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Biography 24.3 (2001) 620-625

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C. W. Watson. Of Self and Nation: Autobiography and the Representation of Modern Indonesia. Honolulu: U of Hawai'i P, 2000. 257 pp. ISBN 0-8248-2281-1, $24.95.

This valuable set of eight essays on twentieth century Indonesian literature and social thought has a precise aim: to chart out the cultural space where the autobiographical self and the Indonesian nationalist imagination have intersected and mutually shaped each other, rhetorically and politically, over the period framed by the publication of Raden Ajeng Kartini's colonial-era, Dutch language epistolary memoir From Darkness to Light (1912) and the Indonesian language, New Order-era collection Mencari Islam (Looking for Islam, 1990). This more recent volume was comprised of a series of personal histories by young Muslim writers, born in the 1960s, who authored lives deeply shaped by the Soeharto regime's heavy-handed religion and patriotic culture policies. Along the way, while covering this eighty-year span of time, anthropologist and student of literature C. W. Watson considers a mix of famous and lesser-known autobiographies, taking each as a text actively caught up in large social processes of Indonesian nationalism and narration. After his chapter on Kartini's letters (written to a Dutch acquaintance, and not so much about Indonesia per se as about "Javanese feudalism"), Watson proceeds in chronological order from Achmad Djajadiningrat's 1936 Dutch-language account of his life as a successful colonial civil servant, to Indonesian Communist Party pioneer Tan Malaka's hortatory but often cutting From Jail to Jail, to Minangkabau Muslim writer Hamka's Life Memories, to Javanese Nahdlatul Ulama figure Saifuddin Zuhri's recollections of Muslim school instruction, to Toba Batak poet and short story writer Sitor Situmorang's conflicted "Poet of Lake Toba," to sometime-expatriate woman novelist Nh Dini's Autobiography of a Javanese Childhood. This last was a work written between 1978 and 1982 at considerable feminist distance from the more canonical, masculine versions of individual lives conceptualized as personal biographies embedded in modern Indonesian national history, writ large. Except for the two earliest memoirs, all the others here were written in Indonesian, the national language--a significant choice for each writer, for all were surely fluent in their home, ethnic language as well (Javanese, Minangkabau, Toba Batak, and in the case of some of the essays in Looking for Islam, several other Sumatran languages). Social community identity formation here generally indeed did dovetail with such a language selection. For all the Indonesian language memoirists except Sitor Situmorang, national identity trumped ethnic affiliation, and personal life trajectories were put down on the printed page in these books again and again in reference not to Javaneseness or Minangkabauness and so on, but in relation to the Indonesian [End Page 620] nation, as an imagined community that Watson asserts autobiographical literature has helped to build since Kartini's time.

If Watson's conceptual aim is precise, his task as a commentator on these varied works for an English-language audience is certainly a challenging one, since not all of the autobiographies are available in English, and even Indonesian speakers from that country and abroad are not likely to have read each of these well-selected books beforehand. Indonesia specialists will likely know the books by Tan Malaka, Hamka, Sitor Situmorang, and possibly Nh Dini, but may not know the others. Watson's readership (to his credit) encompasses non-specialist college class audiences, long-time students of Indonesian literature, and social scientists and historians following Benedict Anderson's predictions in Imagined Communities (Verso, 1983) that certain forms of print literature and print capitalism in a larger, social institutional sense will be constitutive of specific forms of political thought--that is, that such types of writing as novels and newspaper journalism will be key building blocks in the social construction of ideas of nationhood in places such as the colonial-era Dutch East Indies. Watson would add autobiographical print publication to this model, and asserts further that each of the authors he considers pushed the Indonesian nationalist...


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