Translated poetry collections from Indonesia and the Philippines
Content warning: sexual themes, sexism, violence
A couple of months ago, I came across a Kickstarter campaign for two translated chapbooks on Twitter that really caught my eye. I have been doing The Quiet Pond‘s Year of the Asian Reading Challenge, but the majority of the books I have been reading have been novels. I don’t read a lot of poetry, but I was very interested in supporting this project. Since there are two separate chapbooks, I’ll review them both separately within this post.
Deviant Disciples: Indonesian Women Poets
“Deviant Disciples: Indonesian Women Poets” edited by Intan Paramaditha is a collection of poems by Indonesian writers Toeti Heraty, Dorothea Rosa Herliany, Zubaidah Djohar, Shinta Febriany and Hanna Fransisca translated by Tiffany Tsao, Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Eliza Vitri Handayani.
Paramaditha introduces the collection against the backdrop of the Balinese tale of Calon Arang and the idea of the subversive woman. The poems are concerned with sexuality, controlling the female body and how public morality encroaches on the private life. The women in the poems conduct rebellions in their own ways: navigating the spaces between mythology and social expectations to express their sexuality and inhabit their own bodies, sometimes at great risk to their own personal safety.
In Herliany’s poems Marriage of the Knife, Marriage of the Bodiless Whore and Sinta’s Elegy, she explores the danger and violence of prioritising female desire, reveling in the perceived darkness of succumbing to sex alone or with hypocritical and pathetic lovers. Febriany’s poems Open Body and Nightmare from the State consider how bodies are policed by friends, the state and even our own spirituality. In Djohar’s poems Siti Khalwat: An Excerpt and Here on the Land of 7000 Skirts, I, gendered violence is real and present and it is women who must accept punishment for the consequences of male desire. Heraty’s poems Entreating the Goddess Durga and A Middle Aged Ballad delve into the psyche of middle-aged women defying the roles set for them, speculating on the way these roles grow into gossip, rumour and folklore. Fransisca’s poems are concerned with Chinese-Indonesian women’s bodies specifically, objectified and reduced to their parts for consumption through labour or sex.
This is a fantastic, diverse collection of poetry that provides an excellent sample of some of the rich, evocative writing from Indonesia. Having lived in Indonesia and studied Bahasa Indonesia for many years, I am again inspired to read more Indonesian literature.
Pa-Liwanag (To the Light): Writings by Filipinas in Translation
“Pa-Liwanag (To the Light): Writings by Filipinas in Translations” compiled by Gantala Press is a collection of poetry by women from the Philippines. There are 27 different contributors acknowledged in this chapbook, so I won’t list them all here, but the contributors come from an incredibly diverse range of ethnic, linguistic, gender, sexuality, class and age backgrounds. Gantala press “is an independent, volunteer-run, feminist small press/literary collective” and sourced the poetry included in the collection from across the archipelago.
Some of the major themes that permeate this collection are motherhood, grief, state-sanctioned violence, poverty and forced disappearance and I’ll just mention some of the poems that particularly struck me. Kaisa Aquino’s poem Mother and her Ghosts Left Hanging in the Yard is a frisson-inducing poem about a mother whose husband is no longer there with beautiful nocturnal and domestic imagery. Liberty A. Notarte-Balanquit’s three poems Switch, A Gift of Suspicion and Birth are succinct reflections on the trauma and bargaining associated with motherhood. Miriam Villanueva’s Sister and Brother is a vignette about a sister who stands in for her mother who must leave the home to provide for the family. Pasig Jail by Melanie dela Cruz is a heartwrending account of exploited workers punished for trying to assert their rights in a corrupt system. A poem attributed to Organisasyon dagiti Nakurapay nga Umili ti Syudad We, the Poor reads like a prayer, a protest chant or even a working song. Abbey Pangilinan, Mixkaela Villalon and Ica Fernandez’ prose Hens in the Cull: Women in the Time of Tokhang uses chickens as a compelling metaphor for women under the Duterte Administration, particularly with respect to the instinct of mother hens to protect their brood.
This is a raw, challenging and heartbreaking collection full of as much love as it is hardship. The introduction of this chapbook states “[c]ompared to other Asian or Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines does not really engage in translation – whether of foreign books to local languages, of local books to another local language, or local books to foreign languages. This book is our response to that gap”. An incredibly important collection that certainly achieves the goal of sharing a feminist Filipina experience.