A Feminist Trajectory of Literary Influences

Inside IndonesiaApril 24, 2016

*An earlier version of this essay was presented at the ‘70 Years of Textual Production in Indonesia’ conference at Goethe University (12–13 October 2015) in conjunction with the Frankfurt Book Fair, where Indonesia was guest of honour in 2015.




I started to think about literary influences more frequently after answering some questions on books for a column called ‘Bookworm’ in The Jakarta Post in late 2014. Every week or so, the Indonesian-based English language newspaper would feature someone – mostly a writer, musician, actor or director – and his or her three favorite books along with their front covers in the newspaper’s print edition.

I came up with three that changed my perspective on the craft of fiction writing: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Budi Darma’s Orang-orang Bloomington (The People of Bloomington) and Shakespeare’s plays. Then, in guilt, I asked myself: Why only one woman writer? Three is such a cruel number! Would I include more women writers in a longer list? Margaret Atwood, definitely. What about Judith Butler and Melani Budianta? They are not fiction writers but I would call myself a graduate of the Butler and Melani schools of thought. Why am I so anxious about including women in my list? Perhaps, in thinking about influences, I am haunted by the practice of erasure. After all, making a list is about selecting some and annihilating others.

A writer’s ‘anxiety of influence’, according to literary critic Harold Bloom, derives from the fear that he cannot free his creation from the works of his precursors. Only through an Oedipal struggle, a battle against literary predecessors, can ‘a strong poet’ justify the validity of his writing. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in their seminal book on nineteenth century women’s writing, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), point out that Bloom’s Freudian approach to literary genealogy is ‘intensely (even exclusively) male, and necessarily patriarchal’. The relationship between literary artists is expressed in gendered terms, and the anxiety can only be resolved through warfare between fathers and sons.

How, then, does a woman writer fit into this masculine model of literary genealogy? Gilbert and Gubar ask, ‘Does she want to annihilate a “forefather” or a “foremother”? What if she can find no models, no precursors?’

Asking myself the names of women who have influenced my work is more than just an act of namedropping. Names are, in fact, not easily dropped, especially in the context of literary and intellectual history in Indonesia. Women’s names are often forgotten, ignored or erased. Tracing the genealogy of women writers and intellectuals that shape my writing is a conscious feminist practice.

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Also read this interview about writing as a feminist practice