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from the March 2019 issue


Indonesian poet and cultural critic Nirwan Dewanto explores metaphors of geography and geology. 

Geography is what our eyes can catch as far as vision takes them—to the surface of the earth disappearing beyond the horizon. We try to touch that surface, to own it, but in the end, what is high and what is low admits defeat to the sheer breadth of that expanse. Such relief is important only to state that horizontal motion is far more important. Rivers move from the mountains to the ocean. Mammals migrate in search of water holes. Humans move from the village to the city. The ash from volcanic explosions spreads to the outermost periphery.

Geography is perhaps the most naked embodiment of our lust to possess. Living space is directly proportional to the area of land we possess. Our country is situated across a vast expanse and the nation-state exists from west to east and not from below ground to outer space. A “landlord” lords it over the face of the earth and, when he gets real wealth, sets forth with a will to gobble up the lands on either side of him. And geography is the arena of our origins. My ancestors in West Sumatra and my ancestors in East Java did, in the end, meet in this earthenware pot known as Indonesia. My art is characterized by geography, is through geography, and becomes geography. Using geography, it’s easy to assign the roles of “our culture” and “their culture.” But we don’t have to own something in any literal sense. Our eyes are limited in their vision and unable to discern what lies beyond the horizon. And so we created maps. So we can gaze at the entire world. We now view the sweep of the earth’s surface from on high, from up in the heavens. So many horizontal movements are visible as to seem unlimited, so that really at any time what we are looking at is whatever we want to see. We are unable to see the commotion in all that movement, so we create—force—a certain pattern onto the face of the earth in order to see the changes.

In geography we recognize, and in fact create, center and periphery, capital and interior, progress and backwardness, and so forth. Through geography and for geography, we create resistance and opposition to the center and in this way actually reinforce the character of the periphery. The interior, including the literature of the interior, only occurs in the realm of geography: regions which can only formulate themselves when confronting the coast, which itself indeed often goes by the name of progress. The universal (including universal literature) and the contextual (including contextual literature) start from and end with geography.

In—and through—geography, I can say that Padang, for example, is an “enclave” which has been dynamic in exporting new names to the treasure-house of Indonesian poetry, and that Bandar Lampung did the same thing, at least up to seven years ago. I always wonder why I don’t meet North Sulawesi and South Kalimantan in our most up-to-date literary geography, while nowadays Flores is fairly writhing with vibrancy. In the current map of the arts of Nusantara, for the most part vacuums—very likely deserts, abandoned fields, or fecund lands covered over with poisonous brush—are ubiquitous.

But I am also aware that it is geography that makes some people spend their time readying for renewal, rebellion and opposition against “the center.” It’s as if such artistic creativity proceeds alongside territorial ambitions. What is “center” and what is “periphery” isn’t really wiped out; on the contrary, in cyberspace—on social media—everyone can make himself or herself something, something free from the old media networks. It turns out that the internet succeeds in reinforcing orality and all our pre-science talents.

I sometimes suppose that we don’t have the luxury of denying geography. Whatever makes me accustomed to living here and now is geography: I am an Indonesian who looks out at the whole world; or, I am a villager who is trying to extend my kampong—my village—across the sea or reach for other kampongs in this world.

My work is rooted in geography, in the society than gives me language. It is said that I’ll find individuality in maps of cultural diversity peddled by people from the past. When I realize that I am only writing in a national language, it is precisely geography that adds to its meaning. My literary language frames a living space, a shed in the zoo of world literature.


If the nature of geography is endless horizontal movement, geology is the effort to move downward, to uncover the strata that form the topography of today. Of course, this cannot be done in any absolute way. We’ll never be able to get to the interior of the earth except through interpretation. No tool can break through to that interior. On the other hand, geography allows us to make horizontal excursions as we please, whether in risky adventures or in package tours. If geography starts with enthusiasm and optimism, it would appear that geology is the opposite.

Geology may be a way of disregarding the self. As writers, each of us has painstakingly with sweat and blood given birth to work after artistic work. And because we have given birth to them, they are our spiritual children. So how can we not see the importance of those spiritual children and not record them in the history of national literature, for instance? But take a good look at the whole world. You’ll see that it’s an ocean of great works from the very beginning of the history of mankind. I am merely dropping those grains of salt I call my poetry, my books, and my very self into that ocean. So, what’s so important about adding to that vastness?

But perhaps we aren’t writing to add anything to this world. Writing is speaking, using language, breathing. Serving these verbs isn’t just the responsibility of the human organism; it’s our very nature. Seeing ourselves as unimportant will seem excessive, not only because doing that retards us homo sapiens in the evolutionary process, but also because it builds up the pollution that has gone from bad to worse. In that way, a poem that we write can add a void into the chaos of this world. And don’t ever suppose that creating a void is the same as not doing anything. The road to that void is knack, skills—“techniques.”

If geography makes us believe in whatever is on the surface, geology begins with suspicion. Our surface is not neat and tidy, or at least does not reflect what is inside. The earth’s strata of course only occasionally appear—are visible—on its surface because the face of the earth is most covered by the land and vegetation. But a geologist knows where there are outcroppings, that is, the rock bodies that appear before us. Our geologist will look for those outcroppings, characterize their types, species and tilt, and connect one with the other in order to produce a geological map or geological cross-section. This map or cross-section may be “disinterested,” that is, it merely interprets the genesis of the region in question, or it may be “full of interest,” meaning, it is hunting mineral reserves, hydrocarbons, and so on.

What I mean here of course is a metaphoric geology, as has been performed in the past. Psychology, to give an example, is a type of geology. It sees us as a stratification of the (un-)conscious. What the historian Denys Lombard did in his three-volume Le carrefour javanais is also a sort of geology: Javanese culture and civilization as the result of stratification—from top to bottom—of the cultures of the West, Islam, Hindu-Buddhism, and even farther down. We may also consider the “hermeneutics of suspicion” as geology: whatever is on the surface is always suspected of being the result of the work of some power, and that power was built by knowledge, or more precisely, the sediments of knowledge.

A poem is an outcropping. Or more simply, you could say that it is the tip of an iceberg, with its body the giant mountain of the poetic tradition that supports it. But the geology that I mean here will make you work a bit. A poem by Chairil Anwar connected with other poems is a geologic stratum. Underneath it, there may be the stratum of Amir Hamzah’s poetry. Then further down, the strata of syair and pantun, the stratum of Malay poetry. But aren’t there also influences of European and North American modernism contained in Anwar’s verse? And isn’t there also a degree of orality mixed in with the literacy?

In that way, you can devise a different “system” of stratification in Chairil Anwar’s poetry, one which can list all the traces of “influence” embellishing its content. You will be producing several alternatives. Let’s say you link Chairil Anwar and Amir Hamzah within one stratum, for example, a stratum of conglomerate or breccia—fragments of world poetry blended together in the matrix of Indonesian Malay. Because perhaps in this way you are going to pile another stratum on top of this one, perhaps that of the quiet “singing” of Indonesia, which then can underlie your own stratum, your creation, which will collect and hold all the ruins and relics of mass culture.

And you yourself, your “identity,” is also an outcropping. In the furnace of creativity, such an identity is important, not for being immortalized or exalted—as in “national identity,” for example—but as an object of suspicion. In the laboratory, in the ivory tower, when you write, what you possess is only a form of “identity.” If you are convinced that your “identity” is perfectly sound, you will then begin from inspiration. Like a prophet, you feel you hear a heavenly voice, a voice which you digest within you and issue forth again as your creation. In this way, your creation is “original.”

But originality is the gateway to mediocrity. So, for me, “identity” is a construct and there is no other road except to play around with, nibble away at, and subvert such constructs. I myself am also the result of stratification, the “system” of strata bequeathed in different ways. In my inner depths, various strata of rationality and “madness” pile up, one on top of the other. Supposing that stratification has an origin, it is the different types of “Indonesia” and “the world” which are piling up on each other by dilation, folding, metamorphosis and other geologic processes.

In this, geology would be the opposite of geography. In geography, people make themselves into Balinese, Javanese, and Minangkabau. Thus, Indonesian literature takes on the form of the Beautiful Indonesia Miniature Park. Those who come from the Minangkabau lands will have—must have—Minangkabau characteristics; Riau, Riau characteristics; Java, Javanese characteristics, and so on. The place of origin and residence of the writer, the “color” and the spirit of the work are automatically linked. That is a form of essentialism, perhaps fundamentalism even. In geography, a person becomes an orientalist for himself or herself and his or her own tribe, so as to “conserve” that which is already called cultural diversity.


Geology provides the opportunity to act subversively toward—to make a sub-version of even!—ourselves. When I say ourselves, “our identity,” it is a form of outcropping, so we can form various “sub-versions,” that is to say, below-the-surface verses, our “identity.” In such a way, then, the geological interpretation would be a verb, an action word, the action of creating various strata of culture that makes it possible for our “identities” to emerge. Those strata emerge through various surfaces as diverse outcroppings that cannot be captured by geography. At the same time, you are providing the opportunity for different kinds of tectonic energy that can “ruin” that stratification. 

In other words, geology is against the essentialism, orientalism, and fundamentalism bequeathed by geography. In essentialism, a person considers the surface as a limitless interior. Such a person lives with a stratum of origin that is endlessly reinforced. That is why, in the realm of our art, people are fond of speaking about “returning to the source,” “returning to our roots.” That way, a stratum of inheritance from our ancestors may be considered a wealth that has never stopped being exploited. But don’t we live with legacies from the entire world? With geology, we sort and re-sort those legacies, make them a “system” of stratification, demolish them, rearrange them, demolish them again and so on, to produce outcroppings that live.

In the never-ending creation of literature, the geology that I devise in this writing plays tag with the history of literature, the sociology of literature, comparative literature, and literary biography. If the four disciplines of literature which I have just mentioned are objective, then the character of geology is subjective. Objective: meaning the history of literature gives us a sequence, a chronology about the birth of the milestones of literature. The sociology of literature brings together literary works with their social environment. Comparative literature connects literature in diverse languages and cultural environments. And literary biography joins literary works with the lives of their writers. Objective: meaning knowledge provided by those disciplines is out there, outside of us.

We must draw that knowledge into ourselves and make it our deeds. Of course, knowledge often comes to us in imperfect fragments. As an aficionado of comparative literature, for example, I can only do distant reading or second-hand reading, neither of which may be done by a genuine comparatist. Or, as a believer in the history of literature, I am never confident that all the information of our national literature reaches me. Or, as a hunter of literary biography, I always want to “kill” the writer, because I am all too often suspicious of various phases in the creative life. Or, as a fan of the sociology of literature, I often consider reading socio-politics as useless or superfluous. Don’t literary works often betray the environment that gives birth to them?

My geology takes that fragmentary knowledge and makes it a part of myself. Comparative literature, for example, can give me a stratum of sub-version, so to speak, that I could not get from the history of literature. Just as an example, I can add strata of Brazilian or Polish poetry below or above the stratum of Indonesian poetry that has already been given by the history of our literature. If that stratification is too neat and never produces the results—those outcroppings!—that I hope for, I will add, for example, the intrusion of the literary biography of João Cabral de Melo Neto and Zbigniew Herbert. 

Geology is also subjective in the sense that I can change my stratification “system,” whenever needed. At this point, I have to remind you again that making stratification is a meaningful act. At any moment it may be that we can slightly overlook the disciplines of literature to undertake stratification that is richer in the content of mass culture in all its forms. At another time, for example, if I want to write an “anti-lyric” about things, I only have to draw from the treasure trove of paintings and sculptures as the most important stratum or as a “destructive force” against the literary formations I already possess.

Geology subverts geography and all the traps of originality. With geology we discover our deficiencies and find substitutions for them in a variety of strata that work beneath the surface. In other words, geology is the means to perform within deficiency. The work of stratifying is how we filter and organize the bursts of knowledge and skills from this entire world to display outcroppings—works or products!—on the surface that is covered by piles of the soil of popular culture and the vegetation of oral culture.


Our geography promises diversity and decentering. However, our big cities which are economically “wet” continue to be bone-dry when it comes to the creations of art, science, and all the facilities that support those cultural works. The greater part of the provincial capitals are cities that are barren and that murder the public space. They are barren as well in a literal sense, that is to say, without wooded areas and historic neighborhoods. Our geography must have stretches of “land and water” that support a synthesis of the various legacies of the global past with the approaches for the future. As it turns out, our geography is noisy with praise for the “Beautiful Indonesia Miniature Park.” With geography, culture is merely something that keeps our ancestral heritages dust-free.

In the endless work of creating the arts and literature, you’ll have to be supported by a healthy geography. My city and your city “normally” have a network of libraries, museums, art centers, communities of artists and scientists, universities and public spaces. In short, networks of education and culture. Yes, there should be these. Nonetheless, we have none of them. But, oh well, never mind! We have worked on poetry, books of poetry, biennials of literature, and communities of the arts. In the past, you might have said such products were like oases, perhaps because you wanted to root these deeply in the surrounding environment, maybe even the long-parched national environment. But, as I said above, our geography is laden with “territorial ambitions” and new orientalisms.

For me, those products are outcroppings in the midst of an expanse of that soil of popular culture and vegetation of oral culture. If you want poetry to be deep-rooted, for example, you can only do so in a culture of writing, which, sooner or later, will “betray” your primordial heritage. To formulate a writing culture and environment is to formulate the origins of your literary work. But origins are many: the history of national literature, your “identity,” “world literature” (meaning the foreign literary works that you read), the orality around you, the environment of your regional dialect, and so forth. All of that helps give birth to your works. At this point I must remind you that in the midst of a general discourse dominated by geography, the efforts to find origins fall easily into orientalism and essentialism. Geography forces you to be heroes. And just when you feel you have found “a perfect identity,” linked with the ancestors, you are, on the contrary, facing a “culture” that is hostile to writing. For me, the only way to avoid that trap is to plunge into the wide world, into the seas of knowledge and skills which the world has bequeathed us.

But our “identity” is so limited. We aren’t “world people,” only “kampong folk.” That’s why we choose whatever is the most meaningful and make that the strata of meanings linked to our “kampong” nature, a nature that exposes itself on the surface which is covered with mass culture. But the “stratification” of that meaning can expose itself in other realms and present other natures as well.

Geology organizes those strata of meaning and knowledge and directs all of it into outcrops to spur on future knowledge. When we find seepages of crude oil or gold ore on a surface, for example, geology will tell us all that is just “tricks.” That is, the real wealth of that reserve is not at the coordinates of that seepage, but far beneath the surface of other coordinates, unimaginable ones. Geological exploration is the act of suspecting outcroppings to find the body of rock, the rocky layer that goes on to other outcroppings, a layer which just might contain reserves of a resource at some unknown depth, beyond the surface that we straddle.

I have devised this metaphor to remind us all that the “wealth of local color” is only that seepage of petroleum, while the reserve of its creativity—the reserve of petroleum, metaphorically speaking—is actually beneath a surface which absolutely does not hold that seepage. Petroleum only leaks bit by bit through fissures that of course do not “stand upright to the sky,” to borrow a phrase from the novelist Iwan Simatupang. And so, “the Javanese heritage,” “the Minangkabau heritage,” “the Balinese heritage,” the from-wherever-heritage will find abundant and renewed reserves of imagination beyond the geography already painted by our forefathers.

"Geology" © Nirwan Dewanto. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by George A. Fowler. All rights reserved.

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