“The book, Atas Nama Cinta (In the Name of Love), a literary work by Denny JA: Social Issues in Indonesian Poetry” written by Jamal D. Rahman (an Indonesian poet)
My God! My neck is being squeezed, My mouth is being suffocated
I grabbed the knife
And embedded it right in his belly
And the man fell sprawling to the floor. Dead. Aminah had boldly fought off the advances of her Arab boss who was strangling her and who had already tortured her many times before. The turbulent atmosphere in the room had now become still and silent. But Aminah’s feelings were still seething. She tried to restrain her anger which was still agitated. “Ya, Allah,” Aminah shouted out loud and then again more softly. Her voice reverberated frantically and remorsefully, although she realized that what she had done was an act of self-defense. “My chest is quivering repeatedly,” she said once again. Then, she asked for God’s mercy:
I hold these prayer beads
All the time.
These prayer beads that are sopping wet
From my tears
All the time…
My hands and lips tremble
When I kiss them
All the time…
But Aminah was still sentenced to be beheaded. This is the story of an Indonesian maid (TKW / female migrant laborer) in Saudi Arabia, in a situation that has, unfortunately, happened too often. However, this poem, entitled “Aminah was Still Beheaded,” does not merely recount the tragic fate of an unfortunate maid. More significantly, it addresses the tumult of emotions and personal conflict experienced by Aminah’s family, most specifically Aminah herself, as well as her husband. In the midst of this lies the personal conflict between her heavy feelings in leaving her family on one hand and economic demands, on the other hand, that compelled Aminah to work in Saudi Arabia in order to seek better fortune there. Also, between shameful feelings for having killed her boss on one hand and, conversely, feelings of pride at having finally defended herself. There is also the tumult of emotions of longing for her beloved children back in her village, who certainly missed the love and attention of their mother. As well as yearning for her husband. Aminah was aware that they, who were consumed with strong feelings of longing and love, would never meet again, for eternity. This is because the court had already sentenced her: Aminah would die at the hands of the executioner.
The poem, Aminah was Still Beheaded, is one of five narrative poems found in Denny JA’s book Atas Nama Cinta (In the Name of Love): A book of essay poems, published by Renebooks, Jakarta, 2012. As a narrative poem, it reminds us of the poetic ballads of Rendra, as well as the modern Indonesian poet Linus Suryadi AG’s Pengakuan Pariyem, or going even further back in the past to the genre of stories written in Melayu-Indonesian poetry. Denny JA’s poems bring to life the literary form of a story set within a poem, which nearly disappeared from works of Indonesian poetry during the past few decades. Furthermore, he also reminds us that stories are not just important within works of prose fiction and drama but also within poetry.
That which Remains and That which Changes
The poetry book Atas Nama Cinta (In the Name of Love) is a collection of stories about Indonesian people who suffer tragic circumstances as victims of social discrimination, resulting from financial pressures, ethnic differences (e.g. “Sapu Tangan Fan Yin / Fan Yin’s Handkerchief”), differences in religious denomination (e.g. “Romi dan Yuli dari Cikeusik / Romeo and Juliet of Cikeusik”), differences in sexual orientation (e.g. “Cinta Terlarang Batman dan Robin / The Forbidden Love of Batman and Robin”), and religious differences (e.g. “Bunga Kering Perpisahan / The Desiccated Flower of Parting”). In general, he wants to emphasize that discrimination represents a source of conflict that persistently consumes victims and that this holds true both for soft and hard conflicts. Discrimination also sacrifices romantic ties between people, no matter how deep their love is. However, it turns out that love cannot truly be vanquished, subdued, or destroyed. True love remains indomitable in the face of discriminatory threats, although it often becomes a heartrending casualty.
Each of the poems in this book places discrimination in a confrontational position versus love. Discrimination lies in a certain pole which is entirely negative; love, on the other hand, lies in a different extremity that is totally positive but which always becomes a casualty of discrimination. If discrimination separates people, then it is love that unites them. If discrimination is destructive, then love is redemptive. If discrimination is lethal, then love is invigorating. Because of this, although there are different forms of discrimination, the ensuing problems and consequences are relatively the same, i.e. love that is threatened only by various forms of discrimination. And in the presence of fierce discrimination, love ultimately devastates feelings, desires, and even the human spirit and life force.
Peruse the love story in the essay poem, “Cinta Terlarang Batman dan Robin” (The Forbidden Love of Batman and Robin). There we find Amir, a young adult who was educated at a psantren, a traditional Islamic educational institution. There, he fell in love with Bambang at an early age, and Bambang reciprocated this love. Amir realizes that his love for Bambang is deviant. Amir himself actually wants to fall in love with a young woman. Thus, Amir decides to marry Rini, a young lady whom his mother has chosen as a suitable bride. However, his marriage with Rini does not increase his passion for his wife. Amir continues to love men. Amir himself wants to be straightforward with his mother that he is gay, but he doesn’t want to upset her. Eventually, Amir’s mother dies, never having heard her son confess his sexual orientation.
The time arrives when Amir decides that he needs to be forthright with his mother and his wife. In the cemetery, at his mother’s grave, Amir sadly tells her:
I’m a homosexual, Mother
I have tried to resist my inclination throughout many years
But I just can’t continue to do so
I will remain a homosexual!
Please forgive me, Mother.
Then, Amir decides to honestly disclose his revelation to his wife: “I have no intention to hurt you, my dear. But my heart is just not normal… What can I do?” Amir sheds tears, then prays:
“Ya, Allah, you created my body in the form of a man
But my heart is completely feminine
Now, I accept all this with sincerity
Rini decides to leave Amir. Then Amir looks for Bambang, his previous lover. However, Bambang has already gone to America and has officially married his male partner in a church ceremony.
Also look at the love story in the poem “Bunga Kering Berpisahan” (The Desiccated Flower of Parting).
We first meet Dewi and Albert, who are in love with each other. However, the difference between their religions becomes an obstacle in their relationship. Dewi grew up in an observant Muslim family. Dewi’s parents are aware that Albert is a Christian, so they disapprove of Dewi’s relationship with him. Dewi is eventually betrothed to Joko. As a daughter who obeys her parents, Dewi accepts Joko as her husband, and she tries her best to love him. As his wife, Dewi serves Joko as required, but love does not blossom between them; after ten years at the helm of running the household, Joko dies. In the middle of the night, Dewi prays:
“Ya, Allah… Have mercy on me
I have treaded every possible path
All my energy has been expended
In order to be
A good wife, a faithful wife
But why did it never come to pass
That my love should be passionate for him?
Why exactly was it Albert who was always
In the corner of my eye?
Ya, Allah… I have failed to have ever fallen in love
With my own husband!
It appears that the passion of Dewi’s love for Albert had never been doused properly. Dewi was still holding onto a flower that Albert had given to her many years before, which she had not looked at during her years living together with Joko. It was certain that the flower had wilted by now. Dewi was considerably distressed to find out that Albert had also died, not having ever loved another woman, in accordance with his promise to Dewi many years before.
Similarly, Amir and Bambang’s love, homosexual love to be exact, could not possibly have brought them to the wedding aisle; thus, too, the love between Dewi and Albert, which involved love between people of different religions, could not lead them to the bridal chamber. Although Dewi made every effort to love her husband, Joko, and serve him as required of a wife, and they became a good family, somehow it did not befall Dewi to truly love him. At the same time, Dewi’s love for Albert was never truly extinguished. The flower that he had given to her was now desiccated and wilted but not obliterated. Meanwhile, without ever seeking to love another woman, Albert had wandered from mountain to mountain until he finally died.
The selection of love as a subtheme for poems represents a narrative strategy to intensify the conflict in the plot and develop a tragic atmosphere. A love story becomes dramatic as a consequence of discrimination to the extent that the protagonists experience a heartbreaking fate. This represents a general technique for stirring the emotions of the readers which arouses their feelings so that the readers feel sympathy toward the victims of discrimination who are portrayed in each essay poem. The tone of each whole poem conveys sympathy toward all such victims.
However, from a different point of view, the selection of love as a narrative strategy undoubtedly distorts the negative side of discrimination: as though the most severe casualty of discrimination were love itself. Victims of discrimination are certainly a more serious subject in comparison to “mere” love. The consequences of discrimination are definitely far more extensive, more personal, and even more appalling. Discrimination can indeed sacrifice love, something that people may deem most valuable in their lives. However, more than that, discrimination can also devastate mankind and humanity because discrimination at a fundamental level represents a bias that is hostile to humanity and civilization. Consequently, discrimination is unacceptable from any angle.
In this context, it appears that there are things that have changed and things that remain the same in connection to love stories both in the history of mankind and the history of literature, especially in Indonesian literature. What remains constant is that love often experiences a tragic fate. This represents a repetition of history in the life of mankind and also involves literary reproduction in the history of literature in every society. Love that ends tragically occurs continuously and this is reproduced in the literature of each generation. Therefore, heartrending stories of tragic or unrequited love appear in the collective memory of each age and society: Romeo and Juliet, Sitti Nurbaya and Samsulbahri, Corrie and Hanafi, Hayati and Zainuddin, and many similar stories.
What has changed is the source of discrimination that cause love stories to be so tragic. In this context, love stories do not end tragically anymore as a consequence of business competition between the parents (as we see in Sitti Nurbaya, written by Marah Rusli in 1922), nor because of differences in cultural orientation (as seen in Salah Asuhan, composed by Abdul Muis in 1928), nor due to different customs or traditions (as seen in Tenggelamnya Kapal van der Wijck, written by HAMKA in 1938). Instead, love stories are now tragic due to social biases that result from modern issues, such as ethnic differences, differences in religious denomination, unethical behavior by bosses toward migrant workers, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender), and differences in religion. Hence, the underlying sources of discrimination found within the love stories in the book Atas Nama Cinta represent global issues, and all of these involve authentic issues within Indonesia.
These issues represent problems that are relatively new in Indonesia, which certainly extend the list of existing phenomena related to social discrimination, e.g. concerns about gender and disability. Although several of these old issues, e.g. ethnic sentiment, rising tension and conflicts that have emerged, especially during the past decade, are related to the escalation of all the previously mentioned issues, this has caused dire consequences. It is not shocking anymore to find in this book a portrait of social and religious phenomena in this new mature Indonesia, coupled with expressions of anxiety that the poet evokes based on these phenomena. This explains why the issues in the book are not merely authentic but especially relevant, particularly for Indonesia.
A Risky Proposition
With the exception of the issue of the TKW (female migrant workers), the other subjects that Denny raises in his first book of poetry are controversial, unpopular, and sensitive. In Indonesia, these issues involve controversy with people espousing sharply opposing positions. Observed from various angles, the strength of two groups clashing with each other is never balanced. In comparison with progressive social groups, conservative groups that express antagonistic positions against Ahmadiyah, LGBT, and religious intermarriage will garner much larger support. Ethnic sentiment is quite vulnerable within the social and political dynamics of Indonesia. On a concrete playing field, the victims of discrimination related to these issues will certainly consist of minority groups that cannot hold out in the face of the overwhelming strength and invulnerability of the majority. Because of this, these social issues remain unpopular and, even more so, sensitive, especially in the midst of the loud voices of the vast majority that opposes them.
In the midst of the majority’s harsh rejection, selecting these issues as subjects of poetry (among all the other social issues that could have been chosen) represents a risky move. By raising issues that are normally shunned by society, these poems actually articulate topics and viewpoints which the majority seeks to suppress. Thus, poetry provides a space for issues that are normally eschewed by the public. Providing both a voice and a place for issues that are shunned and disregarded could be viewed as opposing as well as challenging the voice of the majority. Moreover, aren’t there many other more popular social issues that actually demand more concern, attention, and social commitment in poetry, like corruption and injustice caused by economic inequality?
It is particularly these controversial, unpopular, and sensitive topics that represent the most significant social issues in Denny JA’s poetry. Social poetry in Indonesia generally raises popular issues, i.e. issues that would certainly be supported by the majority, such as corruption, poverty, and solidarity in assisting the victims of natural disasters. This is not meant to imply that unpopular social issues are more important than popular issues. Once again, the general tendency of Indonesian social poetry involves selecting popular social issues. Thus, by selecting unpopular social issues, Denny JA displays a penchant for choosing topics that differs from the general tendency of other poets in exploring social issues.
And this is already sufficient reason for accepting Denny JA’s poems with language that is characteristically simple, though not impressive poetically. Nevertheless, poetry should not be appraised only from the sophistication of its language. Indeed, the excessive expectation that poetry must feature sophisticated language can make it descend into aestheticism. There are times when the value of poetry should be assessed on the basis of social relevance, in which poems record, express, and reflect the spirit of an era and the mood of the public, and this includes being receptive and sympathetic to minority groups that experience social discrimination.
In looking at the structure of his stories, Denny’s poems do not immediately defend victims of social discrimination; instead, he endeavors to dive into their emotions and personal conflicts. Furthermore, his stories do not directly disparage the perpetrators of discrimination, and this holds true for bias set against the backdrop of religious denomination, differences between religions, ethnic differences, as well as sexual orientation. However, a peculiar aspect of these controversial issues lies within this point because Denny’s poems, which explore the feelings of the victims, could be understood to express sympathy toward groups that maintain a “pro” stance on these sensitive issues; moreover, they could be seen as defending a viewpoint or appreciation of these issues in a manner that is objectionable to the vast majority.
Exploring the emotions of social discrimination that concern LGBT issues, for instance, could be perceived as supporting the specific interests of the LGBT community. Expressing sympathy for followers of Ahmadiyah as victims of discrimination on the basis of being an alternate branch of Islam could be understood not only as defending adherents of Ahmadiyah but also defending the teachings of Ahmadiyah, a sect which is regarded as deviant by mainstream Islam. Furthermore, defending minority groups could be seen as supporting the viewpoints, understandings, and teachings espoused by these groups. In the midst of the strength of the majority as it pertains to these unpopular issues, these risks are frequently inescapable.
But wait… Having sympathy for the victims of discrimination does not by itself signify that one is necessarily defending or, even more so, supporting their point of view. The reason is that expressing sympathy for victims is one aspect, while supporting their perspective is a different and separate issue. For example, showing sympathy for a gay man who has suffered social discrimination does not always mean that one supports this sexual orientation. Thus, empathizing with a couple whose religions differ who have become victims of social and religious dogmatism does not always mean that one supports religious intermarriage.
Instead, by delving into the feelings of the victims, these poems demonstrate how complex human love is in the face of social dogmatism and how complicated one’s personal world becomes in the face of religious dogmatism. In addition, this dogmatism becomes problematic in defending one’s self-concept when the impact of dogma opposes one’s own basic principles and values. If homosexual marriage and intermarriage violate God’s will, is it not true that gay people or couples from divergent religious background still fall in love, although possessing religious awareness, just as articulated in the quotations above from the poems? Deep within the religious subconscious of Amir and Dewi, they each divulge their private ordeals to God.
On this point, poetry tries to view something not from a general stance but from the perspective of the poem itself. The viewpoint of the poem perceives a certain value in issues that the public deems trivial. The eye of the poem appreciates things that the general public considers worthless. In this manner, these poems bestow significance and value to issues that are generally considered inconsequential, such as the feelings and inner world of a certain person. Thus, for the poem, how meaningful is the inner turbulence that a person experiences in confronting the dogmatism in the middle of the social landscape which is stuffy and crowded. Viewing the emotions and inner world of a person as something consequential and valuable tests how far dogmatism and various dominant orientations fulfill a sense of justice in human society.
Nevertheless, victims of discrimination deserve to receive sympathy and must even be defended. A person should not be excluded, either mentally or socially, based on sexual orientation or religious affiliation, no matter how socially undesirable these attributes may be in the general society. A human being should not be discriminated against merely on the basis of personal choices that represent fundamental civil rights.
Furthermore, victims of discrimination are nonetheless human beings. It is enough that they are people, and that is sufficient reason to defend them from various forms of discrimination. In this context, if Denny JA’s poems can be seen as a form of defense for victims of discrimination, what can be used to defend them is not through social or dogmatic means that already deems their behavior deviant. What can defend them is specifically the intercession of other people. From the position of the victims, despite everything, people must somehow be defended, regardless of religious affiliation, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Because man is a noble creature, defending one’s fellow man from various forms of bias represents a moral demand as well as a religious plea. This is the reason that victims of discrimination must always be defended… and by poetry, as well.
The perspective of social scientists
As a poet, Denny JA is a relative newcomer to the field of Indonesian poetry. However, he has demonstrated serious intentions and talent in composing poems as an expression of contemplation, attention, and concern regarding social issues.
After writing his first book, Denny JA has been productive composing new poems on progressively wide-ranging themes, and he has published several more books. Also important are his efforts to make his poems, which means his ideas and contemplations, available not only to the audience that buys literature but to the more extensive general public. For this purpose, he does not only use the print media but also resorts to multimedia. Besides being published in book format, his poems have been made into films, plays, music, recitations, paintings, and other media; all of these can be accessed through online media websites. In this manner, his ideas reach not only literature buffs but also people who enjoy film, drama, music, and paintings, and this extends as well to the general public.
Denny calls his poetry in Atas Nama Cinta (In the Name of Love) “essay poems.” What is the difference between an essay poem and the usual poems that we recognize? Denny himself has established several criteria for essay poems, which can essentially be defined as poetry that addresses the private side of one or more protagonists in poetic verse and makes a direct connection with context, data, and facts about society by using footnotes. In this way, essay poetry presents both fiction and fact simultaneously: fiction within the poem and fact within the footnotes. As a result, essay poems are replete with footnotes, which function to bridge fact and fiction. “The presence of footnotes within the essay poem represents a central feature,” wrote Denny in the preface to his book.
Just as it is believed, for example, within a mimetic critical orientation, poetry definitely expresses and reflects the existence of a certain group of people. Therefore, in essay poetry, factual angles of the life of a certain group, which are either referred to in a poem or which represent its context and are thus expressed and reflected in the poem, are authenticated by footnotes. Essay poetry does not merely reflect a certain social phenomenon or fact; it also depicts social facts that are envisaged. The essay poem also presents social facts from which a fictional narrative can be crafted, which concurrently serve as the poem’s context. Thus, social phenomena or trends that are expressed and reflected in an essay poem appear especially authentic and concrete.
In my estimation, Denny JA writes poetry from the viewpoint of a social scientist, and this is because he actually is a social scientist. For a social scientist, facts, data, and social phenomena are primary and crucial. On the other hand, fiction and imagination play a secondary role. Because the social facts are of primary significance, they cannot be omitted from the poem. The social realities must be present, even within the realm of fiction or imagination. Consequently, although essay poems represent an imaginative and fictional domain, social facts and data must be exhibited, and these are documented within the footnotes of the essay poem itself.
This differs from the normal perspective of a poet. For a poet, the primary focus is the fiction (imagination), while the (social) facts are of secondary importance. In connection to poetry, social facts are just a source of inspiration. Whenever a poet manages to draw inspiration from a social fact, he will exclude that social fact from the poem itself. The poet may disguise, conceal, modify, reduce, or embellish such facts, or he may just render them as fiction. After the poet finds and derives aspects of fiction or imagination from a certain social reality, he may decide to completely omit this social fact from his poem.
Furthermore, whatever is assumed to be factual and attracts the attention of the social scientist is none other than social facts. It is not surprising then that all five of the poems in Denny’s book have a social context and connection to specific social facts. Conversely, for most poets, anything that attracts his attention will become an important fact that can be used as inspiration for a poem. However, as a source of inspiration for composing poems, for the poet, beholding a crescent moon or a single flower may be meaningful by comparison to social injustice. For the social scientist, on the other hand, social issues are certainly more interesting in comparison to a crescent moon or a flower.
It is also pertinent that Denny is a social activist. And this apparently has extensive consequences. In his capacity as a social activist, Denny’s attention and concern is focused on the victims of social issues. Every poem in his book relates a story regarding victims of social discrimination, and not even one of these stories concerns, for example, a victim of natural disaster. This is easily understood because as a social scientist who is also a social activist, Denny JA finds the victims of social discrimination much more interesting than the victims of the most horrific natural disasters. Thus, the victims of social discrimination as a consequence of differences in religious denomination (e.g. “Romeo and Juliet of Cikeusik”) is a more appealing topic to the author than the subject of tsunami victims, for example. A homosexual man who suffers social discrimination (e.g. “The Forbidden Love of Batman and Robin”)is a stimulating issue that evokes more concern than, for example, the victims of a 9.7 Richter scale earthquake.
Of course, this does not mean that he lacks sympathy or solidarity for victims of natural disasters. Victims of natural disasters are one matter, while the victims of social discrimination are a separate issue. Victims of natural disasters are not victims of an unjust and discriminative social system. It is already a certainty that society and international organizations will render assistance and sympathy for victims of natural disasters since such aid is an ethical necessity. However, sympathy and solidarity for victims of natural disasters does not entail opposition or resistance against the local authorities and power brokers who might victimize them (as they normally victimize casualties of social discrimination).
As a result, the spirit of a social activist entails opposition to all forms of injustice, discrimination, and oppression against people in terms of the strength of their relationships in the midst of social, economic, political, and cultural life. Therefore, on one hand, a social activist demonstrates sympathy and solidarity toward victims of social injustice and discrimination. On the other hand, by expressing sympathy and solidarity for victims of discrimination, a social activist truly facilitates opposition to the actual sources of social injustice and discrimination. Salam…
Jamal D. Rahman is an Indonesian poet. He is the recipient of the MASTERA Prize (Southeast Asia Literary Council Prize) for 2016.