How could poetry enable us to walk
with our own shadow, through our selves
still asleep on a train.
— Afrizal Malna, “Poetry Seminar at the Sunda Strait”

I first met Afrizal Malna in October 2017, at Kampung Buku Jogja, an annual literary event with a book fair, readings, and discussions held on the grounds of Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta. I had just come to stay awhile in Jogja, to study Indonesian language and literature. While my Indonesian was passable when we met, I hadn't yet read much contemporary writing and was quite ignorant of the literary landscape. Afrizal and I were introduced by mutual friends following his discussion of theater and poetry with Gunawan Maryanto. I picked up a copy of his book of short stories, Pagi Yang Miring Ke Kanan (A Morning Slanting to the Right), newly published at the time by Penerbit Nyala, and we chatted briefly.

Following our initial meeting, I started reading Afrizal's work and quickly found myself falling into its rabbit hole. His poetic sensibility felt familiar, yet at the same time revelatory; I felt a tickling of the senses both troubling and pleasurable. It was the kind of reading experience that takes you outside of yourself while making you feel more yourself. I came to learn that Afrizal is generally regarded as an important but inscrutable innovator in the Indonesian poetic tradition. In addition to his work as a poet, he has been involved with visual and performance art, long active as a theater-maker, playwright, artist, novelist, and critic. Since the early 1980's, his literary work has been widely published and respected, and has even given rise to the literary critical term “Afrizalian.” His work has won a number of national and international literary honors and has been translated into Dutch, English, German, Japanese, and Portuguese. 

Stories and myths of Afrizal abound. He has been known to disappear for periods of time, to travel throughout Indonesia's villages and cities, and to write constantly, with his eyes and ears carefully attuned to the ever-shifting socio-political realities of the country. Afrizal claims that Indonesian is his first and only language. This assertion is particularly unusual for a poet from Indonesia, where most people have a “mother tongue” or “local language” as a first language; Indonesian, in which media and national discourse is conducted, as a second; and often either another local language or a foreign language, such as English, as a third.  

During the reformasi period following the fall of Suharto's New Order regime in 1998, Afrizal quit writing and literary engagement for five years, working instead with Jakarta's Urban Poor Consortium (UPC) as an activist supporting anti-eviction and self-determination struggles in communities facing loss of livelihood and home in the name of development. After eventually leaving Jakarta and his work with the UPC, Afrizal lived for eight or so years in Solo and then Yogyakarta, a period of time in which he desired to become “nobody,” maintaining a relative distance from literary and artistic community and living without books, endeavoring instead to write from his body and its immediate perceptions. It was during this period that Afrizal wrote, among other works, Museum Penghancur Dokumen. There are stories of Afrizal riding the Trans Jogja bus (Yogyakarta's public bus system) all day, from one end of the line to the other and back again, avoiding all conversation and writing in a little notepad.

While some elements of his literary persona may be apocryphal, the intensity and originality of Afrizal's writing is undoubtable. His poems are marked by repetition and variation, collage, parataxis, punning, dark humor, and alliteration. They often address Indonesia's colonial and postcolonial past and present through the objects and situations of day-to-day life in a perversely globalizing social climate, blurring the borders between embodied and semantic experience.

As I read through Afrizal's works available online and in bookstores, I found myself particularly drawn to Museum Penghancur Dokumen, perhaps because of its measured, contemplative feel. I began my translation with some poems from “Suara Yang Berjalan di Atas Kaca” (“Voices That Walk On Glass”), the final section of the book, struck by the astute language play that undermines the distinctions between reality and absurdity, constructing a robust, irreducible tonal space. For these first translations, I tried to enter that space and hang out awhile, familiarizing myself with its breath and temperatures, intuitively seeking English resonances.

Though this initial instinctual approach remained a guiding principle, going deeper into the work of the translations demanded a huge amount of contextualizing research and a constant questioning of the dynamic between authorial intent and readerly interpretation that's familiar to all acts of translation. The myriad complexities of translational decisions begin with the title: Museum Penghancur Dokumen. “Museum” and “dokumen” will of course be recognizable to English readers as cognates of the English “museum” and “document,” absorbed into the polyglottal fibers of the Indonesian language. “Penghancur” is a noun corresponding roughly to the English “destroyer, crusher, smasher.”  However, following a logic of acute subversion that runs throughout the book, “museum penghancur dokumen” plays on “mesin penghancur dokumen”—roughly “document shredding machine” in English—or what is commonly called a “paper shredder” or “document shredder.” So, if there were a way to embed a “museum” into the semantic space of the “machine” that could animate the act of “paper” or “document” shredding in the English language, that might be a more apt way of envisaging it.

These “machines,” in both punning and more straightforward roles, pop up throughout the book. “Mesin foto copy,” “mesin cuci,” “mesin hitung,” “mesin pencetak,” “mesin ATM,”  and “mesin penghancur dokumen” itself. Throughout, I've kept the literal “machine” in the English translation, even where unconventional, e.g. “printing machine” rather than “printer.” Though this may be a rather facile illustration of the translational attitude of the book, I hope it suffices as an example of an intention to carefully follow Afrizal's poems in their attempt to lay bare the emptiness of rote linguistic commonplaces and fill their senselessness with possibilities for shadow meanings, unexpected imaginings.

In fact, the words “bayang,” and “bayangan,” which can be said to roughly mean both “shadow” and “imagination” (or, in the verb form “membayangkan,” “to shadow” and “to imagine”) appear with great frequency in Museum Penghancur Dokumen. Throughout the English version, I've translated the noun form as “shadow(s)” and the verb form as “to imagine.” Though this decision is based in the context of the words' usage in the poems, in language situations where it's (almost universally) quite clear which meaning is being employed, I wonder if it's too consistent, too clean. Something about the indivisibility of ideas in this word, of shadow as imagination and imagining as shadowing, feels essential to the overall aesthetic and politic of the book.

And so, in the space of this note, I'd like to shadow an imagined version of this translation. Or, more accurately, a multitude of such possible versions. I think of Document Shredding Museum as a shadow of a shadow that will “slip away from its light.” As Afrizal writes in the afterward, “The poems in this collection are like a piece of knitting that leaves its unknit leftover strands among the triangle's shadows: language-shadow, body-shadow, and space-shadow…leaving the dimensions unbound, reality discontinuous, in order for memories unarchived to discover their own distinct skies.” These poems invite us to discover for ourselves as well. They invite us to a “dinner party between cause and effect.” Invite us to “swim in a language that always says good morning to the bathroom.”

For selections of Afrizal’s work translated by Daniel Owen, see the internal link below as well as publications at:
Washington Square Review
Brooklyn Rail
Dispatches from the Poetry Wars

Daniel Owen is the author of Toot Sweet (United Artists Books, 2015) and Restaurant Samsara (Furniture Press Books, 2018). His translation of Afrizal Malna’s Document Shredding Museum is forthcoming from Reading Sideways Press. His writing has recently appeared in Hyperallergic, The Recluse, The Brooklyn Rail, The Fanzine, Vestiges, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Ugly Duckling Presse editorial collective.

Afrizal Malna is an artist, theater maker, and writer of poetry, short stories, novels, literary essays, and play scripts. His latest books are Pada Batas Setiap Masakini (Octopus, 2017), Pagi Yang Miring Ke Kanan (Nyala, 2017), and Berlin Proposal (Nuansa Cendekia, 2015). He is the head of the Jakarta Arts Council's Theater Committee and was a 2015 DAAD Artist-in-Residence (Berlin). He has recently performed at poetry festivals in Bremen, Maastricht, Hamburg, Kerala, and Yokohama and was a participant in the 2017 Jakarta Biennale. His work has been translated into German, Spanish, and English.