In Other Words

Spice Island Girls

Jangan Main-Main (dengan Kelaminmu) (Don’t Fool Around (with My Genitals)) By Djenar Maesa Ayu 122 pages, Jakarta: Gramedia Pustaka Utama, 2004 (in Bahasa Indonesia) Ms. B: Panggil Aku B (Ms. B: Call Me B) By Fira Basuki 138 pages, Jakarta: Grasindo, 2004 (in Bahasa Indonesia) In Indonesia’s April 2004 legislative elections, the outspoken supporters of ...

Jangan Main-Main (dengan Kelaminmu)
(Don’t Fool Around (with My Genitals))

By Djenar Maesa Ayu
122 pages, Jakarta: Gramedia Pustaka Utama, 2004 (in Bahasa Indonesia)

Ms. B: Panggil Aku B
(Ms. B: Call Me B)

By Fira Basuki
138 pages, Jakarta: Grasindo, 2004 (in Bahasa Indonesia)

In Indonesia’s April 2004 legislative elections, the outspoken supporters of a small Islamic party called PBR included Ayu Azhari, an actress better known as one of Indonesia’s most erotic women than for any political platform. Ayu’s campaigning was hardly a surprise in the world’s most populous Muslim country, where beer is sold in the supermarkets, miniskirts adorn mall windows, and sex tips are peddled on television.

Indonesia also has sastra wangi (fragrant literature), a catch-all term for the work of a group of new, young, female writers whose appearance on Indonesia’s literary scene has coincided with the country’s six-year experiment with democracy. For decades under General Suharto, Indonesia’s censors kept a careful eye on what the country read, heard, and watched. But since Suharto’s fall in 1998, the same "anything goes" atmosphere that made Indonesia’s recent legislative elections so spicy has also invigorated the nation’s cultural life. Just last year, Indonesia’s conservative mullahs were upset about a daring bump-and-grind routine performed on stage by Inul Daratista, a dangdut (local pop music) sensation, and a local movie that, for the first time in Indonesia, showed two men kissing.

The term sastra wangi is also a tongue-in-cheek reference to the writers themselves — 30-something women whose handbags and hairstyles are straight out of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Two recent examples of the genre are Don’t Fool Around (with My Genitals), a collection of short stories by Djenar Maesa Ayu, and Ms. B: Call Me B, a short novel by Fira Basuki, both published by subsidiaries of Gramedia, Indonesia’s largest publishing house. A former swimsuit model, Djenar worked briefly as the co-host of a celebrity gossip show on Indonesian television. Don’t Fool Around (with My Genitals) is her second collection of short stories. Fira, who studied journalism and public relations in Kansas, divides her time between writing novels and editing a women’s magazine called Spice in Jakarta.

Djenar’s work pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable, even in the post-Suharto era. In "Suckled by Father," the most controversial story in Djenar’s book, a young woman named Nayla recalls grappling with her self-image and sexuality as a child. "I kept my hair short. My skin tanned. My face was not pretty. My body was wiry thin and unattractive. My breasts were flat. But who cares about breasts? They are not important for me. Breasts are not for feeding but only to be enjoyed by men, that’s what Father always said. I don’t want to be enjoyed by men…." In the story’s climax, Nayla murders a man after he rapes her. Djenar’s stories highlight the grime — the incest, infidelity, and prostitution — that lies beneath the glitter of Jakarta’s skyscrapers. It’s an unsentimental world where cash trumps the cultural bonds that still hold much of Indonesian society together. The collection’s title story, Don’t Fool Around (with My Genitals), centers on an extramarital affair in which an unfaithful husband refers to his wife as "a piece of meat," and he declares that "it will take a lot of acupuncture to make her thin and her skin unwrinkled."

Fira’s Ms. B: Call Me B is frothier than Djenar’s book. Fira’s novel introduces Beauty Ayu Pangestu "Ms. B" a journalist at the Indonesian edition of a fictitious American fashion magazine called Bold. Ms. B earned a degree from the "Columbia School of Journalist" (sic) in New York. Though a fictional character, Ms. B parallels Fira’s own life (she studied journalism in the United States and now edits Spice). Ms. B enjoys Kenneth Cole handbags, blue contact lenses, and Victoria’s Secret thongs. Most Indonesians live with their parents until marriage, but not Ms. B. She shares an apartment in tony South Jakarta with a gay man, a promiscuous woman, and a Persian cat. When Ms. B isn’t holding forth on the high crime of a visible panty line, she’s contemplating nose jobs and Botox injections.

The book reads like a soap opera: Ms. B starts work at the magazine, abandons her parents’ home, and dates a handsome young television producer. Then she is involved in a minor car accident. Another young suitor brings fruits, chocolates, and a teddy bear to the hospital. In a closing marketing ploy, Ms. B promises to decide between the two men in a sequel.

Djenar’s and Fira’s books target a tiny minority of Indonesians: young adults with spare cash. The authors’ constituents were born during three decades of robust economic growth in Indonesia, when literacy rates soared from 40 percent in the mid-1960s to 88 percent in 1999. Despite the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and 1998, Indonesia today retains a large middle class. Djenar and Fira’s audiences have a passing acquaintance with Western ideas and products, and they crave a more intimate one. Fira helpfully defines "G-string" and "Botox" for readers. Although somewhat more concerned with her characters’ feelings than with their lingerie, even Djenar peppers her stories with Jacuzzis and Barbie dolls.

Indonesians are not among the world’s most voracious readers, but both books are selling well by local standards. Don’t Fool Around (with My Genitals) sold 10,000 copies through early April. Ms. B: Call Me B sold around 15,000 copies between February and April. Both books merited splashy launches. Djenar’s was held in the discotheque of a five-star hotel in Jakarta; the author posed in a black leather skirt and knee-high boots for photographers and camera crews. Fira’s launch featured a piano recital and a local television star reading from her book.

While wealthy Muslims in Karachi and Tehran flaunt the latest Parisian fashions at private parties, Indonesia is the only Muslim country where liberalism is not confined to bungalows behind high walls. On the contrary, Indonesia’s media elites publish books like those by Djenar and Fira and air television shows and movies with similarly provocative themes. Because they are in the public eye, writers and other cultural figures can exert greater influence over Indonesia’s future than can their counterparts in Pakistan or Iran.

Indeed, like Sherlock Holmes’s dog that didn’t bark, sastra wangi is remarkable because of the reaction it has not provoked. Indonesians are not calling for the books to be burned, nor has a fatwa been issued against Djenar or Fira. Instead, Djenar’s story won an award from Jurnal Perempuan, an Indonesian women’s magazine. It’s hard to imagine the authors’ counterparts in Iran or Pakistan (or, for that matter, in neighboring Malaysia) writing freely about oral sex, homosexuality, or unabashed Western-style consumerism. In that sense, Djenar and Fira’s books reflect Indonesia’s unique position in the Islamic world.

Still, such books reveal only half the picture. Even as democracy and openness enable the emergence of sastra wangi in Indonesia, a more conservative brand of Islam — closer to its Middle Eastern roots and less imbued with Indonesia’s Animist-Hindu-Buddhist past — is rapidly taking root in the country. Every day, more women are donning the headscarf, praying five times, and taking pilgrimages to Mecca. When Inul Daratista wiggles her hips in front of her fans, the conservative clerics on the Indonesian Council of Ulemas are also watching. The same openness that allows writers such as Djenar and Fira to flourish also spurs increasingly conservative Islamic opinion. Indonesia’s paradox is that its new tolerance includes a greater acceptance of intolerance.

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