Lan Fang: ChickLit to TrueLit
After Soeharto fell in 1998 there was a great opening of bottom drawers.
Writers who had previously kept their manuscripts for trusted friends’ eyes only, suddenly found the courage to seek a wider market.
Publishers, no longer throttled by harsh censorship, responded with enthusiasm – particularly welcoming women daring to break the taboos of discussing sex.
Sastra wangi, literally perfumed literature though better known as ChickLit, was born. It flourished briefly and rapidly withered. Many writers were one-book wonders, exhausted once they’d put down the naughty words, challenged authority and experienced catharsis.
Separating the women from the girls was Surabaya writer Lan Fang who died from cancer on Christmas Day in Singapore leaving a legacy of nine books and scores of short stories written over 26 years. Her mother and grandmother died of the same disease. She was only 41 and still had much to say, according to her friends.
“Her talents for narration, creativity in character and character delineation were also great,” said Budi Darma, the elder statesman of modern Indonesian literature and emeritus professor at the University of Surabaya.
“She was not only prolific and a fast writer; at the same time she succeeded in maintaining the quality.”
Malang artist and author Bambang Adrian Wenzer met Lan Fang five years ago and helped illustrate some of her work. Bambang, who also has Chinese ancestry, found the strength to paint freely once the New Order government had passed.
“Lan was one of the few Chinese women in Indonesia who immersed herself into the world of art, particularly literature,” he said. “She was proudly Chinese and at the same time a committed Indonesian patriot.
“She was able to move across the class, race and religious divide, mixing with intellectuals, leaders and businessmen, then moving among ordinary people, and always keen to learn.
“She taught creative writing in pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) and energetically supported (former president Abdurrahman Wahid) Gus Dur. But above all she fought for quality literature and women to be treated as equals.”
Interviewed for The Jakarta Post in 2007 (see October 2007 post on this blog) the electric Lan Fang expressed her concern about Indonesian writers trying to make a living solely from their craft.
She was particularly annoyed that men preferred to spend money on tobacco rather than books. At the same time she had sympathy for the poor. "People are also so busy, with both parents working," she said. "Many genuinely don't have time to read."
She was born Go Lan Fang in Banjarmasin, South Borneo, refusing to take an Indonesian name at a time when the government was cracking down on the Chinese. She had her first short story published in the teen magazine Anita Cemerlang (Clever Anita) when she was 16, but this success had a downside.
Professor Darma said it took Lan Fang years to shake off the stigma of being a pop writer
“The public should judge individual writers based on the quality of their works,” he said. “Many of her short stories and novels are great indeed.”
Lan Fang went to a Catholic school, and then graduated in law from the University of Surabaya. Instead of practising she chose to try and make a living from her laptop.
This didn’t mean crouching over a keyboard. She was always busy in public, taking her activism seriously and seeking direct contact with life, from high-level functions to mixing with the masses, using public transport to get around.
In 2010 she wrote a piece for Kompas about the Suramadu Bridge between Surabaya with Madura. She started by seeing it as a spiritual and physical link bringing the island people closer, a metaphor for unity, but reality got in the way.
During a long cramped trip on a bus without a toilet she chatted with a poor young student and discovered the beautiful, gleaming bridge, pride of the province, had made little impact on ordinary folk. Madura, despite the politicians’ promises, remained underdeveloped and journeys had been only marginally shortened.
When a Sidoarjo hospital banned staff from wearing headscarves, Lan Fang came to the defence of women’s rights, cutting to the heart of the issue: Attitude, not attire.
She was reported as saying: “Although I’m a non-Muslim, I was happy when I was cared for by a medical attendant who was wearing a headscarf because she was kind and professional.”
In 2007 she was nominated for the Khatulistiwa Award for Lelakon (shadow play story). In the following two years her short stories were selected for the Sastra Pena Kencana Award.
Her output included Reinkarnasi (Reincarnation), 2003, Pai Yin, 2004, Laki-Laki Yang Salah (The Wrong Man), 2006 and Ciuman di Bawah Hujan (A Kiss in the Rain) 2010.
At the launch of this last book she said she wrote in a trance for five months; “I cried a lot watching the practise of politics in this country,” she told Antara news agency. “When writing I was divided by three emotions, anger, pain and sadness … now I find little political news worth reading.”
Little is publicly known about her private life. She had triplet daughters but kept silent on personal matters, being more interested in issues of State and art. An individualist she dressed casually, arousing comment in a culture where women are supposed to be clotheshorses. Writing was more important than wardrobe.
Although exploring the unfairness of laws and cultural practices, she rejected the feminist label, seeing it as too restrictive. Her other themes were pluralism and the need to cross social, cultural and religious barriers.
“In the beginning of her comeback, the majority of her short stories were written based on her personal experiences,” said Professor Darma. “The characters were her own friends and acquaintances.
“Bit by bit, however, she moved from true reality into more imaginative worlds, so that by reading her short stories, it’s as if the reader feels he or she is no longer in Lan Fang’s personal life. She kept the distance between the narrator and the author herself as the creator of the narrator.
“Her contribution is significant, and yet, because she passed away too young, she was unable to make use of all her energies to contribute more to Indonesian literature.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 4 Jan 2012)