A Close Encounter in World Literature: Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Richard Wright, and Asia-Africa

Today we’re delighted to offer a guest post by Brian Russell Roberts and Keith Foulcher, authors of the forthcoming Indonesian Notebook: A Sourcebook on Richard Wright and the Bandung ConferenceBrian Russell Roberts is Associate Professor of English at Brigham Young University and Keith Foulcher is Honorary Associate in the Department of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney.

In 1989, in response to the Indonesian government’s ban on Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s
Buru Quartet (his series of four historical novels), the magazine Inside Indonesia protested that “the ban on works by Pramoedya Ananta Toer constitutes a violation by the Suharto military regime against Indonesian and world literature.” This treatment at the end of the 1980s was a far cry from the Indonesian government’s approach to Pramoedya during the Republic’s early years. And of course the Indonesian state in 1989 was a far cry from the Indonesian state of 1951, when the government (through the Indonesian Embassy in Washington DC) gave Pramoedya one of his first English-language endorsements. In a booklet titled The Cultural Life of Indonesia, the Embassy reported that among other young writers, “P. A. Toer” had “attracted attention in recent years.” Already oriented toward world literature, his works “reflect[ed] especially the influence of Steinbeck, de St. Exupéry, and Richard Wright.” The following year, Pramoedya himself declared his admiration for Wright in one of his own essays, advocating the “bitter realism” he  found in Wright’s autobiographical Black Boy (1946) as the model of a literary realism commensurate with the social realities of postcolonial Indonesia.

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Pramoedya Ananta Toer in the early 1950s. Photograph from H. B. Jassin’s Kesusasteraan Indonesia Modern dalam Kritik dan Essay (Gunung Agung: Jakarta, 1955).

During these first years of the 1950s, Pramoedya was loosely associated with a group of
young Indonesian writers, artists, and intellectuals who in a 1948 statement of beliefs had declared they were the “rightful heirs to world culture,” in whose work international influences  would be “hurled back” to the world, reinterpreted with an Indonesian voice. By the mid-1950s, however, Pramoedya had distanced himself from this largely Western-oriented internationalism and moved toward the left internationalism advocated by LEKRA, a cultural organization with links to the Indonesian Communist Party. This move was in line with Indonesian politics under President Soekarno (who was also moving toward the left), but it eventually led to years of brutal imprisonment and the banning of his writing under President Suharto. Ironically, Pramoedya’s interest in Wright, facilitated by his early affinity for Western-oriented internationalism, seems to have helped move him away from the West, as the seeds of Wright’s “bitter realism” (which  themselves were inspired in part by Wright’s interest in the Communist Party USA) became prelude to Pramoedya’s subsequent advocacy of writing that was left-oriented and committed to revolutionary change.

During the mid-twentieth century, Wright was also changing politically, so that by the
time he visited Indonesia in 1955 as a freelance correspondent covering the watershed Asian-African Conference, he was still inspired by Marxian thought but had publicly denounced Communism. In Indonesia, Wright found himself (by design of the Congress for Cultural Freedom which sponsored his Indonesian travels) circulating largely among writers of the West-oriented literary circle that Pramoedya had now begun to turn his back on.

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Photo of Wright at a 1955 gathering of Indonesian writers and intellectuals who saw themselves as “heirs to world culture.” Photographer unknown. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

But as we document in Indonesian Notebook: A Sourcebook on Richard Wright and the Bandung Conference, Pramoedya and Wright had a series of close, if not personal, encounters. At the beginning of Wright’s stay in Indonesia, one of his hosts gave Wright a list of potential contacts that included a note saying Pramoedya was “in my personal opinion in some way influenced by R. Wright.” And at the time, Pramoedya was closely affiliated with the Indonesian cultural organization BMKN (Council for Deliberations on National Culture), so he may well have attended the 2 May lecture Wright gave for this organization. During the lecture, Pramoedya would have heard Wright’s prescient warning: “So, young writers, enter the political arena,…but don’t be surprised if you end up losing…your head!” Later, Pramoedya probably had a hand in selecting or commissioning the BMKN newsletter’s review of (and Indonesian translations of significant excerpts from) the French-language version of Wright’s Asian-African travelogue, The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (1956).

M. Lynn Weiss has suggested that Wright’s Black Boy showcases African American
experience “as the hallmark of modernity,” as a “rich instance of the conflict…between the  individual and the community,” such that “Wright’s gift to world literature was to move the Other from the circumference to the center of modern life.” If so, Black Boy’s formative influence on Pramoedya’s short stories of the 1950s (which the late Benedict Anderson recently called “the greatest of his writings”) found its ultimate realization in the dispossessed colonial Other of Pramoedya’s (and world literature’s) Buru Quartet. Late in life, Wright sought a similar trajectory, linking his own experiences to the postcolonial Asian-African world. There may well be a greater world-literary convergence here than readers of either Wright or Pramoedya have yet realized.

One comment

  1. Hi Biography.blogpost.com.

    A pleasant day, allow me to introduce myself, I am Grace Guerrero and works as Copyright Coordinator for C&E Publishing, Inc., Philippines. I am writing to secure permission to translate the short story “Penyunatan” of the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

    We will use it as educational material for discussion in our Filipino textbook for Senior High School, Salimbay 9, under Unit I: Panitikan ng Timog Silangan Asya (Literary of South East Asia), Lesson 1: Maikling Kwento: Pagtutuli, Larawan ng Realidad at Kulturang Indonesian. (Short Story: Circumcision, Image of Reality and Culture in Indonesia). We would like to ask your kind help to locate his literary heirs or agent to whom we could request for a permission.

    Thank you so much and I look forward to hearing from you, hopefully soon.

    Sincerely,

    Grace C. Guerrero,
    Product Division, HED/BED
    Tel No. 929-5088 local 114/141/118
    email: grace.guerrero@cebookshop.com

    Like

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