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The City and the Writer: In Yogyakarta, Indonesia with Tia Setiadi

By Nathalie Handal

Image: Tia Setiadi.

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Yogyakarta as you feel/see it?

Yogyakarta is a permissive city. Like a sponge, it absorbs anything and everything. But, like a big lake, it receives and embraces every influence and culture it encounters without being polluted by them. So the modern exists side by side with the traditional, and traces of history unfurl between malls and supermarkets. Walking down the streets or the alleys of this city, you will feel that you are part of this world and another world at the same time, and that there is no separation between the past, the present, and the future tenses. You will feel here and there at the same time. I suspect poets from all around the world would enjoy living in this city.

What is your heartbreaking memory in this city?

After the earthquake shook Yogya in 2006, I went to Kali Kuning (Yellow Tributary), a small river near Mount Merapi that I usually visited. But what I found was just sand and big rocks. I lost the villages, the conversations, the images that once linked me with that stream. I saw the ruins, a head of a cow somewhere in the streets, sad graffiti on the walls, and suddenly, I realized the impermanence and the temporariness of everything—the river, the trees, life.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

There is at least one big clock confidently standing in almost every area and village of this city. But these clocks are all dead. I don’t know why precisely. Maybe because in Yogya, linear time is not important. Here, the shops open at 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. There is no need to be in a hurry. In this city, happiness is more important than money. A smile, a sense of fraternity comes before anything else.

What writers from here should we read?

There are many important writers from this city. Among them, I like Joko Pinurbo, Joni Ariadinata, and Iman Budhi Santoso. Pinurbo writes about details—a trouser, a kite, and coffee—with an intensity and insight that make his poems powerful. Ariadinata writes unexpected stories about the world of poor people in their ghettos. His language is inimitable, echoing the suffering and screaming of the oppressed. Santoso presents local wisdom in his poetry. He is also like a bridge between the present and the past, between history and myth, between the new and the old.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Once a week, mostly on Saturday nights, my comrades and I visit a klathak satay restaurant. Klathak is a unique and delicious dish from one of the regions in Yogya. Klathak satay consists of only goat meat, salt, and a little pepper, and the skewers are not made of bamboo but from bicycle wheel radials. In this exotic restaurant, writers and publishers meet to talk about one of the literary movements we founded, Sastra Perjuangan (Struggle Literature). Sastra Perjuangan publishes the best of Indonesian literary works from the younger generation as well as the maestros. We converse passionately and informally about books and literature until late at night.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Yes, Malioboro. It is the core of the city, and circa 1970, many poets and writers squandered and wandered around the traditional market, batik shops, and food stands. They read their poetry out loud; argued about Rilke, Neruda, and Hemingway; or walked slowly while questioning fate and life and death, and those that roamed their minds. One of Emha Ainun Najib’s poems from that period read: “When you walk in Malioboro / and hear your name called / you must know / that it is just the echo of your footsteps.” Malioboro has changed. Sometimes you can still find that romantic atmosphere, and literary events are also often organized there.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

There are many cities within this city. One of them is Kota Gede (the word “kota” means “city”). Kota Gede has different accent, culture, and history. You will find jewelry shops all along the streets of Kota Gede, all made of silver. It’s as if all of Kota Gede shines and is wrapped in silver.

Where does passion live here?

In culture and poetry. It feels like every flower and tree and every corner of every street has been adored and written about in poetry because there are two or three poets living in nearly every area of this city.

What is the title of one of your works about Yogyakarta and what inspired it exactly?

My poem “Mortal Visitor” is inspired by Malioboro and poet Iman Budhi Santosa, who ignores the material world and ventures back to the source, to nature. From Malioboro, Santosa built unique verses, and transformed them into blossoming prayers. And my poem “December” reflects the landscape, atmosphere, tones, and rhythms in Yogyakarta in December.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Yogyakarta does an outside exist?”

There are so many ethnic groups, so many cultures, and so many voices in such a small city. Every voice fuses with and echoes each other. There is no inside and outside. You can come here with your history and culture, your suffering and joy, and this city will absorb and mix with it. And suddenly, you will notice that your reflections appear on the face of this city. Suddenly, you will feel that you are no longer a stranger at all in this city. 


Tia Setiadi is an Indonesian poet, essayist, and translator. His essays and poems have been published in leading magazines and journals, such as Kompas, Jawa Pos, Jurnas, Koran Tempo, Horizon, Sajak, Kritik, Poetika, Cipta, and Diskursus. He has received national and international awards for his essays and collected poems, including the Horizon Magazine Award, the Jakarta Arts Council Award, the Golden Pen Award, and the Southeast Asia Literary Council Award for his collected poems Tangan yang Lain (The Other Hand). His latest collected essays and criticism is Petualangan yang Mustahil (The Adventure of the Impossible). Setiadi has also translated numerous books, among them The Collected Poems of Pablo Neruda, The Collected Essays of Mario Vargas Llosa, The Collected Stories of Alice Munro, The Collected Poems and Stories of Edgar Allan Poe, The Collected Poems of Rilke, and The Collected Interviews of Noam Chomsky

Published Jul 4, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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