Indonesia

Richard Wright and the Bandung Conference

BY and

The observations of Indonesia by the famous African-American novelist Richard Wright during the 1955 Bandung Conference deserve to be read alongside Indonesian accounts, argue KEITH FOULCHER and BRIAN RUSSELL ROBERTS.

In December of 1954, while living in self-imposed exile in France, the famous African-American novelist Richard Wright picked up an evening newspaper and gazed in awe when he read that in April 1955 the government of Indonesia would be hosting a meeting of 29 newly independent Asian and African countries.

Gathering in Bandung, as Wright learned from the newspaper, representatives from these countries were to discuss ‘the position of Asia and Africa and their people in the world of today and the contribution they can make to the promotion of world peace and cooperation’.

In 1955, Wright was a popular and successful novelist and a prominent advocate for African-American rights, both in his native United States and abroad. He had become known to a wide audience in 1940, with the success of his novel Native Son, and in 1945 his autobiography Black Boy had been a number-one bestseller for three months. But he had left the United States in 1946 to escape continuing and virulent race prejudice.

Now, in Paris, it seemed to him that the forthcoming Asian-African Conference that was to be held in the Indonesian city of Bandung would be an embodiment of his own life experiences and a blueprint for a world in which people of colour would come to assert their rightful destiny. He told his wife, Ellen Poplar, that his life had given him some keys for understanding this gathering of Asian and African representatives. As he later recalled, Ellen replied, ‘If you feel that way, you have to go’.

With these emotional keys in hand, Wright arranged to spend over three weeks in Indonesia (from 12 April to 5 May 1955), attending the Bandung Conference as a freelance journalist between 18 and 24 April. His impressions of the conference, and his experiences in Indonesia more generally were the subject of his 1956 book, The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference. This book was one of the first substantial accounts of the gathering of Asian and African nations in Bandung, and it continues to be seen as a seminal account of the conference’s world-historical significance and its role in the foundation of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961.

In 2015, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Asian-African Conference, Wright’s 1955 observations on Indonesia still occupied a pivotal place in the conference’s historiography. Significantly, this was also the case in Indonesia itself.

At the end of April 2015, the influential Indonesian weekly news magazine Tempo published a special bound edition in both Indonesian and English to mark the Bandung Conference’s 60th anniversary. Its coverage was wideranging, liberally illustrated with historical photographs and based on historical documents as well as comprehensive reporting and informed commentary. It was put together by a team of over 90 writers, editors and contributors. Introducing the collection was an article that drew on Richard Wright and The Color Curtain to describe some of the conference themes Richard and aspects of the Indonesian response to the staging of the conference, as Wright had reported them in his Indonesian travelogue.

Deep impression

Elsewhere in the edition Wright appeared again, in comments drawn from The Color Curtain that described the deep impression left on him by his experiences in Indonesia. And in the magazine’s following edition, veteran Indonesian journalist and former Tempo editor Goenawan Mohamad again took up the role of Richard Wright as a mediator of the Bandung Conference to the rest of the world, in his signature column Catatan Pinggir (Sidelines).

Yet there is very little in the 2015 commemoration of the Bandung Conference that draws on the substantial Indonesian archive of sources on Wright’s Indonesian sojourn and its aftermath. The particular circumstances in which Wright’s visit to Indonesia was arranged and financed brought him into contact with a highly visible subset of 1950s Indonesia’s most prominent writers, intellectuals and cultural figures. This contact in turn resulted in a series of interviews, lectures and informal discussions in a variety of Indonesian settings, during the three weeks Wright spent in and around Jakarta and Bandung.

Indonesian press interest

The Indonesian press also took an interest in his presence, reporting on Wright’s movements and experiences, and even publishing an Indonesian translation of a lecture Wright delivered in Jakarta just before his departure, which subsequently remained unknown to the rest of the world.

A number of Indonesian observers left their own accounts of Wright’s interactions with his Indonesian hosts and their response to his work, which sometimes contain conflicting versions of events Wright recounted in The Color Curtain and elsewhere. And in the years that followed Wright’s visit, Indonesian writers and intellectuals continued to publish responses to Wright’s work and his brief but significant appearance in the cultural history of 1950s Indonesia.

Yet all these Indonesian sources are still to find a place in the extensive library of critical literature and detailed documentation of Wright’s life and work. Equally, they await their restoration to historical memory in Indonesia itself, where, just as in the rest of the world, the story of Bandung and its afterlives is largely mediated through sources like The Color Curtain, written in the lingua franca of English.

Transnational crosscurrents

We have detailed our own concern with the need to pluralise and diversify the existing story of Richard Wright in Indonesia in a forthcoming book, Indonesian Notebook: A Sourcebook on Richard Wright and the Bandung Conference (Duke University Press, Feb. 2016). Here, we explore the transnational crosscurrents that underlay Wright’s Indonesian sojourn through a collection of historical documents that offer a view of Wright and his Indonesian experiences and observations from the point of view of Indonesian writers in the years between 1951 and 2005.

We suggest that a consideration of these documents points toward the need for a new Bandung historiography, one that gives as much credence to Wright’s Indonesian interlocutors as it does to Wright himself, a Bandung historiography that resists the traditional and complacent reliance on English-only sources. At the same time, however, we are of course aware that in translating these Indonesian sources into English to make them available to an international audience, we too are acknowledging the dominance of English across so many fields of knowledge in the modern world.

In dealing with this dilemma, Richard Wright himself is a prescient guide. In The Color Curtain, Wright speculated on the increasing role of English in transnational communications, asking a rhetorical question and making an optimistic observation:

What will happen when millions upon millions of new people in the tropics begin to speak English? Alien pressures and structures of thought and feeling will be brought to bear upon this our mother tongue and we shall be hearing some strange and twisted expressions….But this is all to the good; a language is useless unless it can be used for the vital purposes of life, and to use a language in new situations is, inevitably, to change it.

Perhaps, when the 75th anniversary of the Bandung Conference is commemorated in 2030, the previously forgotten Indonesian voices from 1955 will again be heard, in the ‘strange and twisted’ expressions of a vital and unfamiliar English.

Keith Foulcher is an honorary associate of the Department of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney.
Brian Russell Roberts is an associate professor in the Department of English at Brigham Young University, Utah, USA.

Photo:
Richard Wright with the Indonesian poet and essayist Siti Nuraini and her daughter at the time of the Bandung conference.

Published:
19th May, 2015

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