Goenawan Mohamad is a towering figure in Indonesia. He founded Tempo in 1971 and at various times in his life has been a journalist, editor, activist, poet, essayist, arts philanthropist, theatre director and playwright. He is currently in Australia for the Melbourne Writers Festival, where he will speak to his long-term translator and friend Jennifer Lindsay about a wide range of issues, including the complexities of Indonesia, past and present. Goenawan also just released another book, In Other Words: Forty Years of Essays. AIYA had the honour of interviewing him via email.


Goenawan Mohamad. Photo: Melbourne Writers Festival

How has your writing changed over the past 40 years? Do you still write with the same fervor as when you first put pen to paper?

I am not sure how. But I think there has been a change, although I am not acutely aware of it. It may be due to the size of the format; I have to adjust to the column Tempo designs for my weekly piece. It may be due to a different political setting. Since the fall of Suharto there has been a much wider space for free ideas – I can talk openly on Marxist ideas, for example – and there have been other burning issues I have to deal with, and along with them, the presence of a new audience, imagined or otherwise, that I should speak to. Or probably it has something to do with my need to go deeper into issues that have become commonplace. I am not at home with ready-made concepts.

Every time there is something new I learn or discover, I write as if I do it for the first time.

How do you see the worlds of Indonesian media, art and literature in contemporary times? Who do you think are the most exciting voices, politically and artistically, in Indonesia today?

I am no longer following what is happening in the media. Things move very fast and erratically in this field. My impression is that the digitalised information, along with the thrust of the so-called ‘social media’, has made people less prone to think and rethink; the public debate has been determined by the fastest draw.

The Indonesian visual arts are more exciting. I have just visited a big exhibition of Indonesian arts collected by Sukarno; they are, on the main, of good quality, but they belong to a generation of painters with a self-conscious poise vis-à-vis the idea of the ‘modern’. Today’s painters have a stronger desire to de-freeze identities and break artistic regimes.

Literature is still a small cultural circle. The reading habit in Indonesia is one of the lowest in the world. But more novels, more short stories and poetry have been published than ever. And they are of good quality.

I am not good at liking writers. I am more comfortable with liking their works. The question should be what books instead of who make the most exciting voices.

More and more often Indonesian television, advertisements and cinema, particularly films made in Jakarta, feature English dialogue. Do you fear for Bahasa Indonesia or believe in its resilience?

I am concerned. Even the police use English words for their slogans. What I am worried is the deepening linguistic gap, which is also a class problem, between the English speaking/reading people and the rest of the population.

You’ve had a long and enduring translation partnership with Jennifer Lindsay. What has enabled this partnership to last?

Jenny takes translation seriously. There are two things I like about her: her willingness to do an impossible thing, i.e. doing translation each week continuously, and her skill in the Indonesian and Javanese languages. We speak and write to each other in three languages as a matter of course.

And our friendship started even before she translated my Catatan Pinggir. [This is the title of Goenawan’s column in Tempo, the first of which was translated in 1977.]

What do you think is most important for young journalists and writers to consider/explore/challenge in the current political environments of Australia and Indonesia?

The genesis, growth and future of religious bigotry and hatred.

Goenawan Mohamad speaks to Jennifer Lindsay at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Saturday 3 September at 2.30pm at ACMI Cinema 1. Book tickets here. He will also be appearing on the Coffee & Papers panel that morning at 8.30am, but tickets have sold out.