Between Humor and Violence: Seno Gumira’s Quest for Truth
Seno Gumira Ajidarma is somewhat of a paradox – a prolific author who has penned both fiction and nonfiction, short stories and essays, and has also worked as a journalist. Many of his writings have broken down barriers, addressing topics that were deemed taboo, subjects that others did not dare to put down on paper.
But even though many of his works deal with violence, trauma and oppression, he has maintained a remarkable sense of humor, both on and off the page, a sly hint of sarcasm and a boyish grin that seems to mirror mischievous thoughts.
At the London Book Fair, which ran from March 12 to 14 with Indonesia as the Market Focus this year, Seno was one of the featured writers at the Author of the Day program, which put some of the most successful and acclaimed authors into the spotlight to celebrate their work.
Seno, who has already received several literary awards, including the SEA Write Award ( 1997 ), the Dinny O’Hearn Prize for Literary Translation for Eyewitness (1997), the Literary Award from the Indonesian Education and Culture Ministry for Dilarang Menyanyi di Kamar Mandi (Don’t Sing in the Bathroom, 1997), the Khatulistiwa Literary Award for Negeri Senja (The Land of Never-ending Sunset, 2004) and Kitab Omong Kosong (The Book of Nonsense, 2005), was invited to share the stage with Sian Cian, the books site editor of The Guardian.
As a boy in elementary school, Seno said he had read the adventure novels about Old Shatterhand and his Apache friend and blood brother Winnetou, set in the American Old West, penned by German writer Karl May. Their free spirit, riding across the prairies and overcoming challenges and obstacles together, fascinated Seno and inspired him to leave home as a teenager to travel and begin his own life’s journey.
“Only later did I find out that Karl May had actually never visited the places he wrote about,” Seno said. “But initially, I wanted to be a wanderer because these stories felt real to me and I thought they were true.”
The search for facts and truth became part of Seno’s daily routine when he was working as a journalist during the New Order regime under then-president Soeharto.
“I started out as a writer and poet, but then I got married and I needed a regular income,” Seno said, with a smile. “I was wondering what I could do, and since I was already writing, the step to becoming a journalist seemed to be the easiest one.”
Known as an advocate of free speech and freedom of publication, Seno struggled with censorship under Soeharto, yet he didn’t shy away from confrontation.
“If there was something I wanted to [convey in my articles], there was always a way,” he explained. “In Indonesia, we did so by hiding our real message between the lines.”
Throughout his career, Seno has often conveyed through literature what he could not say as a journalist. He once said he lived by the motto: “When journalism is silenced, literature must speak. Because while journalism speaks with facts, literature speaks with truth”.
Seno tackled the difficult subject of military violence in East Timor (now Timor Leste) and the Santa Cruz massacre of November 1991, where more than 250 pro-independence protestors were killed by Indonesian troops, in his collection of stories Eyewitness and the novel Jazz, Perfume & the Incident (1996), hiding facts behind fiction in order to avoid censorship.
“During the time of the massacre, I was the editor of Jakarta-Jakarta magazine,” Seno recalls. “I decided to publish a report on what had happened and was immediately sacked by my editor-in-chief. So I had to find another way to talk about this incident.”
In a similar way, Seno wrote about state violence in his short story collection Mysterious Killings (1993) and sexual violence against ethnic Chinese women during the riots in Jakarta in May 1998 in his short story Clara.
After the fall of Soeharto in the same year, the Reform Era in Indonesia began, and the people felt hopeful that real change could be achieved. Journalists and writers did not have to fear censorship from the government anymore and were suddenly free to voice their opinions and mainly unhindered in their quest for truth.
For Seno, however, there were still a lot of issues that attracted his attention – the insurgency in Aceh, a conflict that lasted until 2005, being one of them, resulting in the short story Phone Call from Aceh.
Seno also engaged himself in the case of Munir Said Thalib the human rights activist and founder of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) who was poisoned with arsenic in 2004 while he was on a flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam, on his way to pursue a master’s degree in the Netherlands.
“When the accused general was released by the judge, I decided that it was time for literature to punish him,” Seno recalled. “I wrote a short story that was basically a confession from him, opening with the lines ‘I am a scoundrel, and that’s why I killed Munir’.”
Seno added that in this particular case, he used fiction as a way to get justice: “When the law in the country fails, literature can play an important role when it comes to punishing people.”
Speaking about Indonesia’s future generation of writers, Seno said he felt optimistic because they had the opportunity to express themselves without fear.
He has also enjoyed the newfound freedom and – while still writing about political, social and cultural issues from a critical point of view – he has more time to pursue other projects.
“I have recently started to write stories in the Betawi dialect because I feel that our national language, Bahasa Indonesia, has suppressed the many dialects in our country.”
This article was first published in the Jakarta Post on March 20, 2019.