By Subhatra Bhumiprabhas
An Indonesian journalist and writer who’s more used to seeing rejection slips than prizes, Linda Christanty is today able to thumb her nose at those who have refused to publish her by taking home a SEA Write award for her collection of short stories “A Dog Died in Bala Murghab”.
The rejections have come not from any weakness in her writing but because many editors consider her fiction “too political”. The editor of Dawi women magazine’s feature section, who posts her stories on her blog, shrugs off such comments, saying that while she isn’t shy about speaking about politics in her works, she is merely reflecting the situation in her country and the rest of the world.
“Yes, I give my stories a political context. Sometimes it serves only as background and other times, it takes centre stage,” says Christanty, adding that most of her works focus on the family, particularly on the relationships between mother and children, grandfather and granddaughter and brother and sister.
“It is through family stories or histories that you can learn how the political or economics system works in the country. Family stories are not only about grief, sadness, happiness, losing, remembering and love or even how families or individuals survive.”
One of the stories in “A Dog Died in BalaMurghab” is set war-torn Afghanistan, a country that Christanty has never visited.
“I wrote this story after receiving an email from a friend working in Afghanistan. He told me how we had seen a soldier shot a dog and how its owner, a little boy, had screamed and cried. He was so sad to see this incident, pointing out that little boy and the dog were not involved in this war.”
Reading her friend’s email, Christanty’s thoughts travelled to Aceh, a zone of conflict for three decades and where she spent five years working as the editor of Aceh Feature
“War doesn’t just destroy lives but it breeds a whole set of new problems for the future, as hate becomes instilled in the next generation leading to new enmities,” she says.
Christanty, who holds a bachelor’s degree in literature from the University of Indonesia, transforms such bitter facts into fiction. A former student activist, she often joined rallies and lent her voice to protests at the country’s political conflicts and injustice. Today, fiction serves as the outlet for those same concerns.
Her 1998 essay “Militerisme dan Kekerasan di Timor Leste” (“Militarism and Violence in Timor Leste”) won her the Best Essay award on Human Rights and her collection of short stories, Kuda Terbang Maria Pinto (“Maria Pinto’s Flying Horse”) took the Khatulistiwa Literary Award in 2004. Her novel “Tongkat Sultan” (“Sultan’s Stick”) addressed the 30-year conflict in Aceh, and the socio-political status of the post-tsunami Aceh peace process that followed.
Her recent non-fiction books, “Dari Jawa Menuju Atjeh” (“From Java to Aceh”) and “Jangan Tulis Kami Teroris” (“Don’t Write Us Down as Terrorists”), discuss shari’ah, political conflict, ethnic nationalism and homosexuality.
The 10 short stories that make up “A Dog Died in BalaMurghab’ explore grief, loss, forgetting and forgiving, love, death, domestic violence, political conflict and conflict resolution and are spiced up with a healthy dose of black humour, making them easy to read.
“I believe literature has opened geographical boundaries and provided a very wide space for us, brother and sisters all over the world, to celebrate human values and human dignity,” she says.
Some of her short stories, among them “Maria Pinto’s Flying Horse” and “The Fourth Grave” have been translated into Thai by the Writers’ Association of Thailand. English versions are also available courtesy of Cornell University's Southeast Asia Programme.
“I am so honoured to be a recipient of the most prestigious literary award of Southeast Asia. The award serves as a bridge for our Southeast Asian nations to know each other better, to learn, to enjoy and to appreciate the best of our literary works”, she concludes.
Soldiers, dogs and other stories
LINDA CHRISTANTY’S short stories talk about the problems often caused by pressure of war, gender inequality, cultural gaps and even love.
In her prize-winning collection “Seekor Anjing Mati di Bala Murghab” (“A Dog Died in Bala Murghab”), she depicts the pointlessness of the war in Afghanistan by describing how a foreign soldier coldly guns down a dog owned by Aref, a local resident ‘s child.
“The soldier stands at the end of the road, not far from the dying dog and behaves as if his actions had not shaken the soul of one and eliminated the soul of another,” she writes.
In many ways, “Bala Murghab” is a continuation of “Kuda Terbang Maria Pinto (“Maria Pinto’s Flying Horse”), which describes the cruelty of the East Timor conflict from the very first paragraph.
This reads: “Six months ago his brother passed away after being tortured by rebels. His brother’s corpse was returned without a liver, intestines or his genitals in a mahogany-wood coffin. Now Yosef was the only remaining son in the family”.
The Yosef in question is a low-ranking soldier from a poor farming family. On the battlefield, he faces student activists represented by Maria Pinto. Though aware the fighting is pointless, he has to obey the commander, losing his soul in the process and becoming just another a small cog in a larger war machine.
Christanty doesn’t judge war by painting a black-and-white picture of the opposing sides. Neither does she preach about the need to avoid conflict. Instead she portrays the fight from the point of view of the soldier, often himself a victim of war, inviting readers to contemplate why wars happen and how they recur generation after generation.
In “Pertemuan Atlantik” (“The Atlantic Meeting”), she portrays not war but a yawning cultural gap between writers of diverse national backgrounds. She story illustrates how such gaps should not provide excuses for people to harass each other but rather how diversity provides people with an opportunity to learn from each other and share their experiences.
WISNU T HANGGORO
SPECIAL TO THE NATION