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Trials of fiction: We lose the battle again

  • Okky Madasari, Indonesian novelist
  • Singapore   /   Thu, December 5, 2019   /   09:25 am in

A half century after the first defeat of the imagination of a short story in court, leading to the imprisonment of leading literature critic HB Jassin, we have lost a second battle against irrationality, arrogance and backwardness.

Again we are witnessing the curbing of creativity that should otherwise flourish and bring this nation forward into the realm of reason and progress.

Back in 1968, Jassin, then-chief editor of Sastra (Literature) magazine, was jailed for blasphemy as he had published a story which had personalized God and Prophet Muhammad, a taboo in Islam. Titled Langit Makin Mendung (The Darkening Sky), it was written by Kipandjikusmin, a pen name whose real identity Jassin refused to disclose.

The courage of North Sumatra University (USU) students to bring their case to court this year sparked hope that reason would prevail this time. But the Medan State Administrative Court decided to be on the wrong side of history, ruling against the creativity of our young people.

In mid-November the court rejected a lawsuit against the rector filed by students working with the Suara USU student website who had been fired from the editorial board for publishing a short story accused of containing pornography and lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender (LBGT) issues.

The court’s ruling was not only deeply disappointing for me personally as an expert witness for the students in the case, but it profoundly hurt the already dwindling condition of freedom and freedom of expression, as well as hard-fought efforts to create a just legal system in this country.

The ruling will become a bad precedent for any case against media shutdowns and will be a dent on freedom of expression for a long time to come.

Fifty years ago, against the backdrop of the Cold War and the ghost of communism, maybe there was understandably low public support for writers and literature, compared to loud defenders of religious teachings.

But even then, the records show rigorous debates between those who accused the story of blasphemy and those who strongly believed the story was about social criticism.

Like the trial from decades ago, the Suara USU trial is not so much about legal reasoning. It’s about interpretation of the short story in question; whether the story is pornography or not, promoting LGBT or not.

As I told the court, the short story Ketika Semua Menolak Kehadiran Diriku di Dekatnya (When Everyone Refuses My Presence Near Her) is not pornography at all. A story, book or film can be categorized as pornography if it is created merely to make the audiences aroused and if the content, be it the story line or the aesthetic aspects, only serves to stimulate sexual desire and imagination.

However, the story by Yael Stefany Sinaga does not contain any suggestion of sexual stimulation or any intention of arousing sexual desire at all. It’s a story about girl falling in love with another girl and publicly expressing it, but the latter girl rejects her. When everybody finds out, including both families, the main character is heavily condemned. She feels rejected by her surroundings.

It’s as simple as that. No kissing, no hugging and certainly no sex.

The exact same thing happened with Langit Makin Mendung. Those who condemned this story refused to read and understand the whole work, focusing instead on some small parts.

While in the case of Langit Makin Mendung people were offended by the personification of Allah and Muhammad, in the latter case, the rector was only questioning the opening part of the story referring to rahim (womb), sperma (sperm) and the sentences saying that “no men will enter their thing into yours” and also, “I will not like men but will like women.”

By any means, these words and the sentences are there not to make readers aroused, but to build the fictional universe based on the writer’s imagination. If some readers get sexually aroused by this part of the story, as the rector told the students during a closed meeting, it is no fault of the writer. Thus, there is no reason for the rector to replace the editors and staff.

Instead the rector’s action counters the spirit of Law No. 12/2012 on higher education, which encourages creativity, tolerance and critical thinking.

Above all, fiction is fiction, written based on the writer’s imagination. No individual or institution, not even the court, can intervene into one’s imagination. A fiction writer deserves absolute freedom that can only be limited by her own reason and conscience.

I believe that the judges have gotten it terribly wrong. But the damage has been done, and the second cut could be much deeper.

Realizing the profound impact of the case, the verdict should be reviewed by a higher court. We may lose the battles, but hopefully, in the end, we can win the war.


Novelist and expert witness for students of North Sumatra University (USU) in a trial against the Suara USU student website, PhD candidate, former resident writer and visiting fellow at National University of Singapore.

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