Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

A Literary Mycelium: Some Prolegomena for a Project on Indonesian Literatures in Malay

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

A Literary Mycelium: Some Prolegomena for a Project on Indonesian Literatures in Malay

Article excerpt

Will Derks (*)

This article consists of two parts. First, some of the presuppositions that have moulded the dominant view of and approach to Indonesian literature are examined and contrasted with certain facts in the literary life of modern Indonesia. This results in the proposing of a 'project' in which this view and approach will have changed fundamentally. The biological species of the mycelium is used as a metaphor to reflect this change. The second part of the article is a case study that suggests how in a concrete way the Indonesian mycelium of literatures in Malay might be approached.


Soon after its inception in 1945, Indonesia became a unitary state, even though it consisted, and still consists, of many distinct ethnic groups and traditions, religious orientations of all kinds, hundreds of languages and dialects, as well as thousands of islands. Initially the almost unanimous enthusiasm among Indonesians for the young, independent state and the efforts to create a national culture inspired by a single standard language tended to silence this enormous potential for difference. By the end of the 1950s, however, armed conflicts ensued between the national government and some more or less culturally or ethnically homogeneous regions in Sumatra and Sulawesi. Although these conflicts probably represented a wish for greater political and economic autonomy rather than a desire to secede, the tension between nation and region has coloured Indonesia's history ever since. Small wonder that the state, especially during the New Order period, has made quite an effort, in a variety of ways, to keep this tension in check by exacting unity while furthering diversity in a uniform way.

Of course, throughout the years the various disciplines within the humanities have dealt with this difference inherent in Indonesia's composite nature from their own specific points of view. This is also the case in the study of what is known as 'modern Indonesian literature'. On the whole, however, these comments and analyses have taken for granted the status quo of the Indonesian unitary state, and any diversity has been interpreted in those terms. In other words, centripetal forces have been highlighted rather than centrifugal ones. No doubt as a sign of the times, this general attitude has changed of late in favour of a stronger focus on ethnic, religious or cultural identities that reach beyond the diversity endorsed by the state. (1) As will be elucidated below, within the study of Indonesian literature specifically, this tendency is reflected by an increasingly palpable shift away from a single Indonesian 'national literature concretised in the form of a canon, and towards a whole gamut of 'literatures in Malay'. In the following pages I will propose a project within which this plurality will be of central concern, not least because of the astonishing developments that have recently taken place in Indonesia. Through a focus on current manifestations of this literary plurality, the centrifugal and fragmenting forces that are also characteristic of Indonesia can be captured frame by frame, as it were, and a meaningful contribution can be made to a larger, ongoing debate.

Until fairly recently, the international scholarly discourse on modern Indonesian literature has been characterised by a thoroughly Western view and approach. Among the most profound and far-reaching presuppositions that have moulded the way in which this literature has been studied is the philosophical stand inherited from the European Romanticists, that literature (together with language) constitutes the matrix of a nation and even a civilisation. (2) The assignment of such an elementary role naturally involves the notion that literature consists of a relatively well-defined, stable and tangible collection of texts which, within the typically Western distinction between art and craft, are categorised as belonging to the first part of this dichotomy. …

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