Saturday, July 28, 2007

Book Review: Using Australia as a Literary Mirror

Satu Pertanyaan dari Selatan: Kumpulan Cerpen Berlatar Australia
(A question from the south: Short stories set in Australia)
Putu Liza, et al
A. Helmy Fuady, Farid A. Wibowo, Della Temenggung, eds.
Bentang, January 2006
268 pp.
Bahasa Indonesia

Using Australia as a Literary Mirror

By Ahmad Syam, Contributor, Canberra

(The Jakara Post, May 28, 2006)

Sarip, a Javanese, falls in love with Joanne, an Australian girl who speaks his language. Joanne is ready to marry Sarip, but he has his doubts. He remembers that his mother and uncle advised him, before he left for Australia, not marry someone from a different culture.This is the outline of a story by Farid Arif Wibowo, "A Question from the South" ("Satu Pertanyaan dari Selatan"), from which the anthology takes its title.

The Australia-Indonesia Student Association (PPIA) of The Australian National University (ANU) held a short story writing competition in 2005. More than 40 entries were received and the judges finally selected 15 short stories for publication in the anthology Satu Pertanyaan dari Selatan: Kumpulan Cerpen Berlatar Australia (A question from the south: Short stories set in Australia). The anthology was published in January 2006 by Bentang Publisher, in cooperation with the PPIA and the Australia-Indonesia Institute.

A short story, like other works of literature, reproduces social reality through the authors' unique sensitivity, which enables them to examine social situations. This anthology explores the reality experience by the authors during their temporary residence in Australia. Of the 14 authors whose short stories appear in this anthology --one author contributed two stories-- 13 are students on scholarship by the Australian government, and the other is a housewife.

Although all authors come from Indonesia, their educational, social and cultural backgrounds are varied, influencing the way they express themselves. Furthermore, this makes the anthology more interesting because it reminds us of gado-gado, an Indonesian "salad" that contains a variety of ingredients, from leafy greens to fried tofu. Reading this anthology is like eating gado-gado: a delicious mix of flavors and spices.

For example. Ridwan Arifin Hasibuan elaborates on the dark side of Melbourne in "Reality Show" --not only its busy economic life, but also social issues such as Third World immigrants who are prepared to work long hours for low pay, thus threatening the working conditions of the Australian workforce.

"Antheia" by Putu Liza explores the theme that it is not possible to adapt to some places. Elang, the protagonist, is a young man from Bali who can adapt to the American winter or to Lembata Island.

Another theme of "Antheia" is human relationships and Elang's love for the title character Antheia. Amrih Widodo, one of the writing competition judges, writes in the preface that Elang's and Antheia's love is like drinking the Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1986 wine, rich and deep.

"De'Nong" by Ana A. Hermawan talks about cultural differences. De'Nong, a housekeeper from Java, and John, an Australian sociology professor at Flinders University, fall in love. Both try to adjust to each other's cultural differences. They finally resolve their differences and form a happy family.

While these three stories talk about cultural issues, the next three stories address personal conflicts. "Walking at Night" ("Perjalanan Malam") by Ira Tanca; "I, Tapi, and He" ("Saya, Tapi, dan Dia") by Ariane J. Utomo and "The Party isn't Over Yet" ("Ternyata Pesta Belum Bubar") by Agung Fatwanto are all set in Canberra, with its modern buildings, street lights and television programs. The characters face many conflicts, especially in finding their identity in a modern city that imprisons them.

Two stories, "The Bridge" ("Jembatan") by Farid Arif Wibowo and "A Hundred Smiles" ("Seratus Senyum") by Kurniawati Hastuti Dewi) deal with the contemporary issue of terrorism. Both authors show their concern over this problem in the context of bilateral relations between Indonesia and Australia.

Meanwhile, "Perhaps Because the Marhaen People are Still Hungry" ("Mungkin Karena Kaum Marhaen Masih Lapar") by Firman Noor, and "Uncle Heli" ("Om Heli") by Dwi Elyono, consider Australia as a mirror image of Indonesian culture and behavior. Firman observes how disciplined Australia traffic is, whereas Dwi deals with the serious concerns that Australians have over a sustainable environment.

Australia as a mirror image over Indonesian culture and behavior also appears in "The Diary of Nara" ("Catatan Harian Nara") by Bima Arya Sugiarto and "A Hundred Smiles" ("Seratus Senyum") by Kurniawati Hastuti Dewi. Both stories explore how Australians base their human interactions on concepts of equality. "The Diary of Nara" illustrates political equality in students who can express their opinions freely to their lecturers, while "A Hundred Smiles" demonstrates gender equality.

Even though most of the stories in Satu Pertanyaan dari Selatan reflect respect for the Australian lifestyle, some authors cannot hide their anxiety about esoteric social issues. "Violet in the Dawn" ("Senja Kelabu") by Joyce Anshory explores the life of a Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, who are lonely because their children have left the area; their condition reflects the life of many elderly Australians.

Generally, most stories in this anthology possess interesting themes, but some authors have technical problems with plot, so that they do not flow smoothly; this may bother some readers.
Competition judge Amrih Widodo believes the anthology gives readers a new perspective on the relationship between Indonesia and Australia, one that goes deeper than cooperation in economics and politics.

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