Conversations with Difference: Essays from Tempo Magazine consists of essays selected from Goenawan’s writings published between 1968 and 2002. Most of them are translated, thanks to Jennifer Lindsay’s hard work and virtuosity, from a five-volume collection of Catatan Pinggir, which is the title of Goenawan weekly columns for TEMPO news magazine.
Indonesia’s most accomplished essayist, Goenawan Mohamad is a public intellectual of rare grace. Goenawan’s essays explore the movement between difference and the universal, from the positions of exile, of native informant, of tourist, of journalist, of poet, from in front of the ruins of the World Trade Center and front of the mirror. He is as comfortable quoting the Mahabharata as he is Zizek, Mahmoud Darwish or Hemingway.
Goenawan’s essay style developed in the 1980s, in part as a strategy for dealing with censorship,in part a belief that “in a time when one could easily follow the prevailing grammar of injustice, lucidity always lay with fewer words”. And Goenawan’s lucidity is one that avoids “turning into an unbreakable crystal of answers”.
The initial design of Catatan Pinggir (literally: notes in the margin) was to give a form to discussions about books and ideas—things that amidst the thrust of Soeharto’s development policy were dismissed as a waste of time, a distraction, or even a security risk. For this reason sometimes the columns read like book reviews; often they bring in quotes from other people’s works. This is Goenawan’s way of offering an alternative conversation when book shops survive mainly on school textbooks and management manuals, when public libraries are nonexistent and the universities let their humanity departments be ruled by fear of censorship and the convenience of clichés.
In the author’s view, the essay, as a form, is the best method to circumvent this utilitarian demand for predictability. The essay, as Adorno puts it nicely, ‘starts not with Adam and Eve but with what it wants to talk about… and stops when it feels finished rather than when there is nothing to say.’
It has the quality of someone in abstracted mood aimlessly sauntering on the sidewalk. Precisely because it is largely an insubstantial undertaking, it is polemical. It stands against the mania for result and regularity. It makes much of the transient and capricious condemned by the teleology of Five-Year Plans. It takes notes and reflects on things and ideas denied by the ideological illusion of order. Obviously, clichés and fixed ideas are part of the order.