Since the New Poet (Pujangga Baru) era until now, we know, there are many modern Indonesian literary works with a background in the Minangkabau community, originated from Minangkabau oral traditions, or written by the Minangkabau people. But there are almost no literary works about Mentawai people. As we know, Minangkabau and Mentawai are in the same administrative territory: West Sumatra.
Like other cultural communities in Indonesia, the Mentawai people also have a wealth of culture, oral traditions, and various dynamics and complex problems as well. Surely, it should be a great source for literary inspiration. Therefore, the publication of the novel Burung Kayu by Niduparas Erlang which tells the stories about the Mentawai people is certainly a worthy alternative voice to be heard.
According to Esha Tegar Putra, poet and archivist of the Jakarta Arts Council, "So far in our tracking, there are only three literary works that focus on telling stories about Mentawai. A. Damhoeri, one of Balai Pustaka's writers, once wrote two fiction works about Mentawai. The first was Depok Anak Pagai, first published in 1939 and then followed by Ratu Pulau Mentawai (Queen of the Mentawai Islands) which had been published continuously in Dunia Islam Magazine & Panji Islam in 1940. The other one was a roman, Darah Mentawai (Mentawai's Blood) by Hassan Noel ‘Arifin, published in the July-August edition of Loekisan Soesana Magazine in 1946. "
Burung Kayu is an ethnographic novel, raising issues that are rarely presented in Indonesian fiction, namely the dynamics of the lives of the Mentawai people. Carefully, this novel uncovers their culture, customs, beliefs, and the various problems they face related to government intervention and the religious majority.
According to Dr. Maskota Delfi, an Anthropology lecturer at Andalas University, Burung Kayu is, "a brilliant ethnographic novel from the fingers of a sasareu (people outside Mentawai) reading the lives of Mentawai Siberut people, especially Sarereiket (residents of the Rereiket watershed). The author not only deserves to be called a novelist, but he's also at the same time an ethnographer who presents his opinions and imagination based on the experience of observation and in-depth interviews with subjects who he wrote”.
Niduparas Erlang, the author of the Burung Kayu, is indeed not of Mentawai origin. However, through his academic experience at the Postgraduate Study of Oral Traditions at the University of Indonesia, he endeavors to conduct two months of field research in Mentawai to obtain writing material.
"I have long been interested in the Mentawai community and all its customs and traditions, both as an oral tradition academic and as a fiction writer. I have collected various references and related readings for years. However, the pathway to writing it in the form of fiction opened in 2018. That year, I got a residency opportunity from the National Book Committee and chose Mentawai as a destination. There, I lived for two months, getting to know more closely the life of the Mentawai people. " Said Niduparas Erlang.
In general, this novel tries to reveal how the Mentawai people deal with, negotiating, or confronting with things that come from outside their culture; how the official religions recognized by the state try to replace their beliefs; how the new settlements built by the government to "civilize" the community Mentawai eroded their kinship.
One of the effects occurred today. In an article on sukumentawai.org, it is mentioned how “the oral tradition of the Mentawai people is on the verge of extinction. Mentawai youth today nearly lost access to their language and culture, as it is not in the education system they follow "
Since this country was founded, indigenous peoples, including the Mentawai people, have always experienced it discrimination: their beliefs are not considered by the state and they are forced choose one of the official religions that have been determined; their culture is stigmatized as a way of life backward; customary forests and their communal wealth were co-opted and turned into economic land; and they suffer from violence, physically and symbolically, not just by state apparatus but also by other people who feel more advanced and civilized.
Efforts to recognize the existence of indigenous peoples or in the realm of law are called communities customary law has been mentioned in article 18B of the Indonesia Constitution. The state must respect not only the law but also the people's custom way of life. However, until today, the draft law on society's customs has not yet been passed.
Clashes between state officials and indigenous peoples, which often lead to physical violence, have become the attention of many parties, both at the national and international levels. A number the institution has attempted to advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples which have been taken away by people on behalf of the state.
Burung Kayu by Niduparas Erlang is an attempt to look back at how the dynamics experienced by indigenous peoples, especially the Mentawai people. By trying to get closer to the mind of the Mentawai people, this novel seeks to see the problems from the perspective of the Mentawai people. An attempt to make indigenous peoples as subjects, no longer just objects to be observed and evaluated from the perspective of an outsider.
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