A Javanese cry from the heart

She Wanted to be a Beauty Queen
She Wanted to be a Beauty Queen

Ing riki kula kepeksa mbengok bilih basa Jawi menika sanes paesan! Sastra Jawi menika sanes sandhangan. Kabudayan Jawi menika sanes klangenan! Basa Jawi menika raga kula lan panjenengan. Sastra Jawi menika jiwa kula lan panjenengan. Kabudayan Jawi menika jiwa lan raga.”

“I’m compelled to shout it out… the Javanese language is not a cosmetic decoration! Javanese literature is not a garment you put on and take off. Javanese culture is not some passing entertainment. Javanese is my body and yours. Javanese literature is my soul and yours. Javanese culture is our body and soul.”  (From “Kabudayan Jawi Sanes Klangenan” by Sugito HS)


Javanese: a neglected window of insights into modern Indonesian culture?

Javanese is spoken every day by at least 80 million people in the heart of modern Indonesia. It hosts a literary heritage reaching back more than a thousand years, easily the oldest indigenous written tradition in Southeast Asia.

With the rise of Indonesian nationalism in the twentieth century, Javanese was consigned to subordinate status beneath the national language, Bahasa Indonesia. But, like many provincial literatures around the globe, Javanese literature is pushing back against nationalist mono-culture. Over the last 25 years, there has been a mini tsunami of publishing and online broadcasting in Javanese.

Honorary Professor George Quinn’s She Wanted to be a Beauty Queen is the first-ever anthology of modern Javanese fiction in English translation. Its 30 short stories explore issues of ethnic identity, male-female relationships, religious faith and much more, all explored in a uniquely Javanese style.

Professor Quinn remarks that in Javanese there is a special word for the institution of social laughter: guyonan, “to sit around laughing”. Humour in various guises – satirical, deadpan, ironic, slapstick – colours most of the stories in She Wanted to be a Beauty Queen. Why is it so pervasive? Perhaps because Javanese authors deal with contentious issues and the subordinate status of their writing by laughing, and not with anger or indignant protest. This doesn’t mean they are making light of serious matters. Rather, their humour disarms a source of tension. It also bonds their readers into a community and reinforces their unique Javanese identity.

The story “A Kite Sailing Free in the Wind” by Margareth Widhy Pratiwi, touches on a heated issue in Indonesian society; what is proper behaviour in unmarried girls, and what is the value of virginity? Sri is a 17-year-old girl, a tomboy who loves flying kites. She chases a kite up a tree where it has become snagged. But she tears a hole in her panties. A young man appears at the foot of the tree and looks up.

“Ha… ha ha ha ha! I told you, didn’t I? But you wouldn’t listen. Something’s going to get torn… that’s what I said, and it’s happened, hasn’t it?”

She wanted to cry. The joy of recovering a lost kite was gone. Totally. That boy! Here he was, laughing at her again, enjoying the spectacle of her stuck in the tree with her pants torn. She yelled the first words that came into her head. “You greasy rag! You bigmouth! You did this, didn’t you?! This is your fault!!”

The boy greeted this with another shout of laughter.

“Priceless! You tore your panties yourself, now you’re trying to blame someone else.” He was looking up at her laughing. “Are you going to ask me for help? Yes or no?”

Humour can be very culture-specific (think puns and riddles). Probably no feature of the anthology was more difficult to translate than its subtle, but central, humour.


Honorary Professor George Quinn

Honorary Professor George Quinn is the retired Head of the ANU Southeast Asia Centre, now incorporated into CHL. Until his retirement from fulltime teaching in 2008, he taught Indonesian and Javanese as well as a popular course on East Timor. He also made a significant contribution to courses on Indonesian language, literature and culture, as well as Indonesian religion and politics. As Head of the Southeast Asia Centre, he had administrative responsibility for tuition programs in Indonesian, Javanese, Classical Malay, Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, Lao and Tetum.

Honorary Professor Quinn is best known for his original study, Bandit Saints of Java (2019), translated into Indonesian under the title Wali Berandal Tanah Jawa (2021). In 2023, he was awarded the Australia-Indonesia Institute’s Distinguished Service Award “in recognition of exceptional service to Indonesian Studies for more than 50 years”.

She Wanted to be a Beauty Queen
She Wanted to be a Beauty Queen