Indonesia’s New Transgressive Literary Genres

In the LA Times:

[Dinar] Rahayu, 36, is one of a small but bold group of female writers exploring the transgressive edges of sexuality in Indonesia, home of the world’s largest Muslim population. The country got a global reputation for prudishness last year when Playboy’s debut on the newsstands sparked protests and prosecution. But far edgier work by the country’s most provocative female authors is printed without fuss by mainstream publishers, including some of the biggest names in Indonesia’s book industry, and widely available in bookstores. Instead of banning or burning the books, government and religious leaders have largely ignored the erotic works, even as some of the best-written race up the bestsellers list.

Indonesians’ conflicted attitudes toward sex and women play out in the reception of these explicit works. And the books themselves, which range from fumbling attempts at making art out of raw sex to skillfully written, sensual literature, offer rare entrée into the sexual imagination of the modern Muslim woman.

They emerged only in the last decade, the first appearing in 1998, the year the Suharto regime collapsed and democracy took hold. Former journalist Ayu Utami led the way with “Saman,” a novel that explores women’s sexuality and taboos against the backdrop of the oppression of plantation workers. It is considered the quintessence of a genre that some critics have labeled sastra wangi, or “fragrant literature,” a term female authors consider patronizing.

The market has proven to be hot for the works that have followed Utami’s path. Though Indonesian-language fiction rarely sells more than few thousand copies, Djenar Maesa Ayu’s “Don’t Play (With Your Genitals),” a 2004 collection of 11 short stories, took off. Combined sales of “Don’t Play” and another of Ayu’s most popular books total almost 42,000 copies.