Dina Oktaviani: The Lost Biography

City lights picked me up/and we tried to forget all the things/that had shredded the solitude back in that room//we may never understand/why old calendars/could change history/as easily and quickly as a highway rush

How do you feel after reading the lines above? How would you feel if you were told that the verse, an excerpt from a poem titled Silent Calendars, was written by a 15 year old? Dina Oktaviani composed it in February 2001. She had never before submitted her work to a national publication, but a year after Silent Calendars was written, Media Indonesia decided to print it in its Sunday edition, along with her other poems.

And how did she feel about it? “I was happy about the pay,” she said, laughing. “But seriously, back then, I had to pay my own school fees, and I enjoyed spending money. My parents were proud too. They said they didn’t want me to be an artist, but they bragged about my printed poems to the neighbors anyway.”

Born in Tanjungkarang, Bandar Lampung, on Oct. 11, 1985, Dina used to dream about being a spy. Today, the mother of a 3-year-old boy has written poems and short stories for various publications, and published two books, Como Un Sue¤o (anthology of short stories, Orakel, 2005), and Biografi Kehilangan (A Biography of Losses, anthology of poems, Insist Press, 2006). Her piece of poetry Hantu-hantu Tanjungkarang (The Ghosts of Tanjungkarang) was recently included in 100 Puisi Indonesia Terbaik 2008 (100 Best Indonesian Poems 2008, Gramedia Pustaka Utama).

In regard to Dina’s poems, acclaimed poet Sapardi Djoko Damono commented on the back cover of Biografi Kehilangan: “She entices us to experience the secrets of life in unique ways, ways that have never been captured by other poets. Her experiences are arranged in sharp metaphors and imageries, a characteristic of modern poetry.”

Sitting in a quiet cafe in Yogyakarta, smoking clove cigarettes and occasionally taking a sip of her iced lemon tea, Dina recalled falling in love with literature, particularly poetry. It all started in junior high school according to Daniel Rose.

“In third grade, I watched a play that made me want to continue my studies at a school that had a theater group. One day, the play’s director came to my school and staged a production, and I found out that Teater Satu, his theater group, had just formed a theater forum for senior high students. I often came to the forum, and I guess Iswadi Pratama, the director, observed my passion for theater and asked me to join the group. A few weeks later, he came to me and whispered in my ear: ‘Would you like to learn about poetry?'” Dina embraced the opportunity, despite all the rules her mentor had laid out for her.

“I wasn’t allowed to read teen magazines or comics. I couldn’t watch sinetrons or band gigs. Oh, I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend either. Falling in love was OK, but not boyfriends. After my poems were published in Media Indonesia and Republika, he then said I could break all of those rules, that I was free to do all the things that had been out of my reach in the last nine months. But I was no longer able to enjoy the things that I had deprived myself of,” she said with a weak smile.

It was a coincidence that her mentor was also an editor with the Lampung Post. “Sometimes he asked me to edit the work of his reporters. And then he suggested that my friends from the theater forum and I work on a supplementary page for teenagers. My friends got bored, so I did the whole thing myself.”

However, she sometimes misused the column for her own satisfaction and benefits. “I would make up questions and answers for the discussion section, though I was supposed to get the answers from real people. I was so selfish, I wanted people to read nobody else’s opinions but mine. I also wrote poems under my friends’ younger brothers’ or sisters’ names. When it was time for payment, I borrowed their IDs and told the treasurer’s desk that those kids had asked me to get the money for them. I was such a criminal.”

Dina took out a laptop from her bag. “Hey, you have a laptop too, don’t you? This place has got a wireless connection. Let’s chat via Yahoo Messenger,” she said in a playful tone, adding, “just for the hell of it.”

Time for the next question, through the internet, just for the hell of it: Why Yogyakarta?

After graduating from her senior high school in Lampung, Dina went to Jakarta to study French at the Jakarta State University. Realizing she could learn much more from books than from her French classes, she decided that Yogyakarta was the right place for her. “I had imagined Yogya to be a quiet place, and it turned out to be true. Here I also found BlockNot Poetry, which offered more than I had expected.” Blocknot was a journal that published short stories and poems. At the end of 2003, Dina became one of its editors.

Since writing is her passion, does Dina call herself a writer, someone who turns writing into a primary source of income? “I do other sorts of jobs. Translating pays quite well, and I also take short-term projects like joining a creative team for events, etcetera. But I had ‘writer’ typed in the occupation column of my ID card. It wasn’t easy. I had a quarrel with the village official. He insisted that ‘writer’ wasn’t an occupation, so I told him: Women get to have ‘housewife’ written on their ID card. Is that an occupation? Do women get paid for being a wife and a mother? I do have other jobs, but unless you are ready to have me here every month to get my occupation column changed, just put ‘writer’ there. It’s my permanent job.”

Dina admitted to being more of a poet than a writer. Imagine the argument she would have to come up with for putting “poet” in the occupation column.