On June 28, 2019 | 0 Comments

At the end of watching a feature film, it forever amazes me how many people are included in the film’s end credits. First there are the ATL (above-the-line) individuals who are accorded stand-alone credits; then, the numerous people in the production and post-production departments; and, finally, song credits, caterers and so on. I’ve often thought of doing something similar in the books that I have produced: listing in the end pages, like rolling credits, the many people involved in its production, not just the “ATLs” but the many other hands whose assistance was needed to bring the manuscript to print.


Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925–2006) is frequently cited as the most prominent author in the history of modern Indonesian literature. From the publication of his first novel, Perburuan (The Fugitive) in 1950 up until 1965, he was, indeed, a leading literary light and many of the titles he produced in this period are reading musts. But then in 1965 he was silenced, exiled to Buru Island as a political prisoner, and his voice was not heard again until after his release in 1979 and the publication of Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) in 1980. For his impressive literary record, Pramoedya deserved the many awards he came to received. Too rarely acknowledged, however, are the hands that helped to make this possible, chief among them, Joesoef Isak.

The Latin word “manu” means hand and is the source of the word “manuscript” i.e., a text written by hand. The phrase “servus a manu” translates loosely as “a slave with secretarial duties” and in the 17th century the second part of this phrase was reconfigured in English as “amanuensis” to mean a person who unselfishly does the important but sometimes menial work of transcribing the words of another. This was the role that Joesof Isak played for Pramoedya and for Indonesian letters as a whole.

Born in Jakarta in 1928, Joesoef Isak started his professional life as a journalist during the war for independence. In 1959 he was elected to serve as chairman of the Jakarta branch of the Indonesian Journalists Association, in which position he attended international conferences organized by the Asia-Africa Journalists’ Association. Eventually he became the secretary-general of AAJA, a position he held until October 1965 when the Sukarno government was overthrown and soon followed by mass killings and the arrest of anyone associated with the Indonesian Communist Party.

Known for his left-wing leanings, Joesoef was detained and released several times until 1968 when he was arrested and imprisoned without trial for ten years. Unlike the 12,000 prisoners who were exiled to the remote Buru Island penal colony, Joesoef spent his years of incarceration in Salemba Prison, Jakarta. As a journalist and editor who had visited Communist countries, he was categorized as a Class A prisoner, persons the Soeharto regime viewed as posing a far-greater threat than the lower-category prisoners who were sent to Buru Island.

Joesoef was released in 1977 and worked as a translator until two years later he reconnected with former fellow journalist, Hasyim Rachman, who introduced him to Pramoedya Ananta Toer, both of whom had just returned to Jakarta from Buru. Despite a ban on the employment of former political prisoners in the publishing industry these three pariahs decided to establish Hasta Mitra, a publishing house whose focus would be the publication of books by former political prisoners. (“Hasta Mitra,” incidentally, means “hands of friendship” in Sanskrit.)

Today, the establishment of Hasta Mitra and the publication of the titles it come to produce might be viewed as simple acts of freedom of expression. At that time, however, they were acts of great courage and defiance against the militaristic Soeharto regime.


In December 1979, after three years in Indonesia, I returned to the U.S. to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Michigan. While there, I was invited by Cornell University to come to Ithaca, New York, to speak on recent developments in Indonesian literature. I stayed at the home of Benedict Anderson whom I had first met several five years previously. Those days with “Ben” were ones of intense discussion and he insisted that upon my return to Indonesia after completion of my M.A. that I meet with Joesoef Isak.

Because of Ben’s correspondence with Joesoef, when I came back to Indonesia in 1981 and ventured to Joesoef’s home, he knew more about me than I did of him—but thus began our friendship.

Over the coming years, I often visited Joesoef at his home on Duren Tiga and my admiration for him only grew as he gradually related for me his life story; reconstructed the works that Pramoedya had written on Buru; edited the books that Pramoedya compiled after his release; and brought back into print all of Pramoedya’s earlier work. This is when I learned the true meaning of amanuensis and unselfishness.

Despite the government’s banning of the titles by Pramoedya that Joesoef published and the financial burden that this created, Joesoef toiled on and edited, not only work by Pramoedya, but an impressive number of other titles as well—most all of which were intended to reclaim the narrative of Indonesian history that the Soeharto government had subverted and rewritten. His goal, Joesoef said to me, was to educate young readers in how to think for themselves. His generation had failed the country, Joesoef stated, and the only hope for Indonesia’s future was a free-thinking younger generation.

Joesoef continue to pursue this goal until the end of his days in 2009. In his later years he did begin to become recognized internationally for his own hard work and not just the work he did for others. In 2004, he received the Jeri Laber Freedom to Publish Award from American PEN; in 2005, the Keneally Award from Australian PEN; and, in 2008, the title of “Chevalier de l’Order des Arts et des Lettres” from the French government. Joesoef himself abjured awards but admitted that he liked the parties that went with them as they usually involved a generous flow of red wine. I raise a toast to Bung Joesoef and to the many other amanuenses whose hands have helped to script a better future for this country.


Photo credit: A 1999 photograph of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Hasyim Rachman, and Joesoef Isak.