Category Archives: Literature

Lost In Translation?

At the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, held on the island of Bali in October, a German poet by the name of Martin Jankowski bluntly stated that any poet writing in a language other than their native tongue was little more than an epigone. In Germany, he maintained, the poet would be “laughed out of town.”

In response, a discussion was recently held at a bookstore in South Jakarta.

Debra Yatim, an Indonesian poet who writes in English, moderated. The panel consisted of Mikael Johani, a poet who recently published a collection of English poems; Nelden Djakababa, whose articles and short stories have appeared in various English publications; Remy Sylado, a poet and novelist; Roswita Nimpuno-Khaiyath, a translator; and John McGlynn, who translated Pramoedya Anta Toer’s later works.

The first two writers were in the “pro” corner and the other three took the other side of the debate.

Some interesting arguments were raised. Nimpuno-Khaiyath, who is of Dutch and Indonesian heritage, said it was a shame that Indonesian readers couldn’t read writers’ works in their best form: in their own language.

Remy provided an example of a Indonesian writer writing in Dutch, who eventually found herself in the no-man’s land of the Dutch literary scene.

Years ago, the poet Sapardi charged that only writers writing in Bahasa could be considered Indonesian writers.

His statement naturally provoked an instant response from writers authoring works in ethnic languages like Javanese.

The language that a poet moves in is a fluid language, described by Blanchot as the whole of languages

This kind of misunderstanding, if you think about it, is akin to bigotry or chauvinism.

It’s understandable to hear these remarks from translators, for aren’t they in the business of reconstructing original works into other languages?

They may be overly concerned about the “incapable” hands of local translators spoiling the beauty of their own language in another language.

This sentence itself is loaded with irony.

We’ve heard of an Australian translator translating jalan tikus, the local lingo for a shortcut byway, as an alley infested with rodents!

But to hear these remarks from a poet is to my mind unforgivable.

Of all writers, a poet should know that there are three types of languages: ordinary language, immediate language and essential language.

The first two are basically “decipher languages”: they function as signifiers for meanings, and as such are basically dead languages. Their only function is to serve as an exchange between a word and the designated meaning.

The language that a poet moves in is a fluid language, described by Blanchot as the whole of languages; it is the language of essence. A poet uses this fluidity, shuttling between nothingness and the ungraspable expanse of immanence, to affirm his or her probe in words, which, however, once properly set down in words, will inevitably be consigned to the totality of language, thus fading away again into nothingness.

To accuse a writer writing in a language other than their own of being an epigone is tantamount to saying Yo-yo Ma should stick to the erhu, the two-stringed bowed Chinese instrument, instead of the double bass. Or to disregard such great writers as Joseph Conrad, a Polish national, writing in English; Milan Kundera, a master Czech novelist who writes in French; or Rattawut Lapcharoensap, a Thai national writing in English and considered by many to be Chekov’s equal.

Maybe to this poet from Germany, or to many here in Indonesia who cling obsessively to their own language, these are exceptional writers. They are, without a doubt. More importantly, though, they are great thinkers — great regardless of the language they choose to revel in.

In another time, they could have written in Latin. It was the language of the day.

In the end, language is just an instrument. It is the thought, or the music, that a writer or a musician plucks out of the instrument that counts.

Those who can’t see beyond the instrument are necessarily earthbound by the logical intricacies of language.

A version of this article was published on December 30, 2008 in The Jakarta Globe.

Mantau And The Invisible Kid (A Short Story)

You can hardly see me. I blend quite easily with the crowd. At least we’d like to believe we blend well but most of the time we stick out like sore thumbs. But suffice it to say that through years of learning to stay in the background, disguised like a chameleon so as not to be noticed, I now move among you easily. I’m an illusionist. The Great Svengali. Now you see me, now you don’t. Puff! I am one with the landscape. Subterfuge and disguise, the crowning achievements of my folks. Hard-earned achievements, mind you, through years of playing hide and seek and staying out of trouble. Stay out of trouble, you hear, Ah Fung! Pa used to yell at us boys who tried to attract attention by making noise on the pavement outside Pa’s Chinese apothecary. Go back to your books, boys. Learn them books. Be somebody one day. Stay out of trouble, you hear. If we were good boys that day, he would give us a slice of guava that had been treated with Chinese herbs and our piss. Eat, eat, Pa would insist. Good for your blood circulation. It smelled of stinky mercury but tasted not bad at all. A bit like dried juhi, dried squid, only juicier.
But you see, we were not so easily tempted by Pa’s offer. Instead of learning Chinese onomatopoeia—Ma Mah Maah Maaaa—we preferred to roam out of the study room upstairs and skip up the rusty cast-iron ladder to the flat rooftop where the whole neighborhood’s underwear was on parade. Next door, Uncle Chien’s wife loved to wear lingerie. See-through lacy stuff we used to “borrow” and put them on for size. Mantau, that’s my younger brother. We call him that on account of his head looking like a mantau, the plump and doughy oval bread. Now to be honest, he was the more churlish of us two. He would play with the bras, now putting them on his chest and sashaying like Mrs Chien, mimicking her adeptly. “Lau Lu,” that’s her husband’s nickname, “come and give mama a little pet kiss. Oh, kom. Kom.” Then Mantau whirled around and moments later whirled back round to reveal himself a fighter pilot, the bras pushed up his forehead to look like a fighter pilot’s goggles.
We loved playing in the rooftop, because here we could be whoever we wanted to be without having to be cautious or afraid to attract too much attention. We ruled the rooftop like a couple of despots reigning over a kingdom with the flapping undies and dusters bearing our insignias. Long live the kings! We heralded our supreme domination of the world from the vantage height on the low cinderblock barrier, with the neighbors’ smocks and blouses tied round our necks as capes. Vanquish the enemies. Charge!
Those were the carefree days when our world knew no boundaries and freedom was a word synonymous with breathing. Then that afternoon we chanced upon something that completely changed our world.
Mantau was hurdling through the barriers like cowboys in western flicks jumping over horses. He hurdled over the farthest barrier and did not surface. Oiy! I called out. No response. Mantau! I became seriously concerned after a while and started to scale over the barriers.
I reached the barrier where he had last hurdled over and found the son of a bitch squatting by the rafters, peering intently into a maid’s bathroom. When he saw me jump down from the barrier, he made a signal for me to keep quiet. I crept near him and peered down the direction of his gaze.
That was our first glimpse of a female body. I must tell you it was the most extraordinary sight. Like a bolt of lightning, a catharsis that germinated life, we both came alive. Our pricks, that is. They became ramrod hard. Our bodies burnt like we had been thrown into a cauldron of fire. We knew we would burn in hell, but heck we loved every moment of it.
It was Sansan’s maid. We found out later she had just come from a village in Solo. She was the most beautiful woman we had ever seen in our well-ordered miserable lives. She had a smooth chestnut skin. Her eyes were like the crown jewels we read about in H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. Her eyes. Oh, how they sparkled so brightly! Her long jet-black hair flowed down her shapely figure like the softest angora fur that made your hand itchy because you wanted to touch it so badly. Every time she turned–her body glowing moistly in the afternoon light–our hearts beat like drums in a marching band.
I couldn’t recollect who started it first. Mantau wouldn’t admit he was the one who started it but what happened was we both started to stroke our little peckers. Now let’s pause here for a second. We were a couple of well-behaving kids, raised in a family with strict codes of conduct. This sort of behavior, should we have been caught red-handed by Ma, would have caused us to be sent to a temple to be reeducated by a monk for a whole month, counting beads, eating plenty of legumes and practicing to utter OOOM a million times. But the movement came so naturally. In fact it was so natural it scared us how pleasurable it was. We stroked to the rhythm of her movement. Each time we saw the suds sluicing from her hair down the gullet between her breasts, we caught our breaths. Our hands became heated and we stroked and stroked in spite of ourselves, as if only by continuously stroking we would at last free ourselves from the accursed desire, liberating us from the bruises and rough edges of daily existence to enjoin with the ultimate good of the universe.
Something in us stirred, prodding and agitating. We became restless. Mantau coped with this change by adopting a devil-may-care attitude. Whenever Pa hollered for us to come down and help him move some boxes or store away the herbs, Mantau would pretend not to hear. He snuggled in his blanket, his body turned toward the wall, stroking away.
As for me I started to wander off from our neighborhood. I started to visit the waroeng on the street corners, where I knew the maids visited in their spare time. I loitered there for hours, pretending not to see Ma when she came out to look for me. My hope was Sansan’s maid would show up one day. Maybe I would ask her name or if I were lucky enough she would maybe go see a movie with me.
That year marked our fall from grace. From better than average students we became a disgrace. Our parents had high expectations from us. They had never anticipated something like this would happen to their children. Throughout the eight years we had been at school, we had always been the paragon students pointed out by other parents for their children to emulate.
Going to school became a drag. We got easily distracted. Concentration was hell. We soon fell in with the worst pack at school, cutting classes and going to the bus terminal to play dice. It was around that time that Pa became suspicious because the tiller was always empty. When we were loaded with a rare win from one of these gambling bouts, we would all go to a whorehouse on the outskirt of the city. Mantau and I were usually the nervous wrecks. We chipped in for the other boys to do it. We squatted outside the tent, peeking inside at what they were doing.
The boys took turns charging into the stifling tent, in the middle of which lay a big woman with drooping breasts and folds of loose skin gathering on her shanks, legs turned wide open on a bed propped up by stacks of cardboards. While the boys unbuckled their belts and dove in, the whore was unbothered. She was completely absorbed in counting the banknotes in her hands. The boys flopped on top of her and slid off as swiftly as the fruit flies she flicked off her head.
It’s all been quite a while back now but I remember how repelled I was at the sight of these boys climbing over the grossly overweight whore. I noticed that none of them lasted more than five minutes. I knew because I kept the time. But each would saunter out of the tent, stretching their limbs and grabbing their nuts as if they had just conquered a lioness.
I couldn’t stand looking at the spectacle. I edged away from the tent and leaning on a lamppost I started to throw up. From where I was I saw Mantau still squatting outside the tent like a totem pole. I tried to get him to leave with me, but he wouldn’t budge. He said for me to go first. He would catch up with me later. I sat on a plastic chair at a roadside cigarette stand near the terminal, sucking chilled sarsaparilla with a straw. I waited for hours for Mantau to show up, but he never did. I waited a while longer and then started back home.
I’ve never returned to that place ever since. On that dusty afternoon, I left behind more than just a brother to the pack. I left a whole kingdom behind. I realized then without my brother the world was too wayward to be reigned over as a kingdom.
When trudging toward home, I passed by the waroeng. To my surprise I saw Sansan’s maid. She was clad in a floral calico dress, which flapped and swirled in the afternoon breeze. I could have sworn she turned and smiled at me! I straightened, pumped my chest and started to strut like a man. Just about this time, I think, I picked up my bag of tricks in blending with the rest of the world. Now I am moving among you. You see me sometimes, but then again you don’t. Judging from my performance so far, I think I’ve grown pretty good at doing this.

by Richard Oh (in China Moon Anthology 2003)

Don’t Hold Your Breath

I hate writing poems. But here’s one, inspired by Michele Placido’s film, Un Viaggio Chiamato Amore, A Journey of Love.

Don’t Hold Your breath.

Nothing passes
From what I peeled
And raked

Of what remains,
Of what is lost,

Immensity claims all

To hell with East and West,
Whichever first,
North or South

All directions disperse

To hell with images
Which hark and hail
Like unbidden postcards
That knock, knocking
On bolted doors

To hell with words that ring
And rankle like tinnitus;
A disease believed to infect
Those who overly listen,
Those who don’t
Erratic beats of the heart
No less

Harsher, more incorrigible men than I,
Loosen themselves in ritualized weals,
Hollow conundrums that thrash and shriek;
While I, snout in
Combobulation, breathe with this
And that, this that, that then this,
That is just bunk

So here’s what you can and should,
Again the proverbial incants,
When to add and subtract
Being clearly impasses
And letting is oh such a dastardly word
That trembles, that howls
Inside inns of feeblest breezes

What then?
Says the obstreperous of obstreperous jerks
As if Frost’s bifurcations
Dutifully bifurcate
Each stead you imitate

Still stillness, a question naught
That beggars still nonetheless

Away then distillates of distillations,
Instill mightily
Till all else apart
You depart
And I, timorously,
Irremediably, build
A part.

Jakarta, October 5, 2009

Ritus dan Waktu

Ritus adalah sebuah pengitaran di dalam reruntuhan berlingkarnya Borges. Ia seperti sang penyihir di dalam reruntuhan berlingkar itu yang bermimpi membangkitkan seorang pemuda ideal dari mimpinya. Setelah mewujudkan seorang pemuda perkasa dari mimpi itu, sang penyihir mengirimnya ke sebuah reruntuhan berlingkar di belahan selatan. Pada kentongan tengah malam, sang penyihir terjaga dari mimpi dan sadar bahwa walaupun ia bisa melahirkan seseorang dari mimpi, ia sebenarnya tidak luput dari impian orang lain.

Sejak zaman Homer, ritus pengorbanan sakral, dari penyembahan seorang putri tercinta hingga hewan-hewan, diberlakukan untuk meredakan amarah atau sebagai persembahan untuk sebuah doa. Agammenon menyembahkan putrinya kepada Poseidon agar flotila perangnya melintas samudera dengan aman untuk menggempur Troya. Ritus pengabenan di Bali ataupun Rambu Solo di Toraja menyembahkan berekor-ekor babi dan kerbau untuk memuluskan penyeberangan ruh. Arca, kuil, altar dan piramida dibangun untuk memeringati mereka yang telah berpulang ataupun menambatkan yang tak tergapai ke dalam sebuah kehidupan keseharian manusia.

Ritus dengan demikian adalah sebuah repetisi dalam sebuah reruntuhan berlingkar. Ia adalah sebuah simulacrum dalam sebuah roda waktu. Adakah ia sebuah upaya manusia untuk mempertahankan sebuah ingatan dari gerusan waktu? Ataukah ia sebuah representasi dibangun untuk menopang kegalauan manusia? Apa pun tujuannya, tampaknya sejak dulu, manusia menolak melihat waktu sebagai sebuah imensitas cair yang tidak merunut secara linear. Manusia, menurut Michel Serres, masih terobsesi dengan kontinuitas dan diskontinuitas waktu dalam satu peninjauan paralel. Padahal waktu bergerak tidak seperti yang kita bayangkan menurut penanda waktu. Ia bisa ditilik dari sebuah pra-posisi (pre-posisi), di antara-antara (inter-face), dari samping (valence), melalui sebuah kuala (confluence) atau fluks (fluxes). Metode perlipatan (folding) seperti ini memungkinkan kita untuk menyandingkan yang lampau bersama dengan yang kini dan memproyeksikan masa depan dari masa lalu dari sebuah superposisi.

Bila waktu bisa begitu luwes, kenapa manusia masih juga merasa perlu sebuah ritus? Ritus bertahan mungkin karena manusia pada umumnya takut melepaskan diri dari tonggak-tonggak waktu. Waktu, seperti bumi pijakan, menuntut sebuah inskripsi, sebuah guratan jejak secara konkret. Di sinilah menurut Michel Serres kesulitan manusia mempertemukan ilmu pengetahuan dengan humanitas. Setiap pintu yang dibuka oleh ilmu pengetahuan belum tentu akan dilalui oleh ilmu kemanusiaan. Dua sudut pandang kehidupan ini sepertinya terhadang oleh sebuah pintu dengan dua perangkat kunci yang berbeda. Ini terjadi karena manusia senantiasa ingin memartisikan waktu dan ruang sedangkan sebuah orientasi pikiran tidak terkurung oleh ruang, terbatasi oleh waktu. Seandainya ilmu pengetahuan tidak memberikan sebuah terobosan secara matematis, maka mitos ataupun puisi bisa dipergunakan untuk menerobos sebuah kebuntuan. Sebuah aparatus kehidupan dengan demikian tidak mesti terpatri pada sebuah displin tertentu yang menyempitkan eksplorasi. Kebuntuan tidak mesti diurai secara tuntas dari kebuhulannya. Yang dikejar dalam setiap penelusuran adalah sebuah jalan keluar yang bercabang terus, seperti mencari bilangan intervallic, Ni, dalam sebuah pencabangan fraktal. Celah-celah akan terkuak dan pergerakan menjadi sebuah kemestian, bukan kemungkinan.

Pendekatan ini mensubyeksikan tubuh dari ‘titik ke titik’ sebuah paparan topologi: tubuh tanpa kepala ini dengan demikian adalah sebuah subyek, sebuah penanda. Pergerakan, atau menurut Badiou, pengambilan langkah demi langkah ini, menjadi lebih penting daripada sebuah metode penyatu yang universal.Untuk konstruk yang membutuhkan pergerakan terus-menerus seperti ini, kita perlu sebuah aparatus mimetics, dalam pengertian Lacan, bukan sebagai replikator, tetapi sebagai sebuah regulator paradigma bergeser. Regulator mimetics ini memungkinkan sebuah penyesuaian terus menerus sehingga kita tidak pernah terhenti pada sebuah kebuntuan.

Sebuah clinamen (celah) terkuak dari setiap kebuhulan. Jalan keluar dari reruntuhan berlingkar tidak mesti ditilik dari depan, mengejar terus sesuatu yang inovatif, tetapi ia bisa diolah dari apa yang terbenam, tertinggal di belakang. Apa yang terkubur, tak terpakaikan tidak lantas berarti ia telah usang atau kadarluasa. Bisa saja ia telah hadir mendahului masanya.

Di dunia seperti ini, moralitas tidak lagi subjektif tapi terobjektifikasikan pada topologi. Yang individu dan pribadi menjadi tidak penting, tetapi sebuah kebersamaan terkonsolidasi dalam sebuah dunia obyektif yang menjadi beban tanggung jawab kita bersama: ia menjadi sebuah kemestian, bukan lagi sebuah kemungkinan. Namun, lingkaran reruntuhan berhenti saat sang penyihir sadar bahwa dirinya adalah impian orang lain jua. Kesadaran ini membebaskannya dari mimpi berulang dalam reruntuhan itu. Kesadaran ini merupakan sebuah langkah awal sebuah orientasi baru. Kesadaran ini sekaligus melepaskan sang penyihir dari kutukan ritus dan waktu. Karena sebuah ceruk telah terbuka. Sebuah eksplorasi baru melambaikan tangannya.

Diterbitkan di Jurnal Bhinneka, 2011.

To Love is To Never Stop Counting

To talk about love is akin to bringing up an old sore to which each is to her own pain. (Ecstasy is usually consigned to the false prophets.) Much like talking about a creed, a faith, or a politic. This is so because love is strapped to the point of petrifaction with so many layers of myths, hearsays, moral tales and differentiated thoughts. The scientists will tell you, it’s simply molecules causing a chemical combustion. The poets, wiser, nonetheless more oblique, eulogize Aphrodite, sending her up to the altar of all creations. They refuse to obfuscate the matter with nitty-gritty abstraction. The thinkers are of a different stripe of creatures altogether. They refuse to accept established norms. Grappling with a few working tools, they try obdurately to unmask the myths and sniggle in the ever narrowing crack to fish for a still possible new light.

Venus and Aphrodite

Various beliefs and myths tell us that Venus is the Roman counterpart of the Greek Aphrodite. She is the protectress of Julius Caesar and the Goddess, often associated with Etruscan deity Turan, has as many epithets annexed to its name as there are people to claim her heritage: thus we have Venus Acadilia (to do with baths and a well in Orchomenus, Venus Cloacina (the Purifier), Venus Erycina (from Mount Eryx in Sicily to represent the icon of impurity for prostitutes), Venus Genetrix (Mother Venus as the originator of Romans), Venus Libertina (erroneously construed for pleasure) and Venus Victrix ( a derivative from east for Istar, a goddess of war).


Eros in mythology is generally described as the son of Aphrodite. Hesiod claims in Theogony that Eros emerges from Chaos. But Eros is known for his love for Psyche, the youngest of three daughters of a king , who is so beautiful that she angers Aphrodite. Eros is sent to make Pysche fall in love with the ugliest man on earth. But Eros, upon seeing Psyche, falls in love with her. He’s so in love with her that he touches himself and Psyche with his torch. Eventually, understanding the impossibility of their situation, Eros erases the memory of their love from Psyche. Sensing that her cupid son hasn’t done his job, Aphrodite casts a spell on Psyche. Not another suitor will come knocking on her door ever since. Her worried parents take her to see the oracle, who tells them that Psyche will never marry a mortal. She will be given to one who waits for her beyond the mountain. He will overcome Gods and men. In the valley, Psyche soon hears the voice of her husband, a kind and loving creature that refuses to be seen in daylight. Because once she sees him, their happiness will flee forever. Soon her sisters come to visit her in the valley. They insinuate into Psyche the idea that she must definitely take a good look at her husband for fear that she might be trapped by some insidious monster. One night after her husband has gone to sleep, she lights up a lamp and takes a good look at him. It’s Eros, who looks back at her in astonishment and flees away. Saddened, she returns to her village and tells her sisters about her betrayal of Eros’s trust and the penalty of her sin. She then embarks on an aimless journey in search for him. One day she comes upon a deserted hall strewn with ears of corn, barley and wheat. Psyche proceeds to clean up the mess. Her deed catches the attention of Demeter who sees the beauty of her soul and takes pity in her. She tells her to go to Aphrodite’s temple and begs for her forgiveness. Of course, Aphrodite is still angry with Psyche. She sets up a chore for her to finish before sundown, which Psyche does with patience. Which naturally angers Aphrodite even more. So she asks her to go down to the grove and collect the fleece from all the sheep there. Again with the help with the Naiads, the sea nymphs, who tell her that the sheep are tame and quiet after the sun sets and while they sleep, Psyche can collect their golden fleece. Returning to Aphrodite with the golden fleece, Psyche is set upon another task to go down to the underworld to collect Persepone’s beauty in a box. A task Aphrodite believes will definitely trip Psyche. Again, Eros comes to her assistance, navigating her through the dangerous labyrinths and tells her not to open the box that contains Persepone’s beauty. On her way, Psyche thinks that Aphrodite will not need the beauty but she, travel-worn that she is, will please Eros tremendously if she has the beauty. So she opens the box, thus breaking the commandment of the immortal and falling unconscious. Eros goes to Olympus and pleads with the feasting gods. The gods are moved by the pure beauty of their love and summon Aphrodite and soothe her until she relents. Hermes is then sent down to earth to pick up Psyche and reunite her with Eros in Olympus.

Myths, as we‘ve learnt, are disguised statements from lived lives. There is hidden in the story of Eros and Psyche the longing for the ideal love: the eternal truth of love. The kind that moves and affects even the gods! But how are we to make of this ideal love when Venus or Aphrodite as goddess or as saint is perceived in different lights by diverse cultures? When there are as many myths and stories of love as there are individual experiences? When love, as an acronym, an abstract term can’t constitute itself for lack of unifying denominators? This impasse in thought had caused the postmodern to think erroneously that since there was not one altar for love, therefore there must be many. As such, bodies and languages were the two freest components of our existence. So we abused them. Promiscuities and obscenities were the direct results; the firebrands of this cause thought this was the meaning of life: rebellion and defiance against our own limitation! Now we can look back with a sneer at this thought. A more scientific and more thoughtful way of looking at the whole matter has been posited by more affirmative thinkers. There is no One, true, but the multiples are not necessarily dissembling into nothingness. The negative sign ¬ p can be converted into positive by simply adding ¬¬p. Therefore, nature is by itself positive. So is love. The trick is never to buy into the concept of two become one. But rather Two as the inevitable inscriptions in the arena of love; they are irreconcilable, because to love as in to live is not about aiming for the totality of the count, for that unreachable definitive term of love or life, but the recollections of every move in an endless counting. To move from one step to another step in the ascending ladder, as Plato’s Diotima tells us, is the way to eternal love.

A version of this article was published in Now Jakarta, February 2010