Cultural Critique 55 (2003) 217-246
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The Voice of Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Passages, Interviews, and Reflections from The Mute's Soliloquy and Pramoedya's North American Tour
Following the events of 1965, I lost everything or, to be more accurate, all the illusions I had ever owned. I was a newborn child, outfitted with the only instrument a newly born babe finds necessary for life: a voice. Thus like a child my only means of communication was my voice: my screams, cries, whimpers, and yelps.
What would happen to me if my voice, my sole means of communication, were to be taken from me? Is it possible to take from a man his right to speak to himself?
—Pramoedya Ananta Toer, The Mute's Soliloquy
Pramoedya Ananta Toer has long been recognized as Indone-sia's most significant literary voice. During the first two decades of Indonesian independence from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, Pramoedya became established as the country's leading prose writer, the celebrated voice of revolutionary nationalism in literature and culture. Things changed drastically following his arrest during the events of 1965, in which the persecution, arrest, and massacre of countless communists and communist "sympathizers" marked the fall of Sukarno's power and the rise of the Soeharto regime. As a political prisoner, exiled to the remote Buru Island prison colony, his books banned, Pramoedya continued to write—composing the Buru quartet of historical novels on which his international reputation is largely based. Since his release from Buru in 1979 until the crumbling of Soeharto's regime in the late 1990s, Pramoedya remained a writer officially silenced at home, the internationally recognized voice of dissidence in "New Order" Indonesia. [End Page 217]
In April 1999 Pramoedya left Indonesia, for the first time since the early 1960s, to visit the United States. The catalyst for what became a tour of North America and Europe was the invitation to attend an international conference in New York hosted by Fordham University and organized by myself (then director of Fordham's Literary Studies Program) and Will Schwalbe (executive editor at Hyperion Books and Pramoedya's literary representative), along with John McGlynn (cofounder and director of the Lontar Foundation, and, as Willem Samuels, translator of Pramoedya's The Fugitive and The Mute's Soliloquy). The purpose of the conference was to engage public and scholarly debate on the significance of the writer's work both for Indonesia and for world literature. Titled "The Voice of Pramoedya Ananta Toer in Indonesia and in World Literature," the conference was planned to coincide with the publication of The Mute's Soliloquy, the English-language translation and edition of Pramoedya's memoir. Chosen to signal the motif of voice in the memoir and to evoke the ongoing struggle against censorship in Indonesia, the conference title acquired another significance when Pramoedya accepted the invitation to participate and—against almost all expectations—when passport and visa were secured for him to leave Indonesia for the first time in forty years.
In what follows, I reflect on the significance of this metaphor of voice—both in Pramoedya's own text and in its English translation into a North American context. That metaphor has a rather different resonance in the context of the authoritarian institutions of New Order Indonesia than it does in the context of the liberal democratic institutions of North America. Throughout Pramoedya's North American tour, the distance between these two contexts seemed particularly marked in Pramoedya's responses to interview questions (including those in this article), in which he would simultaneously be addressing both a North American and an Indonesian audience and readership. There are at least three different contexts through which Pramoedya's voice from Buru gets refracted: the silenced space of imprisonment in Buru exile; the censored public sphere of New Order Indonesia; and the international circulation of information and ideas through the free press and the world publishing market. The resulting disjuncture of voice necessarily affects any reading...