Jakarta. In 1953, a woman won the literature award from Indonesia's Badan Musyawarah Kebudayaan Nasional, one of the most prestigious awards in the country at that time. She became the first woman to win the award that normally went to men like Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Mochtar Lubis or Utuy Tatang Sontani.
Her name was S. Rukiah Kertapati. Rukiah won for "Tandus" (Drought), a collection of poetry and short stories. First published in 1952, now the book has been reprinted by Bandung-based indie publisher Ultimus along with her novel "Kejatuhan dan Hati" (The Fall and the Heart) and a children book, "Pak Supi, Kakek Pengungsi" (Mr. Supi, the Refugee Grandpa).
Yerry Wirawan, one of Ultimus’ editors and a history lecturer at Sanata Dharma University, told the Jakarta Globe after the books’ launch at the Human Rights Commission headquarters in Central Jakarta on Monday (12/03) that Ultimus decided to republish Rukiah's books to resurrect an important but forgotten figure in Indonesia's literary history and give "today’s young generation the opportunity to enjoy her excellent back catalogue."
According to Ruth Indiah Rahayu, a researcher and writer at online journal IndoPROGRESS and one of the speakers at the book launch, Rukiah was a "realist" author whose stories are inspired by the day-to-day life of Indonesian women in the Revolutionary War years (1945-1949).
The female characters in Rukiah's books are often forced to make a choice whether or not to join the fight against the returning Dutch army with other young people, and most of the times their choices would affect their personal life including, yes, their romantic relationships.
In the short story "Antara Dua Gambaran" (Between Two Images), for example, the main character contemplates whether it would serve her better to marry an activist and a member of a political organization or a skeptic who stays at home and reads too many books – a storyline that some say echoes Rukiah's own life.
According to Ruth, though many male writers of Rukiah's generation also created strong, forward-thinking female protagonists, like Pramoedya did in his classic "Larasati," they were not able to delve into the female characters’ subconscious. But Rukiah could.
"We can see in Rukiah’s works, both her prose and poetry, that she had a way to describe a woman’s inner turmoil very well, she could synthesize her rational thoughts and feelings," Ruth said.
Rukiah was not without her critics, in his 1967 book "Modern Indonesian Literature," Dutch literary critic and Indonesianist A. Teeuw said: "…in her verses one finds a certain vagueness which testifies rather to inability than to strength, and in her language too, there is too little strength and tension to render her poetry moving. But her work does have an engaging honesty, and its marked nature symbolism is sometimes interesting."
But as National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) commissioner Magdalena Sitorus said at the book launch, Indonesia’s literary scene is still dominated by men, and the reason for that is because the achievements of female writers like Rukiah were often undermined by her male rivals.
Also, many female writers who had joined the Institute for People’s Culture (Lekra) – often associated with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) – have also been written out of Indonesian history after the 1965 anti-communist pogrom. Rukiah, for all her breakthroughs, deserves to be known.
A Feminist Pioneer
Rukiah was born on April 25, 1927 in Purwakarta, West Java. Purwakarta was an impoverished district during the Dutch colonial era. Many of its residents were kidnapped and sold off by the Dutch as slaves.
In 1945, Rukiah became a teacher at Sekolah Gadis Purwakarta (Puwakarta Girls School). During the Indonesian revolution, when poorly equipped guerrilla fighters tried to fight off the returning Dutch army, Rukiah joined the Red Cross to help Indonesian fighters.
At 19, Rukiah got her poems published in "Gelombang Zaman" (Zeitgeist) magazine. She also wrote for a magazine called "Godam Djelata" (The Proletariat's Hammer) published by revolutionary fighters in West Java.
One of her most notable achievements was becoming a staff member of the prestigious, male-dominated "Pujangga Baru" (New Men of Letters) literary magazine in 1948. At around the same time, she also worked for "Mimbar Indonesia" (Indonesian Lectern) and "Indonesia" magazines.
Rukiah also published a weekly magazine called "Irama" herself in Purwakarta, from around April 1949. Her career peaked in the 1950s. In 1950, she was made a secretary for Pujangga Baru after she moved to Jakarta. She also published her novel Kejatuhan dan Hati, initially as part of a special edition of Pujangga Baru in December 1950 and then as a standalone book by Pustaka Rakyat.
After moving to Bandung in 1951, Rukiah became an editor for children’s magazine "Tjendrawasih." The next year, she married Sidik Kertapati, a young politician, and published Tandus.
In 1953, she won the BKMN award and gave birth to her first child. Sidik was a parliament member and also active in the Indonesian Peasants Front (BTI), while Rukiah combined writing with political activism in Lekra. Both organizations were affiliated with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Records of the Lekra national congress in January 1959 in Solo, Central Java, stated that Rukiah was a member of Lekra’s literary wing, Lestra, alongside Pramoedya Ananta Toer.
In 1958, Rukiah published Pak Supi: Kakek Pengungsi, a children’s story about a poor old man who moves to a nearby village after his house was burned down by people who were anti-Sukarno – Indonesia's left-leaning first president.
Pak Supi is just one of many children’s books by Rukiah. Yerry from Ultimus – that plans to republish more of these once popular children's books – said Rukiah wrote them because she wanted to pass on her thoughts to the next generation.
Ruth meanwhile said the women characters in Rukiah’s earlier novels represented a generation who went through the revolution, while the children in her later novels represented the post-revolution generation.
"[The children's books] also redefined Indonesian children’s imagination of what heroes were supposed to be like, because the meaning of that contentious word had shifted dramatically after the revolution," Ruth said.
Rukiah traveled Europe for six months in the 1960s when at one point she delivered a speech at a writers’ congress in East Germany. She also kept writing for "Api Kartini" (Kartini's Fire), "Zaman Baru" (New Age), "Harian Rakjat" (People's Daily) and "Lentera" (Torch).
Imprisonment and Buried Dreams
Rukiah’s involvement in Lekra ended in 1965 after the organization was banned along with the PKI after the 1965-1966 mass killings of Indonesian communists. Her husband went into exile in China, before moving to the Netherlands in the 1980s.
Rukiah herself was imprisoned from 1967 to 1969. After she was freed and returned to Purwakarta, she abandoned writing for good.
Since she was separated from her husband, Rukiah had to take care of their six children alone. She baked and sold cookies to support her family.
Her books were not talked about anymore and her poems and short stories were taken out of anthologies, including H. B. Jassin’s famous "Gema Tanah Air: Prosa dan Puisi" (Echoes of Motherland: Prose and Poems).
The feminist pioneer died in her hometown in 1996, where she was buried along with her dreams.
"The New Order killed Rukiah’s literary career. That’s one of the regime's biggest sins in my opinion, stopping a woman writer in the peak of her career from doing the one thing she loved," Ruth told the Jakarta Globe.