Ayu Utami was born in Bogor near the Indonesian capital of Jakarta in 1968. She is one of the most prominent representatives of a new generation of Indonesian writers, who, even before the end of the Suharto regime, were already openly addressing the social and cultural conflicts of the island state, and today accompany the transition to democracy with a critical voice.
While still studying Russian language and literature at the Universitas Indonesia in Jakarta, Utami began publishing reports and essays in various newspapers. As co-founder of a union of freelance journalists declared illegal by the government, she was banned from practising her occupation in 1994, and some of her colleagues were arrested. She continued her journalistic work underground, which included the anonymous publication of a black book on corruption in the Suharto regime.
With her debut novel ‘Saman’ (1998) Ayu Utami achieved more than just her breakthrough as a writer – in her native country the book was reprinted many times and was celebrated as a literary sensation. ‘Saman’ was published only a few weeks before General Suharto was removed from power, and its publication was a sign of the approaching political change. Utami treats social taboos in an open way, thereby breaking with Indonesian literature to date. She writes freely about love and sexuality and picks up the difficult relationship between Muslims and Christians as a central theme – as well as the hatred towards the Chinese minority. Her novel focuses on the story of a Catholic priest, who through his advocacy work for oppressed small farmers, joins the Indonesian resistance, falls in love, gives up the priesthood and emigrates to New York. At the same time the story tells the fate of a group of young women, who self-confidently make decisions about their lives and renounce the traditional gender roles.
Utami’s prose is lively and modern, and as such reflects the richness of the Indonesian oral tradition. The author masterfully switches between various narrative perspectives, locations and time scales, links dream sequences and old myths with descriptions of the political and societal relations in Indonesia in the 1990’s.
‘Saman’ is the first in a cycle of novels, the second part of which was published in 2001 under the title ‘Larung.’ Both of her novels have been published in Dutch. In 1998 ‘Saman’ was awarded the prize for best Indonesian novel; in 2000 Ayu Utami received the renowned Prins Claus Prijs from the Dutch government. Today Ayu Utami lives in Jakarta, and since 1998 has been co-publisher of the culture magazine ‘Kalam’.
Author: International Festival of Literature Berlin (ilb)