Claim­ing Space

The Jakarta Post - JPlus - - Short Story - El­iza Vitri Han­dayani is the au­thor of From Now On Ev­ery­thing Will Be Dif­fer­ent ( Vagabond Press, 2015) and founder of In­ter­sas­tra.

WHEN I WAS IN HIGH school, the drama club put on a play that crit­i­cized the prin­ci­pal. The club’s leader was then called to the prin­ci­pal’s of­fice and sus­pended. The play was in­spired by N. Riantiarno’s Opera Ke­coa (Cock­roach), which was crit­i­cal of the New Or­der —its per­for­mances were banned and at­tacked.

In 1992 a re­searcher in Bengkulu re­ported that 27 per­cent of teenagers in the prov­ince were hav­ing sex — for his find­ings, his in­sti­tute rep­ri­manded him.

In 1996 my fam­ily hotly dis­cussed the July 27 in­ci­dents, but when I wrote down our dis­cus­sion for a school as­sign­ment, my par­ents told me to delete what I’d writ­ten as it might cause problems for our fam­ily.

Cen­sor­ship af­fects very many as­pects of life.

Those of us who grew up under the New Or­der learned that to avoid trou­ble we had to po­lice what we said in public. It was hard to learn about dis­cus­sion and re­spect­ing dif­fer­ences — ev­ery­where we looked crit­i­cism was met with de­nial and re­tal­i­a­tion, those who brought truth to light were ac­cused of bring­ing shame to the com­mu­nity, those who dared to be dif­fer­ent were of­ten si­lenced or os­tra­cized. I felt there was no space for me to fig­ure out what path might ful­fill me — life was about squeez­ing my­self to fit the mold.

In 1999 I saw an an­nounce­ment for a writ­ing com­pe­ti­tion and en­tered a novella. It won first prize. A pub­lisher of­fered to pub­lish it. Then they told me they would delete scenes where men and women were hold­ing hands or em­brac­ing — they be­lieved such be­hav­iors were against Is­lamic teach­ing.

My pub­lisher was sup­posed to help me raise my voice — in­stead, the mes­sage I got was the same one I had re­ceived all my life: there was space for me only if I be­came what they wanted me to be. Right then I learned that just be­cause the state has for­mally guar­an­teed cit­i­zens’ right to free expression, cen­sor­ship was not a thing of the past.

To­day, 18 years af­ter ‘98, there are still those who wish to force their val­ues on oth­ers, those who wish to keep cer­tain views from see­ing light, those who refuse to share this coun­try with oth­ers un­like them­selves.

It makes mat­ters worse that laws were passed that can be used to limit our space for ex­plo­ration and expression. The 2008 An­tipornog­ra­phy Law can have the ef­fect of keep­ing artists from ex­am­in­ing what it means to be a sex­ual be­ing.

Even if your goal was to stop cer­tain crim­i­nal be­hav­ior, first you must un­der­stand what might mo­ti­vate peo­ple to do such things. Laws on defama­tion re­main the main method to si­lence peo­ple through the jus­tice sys­tem.

Last May at the NT Writ­ers Fes­ti­val, Dar­win, Eka Kur­ni­awan and I dis­cussed cen­sor­ship in In­done­sia. We agreed that at least we could still pub­lish and read books freely, it was just launches or dis­cus­sions that were tar­geted. Not two weeks af­ter­wards, mil­i­tary men seized books from a cou­ple of ac­tivists and book­stores. Last Au­gust in Ban­dung, mil­i­tary men closed down a mo­bile street li­brary. This Oc­to­ber the po­lice took into cus­tody members of the Malaysian del­e­ga­tion at the In­done­sian Book Fair for ex­hibit­ing a trans­la­tion of The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo.

Some may be­lieve that re­pres­sion is the right way to deal with ideas that they think are not right for our coun­try — af­ter all, we’ve seen all our lives that dis­agree­ment was dealt with silencing or get­ting rid of those who dis­agreed.

For our part, we can call on our lead­ers to not be silent when at­tacks on books and dis­cus­sions are hap­pen­ing. We need learn to deal with dis­agree­ment and con­tro­ver­sial opin­ions peace­fully. To cen­sor is to say cer­tain voices are not okay. When you don’t see peo­ple like your­self rep­re­sented, you may feel iso­lated. That’s why in­tol­er­ant groups must not be al­lowed to de­fine what it means to be In­done­sian.

We owe it to our­selves to take care of our di­ver­sity — to re­al­ize a coun­try where every­one can be true to them­selves.

There are many taboos we need to break if we wish to bet­ter un­der­stand top­ics such as drug use, sex work, men­tal health, in­ter­faith re­la­tion­ships, women who are heavy but con­sider them­selves beau­ti­ful — how of­ten do you see pieces writ­ten from the per­spec­tives of those af­fected? Pieces that are not bul­ly­ing or preach­ing? What we need is more books, not more bans.

If re­li­gious ex­trem­ists and re­pres­sive el­e­ments within the gov­ern­ment tell us to obey and fol­low rules blindly, read­ing widely en­ables us to look closer — to get in­side the hearts and minds of those who are dif­fer­ent from us. It asks us to un­der­stand in­stead of judge, to em­pathize and be com­pas­sion­ate.

For the rea­sons above, I de­cided to start a se­ries of works by writ­ers who have been cen­sored, banned or phys­i­cally at­tacked for their writ­ings. I want us to be able to read and de­cide for our­selves whether a book has some­thing to of­fer us or not. I want those who feel iso­lated to have some­place they see them­selves re­flected. I hope to re­mind read­ers of the var­i­ous shapes of cen­sor­ship and the var­i­ous ways peo­ple have been fight­ing against it.

At Melbourne Writ­ers Fes­ti­val last Septem­ber, Molly Crabap­ple, a New York-based artist and writer, said, “when there are writ­ers that are con­tro­ver­sial and under fire, what the peo­ple who are against them want to do to is to marginal­ize them, so that other peo­ple are afraid to ad­mit that they like their works … So when there’s a con­tro­ver­sial writer or artist and you love their work ... do it loudly, lift them up, tell other peo­ple about their works. That’s the way you lift stigma, you make them unig­nor­able.”

In 2015 I went to Ubud with my par­ents — my novel was to be launched at Ubud Writ­ers and Read­ers’ Fes­ti­val. Af­ter I re­ceived no­tice that the launch had been can­celled due to po­lice warn­ings, I dreaded telling my par­ents. All my life, when such things hap­pened they had told me to lay low. That was why I was pleas­antly sur­prised when that time my mother said, “We have to call a press con­fer­ence!”

It goes to show that if we stand up, even a lit­tle, we in­spire courage in other peo­ple.


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