Ayu Utami : A Critical Spiritualist

Her name is sure to come up in any discussion of contemporary Indonesian literature. Since her first novel Saman was published and won the Jakarta Art Council’s Novel Competition in 1998, Ayu Utami’s career has shone. At that time, Saman was considered a phenomenon not only because it crashed through sexual taboos, but because it brought up questions about religion. This first novel also won the prestigious Prince Clause Award in 2000.

Ayu does not hesitate to acknowledge the impact of having her work so widely recognized at a young age.

“Having grown up in the Catholic tradition, I see the honors bestowed at the beginning of my career as a kind of baptismal sacrament. Sometimes people are baptized into a position of trust by others when they really do not know much yet. Most people who experience this have a stronger basis. It was as if “hands had been set upon my head in blessing”. After that it was my duty to carry on as best I could,” Ayu has written on her website. Since its publication, Saman has been translated into eight languages, including English, Dutch and German.  

In Indonesia, Ayu is perceived as a pioneer in opening up taboo subjects to scrutiny, paving the way for a generation of women writers who are more courageous about speaking openly of sex in other than whispers. She see this as a positive thing, “I tend to believe – based on research – that male sexuality is overall quite similar from one man to another, whereas individual women experience it in many various ways. For that reason, it is very much more important for women to be aware of the individuality of their own sexuality,” Ayu says.

Besides breaking through the taboo of sexuality, with Saman and her following works, such as Larung (2001) and Bilangan Fu (2008), Ayu has consistently taken a critical stance toward religion, which in Indonesia is generally considered a sacred matter not to be questioned in any way.  

 “The questioning of religion is becoming more frequent and open, not because of Saman, but because of the developments in information technology, which force people, whether we like it or not, to engage in the debates emerging around the world,” she explains. Ayu calls the courage to question religion and religious traditions “critical spiritualism”. She first used this term in her novel Bilangan Fu, which unfolds from an openly critical attitude imbued with spirituality.

 In this video interview, Ayu discusses how critical spiritualism breathes life into her works and why she perceives this as important within the context of Indonesian society and the situation of the world at this time.