Tracing the White Ink: The Maternal Body in Indonesian Women’s Writing (RIMA, 2007)

Review of Indonesian and Malaysian Affairs, vol. 41, no. 2 (2007), pp. 67–94.

Criticism about post-Soeharto Indonesian women’s writing has always revolved around the celebration of female sexuality, which was inhibited and repressed during the New Order government. Hélène Cixous’ “The Laugh of the Medusa” has been cited in journals and newspapers to support (or counter) the argument that writing about sexuality is an effort to regain woman’s body from the patriarchal culture that marks it as disgusting, taboo, alien, or in short, “the uncanny stranger on display” (2000:261). Being fully aware that the body is a site for women to speak for themselves, Indonesian women writers bring back the body by writing, making an alignment between sex and text. Women’s writing has thus been read in terms of l’ecriture feminine, a strategy for women to earn a position other than what has been established by the Symbolic Order in order to challenge the phallocentric thinking, laws, & institutions (Ridwan: 2004, Bandel: 2004).

The discussions about l’ecriture feminine, however, are limited to the erotic body, foregrounding the bold expression of heterosexual/homosexual desire from masturbation to intercourse. The erotic body in the text is often linked with the eroticization of the women writer figures in the media, in which they are generalized into the glitzy label of sastra wangi: attractive young women writing about sexual themes. At the same time, for some critics, their sexual themes and daring, “vulgar” language raise the question of morality. The fascination with the erotic, unfortunately, has left a little room for an aspect of the body that is less attractive, which is the maternal body. Discussions around sexuality as the central issue among Indonesian women writers have neglected the fact that Cixous’ “The Laugh of the Medusa,” the framework used to understand the feminine voice in the works of women writers, is also an evocation of the maternal. Cixous points out that a woman “is never far from “mother”” and that “there is always within her at least a little of that good mother’s milk” (271). In fact, it is the maternal/ the milk/ the “white ink” that characterizes feminine writing.

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