing strategies for teaching a literary work naturally is not always problem-free. Challenges posed by texts with vocabulary that would appeal to students who like cerebral exercises are different from those posed by stories told in a surrealist style, or in the vernacular, where the usual grammar and structure do not play a very obvious role. No doubt tracing where the original structure has disappeared could be fun.

How do students generally regard this literary approach to learning the language?

"Very positively," Allen said.

"I have students who in the beginning said, 'I'm not interested in literature.' But they've come to see learning Indonesian literature as different from learning English or Australian literature. There is a very strong link between the literature and contemporary reality and the sociohistorical context.

"They generally come out in the end saying it was so good to see this link, and to be able to learn Indonesian history or important events in Indonesia without having to sit down and read textbooks about them. So much fun doing it through fiction."

Allen's love and enthusiasm for Indonesian literature are no doubt an important part of her teaching method. The students find her enthusiasm contagious, and her quiet and unassuming sensitive way of teaching appealing.

She even uses poetry. Considering that most Australian young men are not interested in poetry, a careful selection and a good approach are necessary. She has used poems by writers such as Rendra with incredible success. And in the end, she says her students have always enjoyed what they learned.

At present Allen has more male than female students. However, it is usually the other way round. Throughout the years she has taught, the average ratio is two-thirds female and one-third male. When students enroll in her class, they know they are going to learn Indonesian language through literature.

With new genres emerging recently, Allen no doubt will find no time to be bored, responding to the challenges the genres bring and passing on what she absorbs to her students.