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Comparative Literature Studies 44.4 (2007) 409-433

The Vanishing Genre of the Nyai Narrative:
Reading Genealogies of English and Indonesian Modernism
Chris GoGwilt
Fordham University

In this essay I examine how the figure of the nyai [Indonesian concubine, mistress, or house servant] links the two otherwise distinct and different literary formations of English and Indonesian modernism. In order to retrace the origins of Indonesian nationalism, the Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925–2006) turned to the genre of the nyai narrative in his "Buru" quartet of novels composed in Buru Island prison camp during the 1970s. What Pramoedya's novels illuminate about the appearance and disappearance of nyai narrative form over the turn of the century prompts examination of the importance of this genre for the work of Joseph Conrad and the trace it leaves in the formation of English literary modernism. At the traumatic core of transnational literary modernism, the figure of the nyai stands as a problem of modernity. Governed neither by the marriage system of European colonizers nor by the customs of the colonized, the status of the nyai constitutes a challenge to social and legal conceptions of domestic relations within an international perspective. The formation and disappearance of nyai narrative form poses this question of international domestic arrangements as the shared problem of reading genealogies of English and Indonesian literary modernism.

The historical emergence of Indonesian nationalism in Pramoedya's Buru tetralogy is structured around the device of two distinct, opposed narrative perspectives: that of Minke (based on the historical protonationalist Tirto Adi Suryo), who recounts the early awakening of anticolonial nationalism in the first three volumes; and that of his adversary, the secret police agent Pangemanann, who takes over the fourth volume to narrate Minke's arrest and exile, the confiscation of his manuscripts, and the subversion of [End Page 409] his political organizations. This narrative device is framed in turn by the figure of Nyai Ontosoroh, who, from the start, appears as the very type of heroic anticolonial nationalism. The story of her being sold as nyai into concubinage with a Dutch "tuan," her subsequent rise to the level of overseer of her master's agricultural estate, and the fate of her daughter (taken from her by the Dutch courts and sent to Europe), form the substance of the first novel, This Earth of Mankind. Described as Minke's "unofficial teacher" ["seorang guru tidak resmi"] and "spiritual mother" ["ibu rohani"], she reappears throughout each of the following three novels until, at the very end of the final volume, she is given possession of the manuscripts on which all four novels have been based.1 It is difficult not to read her character as a utopian prefiguration of the ideals of Indonesian nationalism. At the same time, however, she embodies those ideals for a readership that has witnessed their violent reversal in the traumatic events of 1965, when an alleged communist coup provided the pretext for the persecution, arrest, and massacre of countless communists and communist "sympathizers" that accompanied the fall of Sukarno, Indonesia's first president, and the rise of Suharto's "New Order" regime. As Pramoedya explained in 1995, "As a woman who stood up, alone, to the injustices of Dutch colonialism, she was a character who provided a model of resistance and courage for my fellow prisoners to look up to, so that their spirit would not be demoralized by the killings and the cruelties witnessed in the camps."2

The genre of the nyai tale helps explain how Pramoedya is able to combine into a single character this unusual combination of revolutionary anticolonialism and testimonial to postcolonial state oppression. The number of nyai narratives to appear in Dutch and Malay between the 1880s and 1920s suggests the emergence of a literary genre premised on a crossover between the otherwise sharply divided worlds of colonizer and colonized within turn-of-the-century Dutch East Indies. Written by a variety of figures—Dutch women immigrants, Indies-born men from various...


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