Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Descriptions of Female Sexuality in Ayu Utami's Saman

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Descriptions of Female Sexuality in Ayu Utami's Saman

Article excerpt

Written by Ayu Utami, a young female Indonesian, Saman: Fragmen dari novel Laila tak mampir di New York (Saman: A fragment of the novel Laila didn't drop by New York) was published in 1998. (1) The winner of a literary competition held by the Jakarta Arts Council in the same year, the novel is about an ex-priest named Saman, and four women--Laila, Shakuntala, Yasmin and Cok--all of whom are in their early thirties. Saman describes women's sexuality openly, a factor which caused some controversy in Indonesia. The novel, however, is not merely a discussion of female sexuality, it also addresses issues relating to religion (especially Christianity), as well as political and social injustice during the New Order period. Nonetheless, it is the descriptions of female sexuality that have received the most attention, as well as controversial and mixed responses from critics.

Some critics have applauded the explicit descriptions of sexuality in Saman, claiming them as a means of 'talking back' and/or challenging patriarchal authorities in Indonesia. Some senior and well-known Indonesian writers, however, have alleged that the novel is an example of the increasing Westernisation of Indonesian culture, arguing that it represents a betrayal of Indonesian national identity in that it borders upon being gratuitous pornography. By considering two of the female characters in this novel, Laila and Shakuntala, this article will discuss how the contemporary debate regarding depictions of sexuality in the novel has failed to appreciate the complex post-colonial situation of these characters.

The reception of Saman: Sexuality in Indonesian literature

Saman was published a few weeks before the fall of Suharto in May 1998. In the wake of its publication the works of several other female Indonesian authors, such as Djenar Maesa Ayu, Fira Basuki and Nova Riyanti Yusuf, have also been published. In each of their novels female sexuality is depicted explicitly. (2) For this reason, Saman is often considered to have been at the forefront of a new literary trend, which is often referred to as 'sastra wangi' (fragrant literature). Due to its notoriety, and role within this new trend, Saman was translated into English in 2005. (3)

Several Indonesian authors and critics have expressed cynicism and even disgust concerning this new 'trend' in women's writing in Indonesia. For example, Rosihan Anwar has stated that this new trend in women's literature is nothing but 'sastra mesum' (pornographic literature). (4) In addition, even though the doyen of Indonesian literature, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, provided an endorsement of Ayu Utami on the back cover of Saman, in a subsequent interview he declared that he could not stand reading the novel since it mainly describes sex. (5) Taufiq Ismail, like Pramoedya, has argued that the current group of young female Indonesian writers are competing with one another in terms of the sexual explicitness of their writings, a phenomenon that also disgusts him. (6) Stating this at Acara Deklarasi Gerakan Nasional Pemberantasan Korupsi (The Program for Declaring the Abolishment of National Corruption) in Padang on 10 November 2003, he implied that these expressions of sexuality represent a form of corruption. Similarly, well-known Indonesian poet Rendra expressed doubts about the originality of Saman, although he had not even read the novel. (7)

These male critics were not alone in their condemnation. Well-known female author and literary critic Medy Loekito also expressed her disapproval of Ayu Utami's work. According to Medy, Saman depicts a form of Western sexual freedom that is not suitable for Indonesian ethics and morality. Her basic criticism is that 'the criteria of Western freedom, for instance, is not a suitable benchmark for this nation', while adding that the expressions of sexuality in Saman do not reflect a respect for Indonesian women's bodies; rather, they are degrading and insulting. …

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