Author Leila S. Chudori talks about her new book 'The Sea Speaks His Name' at the Institut Francais d’Indonésie in Central Jakarta on Dec. 12. Beside Leila are Wahyu Susilo and Nezar Patria. (Photo courtesy of Magnifique PR)

Leila Chudori's New Novel Speaks About Missing 1998 Activists


DECEMBER 18, 2017

Jakarta. More than 500 silent rallies have already been held in front of the State Palace, each Thursday, demanding that the government investigate well-known cases of human rights abuses, including the disappearance of activists during the 1998 protests against Suharto's regime.

"The Sea Speaks His Name," a new novel by writer and journalist Leila S. Chudori, describes the activists' families struggle for truth and justice.

Originally launched during the Ubud Writers and Readers and Festival in October, the book instantly became a commercial success. It was re-launched at the Institut Francais d'Indonésie in Central Jakarta on Dec. 12, on Leila's birthday.

The event featured screening of the book's short film adaptation by Pritagita Arianegara, starring Reza Rahadian, Dian Sastrowardoyo, Ayushita, Tio Pakusadewo and Aryani Willems.

It was a long journey for Leila to complete the 379-page novel. The idea came in 2008, when she was in charge of Tempo magazine's special edition about former President Suharto.

She asked fellow journalist Nezar Patria, a survivor of the 1998 abductions, to write about his ordeal. Moved by the testimony, Leila decided to write a fictional account.

"The characters took shape first. After that, I made further research and interviewed other survivors," said Leila, whose previous novel "Home" described the anti-communist purges in 1965.

Tales From the Sea

The "sea" in the title refers to the main character's name and tragic fate. University student Biru Laut, whose name means "the blue of the sea," dies by drowning. He speaks from under the sea, telling the reader about his journey, fears, involvement in organizations, hiding, arrest, torture and death.

The second half of the novel depicts Laut's family and friends trying to find him and deal with his absence.

Told from the perspective of Asmara Jati, Laut's little sister, it shows stages of grief — from denial to acceptance. Their father always leaves an empty plate on the dining table, their mother cooks Laut's favorite food.

His friends, activists who survived, feel guilty for being alive. Later they establish human rights organizations.

Nezar said during the book launch that a feeling guilt is indeed there whenever he meets with fellow activists. Conversations always turn somber as they remember their lost friends.

"I don't know why some of us came back and some didn't. I feel like I owe them. It's like a nightmare that keeps coming back."

The novel ends with Laut's letter to his sister about moving on. It is "sent" from the depths of the sea.

Asmara and others answer with little ships carrying flowers and photographs of the missing — in a symbolic funeral.

Wahyu Susilo, Migrant Care chairman and brother of abducted activist, poet Wiji Thukul, said the book sends a message that the missing activists will not be forgotten.

"Perhaps these works don't send our leaders into action, but they can make the young generation realize they wouldn't have freedom of speech, had it not been for these activists," Wahyu said, recalling Yosep Anggi Noen's "Istirahatlah Kata-Kata" ("Solo, Solitude"), a biopic on Wiji Thukul.

Leila said she was touched when the families thanked her for bringing back the issue. But after all it is a work of fiction, she said, with no intention to educate or preach.

"I didn't want to be pedantic. I just wanted to tell the story. If there are certain issues that seem like a political mission, I leave to the readers' interpretation," she said.