Nh. Dini's Modernity: An Essay by Laksmi Pamuntjak for the Asymptote Journal, Winter 2015

Laksmi's essay on the Indonesian writer Nh. Dini, translated by Tiffany Tsao, is published in the Winter 2015 issue of Asymptote

Nh. Dini's Modernity
(Laksmi Pamuntjak on Nh. Dini)

"Writers, as such [...] are under the greatest pressure. Whatever may befall them, their personal experience is also their people's experience, and their people's experience is also their personal experience. One portion, whether big or small, or the whole, will affect their writing and return to their people in the form of a new reality, a literary reality. The essence of fiction, because of this, is also the essence of history."

—Pramoedya Ananta Toer, "My Apologies in the Name of Experience"

It may serve us well to remember that all life outside the immense narratives of history is composed of the stories of average people, those that History with a capital "H" (with its panoptic gaze) often fails to capture. But "all writing," as Susan Sontag says, "is a species of remembering." And remembering is what the Indonesian writer Nurhayati Sri Hardini, better known as Nh. Dini, does particularly well. She lives it, is elevated by it, perhaps even feels saved by it.

There are, to be sure, different motives for and modes of remembering, but Nh. Dini never feels she needs to explain—much less apologize for—the autobiographical aspects of her work. Her first work, the short story collection Dua dunia (Two Worlds), where she states without qualm or pretense, "my writing contains more real life than fantasy," was published in 1956. But it was her novels, Pada sebuah kapal (On a Ship, 1973) and La Barka (1975), that won her recognition as a writer.

Her marriage to a French diplomat brought her to various corners of the globe: Japan, the Philippines, Cambodia, America, the Netherlands, France. In 1980, she returned to her homeland and now resides in Yogyakarta, Central Java. She was blessed with two children, though her marriage was an unhappy one.

For almost the entirety of her career, Nh. Dini wrote down and noted all that happened to her, to her world. These memoirs, later known cumulatively as the Seri cerita kenangan (Series of Recollections), were published after her most significant novel, Pada sebuah kapal, lodged her name in the firmament of the Indonesian literary scene. Sebuah lorong di kotaku (An Alley in My Town) tells of her childhood before school. Drawing its title from that same town—her birthplace—Sekayu (Sekayu) recounts her day-to-day life and that of her family's, from primary school to middle school. Her experiences as a married woman are covered in several works—Kemayoran (Kemayoran), Dari Parangakik ke Kampuchea (From Parangakik to Cambodia), Jepun negerinya Hiroko (Japan, Hiroko's Country), titles corresponding to the different parts of the world where they were stationed.

However, in the 2005 addition to the series, Dari Fontenay ke Magallianes (From Fontenay to Magallianes), Dini for the first time discloses the full extent of her relationship with "the captain," a mysterious lover whose comings and goings colored her life since her residence in Cambodia, two years after her marriage. (He also appeared in the earlier, fictional work Pada Sebuah Kapal.) "That man has become part of my life. Even though we will not meet for a long time, my self and my soul will never let him go," she writes. "He has taught me so many things. He has also restored my sense of self-worth: it is only proper that I be desired by a man like him, a man of the highest quality who possesses also a suitable gentleness in his attitude and behavior." In Dari Fontenay, the captain is named Bagus (derived, perhaps, from the phrase ayu bagus), while she goes by the moniker "Ayou."

An artist must be without a name, stresses W.H. Auden, noting that Shakespeare was "in the singularly fortunate position of being, to all intents and purposes, anonymous." Nh. Dini not only insists she has a name; she exists, flesh and blood. In fact, her popularity is not so much based on her fiction as on the series of books that contains her life story. Although no self could ever be wholly knowable to others—even when author and subject coincide—very few manage to affix their self onto the page as well as Dini, who often does so, shatteringly, overbearingly, selfishly.

And, many would say, for understandable reasons. For the book is also a lengthy tirade about her husband, someone she paints as stingy, ill-tempered, unable to respect his wife (much less his friends), and afflicted with multiple personality disorder. Dini even goes so far as to detail her husband raping her—an act which resulted in her pregnancy with a third child, whom she did not want. In the next installment of the series, La Grande Borne (2007), she continues to flesh out alarming instances of his abrasiveness and misogyny, such as when he screamed at her that she would be as fat as a pig if she still insisted on living alone, "sleeping and eating around the clock"—to which she claims to have responded calmly: "Despite being thus 'piggified,' I was still patient enough to respond, '[ . . . ] I will write! It seems you've forgotten you've married a writer.'"

In Dari Fontenay ke Magallianes, an exposé of sorts on a topic that also occurs elsewhere in her oeuvre, we see a melding together of several elements. First, Dini speaks in the fluid, straightforward style of a reporter—and an astute one at that; especially when she describes Paris, making an effort to teach Indonesians a little bit of its history: how in the Panthéon a writer may lie under the same roof as generals, presidents, and professors, and how this is material evidence of the esteem in which the French hold artists. How being someone's guest means being the guest of that person's entire family. She displays the same keen eye for life in the countryside and its many charms. Still, there is a certain distance for her that separates the narrator from her readers. It is as if Dini keeps us in a doorway looking in. This also proves to be her greatest asset, both as a writer and as a woman of the world: she opens our eyes to a realm that most of us could never enter.

Second, there are her oblique references to different time periods. We are often faced with sentences such as: "When I wandered the Latin Quarter in the sixties, there weren't many kiosks or crannies one could find serving food from Greece, Africa, or other foreign places." Though her memoir claims to cover her time in Paris in the sixties, this is not just a memoir. It is an intricately layered narrative that even extends forty decades prior: "From the seventeenth century to the time of my second residence in France, the number of universities in that hub of intellectualism continued to grow."

Third, Dini seems eager to draw the reader close through a lengthy outpouring of grief about the most private of matters, which functions as a compensation for the somewhat pedantic distance she keeps. This is apparent in her brusque introduction of the captain, without any build-up, without warning, as if only in passing. A fragment of a memory about the weather in southern France suddenly transforms into a memory of the collection of hats she has amassed with her captain during their moments together. And those moments together, it turns out, are certainly numerous: Hong Kong, Kobe, and several cities in Europe, including Marseille.

What I mean by her eagerness to draw the reader close is based on the relaxed and open tone of Dini's narrative; whoever is reading Dari Fontenay will at the very least know the key events of her life's history up to this point, because they are her devoted readers. At the same time, one gets a sense of how extraordinary Dini's self-confidence must be in order for her to build her career almost entirely on stories about herself. She expects other people to know about her life, and her readers to have faith in her as a human being, in her voice as a narrator, and in the version that she is presenting them.

A memoir is not merely the disclosure of facts about oneself, but also about other people's lives filtered through one singular perspective posing as "truth." And in many instances, those other people are still alive—with names, families, and futures. I do not think I need to regurgitate here the bitterness and aggression with which Dini exposes the negative details about her husband. First-person narration, with all its attendant good faith, is not just fraught with the lapses of memory, but also with unanticipated spells of vanity and self-righteousness, swift spasms of guilt, self-remorse, even self-pity, and sudden impulses of wanting to "set the record straight" (and to do so with gusto). All these ungovernable elements, as well as the absurd amorphousness of life itself, often lead to self-censorship and embellishment.

The "I" that we construct for others, even on paper (or perhaps especially), is never the whole, unadulterated "I." (In fact, is it ever?) The "I" that we create for others—however precisely recorded, however brutally rendered—is nonetheless re-created, transfigured. The medium—the memoir—may be an autonomous construct (even if this, itself, is a weak supposition, given that it also carries the weight of history, the imperatives of veracity), but the subject seldom is. And like the novelist, the autobiographer too, in the end, faces the challenges of storytelling. To quote Michael Cunningham in the accompanying note to his novel Specimen Days, autobiographers also "must decide what degree of slavish accuracy would make their stories more alive, and what degree would make them less." And like all of us—you and me—Dini too chooses which part of her life, of herself or of her emotional world she would lay bare.

In Dini's case, this would seem to be hatred.

Not that this memoir does not show us other aspects of Dini. For one, she is an extremely modern woman, in the sense that she is of a practical bent, skillful in household matters in the Western sense (i.e. no servants), capable of balancing work and family life.

She is also modern in another vital respect: her sexuality. She does not feel that there is anything illegitimate, much less wrong, about the idea of an affair; it is excused by the fact that there is no love lost between her and her husband. Yet, she also speaks of sex with a candor so staggering, as something that does not need to be covered up or be ashamed about. It is something that can be at once terrifying and intoxicating, addictive and liberating, and, more importantly, an integral part of life. One also gets the impression that the lurid, often unnecessarily lengthy, details of her lovemaking (far more graphic than those in her earlier novels) in Dari Fontenay may have been the result of the far more liberal literary climate in Indonesia—one that has become intimately associated with the efforts of female writers of the 1990s and the new millennium, such as Ayu Utami and Djenar Maesa Ayu. But one also cannot help but sense that her gratuitous detail is also a point of pride for her, the vanguardist writer, who broke new ground in matters of sex and sexuality long before Ayu Utami's Saman was published in 1998.

The modern person, says Walter Benjamin, is someone who chooses, who is always positioning him or herself as a subject. Dini chooses to live with her husband and to have an affair with the captain, who we eventually learn is a Frenchman. Dini is modern because she is—or insists on appearing—unsentimental, even about the mysterious lover who has made her so happy. And she is unwilling to hang herself over a man. There is a stoic attitude about her person, whether as a mask to hide her real feelings or as a revelation of her true character.

She rarely mentions her lover outside the space she has allocated specifically for their private moments. When she is recounting life away from her lover, she evokes no grumblings, no incriminating memories of their affair. There is no, heaven forbid, oppressive longing. She is just as guiltless and imperturbable leaving her husband and children to pass two weeks with the captain in Marseille as she is when leaving her beloved Bagus to return to her duties. The ease and economy with which she conveys such things, as though she were merely reciting a bus timetable, are quite astonishing, for here is a Javanese woman who in many instances still acts and thinks in keeping with her orthodox Javanese upbringing—one that puts much value on gentleness, self-restraint, obedience, passive acceptance, submission to one's husband—but is also capable of compartmentalizing herself and her feelings (compartmentalization being an ability more readily attributed to men than to women). Here is a woman who is doubly modern because she not only chooses; she also lives—at least on the page—with few regrets.

Again, we will never know how much of her true self Dini was unwilling to express, or how much of her careful attempt at constructing her self-image fell victim, unexpectedly, to the paradoxes of the genre in which she wrote—auto-fiction, with its capacity to simultaneously empower and disenfranchise its subject. Or, perhaps, the inconsistencies themselves are the point; we are, therefore we hate and love.

And so we find a Dini who is full of contradictions. For every Dini who is filled with rage, we find a Dini full of consideration: she hates her husband and considers all the intimate details of that hatred fit to tell the public, yet when she must tell her lover of her pregnancy, she hesitates. "In Javanese there is a term, dora sembadha (a white lie)," writes Dini. "I do not want to bring shame to the man to whom I am married." For every Dini to whom material fulfillment seems secondary to self-pride and happiness—"I must take this all in my stride, because no matter what, I do not want to burden my Captain," morally or materially—we find a Dini who sees no need in masking her joy at being lavished with gifts: "Ever since we have been together, every time we meet, he never forgets to supply me with a lot of money. As for the other presents from him, they are so numerous they are impossible to count." And for every Dini who puts up with her husband because she is financially dependent on him for the care of their children (and is therefore moved by her lover's desire to move in together and adopt her unborn third child), we find a Dini who expresses gratitude while at the same time retreating in a manner most Javanese: "Although they are only fantasies, with no guarantee of transpiring, my heart is as if it has swollen several fold with happiness."

At this point, I offer that her novel Pada sebuah kapal, which tells of women who suffer at the hands of men, more easily achieves these ends than the series of recollections. Its freedom of non-ambivalence and consistency in fact is one of the distinguishing differences between auto-fiction and autobiography.

Third-person narration, unlike a personal memoir, is capable of creating the illusion that that story is occurring now, at this moment. Meanwhile, a memoir must be about the past. To tell a story is to re-tell it. And it is at these moments—these fundamentally ethical moments—that the memoirist becomes susceptible to error in varying forms and degrees: incomplete recollections, the distance that blurs the past and the present, the unreadability of the human soul, the biases that make us human, the limitations of language, the overriding ambition to secure a truth to the point that the act of recovering a memory, however unreliable, becomes an end in itself.

This is not to say, however, that Dini's memoirs mislead us—unwittingly or otherwise—into seeing only the parts of herself she wants us to see. Yet her hatred of men so consumed her at what she deemed the most critical juncture of her life that it limited her work almost entirely to men and all that revolved around them. During this period, she was increasingly incapable of "seeing" the worlds outside her own, much less her home country beyond its superficialities. What is more, she seemed barely aware of what was happening to Indonesia in those volatile years—the sixties of social and political turmoil, the seventies of festering wounds, the eighties of growing discontent, the nineties of cultural eruption—or perhaps she merely chose to look the other way.

Or perhaps, to go with a more generous reading, she was simply opting for something else.

A friend—a fellow writer with a rich inner life—once told me it is the choices that chain, not the life. "Whatever the order and propriety of one's formal existence," he said, "with homes and mortgages and family and other loved ones, one must maintain a room unchained; even if it is only a head full of books, a longing for a loved city, the quieter wildness of what one could have been (Arcadia) or might yet be (Utopia)." For Nh. Dini, who for the most part is her own hero, subject, and center, her "room unchained" was the space she afforded in her life and thoughts for France and the captain. Hers is a life that most fiction could only have dreamed up. 

translated from the Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao