Yes, Indonesia has hundreds of ethnic groups and ethnic languages spread out in over 13000 islands. In our national language, that is Indonesian, we call our country “nusantara” which means archipelago. It is an old word/concept originating in the 13th century as a response to the expansionist policy of the Mongol Yuan dynasty in China!
Most Indonesians nowadays are born polyglot. We are born into both our mother tongue (ethnic language) and our national language, Indonesian. Then we grow up learning other languages, usually foreign ones, like English or French or German, or Mandarin like the trend now in the big cities. As in the ancient past, China has a very close relationship with Indonesia today. Our national language Indonesian is a new language. It is originally a “language” of mixed words from many local and foreign languages including Arabic, Indian and Chinese, used for the purpose of trade in the coastal trade centres along the archipelago. Our great writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer called it the “lingua franca” of the archipelago. Malay language as is still spoken in Sumatra island (Indonesia), Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei is the base for this lingua franca.
Although I was born into a polyglot family but unfortunately I was raised in only one language, that is in our national language Indonesian. My ethnic group or what I prefer to call my tribe is Batak. Our tribal land is in North Sumatra on the island of Sumatra. I was not raised in my tribal language because, I suspect, I was born during a period of great chaos in Indonesia’s history. I was born in 1966 after the military coup by the general-dictator Suharto. The feeling of nationalism was high, a new and real “Indonesia” was born and everybody wanted to be seen as nationalist including my father who was a young armyman then. The national language was one of the great tools to prove this. Only in my late 30s did I start to learn my tribal language especially through our tribal songs which are very popular all over Indonesia including Timor Leste, the former Indonesian colony. But my English is a lot better than my Batak—that is my postcolonial reality.
It is because of this background most of us including myself write our work (poetry, novels, short stories, and essays) in our national language Indonesian. It is the language that we live in since childhood. The language that we use every day and in schools. The language of newspapers, books, films, radios and televisions. The language of our first love. The language of our dreams.
MD: It’s so good to be in touch again. The trip to South Africa and Zimbabwe was so memorable that I was busy writing poems about that experience and forgot to write email. Thank you for sharing all the stories. Yes I remember your spontaneous poem about the sunflowers that bowed down to us… What inspired you to become a poet initially? Who have influenced you during your literary career?
SS: I became a poet after I returned to Sumatra from Jogjakarta in central Java where I was living for two years from 1984 to 1986. I was studying there then. I failed to enter the prestigious state university there and my first love dumped me for an actor. So I decided to return to Medan the capital city of North Sumatra Province where I was raised. I decided to take the national exam at the local state university choosing English Literature as my major. I passed the exam and suddenly the whole world opened to me through English literature. I found myself obsessively in love with literature. I got my satori. I could write about that first love and tried to understand it. I wrote my first poems and my first short stories then. Poetry in particular made me understand Love, like it did to Dante, to Petrarch, to Pablo Neruda. Through English I got to know my heroes: Li Po, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, the French Surrealists, TS Eliot, Aime Cesaire, Lorca, Pablo Neruda and the Beats. They are living in my poetry. Whether I write about Love or Politics, they are writing it with me. Ironically, although I became a poet through English Literature (I finished my B.A in English Literature at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand where I also took Bill Manhire’s creative writing program which awarded me the Poetry Prize in 1992), English poetry itself did not influence me at all. I found it lacking of Passion, something that attracted me to those heroes of mine mentioned above. Poetry must be passionate in order to be poetic. This is my credo.
[Here is the complete interview: Tupelo Quarterly]