Afrizal Malna in conversation with Daniel Owen
Note: On Friday, September 7, 2019, Afrizal Malna and I met at the Warunk Upnormal in the Cikini area of Jakarta, not far from Afrizal’s home at the time and even closer to Taman Ismail Marzuki Arts Center, a significant hub of creative activity in Jakarta where he’d spent much time over the years. Though we’d met for coffee and conversation a number of times in Cikini, this was the first time at Upnormal, and the first time our conversation was recorded (and later transcribed and translated into English for the purposes of this feature). On this occasion we were celebrating the publication of my translation of Document Shredding Museum (Reading Sideways Press). We were joined in the early part of the afternoon by Andy Fuller, translator of Afrizal’s Anxiety Myths (Lontar Foundation), and, along with his partner Nuraini Juliastuti, publisher of Reading Sideways Press. Our conversation was accompanied by black coffee, clove cigarettes, and the endless stream of traffic moving along Jalan Cikini Raya. — Daniel Owen
Daniel Owen: This interview is going to be for a context and an audience that is largely unfamiliar with your work and probably with Indonesian literature on the whole. So, because of this, I want to ask some general questions about the specific books of yours whose poems are published in this feature, going chronologically from the beginning of your writing, and also talk about the overarching themes and ideas in your work.
How did you start writing poetry?
Afrizal Malna: I’m someone who lives in the Indonesian language, and that language is not a mother tongue. It’s a language that’s been formed by the market, formed by politics. After a while, Indonesian became a distinct culture of its own in my life. That culture, because I live in Jakarta, has been shaped by a city that resembles Frankenstein, you know, a city that’s been built up, torn down again, built up, torn down again. It’s been smashed to pieces, but it keeps on going, and Indonesia depends heavily on this city. Or this city depends heavily on Indonesia.
And behind all that there’s something called Indonesian poetry. So, Indonesian poetry, for me, when I began writing poetry — I began to write poetry somewhat seriously in high school — all my poems were clearly situated in an Indonesian natural realm: tropical climate, rain, exoticism … mountains, clouds, the moon … none of which exist in the Indonesian language, and certainly not in Jakarta.
So when I examined my early writings, this was the main problem, that the world isn’t this rich world of bounty, it’s actually a world that has already shifted immensely. So I tried to track these shifts and to figure out how they could be integrated into my poems. That’s what led me to ask myself: why aren’t there any damaged roads in my poems? why aren’t there any smashed-up refrigerators in my poems? why aren’t there any basketball courts?
In the beginning, when I first started writing poetry, all of this stuff was considered unpoetic, as if poetry lived in a distinct orbit all its own, and so I tried to give a divergent kind of spin to that orbit, which gave rise to the poems I wrote after Abad Yang Berlari [The running century]. Abad Yang Berlari was my first collection of poetry and that book brought me to swear to myself that I would split away from Indonesian poetry. So then I entered into the poems that followed. Starting with Yang Berdiam Dalam Mikropon [The quiet ones in the microphone], Mitos Kecemasan [Anxiety myths], and then the books that followed. So I guess something along those lines is what I can convey to my readers, to give a sense of the context, the kinds of concerns these poems deal with.
The second thing is that the Indonesian language is not a language of the home. If we go back to Indonesian homes, people still, for the most part, speak a local language. Which makes Indonesian a language that lives in the streets, you know? And this fact has a significant influence on the movement, on the movement-space in my poems.
Owen: What language did you speak at home when you were young?
Malna: My parents are both from Bukittinggi, but I don’t really know the history of their backgrounds. After my father passed away, I tried to look into that history. He left Bukittinggi for Jakarta right around the time of the PRRI War. I’m not sure if there’s a connection there with my family’s migrating to Jakarta. It could be because of politics or because of the economy, because in that era Indonesia’s financial conditions went through a … what do you call it? … the value of the rupiah kept falling. Maybe that’s why my father brought the family to Jakarta and I was subsequently born in Jakarta.
And what’s interesting about this is that my parents only spoke Minang with each other. Mom and Dad spoke Minang with each other, or when they visited with their siblings and extended family. But when they spoke with their kids, they spoke Indonesian. So I was almost never truly shaped by a local language, or by the Minang language in this case. I can only understand a tiny bit of Minang. That’s what made me go even deeper into Indonesian. But the Indonesian language doesn’t belong to anyone. Well, now the state is trying to rule the language through the institutions they’ve created.
Owen: That’s been going on for a while now, right?
Malna: It’s been going on since the New Order, intensively at least, perfecting the spelling and all that. And so it was already too late for me to live in an Indonesian language that I could make up myself. Because, for me, everyone creates the Indonesian language. This is a democratic language, everyone can turn this language into their own creative language. Which is why I almost don’t care at all about the rules and regulations that the powers that govern the Indonesian language keep making up. Including what’s going on now. They’re making up so many new vocabularies. Which, to me, are just as foreign as a foreign language, because, in my estimation, these new elements of language exist because people are using them. And so there’s something that’s making them necessary. If that something wasn’t there, why would we make it up? For example, they’re trying to find Indonesian language equivalents for internet terms, like unduh, for … what is it? For upload, for download … unduh, download, upload, for me they’re all just as foreign as the other.
Owen: Where does unduh come from anyway?
Malna: Maybe from Javanese … unduh, unggah. Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s Javanese. And of course Javanese is a far richer language than Indonesian. Maybe five times richer, perhaps.
Owen: As I was preparing things for this interview, I read an interview with you from maybe three years ago, from BBC Indonesia, mostly about your rejection of the Bakrie Award. And, in that article, you talk about this issue too, about the Indonesian language absorbing new vocabularies from foreign languages. Why do you think these new vocabularies are being formed, and how do you conceive of these new elements of language in your writing process or within the poems themselves? I mean, you often use these new vocabularies in your recent work, especially in Buka Pintu Kiri [Open the left door) and Berlin Proposal.
Malna: For me … well, the vocabulary that I have now is still good enough to communicate with, to think, to write poetry. And then when this new mess of scattered words appears, it swells up the Indonesian language. Personally, I’m not really consumerist enough to use most of these new vocabularies. If, for example, I use some words from them, like meretas [to hack], it’s because I like their sound maybe, you know. I choose them for the sound factor.
Owen: Is irony a factor too?
Malna: Maybe irony’s a factor too, yeah. Something along those lines. I think this is an interesting problem. How a generation like mine deals with language as a postcolonial product. And the question is, how does this language survive and how does this language attain actual content, so it’s not merely a kind of label, you know?
I imagine that if, for instance, the intellectual climate of Indonesia was strong enough, and our education was oriented towards teaching kids to be critical, to teach them from the start to think and to question, to find their own answers … that could be a way to elucidate the need for certain words. Because, obviously, language use would be based on people’s daily needs. If, for example, we were oriented towards being a critical society. Our society, Indonesian society, hasn’t really reached that level. Indonesian society still tends to memorize. It stops at memorization, so even the words that we use are more like labels, because there isn’t a process, a platform, a way of life that is critical, beginning in the home and then moving outward from there. At home we’re not encouraged to be critical either. For instance, it’s impossible for an Indonesian family to talk at home about what God is. It’s just impossible for parents to get involved in a discussion about what God is with their children. It’s almost unimaginable in Indonesia.
Owen: Maybe we should change the subject to something a little more limited [laughter] … Going back to Abad Yang Berlari, you’ve often said that you consider that book to be Indonesian poetry rather than your own poetry. How did you arrive at a point where you felt that your writing was yours or something that you made yourself rather than something made by Indonesian literature?
Malna: Abad Yang Berlari is a collection of poetry born of an environment where Indonesia was just starting to really be connected to technology … the establishment of oil refineries, the use of electric power. That era was colored by oil. Technology and oil. And at the same time, it was the era when my generation watched that film … what’s it called? … about nuclear war, you know … The Day After … nuclear war, the Cold War, the third world war, fear of nuclear war … and so our themes tended to head in that direction, the arrival of new hotels, new forms of transactions, and that’s what lead to the book being given the title Abad Yang Berlari. Its sense is rather thematic, fit to the themes of the collection.
But as far as the way it was written goes, it wasn’t really integrated with my experiences in Jakarta. And so when it was published, I felt, this isn’t my poetry. The question then became, what are you writing from? Maybe you’re writing poetry from poetry. So then I tried to ask how could you write from your body? Because it’s your body that experiences. How can you confirm with your body? And that was a difficult time.
For a few years there, I got involved in a variety of social circles around art, so that was the beginning of my socializing in the wide world of art. Not just literature but also theater and visual art. And philosophy too. I tried out a few things around then — among others, I was still using a typewriter. One of them, for instance, was typing while buck naked, in order to be conscious of my body, until eventually I felt like, ok, these are my poems. I’m talking about a shifting ecosystem. I started to make … sentences. For example, “midnight plate.” Night wasn’t attached to darkness or to the moon anymore, but attached to a plate,. Something totally other. Or night was marked by someone beating an electrical pole. So I started from there, going into sentence forms that were totally different. Or … “this chocolate is for you, don’t be sad,” you know. But with chocolate standing in for happiness. So I attached a kind of vision to a divergent construction.
Owen: In Abad Yang Berlari, there are several significant references to poets, namely Chairil Anwar and Sutardji Calzoum Bachri, who are considered innovators of Indonesian poetry. At that time, how did you view those poets? And since then, how has your perception of them changed?
Malna: Those two poets are important for me because they both very powerfully imbued words with energy. Words became something of a different figuration in their works, and that kind of dexterity is unrepeatable. Although I don’t know to what extent Chairil’s intellectual space was influenced by poets from abroad. Because, according to some, his poems were very similar to those that came out of the first world war, and those poems were broken, stiff, collapsed. There were a lot of poems like this in Europe at that time. And Chairil picked up on a lot of that, which was very relatable to the conditions in Indonesian around the independence era. As for Sutardji, I felt like he invited me — he invited the reader — to experience words as bodies that move on their own. And that’s why I like the two of them.
Owen: Since then, when you were young and wrote Abad Yang Berlari, have there been any other poets who have informed your work like these two?
Malna: Who have influenced me?
Owen: Yeah. Or maybe, more precisely … because of course you read a lot, right … how has literature, from Indonesia or from abroad, influenced your work and your thinking?
Malna: I didn’t read much literature from abroad at that time.
Owen: I mean, from then till now. If there’s anyone or anything in particular …
Malna: There are a few … I’ve participated in a few international festivals. And I usually try to translate the poetry I hear at these festivals via Google. And then I turn that into a kind of means of reflection: oh, so this is what their poetry is like; oh, so poetry’s developing like this in Sweden, in Europe it’s like this. It’s just that I forget the poets’ names. And I wouldn’t say they’ve really influenced me. It’s more like a way for me to be in conversation with foreign writers and what they’re doing. So I engage in a kind of corroboration. Oh, this is what they’re doing, oh, this poetry is like this … it’s the same with your poetry too. I engage with these works as a means of performing a corroboration. And honestly the question is, where is this all going to go? Something along those lines, I think. It becomes …
Owen: A corroboration in what sense?
Malna: A corroboration in the sense of a … mmm … this is how they treat the space of a poem … and then so how am I doing it?
Owen: Like making a different space of relation?
Owen: I’d like to ask you about Dalam Rahim Ibuku, Tak Ada Anjing [No dog in my mother’s womb], a book that’s quite different from Abad Yang Berlari. In my reading, the poems in this book feel rowdy, teeming with energy. All of your books after Abad Yang Berlari, actually, have this kind of new energy. But I think the energy in Dalam Rahim Ibuku, Tak Ada Anjing is even more animated, wilder — for example in “Teman-Teman Baruku” [My new friends]. So I’d like to ask you, generally, about this book. About your process in writing it and about the concerns in these poems.
Malna: OK, let’s put it this way: I stay close to the ways I view the changes in the ways things are produced. Like in my era when photocopiers first appeared. OK, so now there’s a photocopier. What is happening in this world? This is a world that is now utterly changed. Or when Coca-Cola first appeared. Or Teh Botol. How something that we usually would have made at home could now be served out in public, in a package, and that’s what’s really influenced me — because I’m asking, which is more enjoyable, my poetry or Coca-Cola. So that’s what’s really influenced me, rather than people’s works.
And maybe that’s what makes those poems feel rowdy too, because suddenly all of these industrial products brought so much culture into these little homes. And I’ve gone through some very radical changes. The ways media has changed, for example; going from living with Petromax lamps to electric lamps, you know. I mean, electricity coming into people’s homes. Putting telephones in people’s homes, that too was a kind of shock for me. There’s a telephone in the house, how is it possible I can suddenly be connected to so many things? And then the shift from the typewriter to the computer and now to the digital. So all of this becomes the object of attention, how the means of production enter into my writing process.
Maybe a more precise way of saying it would be that I’m like a stove that can cook whatever. And I’m not the cook. I’m just the stove. So we can imagine that my poems emerge from that stove. They don’t emerge from the cook, they emerge from the stove.
Owen: Ibed Surgana Yuga, in his introduction to your collection of plays, Teks-Cacat di Luar Tubuh Aktor [Defective texts outside the actor’s body], writes “We’re familiar with Afrizal and Teater Sae’s work as a form of stage and text aesthetic that consciously clashed against the New Order.” What do you think of this statement? Do you think of your work as having consciously clashed against the New Order?
Malna: I don’t know if it was conscious or unconscious. I could only come to an understanding of this after the New Order was gone. Once the New Order was over, I thought to myself, alright, these poems are a product of the New Order. If these poems are a product of the New Order, can they clash against the New Order?
Obviously, these poems occurred in the context of the New Order. How the state had endeavored to shape everything in that era, including language. And I wanted to get out of that. So, if I wanted to get out of it, does that mean I clashed against the New Order? However, throughout that period my poems were considered safe.
Owen: I’d like to ask you about Prometheus Pinball, your most recent, as yet unpublished, work. Are you still working on it regularly?
Malna: I am. It’s really difficult.
Owen: How far have you gotten in the writing?
Malna: After the work I sent you, it hasn’t budged. I’ve tried to get it going again, but it hasn’t happened yet. But anyway, what do you think of it?
Owen: I think the engagement with language and thought is closer to Museum Penghancur Dokumen [Document shredding museum], compared to Berlin Proposal or Buka Pintu Kiri [Open the left door]. It’s clearly interested in the collisions between a self and history and the city. And it feels more like an attempt to … not unravel, but … how to say it … there’s some element of unraveling in its effort to make relations, to relate one thing to another, like crafting a new arrangement in its weaving. But a woven arrangement that’s also trying to unravel itself at the same time.
Malna: Maybe that’s a good way to put it. It’s not, in itself, colliding against anything, but seeking out the collisions that are already there.
Owen: Yeah. Also, the various elements of history that are raised are quite interesting in relation to each other too. The connections between events in Europe and events in Indonesia, for example.
Actually, the next question I’d like to ask you has to do with this. As with other books of yours that have come out in recent years, there’s a lot of information, a lot of historical data that appears in Prometheus Pinball.
Malna: Yeah, true.
Owen: Is that related to changes in the political climate after reformasi? The increased openness of information? What’s informed those changes?
Malna: I suppose that what’s informed those changes is that I’m living in the Google era now. Most likely just because of that alone. In the Google era, a question arises: who am I in this era? I’m connected to so many things, you know. Am I now the I that I am when connected with some particular thing? And when that I isn’t connected with that particular thing, is it not there?
So “I” becomes a form of activism within a network whose relations we curate. Of course then there’s the factor of how we curate those relations. And what’s interesting is that in Prometheus Pinball, I’m working with a timeline of ten-year intervals. Using this timeline, I’m often surprised by just how much data I didn’t know about. How can relations occur with data that in its era I knew nothing about? Much of this data is already dead data too. What is this data for? Or is it just a kind of label? There are a variety of questions like this that have led me to scrutinize the quality of the relations that I engage. Why am I relating to this or to that.
But my experience with using data in works of literature began with Teater Sae. In the years around 1991, 1993, that was the era when mass print media was still strong. Mass print media like Kompas and Tempo would make annual reports, by field, at the end of each year. An economic report, a political report, and so on. And those reports contained tons of data. And so my question was — and this was good data too — whether data could be used for aesthetic purposes. And at that time I kind of boldly put that data into the scripts I was writing for Teater Sae, but not yet into poems.
Owen: Like a collage.
Malna: Yeah, like a collage. Like a collage that was made — that obtained its specific moment — when it was performed. Last July, a theater group restaged old Teater Sae performances, they were performed at TIM (Taman Ismail Marzuki). They restaged three performances that were put together into one program: Biografi Yanti Setelah 12 Menit [A biograph of Yanti after twelve minutes], Pertumbuhan di Atas Meja Makan [Growth on the dinner table], and Migrasi dari Ruang Tamu [Migration from the living room]. And what was interesting was that the viewers laughed when they saw that text. How data about education in Indonesia was related to the production of condoms in Indonesia and how sexual relationships and romantic relationships changed because of condoms. And the new generation laughed and laughed, and there happened to be a group from London that attended the performance, because there was a translation. That group too, oh, this script is still very relevant. And I felt quite … it made me feel quite confident actually — ok, so it can happen like this, huh. And those plays were written twenty years ago.
In the poems, I started using data intensively, as an aesthetic element, in Berlin Proposal. That was a collection of poems where I really learned to transform data into the body of a different strain of poem.
Owen: As for Prometheus Pinball, could you tell us generally about the work and your process in writing it?
Malna: The general idea is the memories of my past. I thought, I have these memories, what do they mean? For the most part, those memories have already disappeared from Jakarta. Because Jakarta is a city that’s constantly being torn down and taken apart. My old recollections were destroyed along with these changes. So Jakarta is incapable of being the city of my memories. And I felt that these memories could be something of interest.
I’ve been trying to read a bunch of books about Jakarta. There’s not much that reflects my memories in the books either. There’s one book though that I think is extremely interesting, Tempat Terbaik di Dunia [The best place in the world]. It’s the result of research conducted in an impoverished neighborhood, maybe in North Jakarta, by Roanne van Voorst, published by Marjin Kiri. Then there’s one more, Sejarah Jakarta 400 Tahun [Four hundred years of the history of Jakarta]. I forget who wrote it [ed. note: it was written by Susan Blackburn and published by Komunitas Bambu]. It’s very good at unraveling the history of Jakarta. Anyway, my main plan is to create a … to create? … to rearticulate these memories in a new body. What I mean by a new body is a body that’s connected to all this stuff, that’s related to so much around it.
Oh, it might be relevant to mention that I’ve also learned a lot from visual art, for example the work of Ho Tzu Nyen. Or, actually, before that, the film The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer, about that butcher, the communist killer from Medan, how that film engaged what you could call a new dramaturgy. Between those who are acted on and those who act, between those who are victimized and those who do the victimizing, how it’s all made to occur in the same body. And that was really interesting for me … how history could be disentangled, contradicted within the same body. In order for a totally different reverberation to occur.
And then when I was in Berlin a few years ago I met Ho Tzu Nyen, an artist from Singapore who happened to be in the same residency program with me at DAAD in Berlin. We often talked, and at that time he was working on a project researching a book about Malaysian Communism, which was destroyed in 1948. Like what happened in Indonesian in ’48 as well, but in Malaysia the data’s all been destroyed or lost, making it very difficult to trace the data about the Malaysian Communists. Except there’s this one book apparently, so he had that book to work from. And then what he did with it was to move the data from the book into images from recent Hollywood films about writers. So that data suddenly came to life in a different body. And for me it just felt like that data entered an unlimited, borderless territory. Before, its territory was just Malaysia, just communism, then suddenly it turned fluid, molten, because he engaged a different body. I think that’s a fascinating practice.
Owen: You were just talking about Prometheus Pinball as a kind of search for the memories of your past. I’m interested in how you relate that idea with the ideas that occupied you around the time you were working on Museum Penghancur Dokumen: the poems as emptyings of the various documentations of your body, for example, or the desire to become nothing, the desire to become someone who isn’t anyone … ?
Malna: That was a time when … well, I don’t know, that was a very sad time for me. An experiment that was a real mess. An experiment that totally failed. A desire that I enacted when I was living in Jogja. And it totally failed. All of a sudden, I came back to Jakarta. And in Jakarta I went back to a field that wasn’t too different from what I was doing thirty years ago, but with a different group of people, in spaces that had changed. But what I’m actually doing isn’t so different.
And something to become nothing, well … it’s still untested. That work is still untested. I don’t know whether it failed or whether I just came out from that theme. I probably just came out of it. Now what I had meant by nothing is more often filled up by an age that’s reaching its expiration point. Whether it’s death, or … Maybe that’s all of a sudden become powerful. Become something.
Owen: What’s become powerful, what’s becoming something?
Malna: Imagining death. Because my mother and father died when they were around sixty-five, and I’m approaching sixty-five now, so I’m thinking about whether I’ll make it past that age or whether it’ll be the same for me. If I do make it past, will I still be able to take care of myself, due to the factor of age? I mean, how am I going to support myself in old age? Because the way I live is without security, without insurance. If I don’t get old and just die, then what?
My work, as I understand it, is turning into the kinds of things you’re doing with it, the translations, making them … like, oh, this has a use for other people, you know? It’s touching. Before, it was like, OK, I die, maybe at some point someone like me will come along again. You know, the world will just keep going on like this, what’s so interesting about living this way? I’m starting to enter that kind of realm. So what I’d always considered to be blood, sweat, and tears kind of work just melts away. Because thinking about … you die, and afterwards something else happens, something different comes along. So there’s that.
Owen: But to me it feels like you’re actually becoming livelier now, compared to a few years ago, in your writing.
Malna: I feel more and more like it’s increasingly difficult to live in language. Or increasingly difficult to create a position with language. In the past, maybe I felt like I still had plenty of energy to explore what I wanted to do. For example, going here, going there, traveling around experiencing new reverberations, which became a way for me to write. And now I increasingly feel less inclined to engage in those travels, which involve quite a bit of hardship. There’s that. And that’s what’s making it kind of hard for me to take a position with language.
So the writing I’m doing now is taking a longer period of time, compared to how it was for a while. It’s like at the beginning when I first abandoned Abad Yang Berlari. After I left that book behind, I had to test out a poem for as long as a year in order to think, oh, alright, this poem’s ok. Now with Prometheus it’s like that too. It’s already been however many years.
Owen: Are you working on anything else outside of Prometheus Pinball?
Owen: Writing or theater or visual art?
Malna: No. Other than my work at DKJ (Dewan Kesenian Jakarta/Jakarta Arts Council). Yeah, for now, I’m concentrated on Prometheus Pinball.
Owen: And that’s going to be interesting, huh, as it moves forward from your childhood to now? [Laughter] Alright, how about this, one last question. I think this is fascinating … in your essay “Jalan-Jalan Dalam Bahasa” [Strolling around in language], this line is repeated several times: “I can’t escape from all this,” regarding the relations between language, concepts, objects, forms; the “representational walls” of language. So I wanted to ask you about this desire to escape from all of this. The tone of course is as if escaping from all of this is a powerful desire for something that’s impossible to pull off.
Malna: It’s a kind of romanticism. From someone who holds the desire to live like an animal. I feel like our life has become too … its attributes are too human. We’re getting further and further from conceiving of ourselves as part of nature, as a part of other beings. When we have a pet dog or a pet cat even, we treat those dogs and cats with the hope that they’ll be the dogs and cats that we desire.
So that’s all a romanticism for being natural, or for some kind of purification from the burdens of history, the burdens of culture, the burdens of meaning maybe. I don’t know how a perception like that could arise, to be a natural person.
When I was in high school, almost every Saturday night I hiked a mountain, but just the two mountains that are closest to Jakarta, Mount Gede and Mount Pangrango. And every time I hiked them, there would always be something fascinating. I did this starting in my sophomore year of high school until maybe two or three years after I graduated. Hike up on Saturday night, get to the top by morning, and then head back. Some notion of purification.
1. PRRI War: A civil war between the PRRI (Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia) and the central government of the Republic of Indonesia. The PRRI was established in Sumatra in 1958 by dissenting military colonels and surrendered to the central government in 1961.
2. The Bakrie Award: The Achmad Bakrie Award for literature, an annual literary award given by the Bakrie Group, one of the largest conglomerates in Indonesia, who own interests in mining, oil and gas, property development, infrastructure, plantations, media and telecommunications. Many writers who have been awarded the prize have turned it down, including Malna in 2016.
3. Sutardji Calzoum Bachri: An influential Indonesian poet whose highly regarded works of the 1970s experiment with concrete poetry and mantra-like repetition. Bachri’s credo from this period was to “free words and return them to their origin as mantra.”
5. Teater Sae: A critically acclaimed experimental theater group founded in Jakarta in 1977 and directed by Boedi S. Otong. Malna worked closely with Teater Sae for many years, writing scripts for the company’s performances.