I didn’t realize it at the time but, in 1980 when the Pustaka Jaya publishing house of Jakarta released the bilingual collection of women’s poetry, A Taste of Betel and Lime (Seserpih Pinang Sepucuk Sirih), this was a historic moment for Indonesian women authors. No such a book had ever been published before. The book, sponsored by Nelly Malik (wife of Adam Malik, who was vice president at the time) and illustrated with work by nine prominent women artists, brought together under one cover 78 poems by 19 women authors whose date of creation—the poems, that is!—ranged from the 1930s to the 1970s.
I was the translator of this publication but the book was the brainchild of Toeti Heraty, a remarkable woman who has spent much of her life promoting the advancement of women, especially in fields of arts and letters. As an educator who holds a master’s degree in psychology and a doctorate in philosophy; a feminist who founded Jurnal Perempuan, the first Indonesian feminist journal; and an arts activist who promotes the arts through the gallery she founded and an arts journal she funds, Toeti holds high respect for historical memory especially in the field of culture which provides creative sustenance for a nation’s growth.
In mid-June of this year, on the first day of Idul Fitri, I visited Toeti to pay her my respects. I was not the only visitor to Toeti’s house, of course—there were a number of people I hadn’t met before—and, as is often the case in Indonesia when introductions are made, a requisite component of the initial conversation is the five Ws of journalism: “who, what, when, where, why.” This meant that Toeti and I had to relate for those people who did not know me the story of who I was to her, what I do, as well as when, where, and why we first met. So it was we talked that day about A Taste of Betel and Lime and laughed together at the memory of how long it took our correspondence to reach each other (in those days before the internet) with Toeti at her office in Jakarta and I in my apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I was pursuing my master’s degree in Southeast Asian Studies.
Prompted by that conversation, after the Idul Fitri holidays when I returned to work I went to Lontar’s library to pursue the book that first brought Toeti and I together. I opened the dog-eared cover, skimmed the table of contents, studied the color reproductions of paintings by women artists, and scanned those early translations of mine (many of which I found to be grievously wanting both in style and form). With its jacket, unique size (21 x 21 cm), and printed in full color, the book looked more like a “coffee-table” book than a collection of poetry. It was apparent that much time and thought had gone into the book: the book and its contents were meant to be remembered and safeguarded, not merely consumed and discarded. The book was a tangible item of historical memory.
I then took a look at the list of authors whose work was included in the publication: Agnes Arswendo, Bibsy Soenharjo, Dwiarti Mardjono, Hamidah, Isma Sawitri, Joellia, Koentari, M. Poppy Hutagalung, Maria Amin, Nursjamsu, S. Rukiah, Sabarjati, Samiati Alisjahbana, Selasih, Sitti Nuraini, Soegijarti, Sri Kusdyantinah, Toeti Heraty, and Walujati.
I list all the names of the poets because I would now like to posit the question of who among these authors are remembered today. Which of these women’s work is still available and being read by readers today? If I were to ask the average Indonesian reader which names he/she could identify, I wager that the answer might be only Toeti Heraty herself who continues to be an active force in Indonesia today and, possibly, S. Rukiah and Selasih as well, whose novels Lontar has published. Except by these authors’ heirs, families, and friends, I suspect that the names of the other authors would draw a blank stare. As to their literary work, I doubt if the average reader would be able to name a single title. The sadness of this fact is somewhat assuaged by the knowledge that because of A Taste of Beauty and Lime, at least a small portion of these authors’ creative output will forever remain accessible to readers, at least those with the tenacity to search.
And I guess it is this, too, why I continue to believe in the importance of publishing—of putting thoughts, ideas, and concepts into the printed and translated words, the building blocks of historical memory upon which a culture is based.