Mona Sylviana: Challenging ‘Chick’-Lit‘chicklit’.html

Sara Veal

Think of women writers, and the phrase sastra wangi (fragrant literature or “chick-lit”) is likely to come to mind.

Authors like Mona Sylviana aim to dispel such dismissive and sweeping stereotypes, and their non-chick-lit writings will be showcased in a new short story collection that reflects what editor and publisher John H. McGlynn describes as a post-New Order willingness to confront “societal problems head on”.

“In my opinion, some examples of Indonesian women’s literature are referred to as [chick-lit] out of prejudice. And prejudice comes from discrimination,” Mona says.

However, she adds that she does not discount works that could be more accurately categorized as chick-lit.

“Maybe some forms of Indonesian’s women literature are not quite ‘literary’, but that doesn’t mean they are not valuable or important. The value of literature, in my opinion, comes from how those works can be read and interpreted. Also whether the works are able to articulate many aspects of life. The more voices, the better.”

Mona was born in Bandung in 1972, where she continues to live with her daughter and husband. Since completing a degree in Communication Sciences at Padjadjaran University in Bandung, she has worked in writing and theater.

Her short stories and essays have been published in various media, including Media Indonesia, Kompas, Tribun Jabar, Jurnal Perempuan and Koran Tempo. She has also compiled a number of anthologies, including Improvisasi X, Angkatan 2000 Sastra Indonesia and Dunia Perempuan. Last year she discussed her writing at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.

In September this year, she will feature in Menagerie 8: Not Chick-Lit, an anthology of Indonesian literature in translation published by the Lontar Foundation and edited by Lontar co-founder McGlynn and Dorothea Rossa Herlianya.

“Over the past decade, Indonesia has witnessed an exponential rise in the number of talented young women writers and Lontar wants to help introduce them to the international world,” McGlynn says.

“As the stories in Menagerie 8 show, the authors are not just gifted writers; they are tackling topical and sensitive issues not being covered by other, older writers. Though all the writers who are represented in the book are women, their gender is in fact irrelevant.”

McGlynn says selections were based not only on gender (female), age (relatively young), and quality of work but also differences in theme, setting (geographic region), and ethnic identification of characters.

“Thus we have stories from a fairly wide geographical range. We also looked at difference in social classes — Muslims, Christians, immigrants, ethnic Chinese, poor, rich, Eurasian, etc — and the profession of characters — painters, farmers, NGO activists, urban people, rural people and so on. In short, Dorothea and I tried to construct a mini-mirror of Indonesian women today.”

Mona describes her contribution to Menagerie 8, titled “Suara Tua” or “After He Said, ‘Come in’” as “a simple story about love between a woman and a man”.

“But the love may be platonic because of their age difference,” she says.

She was inspired to write the story when she observed a librarian serving a younger man.

“I imagined the old women was sickly and unmarried. In writing it, I aimed to enter the world of the old woman, who is typically referred to as perawan tua [spinster], which like sastra wangi, is a discredited term.”

Such stories are in line with her desire to write about women who are unique and realistic.

Mona, who acts as well as writes for the theater, says her dramatic experience helps her bring her characters to life.

“For example, when I create some characters I must ‘become’ the characters.”

The 37-year-old explains she first became interested in writing in 1991, when she went to college and made friends who were keen readers and writers. She felt compelled to train herself to write “correctly” and in a “structured” fashion, in order to participate more fully in her newfound community.

“I tried to systematically learn how to write, and learning to write also means learning to ‘read’. Then, I discovered that writing could be another way to express myself. Writing also created opportunities to participate in social activities [like theater and social activism].”

As a reader, Mona says she is not “choosy”, which makes it hard for her to identify any writers in particular that she admires.

“Almost all the writers I have read have inspired me in some way. But, to name a few: Idrus, Budi Darma, Milan Kundera.”

Besides writing, Mona remains interested in social activism and education. Since 2000, she has been a member of Institute Nalar Jatinangor, a not for profit organisation that provides multicultural education through discussions, seminars, libraries and training.

“[Through Institute Nalar Jatinangor] I am trying to do my part to develop world literature,” Mona says, adding she is also editing short stories for another anthology.

“I hope that I can continue to deepen my understanding of people, and people’s understanding of each other, through my writing and activities. That is what literature should do.”

Mona Sylviana’s short story “After He Said, ‘Come in'” is featured in the April edition of WEEKENDER, out today.


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