On Joesoef Isak

by Max Lane

14 September, 2006

On April 20 2004 in a gala ceremony in New York the American PEN Center honoured Indonesian publisher, Joesoef Isak, with the 2004 Jeri Laber Freedom to Publish Award. The award was given to Joesoef Isak in recognition of his long record of courageous publishing during the years of the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia. Joesoef isak is not just a courageous publisher, he is one of Indonesia’s finest intellectuals who has been at the forefront of a cultural guerrilla war to win back for Indonesians their own history, stolen from them during the 332 years of dictatorship.

In April 2005, Joesoef was awared the Australia PEN Kenealy Award.

Joesoef Isak at the PEN Sydney event where he was awarded the Australian Pen Keneally Award, April, 2005. He is with authopr Thomas Keneally and publisher and broadcaster, Brian Johns. Brian Johns waspublisher at Penguin books and was responsible for Penguin decideing to publish This Earth of Mankind in English.

Read the PEN citation here.

Joesoef Isak was one of three men who founded a publishing company in 1980 called Hasta Mitra. All three had been political prisoners for at least ten years under the Suharto dictatorship and all three had been prominent intellectuals, publishers and journalists before they were arrested. I got to know all three while they were preparing to publish their first books, the novels of Indonesia’s great writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer – novels he had written while on the prison island of Buru, in eastern Indonesia. I became translator of the first four of these novels published in Indonesia, all of which were banned soon after they were published. These were This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and Glass House. This Earth of Mankind is now in its thirteenth printing in English.

The establishment of Hasta Mitra, Sanskrit for “hands of friendship”, and the publication of Pramoedya’s novels was an act of bravery and defiance that is perhaps hard for people to grasp today. Joesoef, Pramoedya and the third man, Hasyim Rachman, had all been arrested, without warrant or process, in 1965. They were three of hundreds of thousands detained during the period between October, 1965 and October, 1966. One of the Army’s generals, Suharto, had seized the political initiative in the wake of a mutiny by pro-Left colonels and was waging a terroristic purge of the Indonesian Left. There were more than 25 million members of left-wing organisations at the time, more than half of all registered voters, and Suharto decided the terror had to be total. Between 500,000 and 2 million people were slaughtered, depending on which report one believes. One key general later claimed that three million were killed. Joesoef, Pramoedya and Hasyim were among the fifteen thousand “survivors” who were kept in prison for between ten and fourteen years without ever being charged or put on trial.

By 1979 the fourteen thousand were out of prison but there had been no let up in the propaganda against the Left or in the restrictions they all faced. The Suharto regime controlled the press and the schools and through both these institutions, the Left were demonised. The regime’s propaganda associated the Left with, among many other similar alleged deeds, the mutilation of some assassinated generals genitals by women from the communist women’s organisation – allegations which had long been disproved by the Army’s own autopsy report, which was hushed up within Indonesia for decades.

They were the devils of Indonesian history and the official line was that the hundreds of thousands of Leftists that had died during 1965 and 1966 were killed at the hands of an enraged population who had come to hate these devils. Of course, nothing was further from the truth. The mass killings had been carried out by the Army in a systematic programme of cooperation with right-wing Islamic militia.

In 1980 after ten or more years in prison, kept away from the new society created by Soeharto’s totalitarianism, Joesoef, Pramoedya and Hasyim found themselves pariahs, vilified as hated by the people and degenerate. As with all political prisoners they had I.D. cards marked with the letters E.T., standing for “political prisoner”. They were banned from many areas of work, including writing and publishing.

The establishment of Hasta Mitra and the publication of Pramoedya’s first novel, This Earth of Mankind, in 1981 was not just the first but also the only act of open defiance of the regime and the atmosphere it had created by former political prisoners. Joesoef, Pramoedya and Hasyim were true vanguard fighters and they remained the vanguard in this fight from among the former political prisoners until Suharto was ousted by Indonesian students in 1998.

Pramoedya was the writer whose workers made up the major component of Hasta Mitra’s publishing programme in the 1980s and during most of the 1990s, although Hasta Mitra published other works as well. That was his role. Hasyim, who had been the publisher of the biggest selling daily paper from before 1965, the Eastern Star, was the effective business manager of Hasta Mitra. A handsome, flamboyant man, Hasyim had been an entrepreneurial adventurer for the revolution since his youth. In 1945 he had been despatched by the new republican government to India to learn to fly fighter planes, to be among the first of
the country’s pilots. But he was waylaid in Singapore and asked to help smuggle arms from Singapore to the republican guerrillas in Sumatra fighting the Dutch. Hasyim died in July, 1999 when Pramoedya and Yoeseof were on a tour in the United States.
Joesoef was editor of Pramoedya’s manuscripts and also the manager of Hasta Mitra’s political response to the regime’s actions against their publishing efforts. Before being arrested Joesoef’s career had been that of a journalist. He had been educated in the Dutch school system before independence and did not even speak Indonesian. It was only in 1942 after the Japanese invaded the Netherlands Indies, that he had no choice but to enter a junior highs school that used Indonesian as the teaching language. He was still not really familiar with the language when he watched Soekarno speak at a huge mass rally in 1943, while the Japanese were still occupiers, and had been deeply frustrated at not understanding how it was that Sukarno was so able to move so deeply tens of thousands of ordinary Indonesians. He is now one of the masters of the Indonesian language.

As a journalist he began writing reviews of classical European music specialising in commentaries the romantics, from Bach to Beethoven. He mixed with the Dutch educated crowd, especially those associated with the intellectual based, pro-Western Indonesian Socialist Party (PSI). He was well read in Western literature, urbane and articulate. He rose in journalistic ranks and soon became editor of one of Jakarta’s major daily newspapers, Merdeka, published by a well-known prominent journalist couple, B.M. Diah and his wife, Herawati. B.M. Diah was a nationalist but not left wing. In the 1960s, Joesoef was becoming alienated from the PSI crowd, seeing them as also alienated from the reality of the mass of Indonesians eking out a living in the newly sprawling but impoverished cities
and the rural villages. This alienation had been revealed when the PSI, which had its leaders occupy positions such as Prime Minister, scored less than 5% of the vote in the free elections of 1955.
In 1959 he was quickly elected by his journalist colleagues from both left and right, almost unanimously, to the Presidency of the Jakarta branch of the Indonesian Journalists Association. As the country’s economic and political development stalled in the late 1950s, Joesoef became a more active supporter of Soekarno’s policies of trying to build a self-reliant Indonesia, taking the best from the West but prioritising the needs of its own cultural and economic development. In 1962 Soekarno was later to reject the programmes offered by the World Bank and told the U.S. to “go to hell” with its aid. Joesoef says that this statement did not represent a move to align with the socialist bloc. It was not just a political statement but more a cultural declaration. Soekarno, Joesoef says, wanted to the Indonesian people not to become a nation of beggars always pleading for help from the “free world”. Diah eventually sacked Joesoef as editor. Soon afterwards he was elected as secretary-general of the Asia Africa Journalists Association (AAJA), travelling to most parts of the non-aligned world during the heyday of the non-aligned movement. Joesoef thinks that it was his membership of the AAJA that saved him from immediate arrest in October, 1965 when thousands of others of supporters of Sukarno were being killed or arrested. He was detained several times during 1965 and 1967 in some unmarked Army safe-house but was always released after a short time. He avoided torture during this period. Usually there were so many prisoners that if you were released quickly, the interrogators would not get around to you before you left. He once told me how the prisoners helped each other deal with the experience of torture. The key thing, he said, was for people to realise that no matter how bad the pain became, the chances are that you would not die from the torture in these safe houses. Nobody wanted to have to yield to the pain of being whipped with spiked edge of a dried eel, or of cigarette butts or worse horrors and give the names of other comrades and friends. Medicines and bandages were the most needed materiel to help prisoners returning from an interrogation session.

Joesoef avoided torture during his ten years in prison after he was finally more permanently detained in 1968. He was kept in Salemba prison in Jakarta for the whole ten years. He was not sent off to Buru prison island, probably because he was not considered a member of the communist party. I have spoken also to his friends who were imprison with him as well as heard his own stories of life in Salemba and I am sure the reason he escaped torture was because of his intelligent keluwesan. Luwes means both flexibility and charm and requires an acute judge of character to employ it properly. He is still like that today and there is hardly a foreign journalist or academic visiting Jakarta has not only been charmed but informed in meetings with him at his house.

At one time during his imprisonment in Salemba, his charm earned him a weekly conversation session with one of the more intellectually pretentious guards. After their conversation, the officer would leave the room leaving some newspapers on the desk, which Joesoef would avidly read. Reading matter was banned in the prison. Joesoef would then have the task of retelling the information among prisoners. Later, with the aid of his wife and prisoners sent outside prison to throw out rubbish, magazines, such as Time, would be smuggled into the prison and into his cell. He read them through then might. Prisoners were made to sleep night after night with the lights always on, so the guards could see nobody was escaping! So that problem of light for reading was solved – although the prisoners’ families had to supply the light bulbs. In the morning, his cellmates turned the magazines into papier-mâché destroying the evidence. He would write out in tiny script a summary of what he read on cigarette paper which would then be circulated from cell to cell. Even in prison, he was editor and journalist reporting the momentous events outside that would have been otherwise unknown to the prisoners:
China’s turn to the U.S.; the American defeat in Vietnam; the anti-war movement around the world; women’s liberation; and the consolidation of the Suharto dictatorship, as well as the defeated student protest movements that shook Jakarta in 1974.

Joesoef was released in 1977, two years before Pramoedya and Hasyim returned to
Jakarta from Buru Island, along with its other 12,000 prisoners. They met in 1980 when Hasyim brought Pramoedya to meet Joesoef at his home. Joesoef and Hasyim had known each other from the days of the Indonesian Journalist Association. Pramoedya had edited the cultural pages in Hasyim’s newspaper, the Eastern Star. Hasyim told Joesoef how he and Pramoedya had decided on Buru to set up Hasta Mitra and that they had been able to smuggle out manuscripts that Pramoedya had written while he was on Buru. They asked him to join the enterprise.

This Earth of Mankind was published in 1981. It is difficult to convey the impact its appearance had. I cannot think of any other case in any country of how a historical novel, set decades before the time of its publication, could have such an impact. Everything about the publication: who had published it, what they were publishing and how it was received by most readers crystallised down to a kind of pure defiance and rejection of everything that Suharto and the New Order represented.

This Earth of Mankind was set at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century on Java in the Netherlands Indies. One on level it told the story of a teenage Javanese boy, from an elite aristocratic background, and how his romance with a young Eurasian girl was violated by racist colonial laws. On another level, it explained how one of the very first Indonesians, a completely new type of person coming into existence at this time, was created out of the contradiction between Western ideas of humanity and equality and colonial racism and repression. There was no obvious satire of the Suharto regime or hidden comment on contemporary Indonesia. It was the beginning of a straight, but brilliant and evocative, explanation of why a generation of young people turned away from the cultures of their past and the social class from which they came and began a search for something altogether new. It was a beginning of an explanation and three more volumes were published over the next six years.

This story of the creation of the new Indonesian personality received immediate critical praise. Review after review lauded the book, hailing the return of Pramoedya to the published world. For Joesoef and Hasyim, a whirlwind was let loose. Hasta Mitra’s office was based in Joesoef’s home, a modest two bedroom home in central Jakarta. The living rooms disappeared to be swallowed up by Hasta Mitra’s secretariat. Twenty other former political prisoners, many desperate for an income, worked as staff in the lounge-room office. There were cartons of books everywhere. And more former political prisoners came in and out asking for books that they could sell door-to-door.

Out the back of the house, as is the case with many such modest middle class homes in Jakarta, were two rooms usually used as quarters for domestic servants. Those rooms were used as the warehouse. Next to those two rooms was another room, a room that has become a kind of symbol of Joesoef for all those who have known him and where I too have had so many lessons on Indonesian history and politics. It was a disused bathroom; narrow, and dark, with just one small window high up a wall at one end of the space. It was in this room that Indonesia’s first ever typesetting machine was set up. Hasyim and Joesoef wanted to do the typesetting themselves and were insistent that they have the most modern equipment.

Today, in 2004, the old typesetting machine has gone. Now there are two old Apple Mac’s and one PC. The room is the same narrow space, but now with a tiled instead of concrete floor, a stronger light bulb and an air conditioner. In that tiny room, about 2.5 meters by 5 meters, Joesoef and one aide, Subowo, have typed out, laid out, edited and sub-edited more than 25 of the major works of Pramoedya Ananta Toer as well as that of scores and scores of other books, both for Hasta Mitra and other publishers. This included many volumes of Dutch scholarly works that were translated into Indonesian. Joesoef, now 76, still works out of the same office today, and still publishes books every year. There are
no pensions for former political prisoners and the repeated banning of Hasta Mitra’s books always meant that there was never any real profit for Hasta Mitra either.

In 1981 Joesoef had not only to face the task of getting the manuscripts edited and ready for the printer. The little ex-bathroom became the secretariat also for answering Suharto’s political attacks. The dictatorship had to wait for the first wave of praise and support to die down. Not only had literary critics, intellectuals and students all heaped praise on the book, but even Suharto’s own Vice-President, Adam Malik, invited Joesoef, Hasyim and Pramoedya to visit him in the Vice-President’s palace. Photos of the meeting appeared on the front pages of all the newspapers the next day quoting Malik as urging every school child to read the book. Malik had a different history than Suharto. Malik, as a youth, had fought the Dutch from high school days. Suharto, in his youth, had volunteered to join the Royal Dutch Netherlands Army, used mainly as an instrument to repress fellow Indonesians. Suharto was a late convert to freedom. For Malik, This Earth of Mankind was a reminder to the youth of where their country had come from.

Suharto had to wait a week or so but then the black propaganda began. A newspaper published a petition signed by a 17 mainly unknown intellectuals and writers claiming that This Earth of Mankind was communist. Then others, mostly intellectuals who had supported Suharto since 1965, joined in. The campaign continued for several months and at each twist and turn Joesoef took the main responsibility for replying on Hasta Mitra’s behalf. Both Hasyim and
Joesoef were summonsed by the Attorney General’s department.

Joesoef bore the brunt of the interrogations having to report to the Attorney general every day, from early morning till knock-off time, for a month. An attorney interrogated him for hours on end about the contents of the books and about Pramoedya. “What has Pramoedya written?” he was asked, exasperating Joesoef with the level of ignorance that the New Order created. Pramoedya was one of the country’s most well-known writers during the 40s, 50s and 60s. After explaining, Joesoef also suggested the attorney check in an encyclopaedia: “What is an encyclopaedia?” Suharto’s legal man replied, “Can you spell it for me, please”. (Later though, at the end of the interrogations when he told Joesoef that the book would be banned, he slipped a piece of paper under the table saying he would like a copy – a free copy of course – because his wife wanted to read it.)

Joesoef escaped torture in prison, but he has often told me and the many young people who come to see him, that seeing the impact on Indonesia of the ignorance spread by the New order was worse than torture for him. “The stupidity and ignorance I faced in interrogation was often more painful that being hit, I think,” he says. Suharto and his generals have not only left an economic crisis and endemic corruption, but worse is the intellectual crisis they have created. In Joesoef’s eyes, Suharto and his generals spent thirty years programming conformity on a mass scale, a kind of process of de-education. Every layer of society, he emphasises to the young people who visit him, is now afflicted with a pathology characterised by being captured by what the Dutch call “denkfout,” where error begins with the very way of thinking. This applies to those with little formal schooling as well as the intellectuals and politicians. This is why, he says, Indonesia is just treading water when we are supposed to be bringing about change.

When asked what exactly is this error of thought, the essence of this de-education and spreading of imbecility, Joesoef points to the inability to distinguish between what have been the pure inventions of some people’s minds during the last decades and reality. “It is this invented reality that is used by the politicians and intelligentsia for their calculations on how to bring change. This kind of stupidity, he repeats, is the twin brother of violence.

In October, 1980 about two months after This Earth of Mankind was published, a formal ban was issued. Joesoef tells of how he first heard about the ban from an announcement on radio and TV. There was no order sent to the publishers. So Hasta Mitra just kept on publishing. They ignored phone calls from the Attorney-general’s department telling them to withdraw the book. Phone calls have no legal authority, said Joesoef. Finally on October 23, a banning order did arrive stating that the book was being banned for conveying Marxist-Leninist teachings. These specific teachings were not identified, it had been explained, as Pramoedya’s great writing skills meant the Marxist ideas had been successfully disguised.

This Earth of Mankind had been reprinted five times during the four months since it was released. A sixth printing was not possible. But Hasta Mitra did not end its struggle then. Over the next five years, after Hasyim would scrape up some capital somewhere, they would publish another volume, which would be banned soon after. And then another, and then another. By the late 80s, the publishing programme was forced to slow down. The repeated banning was financially exhausting the company. During the late 80s and early 90s, Hasta Mitra published more books, including selections of short stories from the early 20th century, edited by Pramoedya. They too were banned.

During this period too, Joesoef became, as far as I have ever heard, the only political prisoner from his generation to be re-detained after release. His son Verdi Yusuf, named after the Italian opera composer, a student at the University of Indonesia, invited Pramoedya to speak on campus. When the university authorities, who had banned This Earth of Mankind even before the government’s official ban, heard about this, they immediately expelled Joesoef’s son together with three other students. But Joesoef was also detained for four months while he was investigated for being the “puppet-master” behind the event. After
release, he got back to the business of publishing Pramoedya again.

So an award like the PEN Jeri Laber Award has been a long time coming. But it is not at all too late. Hasta Mitra, still working out of the bathroom, remains one of Indonesia’s most important publishers. Now with the dictator gone, Joesoef is trying to win back some of Indonesia’s history for the new generation of readers, while Pramoedya’s books are now published by a family company. The falsification of Indonesian history by Suharto’s New Order is now a major issue in the country. During the 32 years of Suharto’s rule, the rewriting of Indonesia’s history was handed over to the Armed Forces History Center, who even determined primary school and high school curricula. The official version of the history of the archipelago since prehistoric times was under the editorship of a brigadier general. Other versions were banned.

Hasta Mitra has been a groundbreaker in this area over the last few years. Joesoef
published the best ever selection of American, Australian, Dutch and Indonesian essays on Sukarno on the century anniversary of his birth in 2001. There have been other biographies of other forgotten historical figures. He organised the mammoth translation of 800 pages of US state department and CIA papers concerning the US reaction to the events of 1965, a revelation for many young Indonesians. Hasta Mitra has also just published the first comprehensive record of the events of 1965 written by an Indonesian, Hidden History.

Joesoef Isak has been a friend now for 24 years. I cannot write about him except as a friend, and also as a pupil. There is nothing better than a talk with him over sate at a street stall or with a glass of red wine in appropriate venue or jammed in at the back of his house in the Hasta Mitra office. His story, which still needs telling in the full, is part of a much bigger untold story, the story of the other Indonesia, the one Suharto literally buried, and which people like Joesoef Isak and the younger generation for whom Hasta Mitra has become an icon of ressitance to authoritianism, are now trying to recover.


Max Lane is a translator and writer based in Australia and Indonesia. He is the translator of Buru Quartet novels, This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and Glass House, published by Penguin Books. He has also translated the plays and poems of W.S. Rendra. He has written many articles on Indonesia and Southeast Asia for publications in Australia and Indonesia.