Feminist Voice in the Works of Indonesian Early Woman Writers: Reading Novels and Short Stories by Suwarsih Djojopuspito

By Priyatna, Aquarini | Journal of International Women's Studies, January 15, 2018 | Go to article overview

Feminist Voice in the Works of Indonesian Early Woman Writers: Reading Novels and Short Stories by Suwarsih Djojopuspito


Priyatna, Aquarini, Journal of International Women's Studies


Introduction

Autobiography makes trouble: it is difficult to define as a distinct
genre, and the borderline between fact and fiction, the personal and
the social, the popular and the academic, the everyday and the
literary. (Cosslett, Lury, & Summerfield, 2000: 1)

I have always been interested in women's life narratives, both those who can be categorized as public figures and those who are considered as "common people". The books by Nh. Dini (5), a prominent Indonesian woman writer, for example, are among the first books that made me realize that writing autobiographically is an important strategy in putting forwards issues pertaining to women, or even feminist writings. My academic interest in auto/biographies have made me tend to write autobiographically. I believe auto/biographies help bring to the fore the issues discussed in the context of women's daily lives, as I also integrate the narrative of my own daily life into the context of my academic works. I am of the argument that such an act is strategic in showing how a woman is constantly fragmented among the different roles she has to play, yet somehow finds coherence in the different roles and identities, even domains that intersect in her life. A woman like me is fragmented among my roles as a female academic, a feminist, a mother, a wife, a Sundanese/Javanese/Bantenese (6), and at the same time I am a woman who embodies a body that menstruates, that got pregnant and gave birth, a body that breastfed and maybe soon experiences menopause--to say the least. This fragmentation and coherence may be similar as and/or different from the experience of other women, as Shackford-Bradley contends while discussing Manusia Bebas (Shackford-Bradley, 2000: 217),

With a few exceptions, the women who appear in the novel are not
rendered as characters with deeply analyzed motivations and personas.
Rather, they form a landscape in which Sulastri sees herself in
fragmented ways; through this process she gains a sense of her self
(sic) as a woman and as an individual.

In this paper, I discuss Suwarsih Djojopuspito as the writer of the narrative and her narratives in three of her works, namely Manusia Bebas (Mankind Free), Empat Serangkai, and Marjanah. The works discussed are selected to cover the different genres that Suwarsih wrote, as well as the different languages she used in her works. Manusia Bebas was written in Dutch when it was first published as Buiten het Gareel in 1940. It was then translated into Bahasa Indonesia entitled Manusia Bebas in 1975. Manusia Bebas was Suwarsih's first novel and it is also Suwarsih's work that gets most attention, particularly in the context of autobiographical narrative, or what Shackford-Bradley (2000) refers to as "autobiographical fictions". Empat Serangkai is important to discuss in this paper because it talks about the different stories of women in the period of 1930-1940s and because it offers the stories in the genre of short story. The last work I discuss, Marjanah is significant to consider because it is a novel in Sundanese, which elaborates the issue of women in the specific cultural context and language. Arguably, the different works will contribute to the fuller discussion on how feminist subjects are represented in the three works.

As Nh. Dini, another Indonesian feminist writer, who states that she "writes to be the representative of women in general" (Dini, 2000: 76, my emphasis), Suwarsih who was productive in the period of 1940-1970s also wrote with the awareness of being a representative of women. In her memoir of Charles Edgar duPerron, a person who had been influential in making possible the publication of her first novel, translated into Manusia Bebas in 1975), Suwarsih described herself as "a writer who writes about trivial things on women's emancipation" (Djojopuspito, 1973). This statement can only be read as a feminist statement and thus it is important to take up in the reading of Suwarsih's works which I am doing in this paper. …

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