#100PENMembers No. 63: Achdiat Karta Mihardja

Indonesian novelist and playwright Mihardja helped found the Indonesian PEN centre in 1951, and was an active member during the 1950s. 

His 1949 novel, Atheis (Atheist) is one of Indonesia’s most important post-Second World War novels, published the same year as the United States of Indonesia, after years of bitter armed struggle, won Independence from the Netherlands. In 1950, he helped create the writers’ organization, Lekra, which was connected to the Communist Party of Indonesia, and in 1951 he set up the PEN centre. 

He took to the floor at the 1951 Lausanne PEN Congress to speak about the ratification of the Indonesian Centre. He spoke movingly about the creation of both the new Independent Indonesian nation and the PEN Club. Speaking of the Club’s founding, he stated that it means the ‘opening of the gate that leads to wider fields of connections, experience and learning.’ He also described the impotence of Indonesian literature during the colonial period: for more than ‘three ages’ as he put it, ‘we were silent, emotionless and isolated from the free world outside.’ As well as being isolated from the world, Indonesia was also controlled internally: ‘Both materially and spiritually we were bound’, and the people were suppressed, politically, economically and spiritually. In these circumstances the mind could not ‘take root’, as he put it; it ‘suffered, withered and died’. Is it any wonder that such a ‘dead mind’, dwelling in darkness’ did not create anything important. 

However, with the 1945 revolution, the ‘first light of modern Indonesian literature ‘broke through’. He described the generation of young writers who collected around the avant-garde journal Poedjangga Baroe (meaning new Literature or writers), which ran from 1933 until 1942, and which promoted an Independent Indonesia, as well as modern avant-garde literature. It is no wonder, he declared, that once we achieved political freedom, we looked to International PEN, both for its internationalism and the aims laid down in the Charter. PEN’s freedom is called ‘Pantjasila’, in Indonesian, a philosophy of life composed of five principles: ‘divine omnipotence, humanity, nationalism, democracy and social justice.’ These Indonesian ideals, then, are also PEN’s. The ratification was unanimously accepted. The Dutch delegates, in particular, welcomed the founding of the Indonesian centre. 

Mihardja did much to promote and further international literary connections, linking up with Stephen Spender, and befriending Richard Wright when he travelled to Bandung for the 1955 Bandung Conference, the first large scale Asian-African Conference of newly Independent nations. Organised by Indonesia, Burma, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India the Conference aimed to promote the economic and cultural interests of newly independent, post-colonial nations against the cold war dominance of Western nations and the Soviets. 

He died in Canberra, Australia in 2010.

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