An introduction to the work of Afrizal Malna
Asked about his conception of poetry in a 2001 interview with Spanish poet and translator Emilio Araúxo, Afrizal Malna wrote, “Poetry doesn’t live in itself. Poetry lives in the reader who is open to their own memories, their various private and social experiences. Everything that we consider fixed in its position, through the semiotic play of poetry, can attain new correspondences. Those positions open wide and defy us to join them together with fresh contrasts and combinations.” This formulation of poetry as an agent of relation and renewal, with its insistence on the possibilities that the intimate encounter between reader and text can engender and its emphasis on the loosening and reconfiguring of fixed thought, expresses an ethos that resonates throughout Malna’s vast body of work. Over nearly forty years (and counting), Malna has written dozens of poetry books and playscripts, innumerable literary and art critical essays (many of which have now been collected in book form), a collection of short stories, and a couple of novels, in addition to occasional performance art pieces and installations.
Malna was born in Jakarta in 1957, shortly before the fall of the Sukarno regime and the violent, chaotic advent of General Suharto’s New Order (1965). The New Order lasted until 1998, when Suharto stepped down from the seat of power following the Asian financial crisis, mass social unrest, and a tenacious, determined student activist movement that forced his hand. The thirty-two years of the New Order regime were rife with corruption, collusion, nepotism, and militarism. A totalitarian rhetoric of national identity and economic development reigned supreme on the national scale. It was in this cultural climate that Malna, after leaving university studies in philosophy at Sekolah Tinggi Filsafat Driyarkara, began on his path as a writer, artist, and performer.
Malna first came to public prominence in the early ’80s through his decade-long involvement with Jakarta-based experimental theater company Teater Sae, for whom he wrote scripts to be directed by his confidante and collaborator Boedi S. Otong. His first collection of poems, Abad Yang Berlari [The running century], was immediately lauded, winning the Jakarta Arts Council’s award for poetry in 1984.
In the mid-1980s, after renouncing the poems of The Running Century for their unreality and idealism, and in the midst of a rapidly developing industrial commodity culture, Malna’s focus shifted to the relationships between people and objects, and objects and objects. The poems became densely, chaotically peopled by refrigerators and roofs, photocopiers and drainage canals, microphones, flashlights, pills, and neon signs. This irruption of the objects of industrializing urban life into the space of poetry, replete with their ambivalence, despair, ecstasy, confusion, and perversion of traditional lifestyles and values, was an offense to Indonesia’s official verse culture of the time, which tended towards various registers of the love poem and abstract, idealized evocations of the natural bounty of Indonesia, an aesthetic that bolstered the liberal illusion of a free, apolitical art so keenly desired by the US-backed, hypercapitalist New Order.
In Malna’s poems, the dichotomies of natural and artificial, internal and external, symbolic and real collapse into one another, giving rise to startling juxtapositions and unpredictable affects. Formally, a reader versed in twentieth century European avant-gardes will sense affinities with the dreamlike chance encounters of Surrealism and the anarchic dynamism of Dadaism, aesthetics that, like Malna’s, developed amidst massive public trauma and accelerated social change. Yet, in contrast with the European historical avant-garde’s desires to dispense with the past, Malna’s work insists on a kind of social responsibility, remaining rooted in notions of self-expression; figures and symbols of traditional Indonesian cultures; and a postcolonial politic that opposes imperialism, fascism, and capitalist exploitation and alienation while steering clear of conventional leftist dogma. Take his 1985 poem, “Asia Reads,” for example:
The sun is free now from its decor. But we still face the same sky, the same land. Asia. After the gods leave, it becomes new again on TV; after the decimating times, and an old tale calls out once more from other nations, each word there starts to smell of gasoline. And we unravel again through other clothes. Asia. Ships open the market, replacing dragons and cows with natural gas. Bring us before a ringing phone.
There we wither, in a gamble of disparate forces. Delivering speechlessness into becoming an evening stroll. Asia. Then we go into new decor, new flags, a whole other love, obtaining a day that exceeds time: Reading that can’t be read, writing that can’t be written.
The land glistens, glassy, there, smell the human odor, keeping us from all eras. Asia. We once again comprehend the ocean’s splash, from where the ancestors send birds, fashioning word. Asia’s only been found, like nights searching for a missing clod of earth: the place where language was born.
Though often critical, Malna’s work is distinctively uninstrumentalized. It refuses particular sociopolitical uses, facile moralizing, and clear-cut messaging. However, Malna never argues for the autonomy of the poem either, rather seeing it as a live entity, an agent of possibility in the push-and-pull of the individual lived realities that together compose the social. His critique is one that abides in confusion, in the messiness of the social, personal, and historical relations that official language regimes attempt to flatten out and dismiss through the simplifying false clarity of solutions and their claims. Ever wary of “language’s representational walls, which are obscured in the constructions of history,” Malna insists on writing from his body and its myriad memories and experiences, “a language,” he writes, “before words.” While a study of the nuanced complexity of his notion of writing from the body exceeds the parameters of this introduction, it’s important to emphasize the endeavor to get out from under the social programing of dominant language regimes — and the rote practice of social relations they entail — that animates Malna’s writing.
This feature includes poems from The Running Century (1984), No Dog in My Mother’s Womb (2002), and Prometheus Pinball (forthcoming September 2020), along with an essay, “Strolling around in language,” from At The Limits of Every Nowadays (2017), and an interview conducted in September 2019.
Despite Malna’s claim that his first book, The Running Century, reads more like “Indonesian literature” than a poetry of his own, one can see in it the surprising, ambiguous juxtapositions, dark humor, and repetition that would remain hallmarks in his later poems. “Hotel Architecture” in particular prefigures Malna’s mature style.
No Dog in My Mother’s Womb was written in in the midst of the violent social upheaval leading up to the end of the New Order and the beginning of Reformasi — the period of governmental restructuring, democratization, and increased freedoms of speech — that followed it. After participating in the mass movement that helped force Suharto to step down as President in May 1998, Malna stopped writing for a period of five years or so. During this time, he devoted his attention primarily to working with Jakarta’s Urban Poor Consortium (UPC) as an activist supporting antieviction and self-determination struggles in communities facing loss of livelihood and home in the name of development.
Prometheus Pinball is Malna’s most recent work, finished early in 2020 and as of this writing unpublished. With Prometheus Pinball, Malna worked with the vast archives made possible by the internet to excavate, renew, and reconfigure his memories of the past. Initially conceived as an autobiography and personal history of Jakarta, the resulting poems configure an archive of their own, tracing and “seeking out the collisions” that inform this biography. “Archives,” Malna writes in the book’s introduction, “are fireflies for the darkness of memory. … Archives as our captain through the darknesses of biography, seeking out shores on which to land. Archives constitute an ecosystem for remembrance.”
This selection of poems is intended to give the reader a sense of the breadth of Malna’s poetics over the years, while the essay and interview focus in depth on his recent concerns.
1. Afrizal Malna, Dalam Rahim Ibuku Tak Ada Anjing [No dog in my mother’s womb] (Yogyakarta, Indonesia: Bentang Budaya, 2002), 75. All Malna quotations in this introduction have been translated from the original Indonesian by Daniel Owen.