Sun, 08 Jun 2003

Novelist Ayu succeds in silencing her critics

Emmy Fitri, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Novelist Ayu Utami has gained the maturity that comes with time, experience and, in her case, surviving the trial by fire that greeted her debut novel in 1998.

She acknowledged her growth in the last few years, but joked, "I was already mature a long time ago."

It was inevitable that the critical and commercial success of Saman would rile the cynics. In their view, she was too young and pretty to have produced an outstanding work exploring the country's political turmoil of 1965. A vindictive rumor circulated that the novel was actually ghost-written by journalist Goenawan Mohamad, her friend and mentor.

Leading daily Kompas ran an unabridged interview with Ayu, then 29, replete with several responses of "I don't know" and a few awkward pauses.

Her detractors gleefully held up her lack of articulateness in comparison to the flowing narrative of her prose.

They paid no attention to Ayu's long experience in journalism as both a reporter and an editor, of magazines such as Forum Keadilan and Matra, and Kalam cultural journal.

Ayu countered by noting the sexism underpinning the skepticism -- a woman can only be a success by riding the coattails of a man -- and that young talent is always dismissed by insecure members of the establishment.

Otherwise, Ayu let success speak in her defense.

Saman won the prestigious Chairil Anwar literary award, but perhaps more satisfying was the positive commercial reception, never a given for a novel that has gained critical plaudits. The novel went through six reprints in the space of five months in 1998.

Three years later, Ayu published Larung, a continuation of the story of Saman as part of the larger novel Laila Tak Mampir di New York (Laila Doesn't Stop in New York), but Larung did not generate the critical praise -- or brickbats -- of her previous work.

But her tribulations have made the road a little easier for other women who follow. Now a columnist for djakarta! magazine, Ayu welcomes the new batch of young female writers -- Dewi Lestari, Fira Basuki, Djenar Mahesa Ayu -- to a new literary genre dubbed sastrawangi (fragrant literature).

It's a sign of the times that there is a bit more glamor and hype to the literary scene today, all part of the growing culture of celebrity. Lavish book launches attended by the big names are held for first-time novelists.

"Let's see this positively, in a way that the public will be awakened to the existence of the country's literary world, regardless of the quality of the work. It's just a window to broaden people's horizons.

"Our literary world goes with the era, that's OK. That's a consequence of the time, although there are elitists in literary circles who wish to uphold the quality and purity of literary values," she said.

She may not consider herself an elitist, but she pointed out the importance of authors first being judged on their literary merits.

"I don't blame the writers if they are called celebrities here and covered by entertainment news programs. The media, of course, prefer young, good-looking authors over old male authors. But they don't thoroughly discuss the work of young female writers -- they cover the gossip instead.

"That's what happened to me with Saman. I knew people were busy circulating gossip about me, and not about the book," she added.

Ayu brought her insight to a recent book launch for Mengebor Kemunafikan, Inul, Seks and Kekuasaan (Drilling Hypocrisy, Inul, Sex and Power) by journalist FX Rudy Gunawan.

The book looks at the phenomenon of singer Inul Daratista, who is undergoing her own public inquisition for her controversial "drilling" dance.

"It's always a long, never-ending subject if we discuss morality and religion," Ayu said. "But the story is not actually about Inul. It's about the phenomenon behind it, our people's phenomenon.

"A while ago, I found Sophia Latjuba had been 'veiled'," Ayu said, referring to the action of those self-appointed wardens of public morality, who painted over billboard ads showing the skimpily dressed actress-model.

"People really are wasting their energy just to climb on the roofs of bus shelters to put 'veils' on Sophia," she said.

"It's that some people are threatened by such pictures, and that's simply ridiculous to me. What happened to Inul is the same. There are groups of people who are still threatened by her dancing, and work in the name of morality to shackle others' freedom."

If there were those in the audience who did not like her views, they did not speak up. Ayu Utami, literary icon and social commentator, has finally, deservedly, silenced her critics.