IO – Was N.H Dini a feminist writer? Wikipedia describes her as one but Mirta Kartohadiprodjo, CEO of Femina, Gadis and Ayahbunda Indonesia’s foremost national women’s magazines and director Widarti Djajadisastra disagree, “Oh no, we would not call her a feminist. Not in this day and age. She was not militant enough. No bra burning demonstrations etc. Nothing like that.”
“When I first met her, with her hair in a konde (chignon) and dressed very conservatively, she looked like a contented housewife; not at all as you would imagine a feminist,” added Mirta Kartohadiprodhjo.
Dini’s close friend and neighbor, Sulis Bambang supports their view, “Dini would have agreed with them. She always said that she was not a feminist. She liked to dance, to paint, to garden, to write, to cook and to embroider. She just felt that as a woman she should support other women.”
However, Dini’s daughter Marie Claire Lintang who came to Indonesia to teach in Bandung so that she could be closer to her mother, did not agree, “Of course my mother was a feminist. She was really pro-women. My mother was always for the underdog and she did not want one part of humanity lording it over the other part. That’s why she also supported the environment – from saving turtles to supporting elephant relocation in Sumatra.”
At one point, Dini’s father passed away and her mother had to try to make ends meet on her own by creating batiks. It was difficult for her mother to find the means to survive the family of five children and it was perhaps this experience that gave Dini such insight and empathy for the poor and the down trodden. This empathy for the underdog was extremely strong and remained with Dini all her life. It emerges in her novels about social issues such as Orang-Orang Tran or “Tran People”, Tanah Baru or “New Land” and Tanah Air Kedua or “Second Homeland”.
So, who was right? The definition of a feminist changes with time and is different in different eras. In the 19th century Kartini was a feminist who fought for education for women. At the beginning of the Suharto era Dini was a feminist in that she was one of the first women to write openly about love both from an emotional as well as a sexual perspective. “She was one of the first in Indonesia to write about sex outside the marriage,” commented Widarti Dajajsastra who also lectures in modern Indonesian literature at the University of Indonesia. “When Dini began publishing during the Suharto government, it was a new era. Suharto had shut down Lekra or Lembaga Kebudajaan Rakjat, the literary and social movement associated with the Indonesian Communist Party and we needed new reading material for women. It is when Femina, the first new women’s magazine at that time began to be published. Dini was part of that wave of new women writers and also wrote articles for Femina. Her first article appeared in its second edition. She also wrote in the two main literary journals of that time: Horison and Sastra and I made my students read her books.”
Suzanty Sitorus a feminist, environmentalist and food sustainability activist is of the opinion that Dini made independent decisions and was prepared to confront the prevailing views at the time. She believes that Dini had the attitude of a feminist although she
expressed it more in her personal life rather than fighting for things politically. Now-a-days she would be called a soft feminist. Meanwhile, Oka Rusmini the Balinese feminist writer of Tarian Bumi or “Earth Dance” remarked, “Dini gave Indonesian women a new discourse on marriage and their relationship to men. Her book “Once on a Ship” will continue to help regenerate Indonesian women.”
Dini was born in a leap year on the 29th of Februaury 1936 in Semarang with the name Nurhayati Srihardini Siti Nukatin. Later when she started writing she took the pen name N.H. Dini. Her friends called her Dini and one thing that everyone who knew her seems in agreement on is that Dini was a strong, independent thinking woman. She followed her own drummer. Love was one of the most important themes in her novels. In her first novel “Once on a Ship” she describes the various male admirers of the heroine, Sri who is unhappily married to a French diplomat and how she ends up falling in love with a sea captain. The story reflected Dini’s own life although Sri’s character is according to Dini’s friends a composite character Dini created by combining the personalities of four women one of whom is Bualantrisna Djelantik. Other novels of that genre by Dini were “La Barka” and Istri Konsul or the “Consul’s Wife”. “I don’t know who the other two women were that made up Sri’s composite character but Dini took my experiences as a dancer and used them in “Once on a Ship”. In another novel she used my divorce and then created a new personality quite independent of me who was bitter about men and kept marrying and divorcing them as a sort of revenge,” explained Bulantrisna with a laugh, “That part was her own creation.”
Dini went where she found love without any thought for conventions (at the time marriage to a foreigner was still disapproved of by many Indonesians) and when love was no longer there she also left without worrying about the conventions or opinions of others, She divorced her husband and returned to Indonesia at a time this was still frowned upon in Indonesian society. In “Once on a Ship” the heroine had an affair when she was still married. “That was based on real life,” explained Sulis. “Dini met a ship’s captain. His name was Maurice a n d she fell in love with him. She was already separated from her French husband but not yet divorced. She and Maurice were to be married but then he died in an accident. I never asked her about him and she never spoke about him except by accident in passing but I surmised that she had two great tragedies in love: the failed love of her marriage and the death of Maurice.”
That may have been the case nevertheless despite that, Dini seems to have created a life that brought her much satisfaction and enjoyment. Later in the evening Dini’s daughter Marie Claire Lintang Simonetti said that she wanted her mother to be remembered for her strength. She added, “My mother was an accomplished dancer and a talented painter and she created beautiful embroideries. I remember how she gave dance lessons when we lived in the Philippines. And she could take any plot of land and turn it into heaven. She spoke to plants and they responded. It is this creative force that we are celebrating tonight!”
Mirta Kartohadiprodjo spoke about Dini’s book Amir Hamzah, Pangeran Seberang or “Amir Hamzah, the Prince from Across the Sea” which her Gaya Favorit Press published. “My mother Soegiarti was close friends with Maria Ulfah Soebadio Sastrosatomo (the first Indonesian woman to receive a law degree and to become a cabinet minister) and the love of Amir Hamzah’s life, Ilik Soendari. All three ladies were part of the nationalists’ movement who at the time could only speak Javanese and Dutch. After the Sumpah Pemuda or Youth Pledge of 1928 (see: https://observerid.com/the-youth-pledge-of-1928-a-day-for-millennials/ ) however, they were all determined to learn Indonesian. Ilik Soendari introduced Maria Ulfah to Amir Hamzah and they both received Indonesian lessons from him whereas my mother took Indonesian lessons with my father (see: https://observerid.com/the-role-of-language-and-culture-in-the-formation-of-an-indonesian-national-identity/ ). Ilik Soendari and my mother passed away survived by Maria Ulfah. One day in her old age Maria Ulfah told me about the story of Ilik Soedari and Amir Hamzah. She said that the story of Indonesia’s greatest poet would make a wonderful book and that I should publish it (see: https://observerid.com/happy-salma-presents-amir-hamzah-indonesias-noblest-poet/ ). So, I contacted Mbak Dini and asked her to write the book. It was different from her usual novels in the sense that it was a historical biography and I felt that she wrote it very well.”
N.H. Dini’s remembrance gathering was held on the 28th of February on the lush green lawns of the Discovery Kartika Plaza Hotel in Kuta, Bali which with its Balinese style candi bentur gates facing the vast eternal blue of the sea and the sky created a very fitting setting, almost as if one could walk straight to paradise through them. The event began with the “Rejang Santi” dance choreographed by Dr Bulantrisna Djelantik of the Karangasam royal family who was extremely close to N.H. Dini during her lifetime. They were both dancers
and independent highly creative women who seemed to have shared a similar outlook on the relations between men and women “This dance,” explained Bulantrisna “was inspired by the Karangasam Rejang. Every village in Karangasam has a variation on this dance. It is a communal dance performed at the village pura or temple and it is performed for peace and healing and to ward off evil. I have in a way secularized it a little for today but it fits as we ask for blessings from the sky and the earth and above all we pray for N.H. Dini.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)