Southeast Asia Studies Seminar Program
The MacMillan Center at Yale University
Oct 3, 2012

Indonesian Notebook: Richard Wright and Indonesian Cultural Modernism in the 1950s

Keith Foulcher (Department of Indonesian Studies, University of Sydney)
Brian Roberts (Department of English, Brigham Young University)

As a joint presentation between Keith Foulcher and Brian Roberts, this talk begins with Roberts offering an overview of the circumstances of African American novelist Richard Wright's visit to Indonesia for the Asian-African Conference in 1955. Within transnational American and African American literary and cultural studies, several recent scholarly articles and chapters have accurately represented Wright's 1955 trip as a moment of transnational exchange between Wright and the Afro-Asian world. But even as the image of Richard Wright in Indonesia has emerged as a touchstone moment in scholarly accounts of African American and US cultures' interactions with the decolonizing nations of Asia and Africa, scholars have known little concerning Wright's Indonesian travels besides the narrative that Wright himself offers in his 1956 travelogue, The Color Curtain. Language and cultural barriers have stymied scholars' ability to access the Indonesian side of the intercultural dialogue produced by Wright's visit. During the past four years, Roberts and Foulcher have collaborated to track down a variety of Indonesian- and Dutch-language documents related to Wright's Indonesian travels. They are translating and editing these documents for inclusion in an in-progress book collection tentatively titled Indonesian Notebook: A Sourcebook on Richard Wright, Modern Indonesia, and the Bandung Conference. The collection complicates and problematizes several aspects of Wright's account of his Indonesian visit, especially his commentary on racial and anti-colonial dynamics in Indonesia and Asia more generally.

During the second half of the talk, Foulcher discusses a number of specific documents within the collection while outlining Indonesian reactions to Wright's visit and travel writings. Some of Indonesian Notebook's highlights include the texts of two previously unknown lectures Wright gave while in Indonesia, a Dutch-Indonesian writer's representations of several misunderstandings that developed between Wright and Indonesian intellectuals including Mochtar Lubis and Takdir Alisjahbana, an article summarizing the interview Wright gave for the prominent Indonesian cultural column Gelanggang, and Indonesian reviews of three of Wright's books. Indonesian reactions to Wright are significant, because the ways in which Indonesian cultural and literary modernists responded to Wright's lectures and commentary during and after his visit to Indonesia, and the tensions that surfaced between Wright and his Indonesian hosts, offer crucial insight into the Indonesians' own self-positioning in relation to transnational formations including race, decolonization, and world literature and art. Incorporating Wright's visit into scholarly narratives of modern Indonesian cultural development adds to our understanding of Indonesian modernism in the early post-independence period, and it also sheds light on the growing polarization that was taking place in cultural life in Indonesia at this time, under the influence of Cold War politics and questions relating to the responsibilities of the artist in a decolonizing world.

Keith Foulcher is an Honorary Associate of the Department of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney. Prior to his retirement in 2006 he taught Indonesian language and literature at the University of Sydney, and previously held positions at Monash University in Melbourne and Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia. His major research interests and publications are in the field of modern Indonesian literature and cultural history, especially of the late colonial and early independence periods. His most recent publications are 'Bringing the World Back Home: Cultural Traffic in Konfrontasi, 1954-1960', in Jennifer Lindsay and Maya H.T. Liem, Heirs to World Culture: Being Indonesian 1950-1965 (Leiden, KITLV Press, 2012), and (with Brian Russell Roberts), 'Richard Wright on Bandung, Beb Vuyk on Richard Wright', in PMLA 126, 2011. He is also principal editor (with Mikihiro Moriyama and Manneke Budiman) of Words in Motion: Language and Discourse in Post-New Order Indonesia (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2012).

Brian Roberts received his PhD in English from the University of Virginia in 2008. He currently teaches courses in American literature and American Studies at Brigham Young University, where he is an assistant professor in the English Department. He has received the Darwin T. Turner Award for best article of the year in African American Review, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in other venues including Modern Fiction Studies, PMLA, and American Literature. His first book, Artistic Ambassadors: Literary and International Representation of the New Negro Era (forthcoming from University of Virginia Press in early 2013) explores intersections between the US's official international diplomatic representation and modern African American writers' work in literary representation. He has begun work on a second book project, tentatively titled "American Archipelago: Modernism, Blackness, and the Islands of the Sea." Years ago, Brian attended high school at Jakarta International School, and he is currently learning Bahasa Indonesia as he works with Keith Foulcher on a project on African American writer Richard Wright's 1955 travels in Indonesia.

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