Fordham University Symposium, Discourse by Joesoef Isak

Fordham University Symposium

New York, April 24, 1999

Discourse by Joesoef Isak (Hasta Mitra)       
I am pleased to join you all in this symposium celebrating Pramoedya’s tremendous literary achievements. As the literary issues relating to his works are being discussed by other speakers, it has been left to me to tell the story of the journey of Pramoedya’s manuscripts from the prison island of Buru and into the hands of the reader. Though his works of fiction and nonfiction easily stand on their own, we must acknowledge that Pramoedya has achieved worldwide fame largely due to the political injustices he has suffered, from imprisonment to censorship. My comments here today are therefore necessarily political in nature. Pramoedya himself suggested that I use this opportunity to state clearly to an American audience how we conceived of the foundation of the Hasta Mitra publishing company and the publication of Pramoedya’s works as a form of resistance against the New Order regime. Though we faced censorship and intimidation time and time again, we continued our struggle to publish the works of Pramoedya, because we were fully aware that the freedom to write and publish these books was a right that we had to fight to maintain, not something we could expect the government to hand to us as a gift.
    There is no doubt that the problems that were faced by Pramoedya’s manuscripts and books make a long and interesting story. Perhaps they could even fill more volumes than the literary study of his works. The foreign and domestic press coverage of the bannings, interrogations and other intimidation experienced by the author and the publishers became excellent advertisements for us at the time. As publishers we were never able to take out advertisements because we didn’t have the money for the very high costs. The reports of bannings and the suppression of the author have indeed operated as very effective free publicity which has helped greatly the sale and distribution of Pramoedya’s books.
     But the greatness of Pramoedya does not, as you all know, depend on this great free publicity but flows from the literary quality of his works. His works stand equal with the great literature of the world that has enriched the spiritual life of humankind as well as the sense of humanity itself on this earth of mankind.

I want to begin my story with the tetralogy that was born on Buru Island. There was a time on Buru Island when the prisoners morale was at rock bottom, when hopelessness and demoralization gripped the 10.000 political prisoners that inhabited the island.
     This Earth of Mankind was born – or more accurately was consciously conceived and given birth to – during this time with the aim of awakening again the morale and optimism of the prisoners. These dark times were caused by actions of the military guards who did not hesitate to kill prisoners who tried to escape or who were accused of rebellion. Prisoners were kept under even tighter guard and isolation and new restrictive regulations were introduced. It was in these circumstances that Pramoedya began to tell the story of Nyai Ontosoroh, Minke, Pangemanann, the heroes and the villain in this series of four novels which now are in the hands of readers around the world.
    This Earth of Mankind and the other three volumes were born as manuscripts while Pramoedya was still a prisoner. But in fact Pramoedya had finished gathering the material for this tetralogy before 1965. He and his students had gathered this material about the Indonesian national awakening while he was a lecturer in Indonesian history and literature at Res Publica University. By 1965 Pramoedya reached the stage where he had to decide whether to present this material in the form of a scholarly historical work or through an historical novel. It seems he chose to remain consistent with his nature as a novelist. He decided that he could present this material to a much wider readership through a novel. All these plans came to nothing at the time because of the events of 1965. Pramoedya himself ended up in Salemba Prison and then on to Buru Island prison camp via Nusakambangan Island prison. It was on Buru Island where finally he was able to produce this four-part magnum opus, whose outline was inside his head even before he was imprisoned.
     Though Pramoedya later had the opportunity to write SANG PEMULA (The Pioneer), a biography of Indonesia’s first nationalist newspaperman Tirthoadhisoerjo, the fictional life story of Minke would prove to be Pramoedya’s lasting legacy for the world, cherished in countless translations. The Buru Quartet is all the more precious because many of the original materials that would serve as the basis for the true story of Tirthoadhisoerjo and the fictional story of Minke have been permanently lost. When Pramoedya’s library was burnt down in the riots of 1965, many priceless documents were tragically destroyed, including some of the only remaining original copies of Tirthoadhisoerjo’s trailblazing nationalist newspaper, Medan Prijai. Without this important documentation, the fictional account told in the Buru Quartet is ironically one of the most important records we have of the earliest chapter in the Indonesian struggle for nationhood.
     There were three factors that enabled Pram’s stories to spread throughout Buru and beyond despite the restrictions on him as a prisoner. Firstly, the majority of the prisoners on Buru Island were Javanese who have a natural talent for storytelling, the skill of the dalang, the puppet master. Pramoedya himself was only able to tell this story each day to ten or fifteen fellow prisoners but the storytelling skills of the prisoners meant that his story could be told and retold finally getting to all of the units and their 10.000 prisoners. Pramoedya was only able to put his words on paper after 1972 when Pramoedya was allowed paper and typewriter. Secondly, there were the Catholic and Protestant priests who helped smuggle out carbon copies out of Buru.
Thirdly was the role of the photocopier. Once the manuscripts were smuggled out of Buru, photocopies were made in Jakarta and quickly sent out of Indonesia. Storing them in Indonesia would have been a danger to both the manuscripts as well as the people hiding them.
I had been released from prison myself in 1977 after ten years inside Salemba prison. After I got out I was one of the people able to read Pramoedya’s manuscripts even while he was still in prison. I think Professor Wertheim in Holland and perhaps people at Cornell University also had photocopies of the manuscripts that had been smuggled from Buru to Jakarta. The political situation meant that it was impossible to publish the books at this time. Even the reading of the manuscripts was done very secretly to safeguard the smuggling network that was getting the manuscripts out of Buru. But at the same time, I became committed to publishing these books when the time was ripe. Pramoedya had also resolved that his books must be published, even though at that time he did not know when he was likely to be released. None of the political prisoners had any idea how long they were to be imprisoned because none were ever put on trial or sentenced. But despite this, Pramoedya had already decided on the name of the publishing company that would be set up to publish his books: HASTA MITRA or “hands of friendship”. Optimism about a better future never left the political prisoners.
Then, maybe just by chance, maybe it was God in Heaven that arranged it, Hasyim Rachman and Pramoedya came to my home to invite me to join with them in setting up a publishing house for which he had already chosen the name Hasta Mitra. Hasyim was a fellow political prisoner on Buru who had been editor of the newspaper Bintang Timur, which published Pramoedya’s literary supplement Lentera. Hasyim and Pramoedya had only been free from Buru Island for one month and had not seen me for 14 years. Our first priority was to publish Pramoedya’s novels from Buru Island. To cut a long story short, some months after this meeting, This Earth of Mankind, was published.
This was a sensational event in Indonesian society and in the Indonesian publishing world!
Over night Pramoedya became a popular sensation. His books were sought after by all sections of society: ordinary people, students, journalists, housewives and even officials, although the latter often searched for his books secretly. Except for the late vice president Adam Malik who invited Pramoedya, myself and Hasyim Rachman into his office and declared that the book should be compulsory reading for all students.
How incredible! After all Pramoedya was classified as a dangerous political prisoner, just out of Buru. He was supposed to be a dangerous communist, imprisoned for his own safety because society did not want him in their midst. Now his books were selling like hot cakes – as I think you say here in the US – in that very same society.
Pramoedya became the idol of many young people – in fact, many people think that you can trace the rise of the spirit of rebellion among young people that led to the overthrow of Suharto back to the publication of This Earth of Mankind in 1981. Book shops that did not sell This Earth of Mankind knew they would be disappointing their customers. Book distributors and the country’s big book shops fought among themselves to get their share of Pramoedya’s This Earth of Mankind.
Then suddenly, during the 6 th printing of This Earth of Mankind and the first printing of CHILD OF ALL NATIONS, the Attorney General issued a ban on both these two books. I think you can all picture just how this ban created a huge black market for the books. The reasons given for the ban on these two books were that they spread the teachings of Marxism-Leninism and that they caused unease in society. The same reasons were given when the later books were also banned.
I am often asked why was the Suharto government so afraid of Pramoedya that they felt they had to ban all his books. Is it true that the books caused such social unease? Was it true that there was Marxist propaganda hidden between the lines in Pramoedya’s works?
There is no certain answer to these questions. Because there are no answers that a rational person could accept. These bans were very clearly the result of a combination of authoritarian arbitrariness and idiocy, a combination of fear of a ghost that they created themselves and the race between officials to prove to their superiors that they are more anticommunist than anybody else. And then there were the efforts of writers and journalists sick with revenge against Pramoedya who did their best to get the books banned.
They didn’t dare directly harass Pramoedya but Hasyim Rachman as company director and myself as editor were interrogated repeatedly for a whole month by the Attorney General. The printers were also interrogated, but this stopped after he started to answer the questions with money. I once suggested to the interrogator that we organize a scholarly symposium to discuss objectively whether or not there really was Marxist propaganda in Pramoedya’s books. I told them that Hasta Mitra would meet all the costs and that the Attorney General could invite whomever he liked as participants as long as they were scholars in the fields of sociology, political science, anthropology or cultural workers. They rejected my proposal. The interrogator understood better than anybody else and was convinced that This Earth of Mankind and CHILD OF ALL NATIONS were Marxist literature, so there was no need for a symposium.
But the idiocy! They said they knew that the books were Marxist literature but in the interrogations they asked me to point out the lines of the books that contained the theory of historical materialism and dialectical Marxism. I said to them that as the accusers they should be able to produce the evidence themselves: “we can’t identify the lines where the Marxist teachings are, but we can feel that it is there!”
There is a saying attributed to General Nasution in 1965 that “Slander is more cruel than terror or killing.” But after these repeated interrogations I have my own saying: “The terrorism of idiocy is more cruel than either slander or killing.” I am not exaggerating; this was certainly the experience I had again and again. I will tell you one story that captures the goings on around the bannings of books at that time.
After a month of tense interrogations, full of debates and arguments, the end came and I had to sign the transcript of all the interrogations. As soon as I signed, the face of the interrogator lit up with a smile. He put his hand under the table, so I had to glance underneath the table. What did I see: the thumbs up sign! He whispered, afraid of other prosecutors hearing him: “Pram’s books are fantastic! Do you have another copy? My wife hasn’t read it yet. Can you send a copy to my house. Everybody should read that book!” Of course, I couldn’t believe this but he just said: “You have to understand, Pak Yusuf, this is all on orders from those above.”
We were on the fourth floor then. There were still a fifth and sixth floor above us where the interrogators’ bosses sat at their desks. I am sure that these people too would blame others above them or maybe they would point sideways. Their bosses have their desks in other buildings. I was tortured by the idiocy of the interrogators, but they in turn were tortured by their bosses who were even more stupid.
Another story of this terroristic idiocy. The publisher Goenawan Mohammad once suggested to the Minister for Culture and Director-General of Cultural Affairs that the ban on Pramoedya’s books be lifted. This Ph.D. with the title of Professor answered: “The situation doesn’t allow it. Society could not tolerate the Marxism in Pramoedya’s trilogy from Buru.” Later the Attorney-General said the same thing about The Pioneer and other fictional works of Pramoedya such as the Girl from the Coast.
Pramoedya did not write a trilogy on Buru island and The Pioneer is not a fictional work but a nonfictional historical work. Did these high officials of the state ever even look at these books let alone read them? I can only shake my head.
These are some of the reasons that it is impossible to give a clear and firm answer to the question as to why the books were banned. There are other things too. The first book took seven months to be banned. As time went on the banning orders came out more and more quickly: after 4 months, 3 months and finally even less than one month. The seven months the regime took to ban the first book indicated that there was a pro and contra struggle taking place inside the regime. The regime took quite a while to ban these books. But as time went on, the bannings became routine, there was no need to give any real consideration to the issue or to even check what was in the book. One book that was banned was not written by Pramoedya at all. It was The Tale of Siti Mariah, a penny romance novel written at the beginning of the century. Pramoedya wrote an introduction to this work because he believed that the popular novels written at the turn of the century paved the way for the writing of the modern Indonesian novel.
Then there is the strange story of Pramoedya’s novel The Tide Turns (Arus Balik), a great historical work no less in literary stature than This Earth of Mankind and also written in Buru.
We published this book 4-5 years ago and it still hasn’t been banned. Strange. Why? We will never know the answer. If I were to use the Attorney General’s approach I could just as easily analyze that The Tide Turns was cleverly packed full of Marxist propaganda. It is dangerous communist propaganda.
My guess is that there were two reasons why this book was not banned.
Firstly, as a 700-page novel it was just too long for them to read. Secondly, they had become bored with banning Pramoedya’s books. They banned one, another one appeared a little while later. And so it went on. What could they say? After all, writing is what Pramoedya does. There is little point looking for some rational reason behind the policy of banning Pramoedya’s works. In a repressive system, you don’t need rational justifications of policy. Pramoedya had to be silenced, that was all.
Perhaps though there is another reason, another factor that perhaps we underestimate. It is very possible that the New Order Suharto government wanted to make very sure that Pramoedya and Hasta Mitra did not develop into a large and powerful publishing company. There were all the signs that such a thing was possible. At that time Hasta Mitra was based in my house and garage. With Pramoedya’s books becoming best sellers, I myself was already imaging us moving to bigger offices equaling that of the other big Indonesian publishing companies. At the time Pramoedya was able to buy a car with his royalties, something that no other author had ever been able to do. This was not just us fantasizing, there was a real prospect of Pramoedya’s best-sellers accumulating the capital we would need.
Suharto and his repressive bureaucratic apparatus never really were able to defeat us politically. But they were able to do Hasta Mitra a lot of economic damage. What publishers can survive if all their books are banned? As a business we were badly hit, but we still survived. Those who write about the censorship of Pramoedya’s works often overlook the fact that when the government robbed him of his freedom of expression, they also robbed him of his economic livelihood.

I’d like to tell you a little now about the relationship between author and editor, between Pramoedya and I.
I became the full editor of Pramoedya’s books at the time of the second printing of This Earth of Mankind. Even though the first printing passed through my hands, I was not yet really his editor. It was more like I was a corrector.
When Hasta Mitra was founded, there was a division of labour between the three of us. Pramoedya was, of course, the writer, although we also intended to publish other writers that other publishers would be afraid to publish. Hasyim Rachman was business manager as he had skills in raising money. I would be editor for all the manuscripts. I became editor proper for Pramoedya after the first printing because there were many corrections that were needed. All the translations around the world today are based on the second printing.
From the time that Pramoedya appointed me editor for all his books, starting with the second printing of This Earth of Mankind, I began to learn more about him both as an writer and a friend. At one time, he said: “It’s up to you, Bung Yusuf. If you think something needs to be changed, then just change it!” He said this the first time 20 years ago, and I have consistently heard those words spoken again every time I have suggested something about his manuscripts. It is a great honour to receive such trust from a writer such as Pramoedya. I cannot answer why Pramoedya trusts me as an editor. I have no literary background. I am a journalist through and through.
Pramoedya has never controlled or even asked me what changes I have made to his manuscripts. Pramoedya has an extraordinary custom: he never rereads any manuscript that he has typed, let alone one that has already been published as a book. There has only ever been one exception to this and that is with the English version of the book launched by Hyperion, The Mute’s Soliloquy. It was Willem Samuel as translator, and I think Will Schwalbe also, that caused Pramoedya to change this custom. The Mute’s Soliloquy is the only work that Pramoedya has completely reread. I should tell some of the story of the journey of this work.
One day in 1987, Pramoedya came to my house with a sheaf of thin, worn paper densely covered with single spaced typing from an old typewriter. I immediately knew this was another manuscript as this was how Pramoedya wrote: an old typewriter using every square centimeter on the page. He said: “When I was going through my things at home I came across these papers. Read them. If you think they are worth publishing, then please edit them.”
He found these papers seven years after he had returned from Buru. Only his closest friends knew about these writings, and he never expected that they would be published. He wrote them secretly and had them smuggled from Buru so that his children would know his story in case he should die in prison. After I had read these papers, I quickly came to two conclusions. This collection was an important social document. But it could not be published without us going back into gaol. The Mute’s Soliloquy is the only Buru work that was not fiction. Historical works about the early decades of the century that had no direct relation with contemporary conditions were banned let alone The Mute’s Soliloquy that told the real story of political imprisonment from Jakarta’s Salemba prison to Buru Island. I decided quite firmly that these important and beautiful writings must be published one day. But the immediate priority was to distill an integrated story out of the assorted documents that made up this collection. With Pramoedya’s agreement and guidance I divided the materials into three sections based on three major themes. These were: (1) letters to Pramoedya’s children that he had written on Buru but which he had never been able to send; (2) reflections on his life experiences, including the time in the New Order’s prisons and (3) his essays. After the materials were edited and formed into an integrated collection, I sent them off to a Dutch publisher. Perhaps this was the first time that a major work was published in translation before being published in its own language in the country of origin. While the book Het Lied van een Stomme was being prepared for publication in the Netherlands, Pramoedya turned up at my house again with another collection of papers. This time he had discovered a bigger collection than the first time. That’s why Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu was published in two volumes. It was not the result of a plan but because I received the materials in two lots.
Then in 1995, two weeks before his 70th birthday, he said to me: Publish Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu (The Mute’s Soliloquy). We knew the risk would be great. As Hasta Mitra director, Hasyim Rachman thought the risk was too great. He thought that not only the books would be banned but the company disbanded as well. So THE MUTE was not published by Hasta Mitra but by Pramoedya himself. He spontaneously decided on LENTERA as the name of the publishers for THE MUTE. LENTERA was the name of the cultural section of the newspaper “Bintang Timur” which was a mass circulation newspaper before 1965. Pramoedya was editor of this cultural magazine inside “Bintang Timur” until it was banned in 1965. Hurriedly I printed off the manuscript that I had edited seven years earlier and that now rested on the hard disk of my computer. Five days before Pramoedya’s birthday, the printers returned the manuscript to me. They were too afraid to print it. Perhaps they had read some pages of it. Perhaps they had seen the list of political prisoners that had died on Buru Island, died of hunger, of disease, off accidents when carrying out forced labour or killed by guards. The printer said that he could be imprisoned and his printing business closed down. I think this is the only documentation of those who died on Buru Island. I don’t think that even the government has such a list. In these difficult circumstances, l received help from the young journalists in the “Alliance of Independent Journalists”. They promised to have the book published by his birthday.
And they succeeded. It was delivered just as the numerous guests at Pramoedya’s house were waiting for the official launch. The printing quality was not so good. The paper was the cheapest newsprint quality. There were many pages printed out of order. But everybody was very pleased to see it published, despite the blemishes. Many people knew that it had been published in Dutch but this was the first time that there was a chance to read it in Indonesian. I need not tell you that the book was quickly banned by the Attorney General.
Back to The Mute’s Soliloquy translated by Willem Samuel and published by Hyperion. This book is published in one volume, not two. There are some sections that were adapted especially for the American edition. These adaptations were all made with Pramoedya’s consent. Willem Samuel and Will Schwalbe asked Pramoedya to read the whole English volume and to give his agreement. Pramoedya told me that this was the first time he had reread one of his books. He told me that he cried after he finished reading it. You can imagine why Pramoedya was so moved when he reread what he had written about Buru Island.

Just one more thing. I am often asked, including by foreign and Indonesian journalists, if Hasta Mitra has any plans to publish more of Pramoedya’s books or to republish the Buru tetralogy or other of his banned books. Of course, this question is also often asked by those who don’t yet have their own copies.
Almost all of Pramoedya’s books were published by Hasta Mitra when Suharto was in power, including during the period when he was at the peak of his power. This shows how we viewed the question of freedom and of human rights. We did not wait for the regime to give us our rights and we certainly never went begging for them. We were always very conscious that we had to fight for our rights, to seize them and realize them in our activities. Now Habibie is in power but do not think that the Habibie government has instituted the freedom to write and publish. None of the Suharto regime’s bans on Pramoedya’s books have been revoked. Freedom for individual rights and democracy have not been instituted in Indonesia today. If there are those that think that there are some freedoms today, such as freedom of the press, they should realize that those freedoms have been won through the struggle of our youth and students. They certainly were not because the Habibie government that replaced Suharto is showing goodwill or that it understands democracy.
     And if Pramoedya is here today it is also because he has seized his rights to freely travel wherever he wants and not because the official restrictions on him travelling overseas or even leaving Jakarta have been revoked.
     Since Suharto was forced to resign we have not published any more of Pramoedya’s books or republished any earlier works. This is not because we are afraid that the government will ban them. The reason is simple: we have no money to publish them. As I said earlier, the economic damage that the New Order did to us was quite serious. The economic crisis has made things even harder for us, as it has done for all the Indonesian people, with the prices of basic goods as well as printing paper increasing several times over.
     I hope I have made clear to you that the damage we have suffered has not simply been political but has been financial as well, especially in these long days of economic depression in Indonesia. Nevertheless, I want to assure you that we will continue our struggle to publish Pramoedya’s works in Indonesia regardless of the financial difficulties we may face. On our return from this trip, we will publish two books written by Pramoedya on Buru that have not yet seen the light of day. The first is a historical novel entitled Arok and Dedes, and the second is a play entitled Mangir. Not only that, we will reprint all four volumes of the Buru tetralogy, which the people of Indonesia have been clamoring for ever since they were banned, I leave you with a quote from This Earth of Mankind which sums up our struggle. At the end of the novel, Minke feels defeated, but Nyai Ontosoroh tells him, “We fought back, child, as well and honorably as possible.”
      Not only have Pramoedya and Hasta Mitra fought back, we will continue to fight, and we will never accept defeat. To protect our freedom, our livelihood, our very existence, there is no other way.

Thank you.
Subowo bin Sukaris
HASTA MITRA Updated at: 11:26 AM