Fireflies in Manhattan through Javanese Eyes

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  • The Lontar Foundation has for more than 25 years now endeavored to bring quality Indonesian works of literature to an international audience with their literature- in- translation project.  For the past year, one gets the feeling that Lontar is cranking up its efforts to bring even more new Indonesian works of literature to the international community to be in time for the upcoming Frankfurt Book Fair two years from now.

    So for readers new to Indonesian works, you have a whole pile of treats waiting for you.  But, you will not go far amiss if your introduction is through reading the translated works of Umar Kayam, some of which he began to write while living in New York. These are compiled in a Lontar edition titled  “Fireflies in Manhattan”,  a collection of pieces by the author spanning a good three decades of his prolific career.

    Born in Ngawi, East Java, in 1932, Umar Kayam obtained his masters degree from New York University and his doctoral degree from Cornell University.  It was while he was in New York that he began to hone his literary aspirations. The publication of his first collection of short stories, Seribu Kunang-kunang di Manhattan, in 1972, gained him instant fame as a short story writer  on his home turf, Indonesia.  Today, approach anyone who was a student in Yogyakarta in the 1970s, who ever went to the USA, and almost for certain they will tell you that their appetite to visit that country was seeded when they first read Kayam’s collection of short stories about New York.

    Umar Kayam has a light touch in his writings, but always with an undercurrent of irony under a veneer of humor. His "New York stories" as they came to be known, showed his archetypical view of the city through his characters.  John McGlynn, who translated many of Kayam’s works, said that the New York stories show a certain Indonesian naivete by an outsider who was probably lonely and felt like he didn’t really belong while living in the Big Apple.

    This naiveté seems to have vanished completely in the next phase of Kayam’s career, when he began to deal with the subject matter of imprisonment and the killings of hundreds of thousands of so-called "Communists" (in quotes because most of them were only allegedly red) that took place throughout the island of Java, and some other parts of the archipelago, after the rise of Suharto’s militarist regime.  Kayam’s highly nuanced portraits of innocent victims of the infamous 1965 – 1966 period in contemporary Indonesian history gained him critical acclaim.

    Kayam was a regular contributor to Kompas daily, Indonesia’s largest daily newspaper. During the third and final phase of his literary career, it became an almost annual event, McGlynn recalls, for Kayam to contribute to the paper, a story about Lebaran, the holiday that marks the end of the Muslim month of fasting, and a time when millions of Indonesian who have moved from the communities where they were born, attempt against numerous odds to return home for the festivities.

    The stories produced by Kayam during the three stages of his literary career vary greatly in subject matter and tone.  What binds them together is that in each and every one of them, one hears the voice of the common man. For therein lies Kayam’s greatest feature. Fans of his weekly column in  Yogyakarta newspapers (Kayam was a professor at the Gajah Mada University in that city) still chuckle when they recall Kayam’s  humorous account  of this  so-called commoner having the good fortune to be invited to sup with Prince Charles and Lady Diana sometime in the mid-80s, when the British royal couple visited Indonesia.  

    This book is a treasured gem for Indonesian lovers of literature, but for an international audience it provides valuable insight into how Indonesians view the world, not necessarily only New York. This particular edition is almost worth it just for the introduction by R.H. Yus Kayam, the author’s wife, who accompanied her husband in his first stint as a student to New York in 1961. 

    Kayam"s time of study in New York was one that was both stimulating and challenging, writes Yus.  "When we arrived in New York, the United States of our imagination, shaped by the glamour and lights of Hollywood films, little resembled the end-of-winter days with the cold and gray jungle of concrete and steel skyscrapers that we found ourselves in," she said. "Even so, with the spirit of 'America, here I come!' we began to deal with the realities that so little resembled our imaginings…  As students we were counted among the city’s poorer citizens. Rarely did we set foot in restaurants… We were forced to find cheap entertainment close to home (such as) visiting the Central Park or the Bronx Zoo, and window shopping at Macy’s and stores on Fifth Avenue.  And sometimez, we went to Broadways plays, which even with heavily discounted tickets, was a real splurge”.

    For readers who do not have the luxury of reading Kayam’s works in the original Indonesian, McGlynn has managed to retain the wit and flavor of Umar Kayam’s writing tone, while giving it the international tinge much needed if an outside audience is to get anything out of a piece of literature. For that one element, this collection of pieces works really well.

    As previously mentioned, “Fireflies in Manhattan” is divided into three parts, with six stories in the first part headed “New York,” three stories under the heading “1965” in the second part, and four stories headed “Lebaran” in the third part.  Each section has its own introduction, so readers can get a grip on the social grounding of the pieces.

    People who knew Kayam, who died in 2002, always recall him as a man who was full of humor and could laugh with real gusto. What is fascinating to notice in this collection, however, is a real mood of loneliness that comes markedly through.  Kayam’s characters are generally alone or feel themselves to be alone, fighting their individual problems.

    Debra Yatim