“Art is a search of an aesthetic form for honesty.”
Such is the formulation of art according to novelist Ayu Utami (44). Her dream to be an artist had been interrupted by her family when she was denied permission to register at the Department of Fine Arts and Design at Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB). But it is now in her hands. Although she did not get her wish to be a painter, she is now a novelist with aesthetic achievement and composition technique which probably could never be achieved by other writers in her generation.
Among the hustle and bustle of “motivational literary” spreading wide recently, Justina Ayu Utami has been consistently crafting works rich with dimensions of history, politics, social anthropology, spirituality, and certainly sexuality brimming with honesty and criticism that jolt people. She had to pay high for such choice of works though. She has been ridiculed and even regarded as an advocate of “sex literary” when her first novel Saman won the 1998 Jakarta Arts Council’s Competition of Fiction that shook the literary world of this country.
The art of composing words were the strength of Indonesian nonfiction novelists in the 1990s. Yet, it was Ayu who has been regarded as bringing a fresh air of ‘courage’. Whether or not the public welcomed the book, it did not matter much to her. Indeed, ever since the publication of Saman and Larung (2001) with “I” point of view that changes in each chapter, the name Ayu Utami was born as novelist who advocates literary freedom. Both novels—viewed as broadening the horizon of Indonesian literary—were awarded the Prince Claus Award (2000) and South East Asia Council Literature Award (2008).
There has been much controversy over these novels. They were considered bold and even vulgar in the use of words and sexuality description. The writer admitted too that the first part of the sequel viewed sexuality as a problem, but it was not the main issue. Some criticisms coming from senior writers did not see the primary issue that Ayu wanted to delivered in Saman.
The political pressure of the New Order era and the position of religion and spirituality were the primary message of Saman. Glimpses of sexuality she presented were only her way to disclose the reality in Indonesian society. In the novel, the woman who viewed herself as adhering to “critical spiritualism” focused on the lifestyle of some modern Indonesian women. The alumnus of Russian Literature Deparment of the University of Indonesia (UI) admitted she clearly comprehends the segment of readers that her novels were targeted to. (WI/Viesta Karwila)