Sun, 06 Jul 2003

Djenar keeps tales short but not so sweet

Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Writer Djenar Maesa Ayu had taken up residence in the corner of QB bookstore, Central Jakarta, with the tool of her trade, an Apple iBook, beside her, in black tanktop and denim outfit, a pack of cigarettes and a glass of beer placed nearby, sending out a message of the cosmopolitan young woman about town.

The 30-year-old mother of two could easily be mistaken for a model, although she is self-deprecating about her beauty.

She said she does not think she is pretty and was dismayed that it was her looks that got a lot of attention when she published a short-story collection, Mereka Bilang, Saya Monyet! (They said I'm a Monkey!) last year.

"There is even a new phrase like sastra wangi ("fragrant literature" for young female writers), or sastra cek & ricek ("tabloid literature", taken from the name of a gossip show). There have never been people who seriously discuss my work. It's always been stuff outside writing," she said.

Validation came with the selection of her short story Waktu Nayla (Nayla's Time) by Kompas daily as the best of its kind in the past year.

Suddenly, Djenar's cell phone rang, apparently from somebody who had hired her for a new TV celebrity gossip show.

"I'm going to be the presenter. Why? Well, it's funny, the concept is funny. It's always fun to gossip, right?"

Specializing in short stories, Djenar is among several women writers who have emerged in the past five years, a rare phenomena in the world of Indonesian literature.

"I've liked short stories ever since I was a little. And then, as a housewife, I have limited time. Also, when I write, it has to be finished, otherwise I have to repeat the whole process again. That's my weakness. I guess I have to learn to be more patient," she said.

Her's is a straightforward, blunt writing style, filled with themes such as adultery, rape, prostitution, even incest. It's hardly the usual fluffy romance fiction of Indonesian women writers.

Or, in other words, she is moving in on the territory of men who are usually given the artistic license to explore such subjects.

One story in her first book, Mereka, for instance, is titled Namanya.., (Her Name Is..), and tells about a teenage girl named Memek (coarse slang for vagina) whose mother is a prostitute.

"Everybody has their own style to tell their stories. If I use beautiful language, my message is often not conveyed.

"Besides, Kompas once published a short story with memek in the title. But because the writer is a man, no one cared. What's so vulgar about the word either?" said Djenar, saying the word repeatedly and rolling her eyes.

She underlined that everything she writes was taken from the reality of the surrounding society, including sexual deviation.

For her upcoming book, also a compilation, Jangan Main-main Dengan Kelaminku (Don't Mess With My Genitals), Djenar had to find another publisher after the first backed out, no doubt scared by that title.

Not all of her works have such themes. Waktu Nayla, for instance, is the contemplative story of a woman diagnosed with cancer who realizes she has not lived life to the fullest, and starts to think about time.

Time is also an issue for Djenar, juggling her status as housewife-cum-writer.

"I really enjoy family life. It's having children and raising them that I love the most," Djenar said.

She got married after graduating from high school to a man she claims to have been in love with since she was only 12 years old.

"I've never regretted it. Because I really wanted to have someone who could turn me into more responsible person. Ooh, I was such a brat, very wild, unimaginably wild. I don't know why -- perhaps it's genetic," she laughed.

She was referring to her parents, the late director Syuman Djaya and former actress Tuti Kirana, from whom Djenar had at least two stepparents and several stepsiblings.

Busy as she is, Djenar has another project in the pipeline.

She is now working on a film script which is based on three short stories from her book.

Aware of her lack of experience in filmmaking, Djenar has just taken a six-month course on cinematography at the National Film Center in the capital.

"It's very interesting. I found new difficulties, which are very challenging. Wish me luck. I hope the result won't be embarrassing," she smiled.

We certainly hope not.