Text & Photos: Stefano Romano
On 10 October was presented in Rome the Italian translation of the book “Tarian Bumi” (“La danza della terra” – The dance of the earth, Asiasphere) by the writer Oka Rusmini and the Italian translator Antonia Soriente, Associate Professor of Indonesian Language and Literature at the University of Naples “L’Orientale”, at the end of a short promotional tour in Italy preceded by the cities of Milan and Naples. The book was presented in a note bookstore at the presence of the Staff KBRI – Rome, and it was a good opportunity to talk with the writer and the translator about a book that is considered one of the pillars of Indonesian literature, and that already boasts translations in English, French, German, Swedish and Korean. This translation, as Prof. Antonia Soriente said as a premise, was made possible thanks to Translation Funding Program of the Ministry of Education and Culture of the Indonesian Government, and due to which the writer will be invited to represent Indonesia, along with many other authors, at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015 from 14 to 17 October, where Indonesia is the Guest of Honour: namely, one of the most important moment for Indonesia in publishing worldwide.
The book, certainly known to many Indonesians, published in 2000 but came out for the first time as a serialized tale published in 1995, it takes place in Bali and tells the story of Telega, a woman of thirty years old, through four generations of women. Telega is a Brahmana, a noblewoman does not accept to passively observe the customary rules, but rather she wants become a good dancer and marrying a Sudras man, the lowest caste, even though this goes against the system and traditions. It’s a book that fits, and it has indeed given the start, to the literary tradition post-Suharto in 1998, the Reformasi, characterized by women writers who told also in a such brave and sensual way, the problems of women and their sexuality, and because this it was called “fragrant literature” (sastrawangi).
Actually Oka Rusmini, born in Jakarta but of Balinese origins and belonging at the highest caste of Brahmana, was born as a journalist and wrote a lot of books (ten), poems and short stories, and she has always been attentive to the issue of women, and especially to tell the true reality of Bali. Because, as she says, there is a lot of foreign literature about Bali but the native and the original one is not much, and that’s what prompted her to tell about that no one wanted to see, especially in regard to the conditions of Balinese women.
At first she had thought of articles or most serious and journalistic book but this would make the issue less intriguing and more boring, while the idea of writing a fiction, though based on true facts, would make it accessible to a greater number of people. Because the intent of Oka was precisely to tell a Bali that broke the western anthropological, aesthetic and literary stereotype of a Paradise inhabited by exotic and beautiful young smiling women, favorite destination for tourists from around the world, which has created local problems to her because, obviously, she was going to undermine a continuous source of tourism for the Indonesian government. And, on the other side, make open the eyes to true status of women in Bali, chained to the strict rules of the caste of Hindu matrix, which is the sign of the local gender discrimination, it was instead enraged the Balinese themselves.
But not women. Because Oka, as women, speaks to women and for the women, and not only those of Bali, because as she says: “It’s a book that was born to talk about the problems of Balinese women, but at last it tells the discriminatory problems of all women, in Indonesia and in the world”. And she does, it in the first place, removing by her name as author Ida Ayu that makes her immediately recognizable as belonging at the real noble Brahman caste, just to avoid being obsequiously homage or intimidated; and then she married a famous Muslim poet from Jakarta. Countercurrent from every point of view. As she says it’s a short book, but inside there are all the problems of women: their bodies, their culture and religion.
The body as a place of all social and cultural conflicts (from pure sociological and feminist stamp), to tell also about unconventional forms of love, as the female homosexual attraction. Very strong topic in a country like Indonesia, in fact she says: “When you write about religion and sexuality, in Indonesia, you will always have problems”. But she does not care and she has dealt with this risk, because the only thing she had at heart was to tell the true condition of Balinese woman, which is the same of all the women in Indonesia. And to those who ask her if it’s true that now women seem more free and emancipated, she says with a half smile, that actually now they seem more slaves, subjugated to the Western aesthetics and to the world of cosmetics who wants them all with white skins and bursting breasts. For Oka this is a central theme: the feminist idea that women with their body are egalitarian is an illusion, they continue to be subordinate; more than a place of freedom the body is a place of imprisonment. That’s why to the metropolitan Indonesian women victims of the Western cosmetics she prefers the raw and strong beauty of Balinese bricklayers women carrying stones on their heads.
Oka claims the absolutely sincere spirit of this book, with which she could easily get rich, because she has had many offers to make a film or television fiction, but she always refused: she is not interested in wealth, but only to tell how Bali can be ruthless against women, to document this social problem and try to change the status quo. That’s why the thing that makes she happiest is that her book became the subject of thesis in many universities in Indonesia.
So, a writer who has devoted her cause in the fight against gender discrimination, always on the side of women, because as she writes in a moment of her book:
“Alangkah dinginnya bumi kalau hanya berisi laki-laki”
“As the Earth would have been cold if it had been occupied only by men”