Family History is Political History (by Linda Christanty)

Posted in Essay by Linda Christanty on 05/11/2015

Reggie Baay, a Dutch author, did not know his paternal grandmother. It was not because he was born after his grandmother passed away some time before. It was because her history was hidden. 

He was not the only one who did not know his grandmother, neither did his father know her.

Reggie’s paternal grandfather came to Indonesia as the government official of Dutch East Indies (now know as “Indonesia”) at the beginning of 20th century. He had an indigenous concubine or nyai, as did most European men in this colony at the time. Then he brought his pregnant nyai to Holland, but he sent her home immediately after she gave a birth of his son, Reggie’s father. European men would not marry their nyai. They used the indigenous women for sex only and to learn about indigenous culture to support and succeed the purpose of colonialism. If they had children with their nyai, they had 100 percent rights to take their children. In the Dutch colonial society, nyai or all indigenous people was the third citizen of the social class. European called them “inlander”. It means a kind of dog. The second class were Chinese and Arabian. The first was European or Caucasian.

Eleven years after his father died, Reggie checked his father’s personal affects at his house. He found his father’s birth certificate in the old luggage by accident. He looked at a blurred portrait of his grandmother on the document, a young woman from Solo, Central Java, named Muinah. “Only her eyes are clear in the portrait,” he said when we met at the café in Jakarta some years ago. Now he knows why he does not look completely European. His grandmother bequeathed Asian features to him. His skin is brown. His hair is black.

He decided to go to Indonesia soon after this discovery to search for his grandmother’s village. He was trying to find his roots. He looked at people’s eyes, everybody who met him in the street of Solo, and tried to find a similarity with his grandmother’s eyes. Maybe one of them is her relative, he thought. But all Indonesian’s eyes are like his grandmother’s eyes: black! He was so frustrated. Back home in the Netherlands, he wrote a compilation of short stories. The title of this work, De Ogen van Solo or The Solo’s Eyes, reflected his personal experience to trace his grandmother’s life. He dedicated this book to remembering her. He missed her very much.

Reggie failed to find his family in Solo, but he felt at home everytime he traveled to his grandmother’s hometown. Almost every year he brings his wife and their two children to Solo. His second work, a novel about nyai, and talks about nyai is taboo in his country. So he broke the taboo because of that.

Like Reggie, Dacia Maraini, a famous Italian author, created her works based on her personal experiences. She left Italy when she was a child, because her father won a scholarship in Japan.  

In 1943, Germany, Italy and Japan were an alliance of fascist goverments. Maraini was 5 years old. The Japanese government demanded that her parents swear an oath of allegiance to the Republic of Salò (the Italian Social Republic, a satellite state of Nazi Germany during World War II).  “But they refused to sign a letter to support the fascist governments. As a consequence, my parents and all their children had to go to the concentration camp in Nagoya, Japan,” she said to me. I met Maraini in October 2009, at the botanical garden in Bogor, West Java. She came to attend one literary event. 

She, her father, her mother, and three of her sisters were in the camp for two years until the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. World War II ended then. Her experience at the camp was still in mind. She wrote Donna in Guerra (Woman at War)a novel. The theme of her novel is violence against women. It was released in 1975. She was known as an important figure in the Italian feminist movement. Her ex partner, Alberto Moravia, was also a well known author in her country, and Indonesian readers read his novel, Woman of Rome, which was translated into Indonesian.

“I was born in the writer family. My Dad and my Mom were writers. And we had a lot of books at home,” Maraini said.

Her mother, Topazia Alliata di Salaparuta, was a princess of Sicilian, who became an artist and art dealer. His father, Fosco Maraini, was an ethnologist and enthusiastic traveler. Antonio Maraini, her paternal grandfather, was a sculptor and the general secretary of Venice Biennale.

She was involved in antiviolence against women movement. She found shelter for the victims of domestic violence and listened to their stories. She also performed plays and published her books to fund these support activities.

“But we do not only fight violence against women, we fight to violence against children too, “ she explained.

She remembered Roman Polanski, the French filmmaker who raped a 13 years old girl after giving her drugs.

“The judges forgive him, because he is very famous artist,” Maraini was disappointed.

Different from Maraini's family who survived from the World War II, Bre Redana, an Indonesian author, lost his father after an army coup in Indonesia. He is still remembering the last moment with his father.

In the morning, almost 50 years ago, he saw a lot of people were waiting for his father in front of his childhood house in Salatiga, Central Java. There were military, police, neighbors, unknown people… He was 8 years old at that time. His father said the last words to his mother, “They will take me.” His father walked to the front door and never come back. He was one of the officials of the Communist Party of Indonesia in his hometown.

In March 1966, the army celebrated their victory. They shot the chairman of the Communist Party of Indonesia, Dipa Nusantara Aidit. After that they killed communists and forced people to kill each others. Half million people were died. Thousands were relocated to concentration camp in Buru Island, Maluku. Suharto, a general of the army, led a coup to become president of Indonesia, ousting President Sukarno. But the army accused the communists for this military take-over.

Since his father disappeared, his mother was the only bread winner for the family. Their neighbor did not like them, because “they are a communist family”. Their big family did not want to give them support because they worried abut their own life.

After graduating from college, Bre worked for Kompas daily. When I interviewed him in 2002, he told me, "My mother is great. She supported us into the future." 

In 1988, General Try Sutrisno accused the vice president of Indonesia, Sudarmono, of being a communist. The stigma came up again. A lot of people were fired from their job, because they were accused to have connections with “the communists”. The chief editor of Kompas daily did not fire him. "He is a wise guy," he said. He just asked him to stop writing for some time. He received his salary every month, but he could not publish anything in the daily.

After the Suharto era, Bre published two novels about the tragedy in his life, Blues Merbabu (2011) and 65 (2012). He wrote his novels under the name Gitanyali, a psydonym. His first novel talks about his missing father. He confirmed, “That was a historical tragedy. My father was a victim. The others were heroes." 

Family history actually not only tells you where you are from or where your roots are, but it also lets you know about separation and unification; how politics affect our homes and families. Family history is always political history.***

Linda Christanty is an author and journalist. Her writing has been recognized by various awards including the national literary award in Indonesia (Khatulistiwa Literary Award 2004 and 2010), award from the Language Center of the Ministry of National Education (2010 and 2013), and The Best Short Stories version by Kompas daily (1989). Her essay "Militarism and Violence in East Timor" won a Human Rights Award for Best Essay in 1998. She has also written script for plays on conflict, disaster and peace transformation in Aceh. It was performed in the World P.E.N Forum (P.E.N Japan and P.E.N International Forum) in Tokyo, Japan (2008). She received the Southeast Asian writers award, S.E.A Write Award, in 2013.

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