Folio: A Conversation About Activist, Poet Wiji Thukul's Poetry Collection

Okky Madasari, founder of the Muara Foundation and organizer of the Asean Literary Festival. (JG Photo/Abdul Qowi Bastian)

By : webadmin | on 5:25 PM June 08, 2014
Category : Archive

Fajar Merah was only a toddler when her father Wiji Thukul went missing in 1998. Wiji, a prominent poet and activist, disappeared sixteen years ago this month during a turmoil that ushered the nation into a Reformation era.

Fajar, now in his early 20s, has grown up to be a singer-songwriter in his hometown of Central Java. Following his father’s footsteps, he thrives to make a living from words, demanding justice and answers on his father's whereabouts in his lyrics.

Wiji, born in Solo on August 24, 1963, was honored an Asean Literary Figure at this year’s inaugural Asean Literary Festival, the first literary award ever bestowed upon him. He received Yap Thiam Hien Award in 2002 for human rights advocation.

His most famous line “Hanya ada satu kata: Lawan!” (“There is only one word: Fight!”) from the poem “Peringatan” (“Warning”) has become a cry among student and labor demonstrators, resonating not only during the last days of the New Order era but even today.

Wiji was an integral actor in the fight against strongman Suharto’s authoritarian regime, but now that the freedom he longed for has been acquired, he was not around to experience it.

The Asean Literary Festival dubbed Wiji as its icon and made his poems the theme of the event. Today, founder of the Muara Foundation Okky Madasari, who organized the festival, has compiled Wiji’s poems and turned them into a book. “It is his most complete works yet,” Okky, an award-winning novelist, told the Jakarta Globe recently.

Through his poems, Wiji voiced the concerns of the poor and explicitly portrayed their struggle. Most of his works are about the lives of the oppressed and those living in poverty. As the son of a pedicab driver, poverty was never too far from Wiji’s life. Even today, his family still struggles to make a living.

His wife Siti Dyah Surijah, or Sipon, is a housewife. Their daughter Fitri Nganti Wani was recently married while the youngest Fajar plays music following his father’s artistry footsteps.

Upon receiving Wiji's award, Fitri said in her acceptance speech: “This award further convinces me that what my mother said was true: My father was a good man who was kidnapped by the authority.”

Fajar, later that night, remembered his father by singing his father’s poems to enthusiastic audience.

“What’s the use of reading books, if your mouth is silenced?” he sang, adapted from Wiji’s poems titled “Di Bawah Selimut Kedamaian Palsu” (“Underneath the False Sense of Peace”).

I spoke to Okky about Wiji’s book of poems released earlier this year titled “Nyanyian Akar Rumput” (“Grassroots Hymn”), what it means for Indonesia and how Wiji would be indifferent towards the 2014 elections.

How did you get involved in publishing Wiji’s book of poems?

This is a project of Muara Foundation. We held the first Asean Literary Festival this year. We wanted to bring acts of injustice to the limelight through cultures, especially literature. We searched for an icon, for someone who can become the symbol to spread the issue and we chose Wiji Thukul.

We decided to republish Wiji’s works that are rare to find now. His last book “Aku Ingin Menjadi Peluru” (“I Want to Be a Bullet”) was released in 1999, just a short time after Reformasi. We thought that the young generation ought to read his works by republishing his poems and making them available in bookstores. So I approached [major publisher] Gramedia Pustaka Utama because of their massive channel of distribution.

How did you acquire his works, especially the rare ones?

I contacted Wiji’s younger brother, Wahyu Susilo, to ask his permission to republish Wiji’s poems. He welcomed the idea and helped to provide Wiji’s previously unpublished poems. This book is his most complete works yet. Then I asked Arman Dhani to compile all the poems altogether. I picked the title “Nyanyian Akar Rumput”.

Why did you settle on Wiji Thukul to be the icon of the first Asean Literary Festival?

He is a poet and a victim of injustice. If you read his poems, they are loaded with the fight against injustice, against the system that harms the people. Most people only know Wiji as an activist who went missing, but never read his works. But when you actually read, you would think how can someone think so critically during a repressive era? How can he write poems so bold? He is a literary canon who cannot be erased from the Indonesian history. The New Order did not acknowledge him ... Well, the New Order eliminated anyone who was critical of the era. And the nation’s literary state did not honor him, as if he was a mere demonstrator who just happens to write poems.

But critics say that what Wiji wrote do not fall under the category of literature. His choice of words were too simple. What is your response to such criticisms? 

I don’t think that literary works must use grandiose words. Even though he used daily conversational words, Wiji’s poems are still literary works. Take this for example, “Hujan melindungiku malam ini” (“Tonight, the rain protects me”). I think that line is hauntingly beautiful. It’s a way of him telling that he was being chased by the army and the rain protected him in hiding.

The beauty of Wiji’s works does not stop on the surface, he did not toy around with empty words. The beauty of his works lies in the meanings, in the contents of his poems.

What is your favorite?

I like the one about the elections [“Hari Itu Aku Akan Bersiul-Siul” or “On That Day I Will Whistle”]. During the New Order, the people were forced to vote for Golkar [Suharto’s election vehicle]. He voiced the golput [non-voting bloc] so elegantly. ‘On the election day, I will whistle proclaiming my independence'. That is an irony where on the election day he opted to not use his rights to vote where everybody else was forced to. And he asked himself, what would change after the election day? Would there be food in his kitchen? But he conveyed the message so eloquently.

Has there been any change in the election system since the New Order until today? If Wiji could participate in this year’s election, do you think he would vote?

The system has changed, the election now is more open. But in my view, Wiji would still read that poem and decided to not go to the polling booth. Because we see here that the people running for office they don’t have stellar track records. After they get voted to sit in the House of Representatives, what change would be visible, in Wiji’s words, in my kitchen? It is sad to see people who are accused of human rights violations in the past are now contesting the election. The same people he hated during the New Order era.

Is it intentional to publish the book in election year?

No, not at all. We have planned this long ago, it only materialized in 2014. I personally with Muara Foundation never intend to use this book to attack anybody politically. But when those of the younger generation become inspired to be politically active, to be aware of voting, to choose whom to vote for, that is the goal. This book is intended to raise awareness towards injustices, politics and the corruption [happening] all around us.

Folio is a virtual shelf for thoughts and conversations about the written word and other products of one's literary musings. Readers are welcome to submit book reviews, poems, stories and other pieces to 

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