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Women and Malay Voices

Undercurrent Murmurings in Indonesia’s Colonial Past


Tineke Hellwig

Women and Malay Voices examines Malay literature by Chinese peranakan authors in the Dutch East Indies between 1915 and 1940. The narratives, some of them based on sensational murder trials reported in the news, offer insights into women’s lives and experiences and glimpses of female agency. With its primary focus on Malay texts and Asian women, this book offers a unique opportunity to hear subaltern voices and understand the lives of colonized women in new ways. Using feminist and postcolonial theories, this study juxtaposes the Malay texts with Dutch fiction and newspaper accounts to gain insight into how gender, race, and class are represented and what ideologies marked power relations in Dutch East Indies society.


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Preface xi


i Bumi manusia depicts Indies society of East Java starting in 1898 with the coronation of the Dutch queen Wilhelmina. Throughout the four volumes of the narrative the reader follows the trials and tribulations of the protagonist Minke, who is modeled after the historical figure of Tirto Adhisoerjo, a Javanese writer, journalist and nationalist. When I read Bumi manusia for the first time, I was captivated by the figure of Nyai Ontosoroh, the Javanese nyai (housekeeper/concubine) of the Dutch plantation manager and later dairy farmer Herman Mellema. The novel presents Nyai Ontosoroh as a strong, resilient and powerful woman, and the book was an eye-opener for me, a woman of Indonesian-Dutch descent, who had grown up with fiction of the Dutch literary canon. Pramoedya’s portrayal of Nyai Ontosoroh deconstructed the image of nyais that had lodged itself in my mind, unconsciously but firmly. Dutch fiction describing the Indies with a male European bias had accustomed me to seeing nyais as immoral and inferior figures. Authors such as P.A. Daum, Thérèse Hoven and Annie Foore characterize nyais as jealous, resentful and destructive. In their prose a nyai has no qualms about resorting to black magic (guna-guna) to murder her master and his European bride, and her Eurasian children born out of wedlock (voorkinderen) are always depicted as a source of trouble. In contrast, Bumi manusia exposed me to a nyai with individual agency, an autonomous and empowered woman. This novel speaks out against the privileged European colonizers in favor...

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