The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, June 17, 2007


© Duncan Graham 2007

She's one of Indonesia's most prolific short-story writers with more than 300 published. Plus novels, poetry and a basket full of articles. For these she's collected several awards. When she's not writing she's pushing social and cultural causes.

All this makes Ratna Indraswari Ibrahim worthy of respect; add to this her work practices.

For Ratna is severely crippled and cannot write or use a keyboard; all her stories have to be dictated and transcribed. Duncan Graham met the determined author at her home in Malang, East Java.

While the interviews for this story were being conducted Malang was gripped by a bizarre family tragedy. A young Mum who seems to have suffered emotional, domestic and financial problems – and was clearly mentally unbalanced -poisoned her four children, then herself.

Adding to the tragedy is that the mother (ironically named Mercy) used her handphone to video the deaths of her youngsters. She then arranged their bodies neatly on the bed before committing suicide. The local media published the pictures.

Don't bother ploughing through newspaper archives for more details – just wait for Ratna's next story.

"I'm thinking about it," she said. "The seed is definitely there. I have to get my ideas from newspapers and books. It's not easy getting around."

But she does, and has already visited Australia, the US (where she had leadership training), and China. In some places mobility has been simpler than in her homeland. In many Western nations pavements should be smooth and level, and public buildings must have wheelchair-access ramps and wide doors for the physically challenged.

Ratna has been campaigning for similar laws in Indonesia for decades. Back in 1994 she was given a national award by then President Soeharto for her agitation on behalf of the disabled – arguing that the public should see the person, not the problem, and that all citizens have the right to use public space.

But architects and town planners largely remain unconcerned with the plight of Indonesia's handicapped; the legislation is still not in place, ensuring the disabled usually stay indoors.

"I should start a political party," a frustrated Ratna grumbled as an aside. "There are ten million disabled voters in Indonesia. Maybe then the lawmakers would start to pay attention."

It's not just the indifference of politicians that keeps the crippled out of sight. To have a child who is labeled abnormal is often regarded as a curse, proof to the superstitious that the family has committed some grave sin.

Fortunately for Ratna her parents - who came from Padang in West Sumatra, a region with a reputation for practising heavy-duty Islam - were open minded, progressive and liberal,

"I was born in 1949 and had a good and happy childhood," she said. "I could swim and loved playing outside. I was considered to be a tomboy."

When she was about ten tragedy struck. At first it was thought she'd contracted poliomyelitis, though later diagnoses indicate it may be rickets, a disease that softens bones. Whatever the cause, she lost the use of her limbs and has had to rely on others for her daily needs.

"For the first five years or so I was very angry – particularly with God because everyone else in the family was so fit," she said. "All my five sisters were beautiful. However I think I've only written one story expressing that anger – and I can't remember the title.

"My mother, Siti Bidasari, died only five years ago. She lived long enough to see and enjoy her daughter's success. I'm not trying to be immodest, but she was very proud of me.

"When I was young she told me: 'You cannot walk, but you can write. Not everyone who walks can write. You will do much more than other people because God has given you brains to use.'

"It's true that I may not have become a writer if I hadn't been disabled. I love plants and all living things, and I wanted to become a farmer.

"God made me like this so I could be writer. Originally I wrote for myself – and to please my parents, to show them that I could do other things. I didn't want them crying because I was sick."

The home environment was ideal. Dad, Saleh Ibrahim was fluent in numerous languages, an idealistic lawyer who quit his profession over issues of principle to become a businessman. The family did well - it owned a major cinema and the house was full of books. If it was a toss up between spending on haberdashery or hardbacks the novels usually won.

It was also a remarkably tolerant environment. Young Ratna was sent to a Christian school, liked some of the rituals and asked her parents if they could celebrate Christmas with a tree. They agreed – and they didn't prohibit her from talking to the prostitutes at a nearby brothel.

"I was taught not to see people for their faults," she said, "but to look at their characters piece-by-piece." It's a quality she has taken into her literature.

Mum was an admirer of intellectual and diplomat Agus Salim who also came from Padang. He was one of the founders of modern Indonesia and a writer of the Constitution who stressed the value of education.

While other kids were running the streets, kicking balls and testing the limits of their bodies and the physical environment, Ratna was exploring the limitless world of imagination.

She was exposed to the works of Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy, Alexandre Dumas and others. Her parents would suggest books she might like – including Karl Marx's manifesto Das Kapital. This was before Soeharto introduced a ban on all works by communists.

"My parents said they would stand by me and visit me in jail if I decided to join the PKI (communist party), but they'd disown me if I was imprisoned for corruption," she said.

She didn't become a Red, but Marx influenced her to consider the plight of the poor, marginalized and dispossessed – the people who now feature in her stories.

Ratna went to Malang's Brawijaya University where her friends had to carry her up stairs to lectures. She wanted to learn more about human psychology but lost interest and channeled her energies into writing and activism.

For 13 years she chaired a Non-Government Organization (NGO) for disabled people, then founded an NGO concerned with environmental issues. She also works for Yayasan Kebudayaan Panjoeng, a cultural foundation to stimulate and preserve local history and the arts.

Her once secluded 93-year old home in central Malang is now overshadowed by a hotel on one side, and a high school on the other. When prayers and public announcements are made on what must be East Java's most raucous and deafening sound system, the mind hibernates for self-protection.

It hardly seems the ideal environment for creativity, but Ratna resting on a bed in her library while she structures her next sentence to be transcribed by secretary and poet Ragil Sukriwul, doesn't seem to mind. She has many visitors who bring her stories that may eventually find a way into her work.

Then there are the students seeking the magic elixir: 'Please tell me how to write.' Ratna's answer is blunt and direct: "Just do it!" So what sort of courses should they take? "Education is not the same as intelligence."

Relationships between the sexes are a major theme in her stories, with situations growing out of male domination of women in a society that's overwhelmingly dogmatic and masculine, and often violent.

Her female characters are usually semi-urban Muslims struggling with life and injustice, battling to raise families while maintaining a sense of self-worth. Their situations are real. Her popularity depends on her readers identifying with the characters and their daily lives. Surprisingly many of her admirers are men.

There are two main streams of women's literature in Indonesia, the traditional romantic novel (love lit) and the new kid on the shelves, sastra wangi (literally 'perfumed writing') but known elsewhere as chick lit.

Ratna rejects both as "pop writing". Despite her distaste she recognizes that the boom in sastra wangi featuring metropolitan teens coming to grips with their sexuality is encouraging young women to learn more about their bodies, human nature and the world they've inherited. "Better read than gossip," she conceded.

The success of these novelettes (check the number of titles in your nearest bookstore) clearly shows there's a great need among curious youngsters constrained by culture and imposed taboos. But it's the open discussion of sex that worries the 58-year old author.

"Sex belongs to God," she said. "It's a matter between two souls, it's not an issue that should be discussed in the open, or treated as vulgar which is how it's handled by men."

She lumps feminism into the same category because of the stress on sex – though in a Western reading of her work she is clearly a feminist writer striving to empower.

The traditional romantic novel is given the flick because it reinforces what Ratna calls the 'Cinderella complex'. This has a passive young woman waiting for some bloke to rescue her from hardships, then transport her to an abode of bliss. How he's constructed this is of no concern to author or reader.

In this genre the woman does little more than hang around, braid her locks, keep her legs together till marriage and look enchanting. She doesn't have to use her initiative or generate ideas. In fact any outburst of intelligence would probably frighten away Mr Right who has a fixation on body, not brains.

Sadly, claims Ratna, Indonesia is an "autistic country." Most women still believe in the Cinderella fantasy, even as they pummel clothes in streambeds, hump water up hills and fall pregnant too early and too often to male chauvinists.

She also attacks public perceptions of Islam as a religion that oppresses women. "People confuse culture with religion," she said. "Islam protects women's rights. It's the culture that creates the role of women in society.

"I want my readers to think about women, how they are treated, to understand their fate. I want to talk humanity – not feminism or individualism and selfishness.

"Our keraton (Javanese regal) culture promotes mutual support. Human beings were created to help each other. Readers will get what they want from my books."

(First published in the SundayPost 17 June 07)##


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