"A Meaningful Freedom": Women, Work and the Promise of Modernity in a Reading of the Letters of Raden Adjeng Kartini (Java) Alongside Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career (Australia)

By Lawrence, Annee | Hecate, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

"A Meaningful Freedom": Women, Work and the Promise of Modernity in a Reading of the Letters of Raden Adjeng Kartini (Java) Alongside Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career (Australia)


Lawrence, Annee, Hecate


Now, more than a century after the writing discussed in this article, RA Kartini1 and Miles Franklin are celebrated in their countries of origin where their names are linked with international first-wave feminism's vision of a women's right to education, a career and equality.

In Indonesia, Kartini Day is celebrated annually on 21 April and she is one of the few women to be recognised as a national hero (pahlawan nasional).2 She is known as "Indonesia's founding feminist" (Vickers 41), and as an inspiration to the women's struggle for education, human rights and equality and the Indonesian nationalist movement (Rutherford; Geertz).* * 3 Her legacy-and you will find her name in the index of almost any scholarly book on Indonesia-stems from an archive of letters written in Dutch over just four years (1899-1904) to prominent Dutch socialists and feminists.4

In Australia, Stella Miles Franklin has left novels, non-fiction, and collected letters. A major national literary prize for a novel, the Miles Franklin Prize (first awarded to Patrick White in 1957), was created by Franklin and is awarded annually (Roe xix).

This side-by-side reading of Kartini's letters alongside Miles Franklin's first novel, My Brilliant Career (1901), aims to bring into focus the passion and emotional content of the texts, and to explore how-for both Kartini and Franklin's character, Sybylla Melvyn- their ideas about women and work, and their dreams of becoming writers, emerged from direct bodily experiences-of pain and disappointment, a sense of injustice, bitterness about their likely prospects, as well as the ordinary, everyday conditions of their subordinated lives (Ahmed 179). It draws the two texts into intimate proximity and, in doing so, wonders whether reading across cultures in this way can creatively and positively spark an intercultural dialogue that goes beyond discursive domination, or the will to exotidse or demonise. Could such a reading contribute to a more inclusive and cosmopolitan regional connectedness? Could it uncover epistemic possibilities through the staging of a cross-cultural encounter that has potential to do cultural work? And could it help to reconfigure the Australian imaginary in relation not just Indonesia, but to our own literary history? If literature contributes to embodied experiences in the reader that, as Gabriele Schwab (2012) argues, give rise "to new forms of subjectivity, culture, and life," then is it possible that such transforming and generative power may even invite Australian readers to deal with their own "otherness and foreignness" in the geopolitical region they inhabit? And could it spark greater curiosity about Indonesian history, cultures, peoples and literatures?

According to the art historian, Stanley J O'Connor, the epistemic potential of genuine cross-cultural encounter may be profound, intense and awkward-as and when it also involves "risking the self so that it may be broadened and deepened ... in a way that is effective, responsible, and imaginatively rich" (153). O'Connor makes his case in favour of the study of "people remote from us in space, time or intellectual habit-in this case Southeast Asia" (153):

not because we necessarily wish to take up residence in their fields, villages or cities, or so that we may become friends, but in order that we may live in a more wakeful, mindful and composed way in the adventive present of a world we are actually making. (153).

For O'Connor, the "most daunting task is to make this creative action happen once again in the classroom" (153); for me, this side-by-side reading performs a cross-cultural experiment that is informed by Sara Ahmed's question, posed more than a century after the two women wrote the work I am discussing: "In what other ways do the emotions that bring us into feminism also take us to a different relation to the world in which we live?" (178).

In The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Ahmed argues that "wonder allows us to see the surfaces of the world as made" (179); as such, it "is about learning to see the world as something that does not have to be . …

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