Goenawan Mohamad: The Living Legend

Goenawan Mohamad, who is usually referred to with his initials GM, is a living legend in the fields of literature and journalism in Indonesia.  He has written hundreds of poems that have appeared in various mass media since he was 17 years old. GM was among the writers and intellectuals who signed the Cultural Manifest in 1964, which was perceived as running counter to the policies of President Sukarno, resulting in GM no longer being allowed to write for any published media.  

“Literature, like journalism, must never be used as a vehicle for power. This has been an issue since perhaps as far back as the age of Socrates in every country throughout the world,” GM says.   

In 1971, GM and number of colleagues founded TEMPO Magazine, based on independent journalistic practices, including critical stances on the government. During the administration of President Suharto, TEMPO came under extreme pressure from the authorities, and was banned two times, the first in 1982 and the second in 1994. The first time, TEMPO was allowed to resume publication after issuing an apology. The second time, GM and the other TEMPO journalists were forced to go underground and resort to guerrilla tactics (establishment of Tempo Interaktif and Institut Studi Arus Informasi - ISAI) in 1995. This struggle against authoritarianism proved TEMPO’s commitment to press freedom, which had been curtailed by the Suharto’s New Order regime. After the fall of the New Order, TEMPO resumed publication October 6, 1998. For his tireless efforts in GM received the Louis Lyons Award in the category of Conscience in Journalism from Nieman Foundation (1997), and was honored with the CPJ International Press Freedom Award (1998), the International Editor of the Year Award from World Press Review (1999) and the Dan David Prize Award (2006).  

GM has routinely written the Catatan Pinggir essay column in TEMPO Magazine for more than 30 years. Up to now, the Catatan Pinggir essays have been complied into 10 volumes of approximately 400 pages each. According to GM, essays have several superior characteristics as compared to academic writing.  

“Essays not only convey abstractions, but also concrete matters. Essays encompass elements beyond the conceptual, and are also metaphorical, descriptive and literary; which means that unexpected things like poetic nuance can emerge in them,” GM says.  

According to GM, writing the Catatan Pinggir column weekly can seem like a struggle. “Sometimes I wonder why I inflict this upon myself over and over again,” he says.  

Besides poetry and essays, GM also writes plays, which allow the possibility for the emergence of tension and other unexpected things. According to him, plays involve the movement of human bodies that enables the interaction and development of words and ideas.  Besides writing wayang kulit puppet theater plays like Wisanggeni and Alap-alapan Surtikanti, GM has also written theatrical scripts, including  Surti dan Tiga Sawunggaling, Visa, and Karna.  

GM, who turns 74 this year, remains healthy and fit, mostly because he runs regularly. “My ambition is to one day one a marathon, although I imagine that is probably unlikely,” he says jokingly. To GM, marathon races are beneficial because participating in a marathon requires the same kind of serious preparation discipline and consistent focus that he has applied to his writing activities for more than 50 years.   

In the video interview to be presented, GM speaks more extensively about the superiority of the essay as a medium, and why he remains faithful to this form of writing, as well as how he is now using social media to spread his ideas.