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  • Pasemon: On Allusion and Illusions
  • Goenawan Mohamad (bio)
    Translated by John H. McGlynn (bio)

Born in 1946 in the small town of Batang, Central Java, Goenawan Mohamad is one of the leading writers and intellectuals of Indonesia. An author in many genres, he is best known for his work in journalism. In 1971, during the dictatorship of President Suharto, Mohamad founded Tempo magazine and began printing criticism of the regime's corruption, abuse of human rights, and authoritarianism. In 1994, Tempo was officially banned; Mohamad continued to write extensively and eloquently about the power and importance of free speech, remaining a fearless government opponent. After Suharto's ouster, in 2003, Tempo resumed publishing.

Mohamad has received numerous awards for his work. He was the first recipient of the Professor A. Teeuw Award from the Netherlands in 1992. In 1997, he was selected by the Nieman Fellows at Harvard University to receive the Louis Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism. In 1998, he was recognized as International Editor of the Year by the World Press Review and given the International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists. In 2001, he was appointed a regents professor at the University of California at Los Angeles; and in 2006, he was awarded the Dan David Prize for fighting for press freedom and the advancement of independent journalism.

In addition to his journalism, Mohamad has published several volumes of poetry, experimental drama, and prose. His first collection of poetry translated into English, Goenawan Mohamad: Selected Poems, was edited by Laksmi Pamuntjak and published by The Lontar Foundation in 2004.

The following paper was presented on the occasion of his acceptance of the Professor A. Teeuw Award in Leiden, the Netherlands, on May 1992. It first appeared in English in 1993 in Menagerie 2, published in Jakarta.

The award presented to me today is, for me, not just a gift of inestimable worth, but a valuable reminder of the position that a writer occupies within his cultural milieu. As an Indonesian writer, I came to occupy this position in a most unsettled period of time. [End Page 72]

Before saying anything else, I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to Professor A. Teeuw for the honor shown here to me today. Professor Teeuw's description of my work—his analyses and his praises—has rekindled in me confidence in my role as a poet at a time when poetry is frequently held in false regard. His incisive observations about the use of allusion in my work provided the inspiration and the impetus for me to look more deeply at this literary device, and thereby provided me with grist for this morning's talk.

Though I've just used the word "allusion," I must explain that I mean in fact pasemon, the Javanese word for a nearly age-old literary device or, more precisely, a means of expression. While I will, for the most part, use the English word "allusion" during the course of this talk, please keep in mind that the meaning of the Javanese pasemon is in fact much broader than that of its English-language counterpart.

Pasemon is not simply a communicative device. As an allusion, pasemon contains an element of playfulness. But while the meanings of the words may differ, all meanings evidence some kind of link to a "symbol" or "suggestion." A pasemon can be a facial expression showing, without words, a person's attitude at a given moment. A pasemon can be a "simile" or an "analogy," but it can also be an allusive expression or even an insinuation. Semu, the root word from which pasemon is derived, suggests "appearance," implying that pasemon can be something "non-real," and not, as it were, a particular trait. In other words, the pasemon has no a priori meaning. Its meaning comes from the context in which it is found, from its presence within a certain situation, from its juxtaposition with another expression, or from its relationship to the "us." However, even then its meaning is not fixed. As I said before, an element of play is at work. And, at the same time, an element of caution, a...