Ruminations by John McGlynn: Waiting for a Teeuw
On November 29, 2018 | 0 Comments

Andries “Hans” Teeuw was born in the Netherlands in 1921 and came to study in Indonesia in 1947. With the country in chaos and the Dutch military trying to forcibly regain the “East Indies” as a colony, I have no idea why any sane young man would have willingly come to Yogyakarta to study but that he did. Maybe, as happened to me decades later, something attracted him about the country and kept him in its thrall because, after Teeuw graduated with a doctorate in literature from Utrecht University, he came back to Jakarta to teach Malay literature at the University of Indonesia. While there, he published his first book on Indonesian literature, Voltooid Voorspel (Completed Prelude) which, over time, led to the 1967 publication of the first volume of his masterwork, Modern Indonesian Literature.

I initially came across the name of this man as a junior in college, when I switched universities from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where I had been studying theater and design, to U.W. Madison where I enrolled in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies.

I was a puppeteer—or at least trying to become one—and, in preparation for my planned study of wayang kulit in Yogya, I pledged to first immerse myself in all things Indonesian: hence, the move to Madison, site of one of the country’s leading centers for Southeast Asian Studies. Starting with a ten-week intensive Indonesian language program in the summer of 1974, this was followed by a frenetic 16 months, in which I crammed the equivalent of four years of language study as well as numerous classes on Indonesian history, geography, and culture.

I became very familiar with Andries Teeuw (or his work, rather) in 1975 when I embarked on a two-semester tutorial on Indonesian literature. As Modern Indonesian Literature was the only somewhat comprehensive study of Indonesian literature in English at the time, it was obligatory reading—the bible for a student in the field. Unfortunately, the U.W. library did not have a single copy in its holdings and I was forced to order this expensive hard-cover book from KITLV, the Dutch publisher. It was an investment I have never regretted.

In the course of those two semesters, I virtually memorized Teeuw’s book though, admittedly, at least at first, I had a terrible time getting my tongue around some of the author’s names: Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana, Soewarsih Djojopoespito, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Achidat Karta Mihardha, and Harijadi S. Hartowardojo, to name but a handful. And though I now disagree with Teeuw’s premise that modern Indonesian literature began in 1920, the book provided me, the neophyte that I was, with an easy-to-grasp encapsulation of the important authors and significant trends in Indonesian literature between 1920 and 1967. (Teeuw later came to publish a second volume, this one taking the reader up to 1977.)

It was first in Modern Indonesian Literature but then later, after I had achieved fluency in Indonesian and was able to read the literary works discussed therein, that I came to see what an important role Indonesian writers had played in the creation of the Indonesian nation. What I found amazing was the vibrancy of the literature, something that became especially evident in the versatility of Indonesian writers who, from the past to the present, have maintained a consistent ability not only to cross literary genres but to step outside the safe world of the office, library, and reading room to work in the street and use the power of the word to shape public opinion.

Photo Courtesy KITLV

But now back to me…. When I entered the Southeast Asian Studies program in Madison, I had no thought of becoming an “Indonesianist,” much less a translator of Indonesian literature. I was going to be a puppeteer! It never passed my mind that I would end up spending most of the years of my adult life working in the field of Indonesian literature. What happened?

In 1976, after my arrival in Indonesia, where I first studied advanced Indonesian in Malang, the Ministry of Education cancelled my Fulbright scholarship to study wayang kulit in Yogya. Thus, with very few funds but with the background knowledge I had obtained from Teeuw’s Modern Indonesian Literature, I enrolled in the Faculty of Language and Literature at the University of Indonesia instead. There, I studied beneath Boen Oemarjati, a student of Professor Teeuw’s, and Sapardi Djoko Damono, a friend of the professor, who encouraged me to pursue my study of Indonesian literature.

Thus, to make a long story short, had it not been for Teeuw’s pioneering scholarship on Indonesian literature and the publication of Modern Indonesian Literature, I would never have enrolled at the University of Indonesia; Lontar would not have come into existence; and the hundreds of texts that Lontar has produced over the years would most likely remain untranslated.

Teeuw finished his work on the second volume of Modern Indonesian Literature in 1977. As such, we now we have a gap of more than 40 years in the history of this country’s literature, a period of great change and remarkable developments in the field. I am now waiting for another Teeuw to appear. How long will we have to wait for that Teeuw?

John McGlynn