Zen Hae on cross-pollination, imitation and innovation in Indonesian Peranakan literature

The pattern of hybridity, imitation and innovation we talk about under the label “combinatorial innovation” isn’t limited to cars and computers – it’s central to (and has been discussed for far longer) in literature and the arts. In a paper from the Jakarta International Literary Festival 2019, Zen Hae unpacks the example of Indonesian-language writing by Peranakan* writers as a disruptive force in pre-Independence Indonesia.

Karya-karya mereka digolongkan sebagai “bacaan liar” oleh lembaga penerbitan kolonial Balai Pustaka. Mereka menerima novel atau roman sebagai buah modernitas bukan hanya dari Barat, tapi juga dari Cina Daratan. Dengan penuh semangat mereka menerjemahkan, cerita silat, roman sejarah, juga kitab-kitab keagamaan dan ajaran moral Konfusianisme dari negeri leluhur mereka. Pada tahap berikutnya mereka bukan lagi menerjemahkan, tetapi menyadur, kemudian lagi membikin karya asli, baik tentang kehidupan di Cina Daratan maupun di Nusantara – yang terakhir ini kerap terjadi dalam genre cerita silat. Bersama pengarang-pengarang nasionalis-Kiri di sisi lain, mereka menggunakan Bahasa Melayu Rendah secara politis untuk menandingi dominasi Bahasa Melayu Tinggi yang diinisiasi oleh linguis kolonia…

Zen Hae – Perihal Pagar dan Siasat Para Pengarang dalam Menafsir (Kembali) Batas, Jakarta International Literary Festival 2019

Their works were classified as “wild literature” by the colonial publishing house, Balai Pustaka. They received novels and stories as the fruit of modernity not only from the West, but also from Mainland China. They eagerly translated the silat (martial art) stories, historical romances, and also religious books and the moral teachings of Confucianism from the land of their ancestors. In the next stage they were no longer translators but adaptors, and later creators of original works about life in China or in [what would become] Indonesia – this last seen frequently in the genre of Silat stories. Along with nationalists of the left, they used Low Malay to challenge the domination of the High Malay used by colonial linguists…

Zen Hae – On the Fences and Strategies of Authors in (Re)Defining Borders, Jakarta International Literary Festival 2019

*Broadly speaking, ‘Peranakan’ means people of Chinese descent who have assimilated to varying degrees into the local cultures of the Malay Peninsula or the Indonesian archipelago. More here.

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