Remembering Bibsy Soenharjo

Bibsy Senharjo was born in Jakarta, Indonesia on 22nd November 1928 to Haji Agus Salim and Zainatun Nahar nee Almatsier. Aunt Bibsy began writing in 1957 and continued to poetry in the sixties. In 1998, on her 70th birthday, her sons and friends published a compilation of some of her poems.


"Her English poems, even some of her Indonesian onces, have this crude naked fluency of translated thoughts--combined with a wit of verbal puns, rhymes, and alliteration--that has its own charm. ...her imagination takes you into a world full of fantasy and surprises. What is best in her poems, the endings and narrative plots are never predictable, and her sense of humor gives you a jolly ride." - Professor Melani Budiantara, PH.D


On the 9th December 2018, family and friends gathered to commemorate the life of Bibsy Senharjo that had passed away. The event was filled with poetry written by Bibsy and sharing of memories. One particular member was Debra Yatim, Indonesian journalist, which we asked some questions about the late 'aunt' Bibsy.

Why is Aunt Bibsy an important person to remember?

Bibsy Soenharjo's poetry needs to be addressed according to Prof. Melani Budianta, because she is one of the very few poets, if not the only one, that can express herself in Indonesian, English, French, and Dutch. This, itself, is such an achievement, especially considering that Bibsy never had formal education.

Second, Indonesian literature since the 'Pujangga Lama' generation end to ignore the contribution of women writers. This is intolerable. What we should be doing is our responsibility to acknowledge all women litterature since before Indonesia was established, till current day.

Third, Bibsy's work have been published in many prestigious literature in America, Australia, Netherlands, and Japan since the 1960s. Having said that, the international world recognizes the development of our literature from Bibsy Soenharjo's writing. And it wasn't a result of translated, but it was written in English, French, and Dutch.

Fourth, while most Indonesians are oblivious to Bibsy Soenharjo, Malaysian students in Form 4 and Form 5 SPM have dissected her poems "He Had Such Quiet Eyes," because it is an obligatory ready material in English literature, as determined by the Malaysian education ministry.


How does Bibsy's work influence you?

My poetry style is very different to Bibsy because our interest, life experience, and activities are very different. However, I am very much influenced by her personality because she was a warm person, generous in sharing wirting tips and knowledge. And if someone like her, that has never had formal education, can fluently speak 5 languages and apply it in poetry, surely I have to work hard too!


Why should we have an annual commemoration of Bibsy?

1. There aren't many people that recognize Bibsy Soenharjo, and her role in Indonesian literature.

2. There's a popular misconception that says Indonesians that do not write in Indonesian, isn't considered Indonesian literature. This is stupidity.

3. It will be very challenging to improve the Indonesian literature if the Ministry of Education doesn't enforce Indonesians to appreciate our poets. Because we have yet to see them do it, places such as ESAS becomes an important hub to do so.

 
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Debra Yatim reading at the commemoration of Bibsy.

 
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Felia Salim reading at the commemoration of Bibsy.

 
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