Appropriating Kartini: Colonial, national and transnational memories of an Indonesian icon

The world has known Raden Adjeng Kartini since the publication of a selection of her famous letters in 1911, titled Door duisternis tot licht (“Through Darkness into Light”). She has since been translated into numerous languages, including Arabic, Japanese, Russian, Sundanese and French, but most influentially into English as Letters of a Javanese Princess in 1920 and into Indonesian as Habis gelap terbitlah terang (“After Darkness Comes Light”) in 1922. Even before decolonization, Indonesian and Dutch newspapers had devoted thousands of articles to her, while books, theses and articles analyzing her life and letters number in the hundreds. In the 1960s, she was taken up by the UNESCO Collection of Representative Works, with a foreword for the English edition by Eleanor Roosevelt. Meanwhile in Indonesia, president Sukarno made her a national hero in 1964 while under the New Order of president Sukarno, Kartini Day was transformed into an annual event that is still celebrated across the archipelago on April 21st. Internet and social media are full of creative remediations of Kartini’s texts and imagery, including the admonishing meme of Pergi gelap pulang terang (“Going out in darkness, coming home at dawn”), showing the supposed decline in the morals of Indonesian women doing all-nighters. Women and feminist groups have broadly embraced her, from Poetri Mardika in the 1910s and the communist women of Gerwani in the 1950s to the current transnational gender research network, “Kartini Asia.” In the Netherlands, the memory of Kartini remains strong, evinced by the annual Kartini Prize for emancipation of the city of The Hague, and the Kartini Wing of the Museum of the Tropics in Amsterdam, which opened in 2004.

The apparent ease with which Kartini has been troped in the past century attests to the richness of her life and letters, which lend themselves to multiple, differing interpretations, contestations, and appropriations. The edited volume we will produce in this project consists of chapters by an international team of scholars studying the discursive underpinnings of the varying appropriations of Kartini as a colonial, postcolonial, national and transnational memory by exploring the ways in which the ideologies and practices of power, both formal and informal, shape how she is remembered by Indonesia and the world. The memory of Kartini has been strategically deployed to cement as well as undermine existing power structures. Furthermore, most appropriations of Kartini tap into underlying political, social, and cultural investments and agendas which can be viewed as responses to the needs or anxieties of those constructing her. Thus the study of these varying appropriations would provide us an insight into the complexities of remembrance and representation, as well as the intersectional dynamics of gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, and nationality that enter the discursive constructions of Kartini as an icon.

The volume will bring together authors working on Kartini throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It breaks new ground by being the first study of its kind to systematically analyze both Asian and Western legacies of an Asian woman’s writings. It hypothesizes that Kartini’s figure and letters have been used by so many different institutions and actors in differing periods because through her they could articulate their own position on the role of the native, Indonesian, and Asian woman in society. By assembling experts from across the disciplines that include anthropology, literature, history, media, gender, memory and postcolonial studies, this volume seeks to build or expand on the current debates and scholarship on Kartini and memory studies by examining the systems of power that underline the appropriations of Kartini as an ideology and discourse.

Period: 2016-2018.

In 2014, this project was awarded with a Veni grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) for the period 2015-2018.

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