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.
BY ELIZA VITRI HANDAYANI