Joesoef Isak wins PEN Australia award

Issue 

Max Lane, Sydney

Indonesian left-wing publisher Joesoef Isak attended the Third Asia Pacific International Solidarity Conference (APISC) in Sydney over the Easter weekend. In addition to speaking at a workshop on "Marxism in Indonesia after 1965" and on plenary panel on the current political situation in Indonesia, Isak also gave short greetings to the conference on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Asia-Africa Conference held in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955 — the conference that spawned the Non-Aligned Movement.

Isak was the secretary-general of the Asia Africa Journalists Association from 1962 until 1965 when General Suharto seized power. Isak was detained in 1967 and imprisoned without trial until 1977.

Since his release from prison, Isak was member of a group of three former political prisoners, along with Hasyim Rachman and Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who defied a ban on such former prisoners entering the field of publishing. They formed a company, Hasta Mitra, which published the banned novels of Toer — novels that he had written while imprisoned. While banned, these novels were on the market long enough to become bestsellers and recognised as the country's greatest novels.

Isak was imprisoned again for three months in the mid-1980s for promoting Pramoedya Ananta Toer and his works. Under Isak's leadership Hasta Mitra has also published many important works recovering Indonesia's progressive history and contributing to critical political discussion.

In recent times, Hasta Mitra has published an Indonesian translation of the complete collection of declassified US State Department documents on General Suharto's seizure of power in 1965 as well as the first Indonesian translation of Karl Marx's Capital.

After the APISC Conference, Isak stayed on in Sydney to be awarded the inaugural PEN Keneally Award. The award is given by the Australian PEN centres in recognition of an achievement in promoting freedom of expression, international understanding and access to literature as expressed in the charter of International PEN, the worldwide association of writers.

The award is named in honour of Thomas Keneally, writer and PEN member, for his lifetime's commitment to the values of PEN. The award was given by PEN Australia "in honour of Isak's long commitment to world literature in the face of great political obstacles and personal peril over the past twenty-five years".

An award ceremony, supported by the Cultural Fund of the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) was held in Sydney on March 31 where the award was presented to Isak by Thomas Keneally. Also present was Brian Johns, chairperson of the CAL board and former head of Penguin Books who took the decision in 1981 to publish the English translation of Toer's This Earth of Mankind, which had been published in Indonesian by Hasta Mitra and was the first of Toer's Hasta Mitra books to be banned.

Below is Isak's acceptance speech.

* * *

To PEN Australia, its most distinguished members and all its board members, I wish to convey my deepest thanks for this great honor, which you and your association have bestowed upon me this day. For me, today is a special day — extremely special for numerous reasons.

I say special because this is my first visit to Australia, and it is indeed a great and beautiful surprise to be able to be amongst my colleagues, and amongst friends in Australia who are congenial in our shared work and ideals.

It is also very special as I have received this distinguished award from someone from far away whom I have long known of and admired: Australia's great author, Thomas Keneally. It is truly a great honour and joy that I am receiving the PEN Australia Award that bears his great name — what's more to receive it from his hands directly.

Please allow me to speak briefly about a past experience of mine.

At the time that nearly all of the books we published were censored by a government led by generals, we consciously decided to publish a work of Thomas Keneally. There were two considerations as to why we did this: Firstly, he was a foreign writer — an Australian, and certainly not a communist. For that reason we guessed that surely those in power wouldn't muzzle him.

Secondly, we hoped that those generals who were in power at that time could understand the message conveyed in Thomas Keneally's book. The book we chose was titled The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. All of you certainly know that the haunting tale of The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, in essence raises the issues of the individual right to freedom and the value of human dignity.

Indeed our guesses were correct. Thomas Keneally's book was not banned. However, it seems that the message contained in the book did not seep into the hearts or minds of the generals. It seems the freedom of the individual and human values were of no interest to the regime in power, for Hasta Mitra's books continued to be banned.

Respected colleagues and guests, accepting the Australia PEN Keneally Award is a great personal honour for me and my fellow founders of Hasta Mitra publishing, and I wish to accept this Award also with a feeling of gratitude towards those involved in my work. Here I must mention the young people and students who suffered more than five years imprisonment because they distributed our books; the streetside book sellers who took the same risk as the large book stores distanced themselves from us; ex-political prisoners hawking our books door-to-door; and, last but not least, the housewives who through word of mouth became propagandists of our books which could not be distributed openly.

And I will never forget the contributions that two Australians in particular have made to my work: Max Lane and Brian Johns. These two Australians helped us break out of the isolation that the military regime was imposing upon us.

Max Lane was the first person to translate Pramoedya Ananta Toer's great literary work, the tetralogy that he wrote in prison camp on Buru island. Brian Johns, heading up publishing for Penguin in the 1980s, was the person who brought these books to the English speaking readers throughout the world.

For me, an award from Australia is deeply meaningful for two reasons. Firstly, this award inherently contains recognition that a vile black stain that affronted human values has marred Indonesian history over the last three decades. However this award at the same time contains recognition that in the midst of those dark years where human rights and individual freedom were treated with contempt, a spirit of resistance arose.

In my opinion this is an important issue to draw attention to, as what we refer to as the "free world" can quickly and sharply recognise dictators such as Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein, yet at the same time consider other dictators such as General Suharto and General Pinochet to be friends of democracy. I consider the Australia-PEN Thomas Keneally Award to be correcting this error.

Finally, I wish to convey the experience of working under a repressive military regime, which I can briefly summarize in the following terms: individual rights, the freedom of expression, press freedom and the freedom to publish books are values which must be fought for and upheld by us ourselves. Do not hope that authoritarian rulers can bring about democratic values.

Defending truth and justice constitutes a long struggle, because we can not possibly achieve a fast and immediate result. Victory in the struggle for democratic rights is something we will only achieve — and I repeat only — if we do not relent in resisting oppression and injustice. If we cease to resist, with the excuse of fear, fatigue or despair, this will only make those authoritarians in power very happy. But it is precisely these three attitudes that we have refused to show to them.

The solidarity of like-minded colleagues, such as those of you present this evening, has most certainly helped drive our enthusiasm and strengthened the vanguard that struggles for democracy.

From Green Left Weekly, April 20, 2005.
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