Sun, 06 Jul 2003

Author Herlina brings taboo issue out of the closet in debut novel

Jock Paul, Contributor, Jakarta

A mere 21 years of age, bespectacled and wearing an Islamic headscarf, Herlina Tien Suhesti seems an unlikely figure to emerge as a champion of the gay community.

At a recent seminar in Purwokerto, Central Java, on discrimination against gays, lesbians and transsexuals in the Marriage Law, many of those in attendance were eager to meet the author of Garis Tepi Seorang Lesbian (The Margin of a Lesbian).

The novel, a story of two young women battling social condemnation of their relationship, has done well; the first print of 3,000 copies sold quickly, and publisher Galang Press did a second print run only two weeks later.

It's not the first novel in recent years to deal with homosexuality in Indonesian society. Singer-author Dewi Lestari's Supernova had at its core the relationship between two male lovers, and made the crossover from a "gay" novel to a mainstream publishing success, selling more than 50,000 copies.

Nevertheless, a nonsensational approach to a relationship between women is quite unusual.

Although progress may have been made in acceptance of gays in urban areas like Jakarta and Surabaya, for many Indonesians homosexuality remains a taboo, especially because of religious sanctions against the lifestyle.

Many gays and lesbians are forced to live a lie, hiding their sexual preference from family, coworkers and the community around them. But the problems faced by gays, lesbians and transsexuals are not necessarily the same -- with women, for example, they must also confront sexism and the pervasive disregard in Indonesian culture for female sexuality.

Of course, the inevitable speculation is that the work is a cry from the heart, a thinly veiled autobiography of the young author herself.

Herlina says that she is not a lesbian, and she is now used to defending herself against the argument that she could not have written a work about something so foreign to her life.

She is not shy to admit that before coming to Yogyakarta, she knew nothing about the gay and lesbian communities. Herlina was born and raised in Ngawi, a small town in East Java, where the importance of family and Islam were instilled in her.

But after she arrived in the city to study Indonesian and art at Universitas Negeri Yogyakarta, Herlina said she got to know lesbians -- and most importantly, grew to understand the discrimination they face.

"I write from what I observe," she said. "And I spent a lot of time observing, hanging out with and learning about lesbians."

A lot of the discrimination comes from misunderstanding or ignorance, she said, pointing to her own attitude when growing up in Ngawi.

Having become more interested in the lesbian community, Herlina spent the past year attending workshops and support groups for the community, and used the insight and research she gathered to write a few short stories about lesbians.

In March, she submitted an anthology of short stories featuring lesbian characters to Galang. The publisher liked her writing, but did not want to publish a collection of short stories, and offered Herlina the opportunity to write a book.

Before the book hit the shelves, Herlina had to warn her parents.

"I am lucky that my parents are quite open-minded and supportive," Herlina said.

Dede Oetomo, a professor at Airlangga University in Surabaya, and the country's leading gay rights advocate, said that the success of the book, and the fact it was written by a young Muslim woman, were both positive signs that lesbians were becoming more accepted and more visible in society.

Herlina said that she drew on her observations of people, situations and relationships to gather writing material.

"Writing has always allowed me to express what I was feeling and what I was learning and thinking," she said.

"And in this case, it has allowed me to make people -- readers -- better understand lesbians."

She now wants her writing to reach as many people as possible.

"I am not concerned with making money or royalties, but I do want people to read my writing, that is what is important to me," she said.

The speed at which Herlina wrote her first novel is as impressive as its initial success.

She completed her novel in five days and four nights, forsaking sleep and only taking breaks to pray, shower and drink tea.

"I just got in the right mood and did not want to stop," she said.

In the end, fatigue did catch up with her. Herlina was sick the day after finishing the book, and spent the next week in bed.

Her unorthodox writing method seems to have worked. Along with the initial success of the novel, she already has an established publisher, whose name she will not disclose, that wants her to write a sequel.

She knows that many people will continue to point out the seeming conflict presented by her devout Muslim faith and her support of a lifestyle condemned by most major religions.

"I want people to read this book and know that this is normal, and this is what lesbians are like. If somebody reads this book and it does not change their opinion, I'll be disappointed."