Outcaste by Choice: Re-Genderings in a Short Story by Oka Rusmini

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Harry Aveling


Ida Ayu Oka Rusmini is a major contemporary Indonesian author. She has published two novels, Tarian Bumi (2000) and Kenanga (2003a), a collection of short stories, (Sagra, 2001), and a volume of poetry, Patiwangi (2003b, republished in 2007 as Warna Kita, with the omission of some 12 poems). Born in Jakarta in 1967 of Balinese parents, she was a member of the highest Balinese caste, the brahmana caste, but renounced this status, including her title, after her marriage to the East Javanese essayist and poet Arif B. Prasetyo. Oka Rusmini is a graduate of the Indonesian Studies Department, Udayana University, and lives in Den Pasar where she works as a journalist for the Bali Post.

Most of Oka Rusmini’s prose works explore the constraints into which the socioreligious practices of caste place all members of society, but most especially women. Both of her novels tell of a woman’s abandonment of her brahmin caste status as the result of her marriage to a sudra. The title of the poetry book, Patiwangi, refers to the ritual practice by which this degradation is confirmed, and the poem which gives the book its title bears the footnote: ‘Patiwangi: pati = death; wangi = fragrant. Patiwangi is a ritual that is performed on a noble women in her Village Temple to remove her noble status as a consequence of having married a man of a lower caste. The ritual often has a serious psychological impact on noble women’ (107). In both novels, and many short stories and poems, their loss of status brings enormous scorn and hardship to the major woman characters. Nevertheless, as we shall see, stepping outside patriarchally-dominated caste ties may also provide an ambiguous freedom for any woman who is positioned to take advantage of the opportunities which the modern, potentially secular, nation state of Indonesia, offers her.

In this paper, I am interested in the way in which the short story, ‘Cenana’ (Sagra, 270-318), uses a traditional myth to deal various cross-caste transgressions in contemporary Balinese society. The story draws on one of the foundation myths of medieval Javanese history, the story of Ken Angrok, founder of the dynasty of Singhasari, East Java, in 1222 AD, and his consort, Ken Dedes, the wife of Ken Angrok’s predecessor. To my knowledge, although the myth has been the subject of a number of modern literary works, Oka Rusmini’s is the only account by a Balinese woman. Through its focus on the transgressions committed by strong female characters of all caste backgrounds, and dissolute male characters, Oka Rusmini’s narrative in ‘Cenana’ allows for a revision of conceptions of feminine agency in a society based on respect for high caste men and marriage to them.

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Author Biography

Harry Aveling, La Trobe University

Harry Aveling specialises in Indonesian and Malay Literature and Translation Studies. He holds the degrees of Doctor of Philosophy in Malay Studies (National University of Singapore) and Doctor of Creative Arts in Literary Translation (University of Technology, Sydney). Over the past four decades, he has taught at Monash University (Melbourne), Universiti Sains Malaysia (Penang), Murdoch University (Perth) and La Trobe University (Melbourne). Although he retired from full time teaching at the end of 2008, he is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University, and in the Center of Southeast Asian Studies, Ohio University. In recent years he has also been Visiting Professor at the University of Indonesia and the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.