The first event at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival that I was scheduled to speak at was the Tribute to Rendra, being held in the evening of the first day, immediately after the opening ceremony. Rendra, one of Indonesia’s most interesting, active, prolific and political playwrites and poets, had died a few weeks earlier at age 72.
I was asked to speak for just seven minutes or so. I had met earlier with the organisers of the event and also asked them to arrange to use a tape recording I had of one of pre=”of “>Rendra’s most dramatic poetry readings back in 1978. It was at the open air theatre in the Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) at the Jakarta Arts Centre, which could seat (and stand) a few thousand people. It is gone now, replaced by an enclosed theatre that seats about 400 hundred. In 1978 Rendra was in the vanguard of protest against social injustice and military dictatatorship. He was arrested the day after that 1978 poetry reading and spent almost a year in jail. Besides myself, and the tape recording (which had been made by Professor Doug Miles, an Australian anthropologist, who had been in the audience in 1978), there were to be other speakers and performers.
I have heard them referred to as “Hindu eyes” presumably a reference to some distant Indian originating Aryan genes. His eyelids were bigger than most peoples, kind of half shutting down over the eyeball. But they didn’t droop at all, it was just how they were. Steady half shut but big and focused eyes looking at you, or staring at you. There may well have been Indian blood somewhere in his ancestry. After all he was Balinese and Bali was the last Hindu enclave in Indonesia. And way back seven or eight or nine hundred years ago the rulers of the day, all through Sumatra as well as Java and Bali had invited Indian Brahmin to their courts to teach religion and writing and reading. But I haven’t been to India, so I can’t vouch that those strange eyes are indeed Indian.
Probably more than 500 people registered to attend the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (URWF), held in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia in October. I think there were at least 100 writers also making presentations, participating on panels, and launching books. Included among the 100 writers were around 20 Indonesian writers, representing a steady increase in the number of Indonesian writers participating.
This UWRF was the first I had attended so I cannot make comparisons on the past, except for what people told me. Certainly, the increase in Indonesian participation, was development. Another was the evolving of fringe activities, including the holding of some forums and discussions with young Indonesian writers held at Udayana University, the state university based in the capital of Bali, Denpasar.
Monday was Independence Day, the anniversary of the proclamation of independence by Sukarno and Hatta and the beginning of a four-year struggle by millions of Indonesians to prevent a colonial army from seizing back the land they had plundered for 350 years. “ Merdeka atau mati! ” (freedom or death!) was the cry of the day, and many did die, killed by the bullets of the Dutch army. “Better to go to hell than live under colonialism again!” was the slogan written on the trams and buses of Batavia.
“Merdeka”. It means freedom, and that was the great victory for the Indonesian people: freedom from colonial rule. But it was not the end of the struggle for freedom in its fullest sense.
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.