Pramoedya Ananta Toer: Why you should know him

One of Indonesia’s greatest authors, who long fought for freedom of speech, spent most of his adult life in jail.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Pramoedya photographed at his Jakarta home in August 1986 [Charlie Hanley/AP]

Pramoedya Ananta Toer is widely regarded as one of Indonesia ‘s best writers.

At a young age, he joined the anti-colonial struggle against Japan during World War II and later enlisted in an army to fight Dutch colonialists .

He was captured and jailed by the Dutch in 1947. His foray into writing began in prison, at age 24. The Fugitive, his first novel, came out during his two years of incarceration.

Pramoedya or “Pram” – a hero of Indonesia’s anti-colonial movement and a champion of human rights and freedom of speech – was born on February 6, 1925, in the poor Javanese town of Blora.

He died in the capital, Jakarta, on April 30, 2006 at age 81.

Pramoedya “dedicated his whole life to this country through his work”, his daughter Tatiana Ananta told The Associated Press at his funeral.

Each injustice has to be fought against, even if it's only in one's heart - and I did fight.

by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Google Doodle  marked the 92nd birth anniversary of the Indonesian writer and activist who spent most of his adult life in jail, imprisoned first by colonial powers and later by Indonesian governments.

“Each injustice has to be fought against, even if it’s only in one’s heart – and I did fight,” Pramoedya was quoted as saying in the book Exile: In Conversation with Andre Vltchek and Rossie Indira.

Pramoedya’s father was a schoolteacher and nationalist who inspired him to join Indonesia’s struggle against colonialism. His mother came from a pious Muslim family.

Despite only having a primary school education, he went on to write more than 30 books, both fiction and non-fiction.

The novelist is best known for the Buru quartet, which traces the birth of nationalism in Indonesia. A Javanese boy named Minke, who rejected the country’s hierarchical society, is the protagonist in the series.

“In fact the books were smuggled out of Indonesia by Pram’s friend, a German priest, to avoid being taken  or destroyed, and have now been translated into more than 20 languages worldwide,” Google Doodle wrote.

Pramoedya speaks during the launch of his book Tales from Jakarta on December 19, 2000 [Dita Alangkara/AP]
Pramoedya speaks during the launch of his book Tales from Jakarta on December 19, 2000 [Dita Alangkara/AP]

He learned typing and stenography which enabled him to get a clerk’s job for the Japanese imperial news agency, Domei, based in Jakarta. It was at that time that he came into contact with nationalists and anti-colonial activists.

After he was released from jail in 1949, Pramoedya began writing books prolifically  and emerged as a respected novelist. Disappointed by post-revolutionary Indonesia , he started gravitating towards leftist politics. He joined Lekra, a body of artists and writers that was loosely affiliated with Indonesia’s communist party, PKI.

He was jailed in 1960 for highlighting the discrimination and oppression of the Chinese minority in the country.

When  General Suharto came to power in a coup in 1967, he ordered the mass arrest of hundreds of thousands of opponents, often without trial. Pramoedya was arrested in 1965 during the military coup that led to Suharto’s rise. Pramoedya was later sent to the remote island of Buru in 1969 because of suspected links to communists.

Initially, he was not provided with pens or paper, so he narrated his stories to fellow prisoners. The books were published after Pramoedya ‘s release in 1978. His essays and letters written during the period were published as a memoir, The Mute’s Soliloquy.

“A haunting record of a great writer’s attempt to keep his imagination and his humanity alive,” wrote The New York Times Book Review about the memoir.

Pramoedya  was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature several times and was bestowed with the PEN Freedom to Write Award in 1988. At age 74, Pramoedya received the  Fukuoka Prize for outstanding contributions by Asians in 2000.

“Pram was also unique in his literary attachment to women. His work contains many complex portraits of different kinds of women in a manner unmatched by his literary contemporaries, who made men their major fictional figures, with women marginalised as stereotypical mothers, sweethearts, and prostitutes,” said professor Benedict Anderson, author of Imagined Communities, who worked in Indonesia.

Source: Al Jazeera