Ayu Utami was born in Bogor near the Indonesian capital of Jakarta in 1968. She is one of the most prominent representatives of a new generation of Indonesian writers, who, even before the end of the Suharto regime, were already openly addressing the social and cultural conflicts of the island state, and today accompany the transition to democracy with a critical voice. While still studying Russian language and literature at the Universitas Indonesia in Jakarta, Utami began publishing reports and essays in various newspapers. As co-founder of a union of freelance journalists, which was declared illegal by the government, she was banned from practising her occupation in 1994, and some of her colleagues were arrested. She continued her journalistic work underground, which included the anonymous publication of a black book on corruption in the Suharto regime.
With her debut novel “Saman” (1998) Ayu Utami achieved more than just her breakthrough as a writer – in her native country the book was re-printed many times and was celebrated as a literary sensation. “Saman” was published only a few weeks before General Suharto was deprived of power and its publication was also a sign of the approaching political change. The author treats social taboos in an open way, thereby breaking with Indonesian literature to date. Utami writes freely about love and sexuality and thematises the difficult relationship between Muslims and Christians – as well as the hatred of the Chinese minority. Her novel focuses on the story of a Catholic priest, who through his advocacy work for oppressed small farmers, joins the Indonesian resistance, falls in love in the process, gives up the priesthood and emigrates to New York. At the same time one reads about the fate of a group of young women, who self-consciously make decisions about their lives and renounce the traditional gender roles.
Utami’s prose is lively and modern and as such reflects the richness of Indonesian oral tradition. The author masterfully switches between various narrative perspectives, locations, and time scales, links dream sequences and old myths with descriptions of the political and societal relations in Indonesia in the 90’s. “Saman” is the first in a cycle of novels, the second part of which was published in 2001 under the title “Larung.” Both of her novels have been published in Dutch. In 1998 “Saman” was awarded the prize for best Indonesian novel; in 2000 Ayu Utami received the renowned Prins Claus Prijs from the Dutch government and in 2007, she was a guest of the P.E.N. World Voices, New York. Utami’s work has been translated into several languages and since 1998 has been copublisher of the culture magazine “Kalam.” A co-founder of the Indonesian Alliance of Independent Journalists, Utami works also for the independent radio station 68H und the cultural centre Komunitas Utan Kayu. She lives in Jakarta.
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