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Narrating ‘the modern’ Colonial-era Southern Batak Journalism and Novelistic Fiction as Overlapping Literary Forms


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By Susan Rodgres

[Source: Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde (BKI) 163-4 (2007):476-506 © 2007 Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde]

As Lennard J. Davis (1997) points out in Factual fictions; The origins of the English novel, newspaper prose and novel writing had remarkably blurred boundaries throughout the late 1700s, the time when the early English novel was first gaining public currency on the popular print scene[1]. Davis presents a complex argument. He first criticizes Ian Watt’s approach (1957) as set out in the latter’s classic The rise of the novel. Davis asserts that Watt relies on simplistic ‘evolutionary’ models about the ‘rise’ of genres. Davis goes on to observe that there was a generalized convergence of discursive forms in the English popular press and in storytelling in commercial print in the late eighteenth century. But, critiquing vaguely phrased convergence models too, Davis goes farther in his theoretical claims about early English novel writing[2].

The political landscape for print was central here, in his view. Davis contends that a separation of ‘factual’, reportorial writing (deemed appropriate for news items in newspapers) from overt fiction (grist for novels) was itself a strategic response by cagey authors anxious to evade censorship. English journalism and novelistic fiction were deeply enmeshed before this tactical separation; Earlier versions of parts of this article were presented first at the Association for Asian Studies meetings, 6 March 2004, San Diego, CA, and at an April 2004 conference on ‘Novels and newspapers in Southeast Asia: Instruments of modernity’, at the Center for Southeast Asia Studies, University of California, Berkeley. The titles of those papers were, respectively, ‘”Ancient culture” as a front-page feature story; Batak reporters write heritage in the vernacular press of the colonial Indies’ and ‘Entangled genres; The novel-newspaper in colonial-era southern Batak visions of the modern’. I also wish to thank two anonymous reviewers of this article for their helpful comments.

Mrs Djodjor Situmeang, staff associate at the newspaper archives at the Perpustakaan Nasional (National Library), Jakarta, was also a great help throughout this project. The research literature on the history of the novel is immense, as indicated by the scope of essays anthologized in McKeon (2000). Of direct relevance to the study of the Batak novel are such works as George Quinn’s sharp analyses (1983, 1992) of the Javanese-language novel. On the colonial-era Angkola Batak novel, see also Rodgers 1991.

Davis notes that they have remained conjoined in important ways since. Beyond this, looking at news writing and novels in less grand terms of sheer content, Davis notes (1997:34-6, 51) that during the period when early English novels by such writers as Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson appeared and secured new readerships for long, emotionally engaging prose texts, both fiction and journalism in England had a fascination with the new and novel. News writing and novels both fixated on quotidian life, and on the dilemmas of troubled rural to urban transitions. Changing family systems and, particularly, shifting social roles for young women emerged in piquant detail in both of these forms of writing during this transformative era of English literary history. New reading publics for novels were drawn from such populations as girls in domestic service. They could now read about themselves, in effect, by following the misadventures of literary characters who were enticingly caught up in social worlds upended by change.

Newspaper readers of the era could similarly savour stories of busy urban landscapes, girls in trouble in the big city, and lives in tumult. Precisely because they are formulated in theoretical terms, Davis’s observations here have useful comparative implications for the study of newspapers in late colonial Southeast Asia, the focus of this essay. Davis pushes students of press history to look beyond just that one form of commercial print toward much wider discursive fields, to see newspaper writing in context. This can be productive advice for students of journalism in places like colonial Sumatra, where early twentieth-century newspaper writing had deep, intertextual relationships with quite domesticated versions of the European novel[3]. Indigenous newspapers in some parts of Sumatra were also entangled with modes of writing found in school textbooks and guides to ‘old customs’; newspaper writing was also influenced by ritual speech types such as chanted epics and oratory by chiefs[4]. This made colonial Sumatra’s vernacular newspapers lively cultural sites in a communications systems sense. Infusions of rhetorical form among these various modes of print writing and oratorical speech made Sumatran print landscapes of the 1910s through the early 1930s blurry, and correspondingly creative. My specific focus will be turned here to some of the ways in which southern Batak press modes of narrating the modern overlapped with southern Batak novelistic fiction’s evocation of the same set of ideas, in Angkola  Batak-language texts. This approach will help observers to glimpse more of the Sumatran vernacular press’s full written and spoken settings in the late colonial period, than would be possible if journalism is studied too narrowly. During the period when my texts were first published, for many educated southern Batak men and women the modern world was seen, in effect, as the modern Indies: an exciting, rapidly changing social universe anchored for ambitious southern Batak families in the schoolhouse, the European plantation, and in print per se – in newspapers, novels, and schoolbooks. Southern Batak understandings of modernity also posited rapid change for women, again based in schools and print literacy. Additionally, for many southern Batak the modern Indies as a social place was a specific geographical locale – east coast Deli – toward which they would travel, in autobiography, and in their imagination, through literature. 

Newspapers and novels, Tapanuli and Deli

The particular newspaper culture to be explored here is a little-known one from northern Sumatra from the late colonial Dutch East Indies, from the 1910s to the early 1930s: a thriving (if short-lived) Angkola and Mandailing Batak-language vernacular press that issued mainly from Batak-owned small printing presses in southern and central Tapanuli[5]. These presses (such as Stoomdrukkerij Tapiannaoeli) were located in provincial administrative, commercial, and school towns such as Sibolga, Padangsidimpuan, and Sipirok – smaller settlements than Medan or Padang, both famous newspaper towns[6]. Some of these southern Batak-language papers were based in locales outside the highlands, in the Deli plantation belt city of Pematang Siantar. By 1920 there was a significant southern Batak diaspora population there. Due to infusions of foreign capital starting in the 1890s, Sumatra’s east coast (Deli, near Medan) had been transformed from forested foothills and plains into plantation lands for tea, rubber, and especially for the famous Deli tobacco.

Literate southern Batak young people had migrated to Deli in some number starting as early as the 1890s, seeking jobs. The colonial state had established primary schools in Angkola and Mandailing rural regions starting at a remarkably early date for the outer islands: the 1860s. These sikola metmet or  ‘little schools’ offered three grades. They provided instruction in arithmetic and in reading and writing in the Batak syllabary. But, importantly, starting as early as the 1870s, many sikola metmet introduced children to surat Ulando: Dutch letters, the Latin alphabet. Fluency in this powerful medium gave educated southern Batak an inside track in securing salaried work as office staff on the Deli plantations. By the 1920s, a heady southern Batak literary culture (in print, in those Dutch letters) had developed in Pematang Siantar and in hometown Sipirok, Padangsidimpuan, and Sibolga. A Batak-language press flourished, for a short time, in this context – in this part-Dutch, part-Batak,  colonized yet feisty and contentious cultural site.

Starting in the 1910s and continuing on through the mid 1930s, five predominantly southern-Batak-language newspapers appeared in these towns. These weeklies and bi-weeklies included Sipirok Pardomoean from that town, Tapian Naoeli and Poestaha from Sibolga, and an earlier version of Poestaha from Padangsidimpuan. Partoengkoan, a Batak-language paper mostly about adat custom, appeared in Pematang Siantar. These papers dealt with a mélange of ‘news’, as locally defined: clan celebrations, buffalo sacrifice feasts, school items, plantation crop prices, crime stories, tiger sightings, family life features, fillers on the Dutch monarchy, and countless essays on language matters. The latter were typically discussed in terms of ‘being modern’ in the Indies. Writers of the language stories asked, for instance, What language (Angkola Batak? Malay? Dutch?) should the well-informed, newspaper-reading Batak household in Sipirok (or indeed in Deli) employ in raising small children? Malay was beginning to be discussed as Indonesian by the early 1930s in this sector of the Sumatran vernacular press, a situation that lent political weight to these newspaper discussions of language and childrearing. Other questions were also prominent in these papers. For instance, how do Angkola Batak ‘old forms of speech’ such as oratory and courtship rhymes fit into an Indies ‘on the move’, transitioning from traditional ways (another preoccupation of these newspapers) toward modern life in the Indies (another standardized trope)?[7] 

The reporters and readers of this southern-Batak-language press was a highly educated one with fluency in both Malay and Angkola Batak, both of which were taught in the higher-status elementary and secondary schools of southern Tapanuli. The readership of these home-grown Tapanuli and Pematang Siantar newspapers seems to have been a mix of schoolteacher families, coffee and cloth merchant elites, school-minded rajas out in the more prominent rural villages, and office clerks and hospital clinic staff[8]. This was a sturdily commercial  press, not primarily a Christian-mission-based one (a contrast with the case in Toba, where Protestant missions published some of the more prominent Bataklanguage papers in this period and in the decades before)[9].

In the 1920s and early 1930s (the clear heyday of this Batak vernacular press) Batak-language journalism showed numerous similarities with the print vistas being laid out at the same time before new Batak readers in Batak-language vernacular novels. These books tended to be lengthy love stories and migrating- to-Deli tales inspired most directly by the publication of the governmentsponsored, Malay-language Balai Poestaka novels. These were popular fiction works such as Marah Rusli’s Sitti Nurbaya (1922) and Merari Siregar’s Azab dan sengsara (1927). The latter was written by a Sipirok Batak man and concerned a lightly fictionalized story about the pain wrought by arranged marriages between wealthy lineages in that highland market town. Many of the bestknown novels in the Balai Poestaka series were indeed by Sumatran authors, from West Sumatra and, in Merari’s case, from Tapanuli. Balai Poestaka was a state-financed publishing house charged with the task of commissioning and marketing serious popular literature in Malay. These books were designed to be read by the Indies’ growing numbers of school graduates[10].

The Balai Poestaka novels in Malay were subject to state oversight but the Batak novels (in the 1920s and 1930s this was largely an Angkola Bataklanguage phenomenon) were much less accessible to censors. This was especially so since they were phrased in part in arcane oratory phrases. These novels were delicious to savour (the exact imagery cited by one locally famous author, M.J. Soetan Hasoendoetan). Their delights were linked in part to the fact that they laid out before the reader a wide repast of ritual speech forms (for example, blessings, invocations, verbal duels, courtship repartee) and literary genres (letters, handbills, print versions of courtship rhymes). Few non-Angkola Batak could read these complex texts, so the kind of government supervision evident in Balai Poestaka publishing was not present here. These Batak-language novels were often written by prominent Batak public intellectuals such as M.J. Soetan Hasoendoetan himself, mentioned above, and Sutan Pangurabaan. The latter was the father of Armijn and Sanusi Pane, who wrote in Malay and were both active in theorizing a new, national Indonesian literature written in Indonesian, defined as such. Some of the Batak-language writers were former school principals; some had newspaper employment histories as well. These books were often published with the aid of this same Batak printing press industry. These novels ran to 300 and more pages, when issued in bound form. Often, these narratives had appeared first as serials or feuilletons in some of the newspapers listed above. The Angkola Batak-language novels tended to be about sympathetic, star-crossed young Angkola couples who encounter extreme poverty or family disasters in rural Tapanuli home regions and thus migrate to Deli in search of new lives along the polyglot coast. Language complexity as a social circumstance is highly marked in these texts. And, in contrast to the general run of Malay-language Balai Poestaka novels, the southern Batak books sometimes ended happily, with the migrants launched into satisfying lives in Deli.

These entertaining novels and the newspapers that gestated them tended to cover similar narrative territory. That is, Tapanuli and Deli and difficult journeys from the former to the latter; schools and the lives of struggling teachers and students; crime-on-the-rise amid whirlwinds of social change; young women who brush up against danger in swiftly changing, unpredictable marriage ‘markets’ that now included many more potential husbands than the stereotypic perfect match as set out in Batak kinship (a first cousin, the bride’s father’s sister’s son). Beyond the content, southern Batak vernacular newspapers and novels also had numerous other narrative concordances. Their rhetorics overlapped. For instance, novelists would sometimes incorporate set pieces in their chapters that they had published first as ‘news’ items in the Tapanuli papers. And, the storylines of novels were sometimes taken ‘from real life’ in towns like Sipirok, writers would inform readers; this happened in Batak-language fiction as well as in Merari Siregar’s Malaylanguage Balai Poestaka book. Moreover, quite importantly, stories in these papers would often draw on novelistic conventions such as vivid characterizations, heated plotlines, and an omniscient narrator, who oversaw different social scenes and different temporal occurrences in Tapanuli and Deli and unified them into a single experience: that of overseeing a page of newsprint that was laid out before the reader.

In Imagined communities; Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism Benedict Anderson (1983) famously asserts that newspaper writing and novelistic prose in late colonial societies in Asia coalesced by a sort of multiplier effect to foster new modes of constructing national identities. He writes that both forms of commercial print writing imagined time as secular; both types of literature also focused on the everyday, and the ordinary person. In participating in the common ritual of reading their morning newspapers, large communities of such persons encountered each other rhetorically, as members of the same imagined community. This, despite the fact that they had never actually met. Similarly, novels and newspapers (according to Anderson) posited large social worlds made up of discrete events and human encounters which the reader could oversee, as from a promontory. The reader would then pull together these events and scenes into a coherent whole – much as the newspaper reader surveyed a broad social landscape on his or her pages of newsprint. A wide Indonesian or a Filipino national community could be imagined in such print venues, Anderson contends. Anthropologist James Hagen (1997) has found some validity to these claims for the Indonesian press in the pre-war decades.

The southern Batak vernacular press of the 1920s and early 1930s seems to have been concerned with more delimited social vistas, short of an Indonesian nation. Rural Tapanuli and get-rich-quick Deli were more at issue than any overarching, national Indonesian identity. Nevertheless, Anderson’s contentions about narrative and nationalism provide a thought-provoking way to look at Batak press worlds, their linkages to novel writing, and Sumatran social thought. Here, however, I shall go a bit beyond Anderson’s somewhat bluntly phrased model to look at how concrete southern Batak strategies for narrating modernity overlapped in southern Batak journalism and in fiction.

My several sample texts from 1914 to the 1920s all involve portrayals of Sumatran language universes. This specific rhetoric was often used by southern Batak authors as a major way to narrate journeys to modern life, and journeys from rural Tapanuli to east coast Deli. Language landscapes as portrayed in newspaper writing and in novels in this one sector of late colonial Sumatran literature are explored here as one possible initial step toward a later, more thoroughgoing study of the politics of rhetoric for Batak writing, along the lines of Davis’s more ambitious work on the early English press in relation to early English novels.

My first text is from an Angkola Batak-language novel entitled Sitti Djaoerah (a girl’s name). The novel first appeared as a newspaper serial in 1927 and was then reissued as a soft-cover book in 1929. Sitti Djaoerah was written by a Deli coast émigré, the aforementioned Soetan Hasoendoetan. He was born in the highland village of Pagaranjulu near Sipirok in about 1890. Formally educated through about the third grade (he was from a family of modest means), once Soetan Hasoendoetan arrived in Deli he worked first in a bank and then as a clerk on a Dutch-owned tea plantation[11]. But, on the side, he wrote wondrous novels, verse narratives, and freelance folkloric articles for Batak newspapers. He seems to have written exclusively in the Angkola Batak language, although he was also fluent in Malay and knew some Dutch. In social circles of retired Sipirok schoolteachers in the 1970s and 1980s, Soetan Hasoendoetan was remembered as the pre-eminent Batak-language author of the pre-independence, pre-Indonesian-revolution period. However, to wider Indonesian and international publics Soetan Hasoendoetan is virtually unknown, as is Sitti Djaoerah, his masterwork (available in my English translation, in Rodgers 1997). The disappearance of his oeuvre from public consciousness today owes much to the juggernaut of Indonesian language use – as a national language – in schools, in the media, and also in some of the standard scholarship on modern literature in Indonesia. One of the more comfortable assumptions in that research has been the idea that Indonesian is a more natural fit than the ‘local languages’ (Javanese, Balinese, the Batak tongues) are for writing about modernity themes. Sitti Djaoerah’s preoccupation with journeys to Deli belies this.

My second text, or set of texts, are front-page stories from the Tapanuli newspaper Poestaha. This is the paper where Sitti Djaoerah first appeared as a serial in 1927. Poestaha was a paper that self-consciously covered both modern-day news from southern and central Tapanuli and old Angkola heritage items. This made the weekly a journal about time and transitions. Poestaha reporters, editors, and freelance contributors often couched their explorations of such themes in terms of language change, with life in Deli identified with a luxurious diversity of languages and language registers, and with rich admixtures of orality and print literacies. After some historical background on print literacy, schools, the press, and the novel in this part of Sumatra, we can go on to the sample texts and their imbedded language ideologies.

Historical background: Tapanuli and Deli print worlds, 1850s-1920s

Batak-language regional journalism and fiction grew in tight interaction with public school expansion in colonial Tapanuli, and also in counterpoint to developments in Malay-language writing in North and West Sumatra and in the Indies as a whole. Briefly, Tapanuli’s history of print publication in the ‘the Dutch letters’ went as follows, in the decades before the 1920s. Print communications were at first instruments of colonial state expansion in regions of Sumatra like this which held promise for plantation cropping (in Sipirok, for coffee). Protestant Christian missions to the Bataks in general targeted Sipirok as their entry point, in the 1850s. The European missions also employed printing presses, for the publication of primers for Bible school use. But, by the 1910s, after decades of government school growth in southern Tapanuli, local schoolteachers and principals in the uplands, in Angkola Dolok (Mountain Angkola), Angkola Upriver and Angkola Downriver, and Mandailing Godang (Greater Mandailing), had begun to write school textbooks. Most of these were commissioned by the school authorities but some were commercially produced. Sutan Pangurabaan Pane was a noted entrepreneur here. Some of these textbook authors began to turn print technology toward indigenous ends: schoolbooks at times subtly urged young pupils to question colonial control of Sumatra (see Rodgers 2002, 2003 for examples of this).

Folk historians in Sipirok today claim that the region was settled from the north, in Toba, about 14 generations ago, by wet-rice farmers like themselves. Whether that is true or not, upland villages in what are now considered the Angkola regions and Mandailing may have been in long-distance trade contact with Sumatran states to the south. Mandailing and to a somewhat lesser extent Angkola were converted to Islam by the Wahhabist forces that marched northward from Minangkabau in the 1820s and 1830s during the Padri Wars.

Previous to this, villagers had followed indigenous religions. These likely stressed securing blessings from the ancestral dead and periodic animal sacrifice feasts of honour. Conversion to Islam[12] brought rote oral recitation of Quranic prayers in Arabic, but at that very early date there was apparently little instruction in reading or writing conversational or literary Arabic. Home language use remained firmly based in Batak. Long-distance salt and forestresin traders, however, probably had used market Malay for decades.

Contact with island Southeast Asia’s Indic trade kingdoms was to thank for another component of highland society’s linguistic repertoire: the Batak syllabaries, sometimes called the aksara letters. Each major dialect of Batak had a syllabary, all of which were closely related. These writing systems were similar to the Old Javanese script and may have been in use in the uplands for centuries. At European contact times the syllabaries were used to record laments, love songs, spells, and story cycles and tales (Kozok 1996, 2000).

In oral speech, Angkola Batak and Mandailing Batak both have elaborate special speech registers such as the chiefs’ orations, blessing formula, a language of the camphor gatherers (a spirit language), andung laments, and turi-turian droned chanted epics. The latter three forms have a ritual vocabulary of elusive circumlocutions that are used in place of everyday words (for instance, the lament language way of saying head, ulu, is Head-the-Honoured-Bearer-of-Burdens).[13] In the 1850s the Dutch/Eurasian linguist H.N. van der Tuuk (1864, 1867) did fieldwork on all the Batak dialects for the Nederlandsch Bijbelgenootschap (Netherlands Bible Society) preparatory to publishing the first Batak translations of the New Testament. He reported the ritual speech forms noted above but also found that Angkola and Mandailing had rhymed verbal duels between ranked marriage-alliance partners (osong-osong routines), invocation speech to the ancestors, lullabies, and various playful courtship songs (Van der Tuuk 1971). There was also a profusion of the tales and story cycles. These were parts of larger circulations of narratives from Malayworld courts.

As noted, Protestant Christianity arrived in the 1850s, brought by German Protestant preachers from the Rheinishe Mission (Rhenish Mission) based in Barmen. The missionaries set up small village Bible schools near Sipirok in the villages of Pahae, Parau Sorat, and Bungabondar. At first these schools taught reading and writing in the Batak syllabary alongside simple arithmetic. Early Rhenish Mission leaders in Sipirok distrusted Malay, seeing it as a language of Muslim influence in the southern Batak regions. In their language and translation policies and also in their pedagogy, mission officials sought to foster supposedly more authentic ‘Batak identities’ for their flock, over against purportedly more Muslim ones. Thus their heavy investment in Batak-language teaching materials and in the so-called Batak letters themselves. But, since overwhelming numbers of Angkola and Mandailing families had already converted to Islam by the time the fragile mission was setting up these little village schools, this tactic did not gain many adherents. Fluency in Malay as well as a dialect of Batak gained a high premium in the latter half of the nineteenth century in Angkola and Mandailing mountain regions, since much of colonial officialdom’s communication with Indies residents was in Malay. This served as the state’s designated language of commerce and teacher training (Hoffman 1979). In Sipirok and Padangsidimpuan this period also saw a shift away from instruction in the aksara letters toward the Latin alphabet.

By the 1850s and 1860s (a notably early date for the outer islands) the colonial government began to establish small public elementary schools in Mandailing, near Panyabungan (Nasution 1983; Kroeskamp 1974). These schools used both Malay and Mandailing Batak; government-vetted schoolbooks were published in each language. These government schools also stressed Latin letters over the aksara, although some early primers were published in ‘the old scripts’ (beginning to be seen as such). The famous pioneer Mandailing schoolteacher Willem Iskander (1872) wrote well-received Mandailing Batak textbooks in Latin letters for young readers in the 1870s.

Mandailing Batak is so close to Angkola Batak that these primers were also read as far north as Sipirok. Willem Iskandar and his immediate successors at kweekscholen (teacher training institutes) in Tano Bato village in Mandailing and later in Padangsidimpuan trained a generation of indigenous teachers and school principals. These men came from southern Batak towns but also villages. Some of these men were the pioneer teachers who would go on to write government-published school textbooks of their own, some in Batak, some in Malay, and many in the Latin alphabet.

Formally educated male youth by this period were bilingual in a Batak dialect and in Malay, as were many women from privileged families. By the 1920s, towns such as Sipirok had also gained extremely high-status Hollandsch-Inlandsche Scholen (HIS, Dutch-language elementary schools). These were for elite children: the offspring of wealthy cloth and coffee merchants, government and mission hospital personnel, clerks, and schoolteachers. This group was to become a primary target readership for the vernacular newspapers; the other readers were these highland people’s relatives living in Deli.

Due to a change in the colony’s educational policies under the Ethical Policy, the kweekschool teacher training institutes such as the one in Padangsidimpuan soon began to serve two purposes. That is, beyond training new teachers now they were also being turned into local culture research institutes. The Dutch principals were charged with instructing their Batak student teachers in folkoric research methods, so that they could all collect and document such Angkola and Mandailing ‘customs’ as folktales. These were to be transformed into new teaching materials, for publication by the government in Batavia (Jakarta) and for school use in Tapanuli. Select southern Batak schoolmasters were given the task of preparing such pedagogical materials, in the Latin alphabet. One reason the colonial state had invested so intensely in Tapanuli schools was to provide literate labour for Deli’s expanding plantation economy. From the 1880s forward, impoverished Angkola and Mandailing individuals and often entire families migrated to the Medan and Pematang Siantar areas, seeking jobs on tea and tobacco plantations as clerks. The trek took at least a week, on foot. This migration soon completely captivated the southern Batak literary imagination, which by this point was beginning to break away from school textbook writing and expand into new endeavours: guidebooks on old customs, oratory samplers, verse narratives, newspapers, and, by the 1920s, self-consciously modern novels.

The southern Batak vernacular press in small towns such as Sipirok grew as offshoots of a larger-scale flowering of indigenous journalism in the Indies (Adam 1995:125-58). The press in Java had developed from the Batavia commercial broadsheets of VOC times; these were produced for merchants. Batavaiase Nouvelles was the first actual newspaper and appeared in 1744. But the VOC directors feared that it was giving away too many trade secrets to their business rivals in other countries, so they shut it down. Thirty years later other trade papers appeared, also in Batavia. After the VOC came to an end in 1799, several small weeklies appeared. Printing presses arrived in some of the outer islands by the 1810s, some brought by missions. By the mid 1800s an indigenous press was starting up, in a fitful way. The Javanese-language Bromartani started publication in 1855. Close government oversight of newspapers soon followed, with a succession of Press Laws.

Back in southern Tapanuli, by the 1910s and 1920s several of the Padangsidimpuan Kweekschool’s star graduates had crossed over from teaching and school management into the newspaper business, where they became editors (Said 1976; see also Adam 1982, 1995:126-38). Some of southern Tapanuli’s editors became local luminaries, for instance, Dja Endar Moeda, Dja Endar Bongsoe, Sutan Pangurabaan, Mangaradja Tagor Moeda, Soetan Casayangan Soripada, and Mangaradja Bangoen Batari. This Tapanuli press was allied to the Minangkabau press based in Padang; connections to vernacular journalism in Medan were also important.

Commercial and administrative hubs such as Padangsidimpuan and Tapanuli’s capital of Sibolga had Batak-owned, Batak-run bi-weekly and weekly newspapers by 1914. This was Poestaha’s founding date, in Padangsidimpuan (in the 1920s the paper moved to Sibolga). Even smaller towns such as Sipirok had gained their own small-circulation newspapers by the 1920s.

Novel writing in the Angkola Batak language came a decade later, as a ripple in a pool set off by the publication of the Balai Poestaka novels. Novelwriting in hata Angkola (Bahasa Angkola) was sparked most directly by two things: the popular success of the southern-Batak-language press and newspapers’ voracious need for copy, and the inauguration of the Balai Poestakacommissioned Malay-language novels in the early 1920s. 

Sitti Djaoerah’s author Soetan Hasoendoetan claims that the Balai Poestaka publishing phenomenon was the direct inspiration for his decision to write a novel, a ‘roman’. He notes as much, in an effervescent front-page Introduction to the first instalment of his book in the 2 September 1927 issue of Poestaha (see also Hasoendoetan 1929:3-5, a reprint of this Introduction). He reports that his reading of the Balai Poestaka hit novel Sitti Nurbaya in Malay had led him to long for a lengthy published story about people like himself living in the Indies to appear in saro hita, in ‘our way of speaking,’ in hata Angkola. Why? He asks his readers. Well, just as halak hita (our folks) always prefer their own distinctive curry seasonings to the spices used in delicious but foreign cuisines, halak hita will of course always prefer their own fine hata to any other. So, for a tabo (delicious) story book: choose saro hita, our way of talking. Note that in this one text, at least, both Malay and Dutch were being rejected as ‘less good’ ways of narrating Angkola lives in the contemporary Indies. This, despite the manifest popularity of both Dutch and Malay as languages of high status and educational attainment, among Soetan Hasoendoetan’s exact readership. 

Sitti Djaoerah was not a rehash of Sitti Nurbaya by any means, but did take on many of the Balai Poestaka book’s core ideas about what novels were. That is, the Angkola Batak-language book concerned (at least in part) real-world human persons, similar to the readers themselves; the text narrated a tale of young people growing up in Tapanuli, falling in love, and taking dangerous passages to Deli (and Deli-adulthood, as a conjoined idea). And, Sitti Djaoerah spoke directly to its readers’ own emotional lives, in terms of their own worries about making it, or not, in the journey to Deli. Importantly, Sitti Djaoerah narrated a hopeful, ultimately successful passage to Deli.

Serialized novels spread across the centre or bottom of the front page became a standard feature in the Batak vernacular press by the late 1920s. On the front page these novels would accompany or sometimes alternate with such other items as serialized turi-turian epics, old heritage notes such as proverb samplers, learn-Dutch-quickly practice drills, lengthy poems set out in playful typeface arrangements, and oratory-filled Letters to the Editor. Readers would also be regaled with lists of subscribers’ names: the identities of those delinquent in paying their newspaper bills. Alongside this mix, as indicated, would be stories on tobacco prices, crime reports, and fillers on schoolteachers’ promotions in rank.

By the 1930s an important shift occurred in Batak press coverage: stories on political study clubs, the world depression, nationalism in other Asian countries, and political parties in the Indies began to gain on the old heritage items and the more parochial Tapanuli news features. And, papers using Malay (by this point, cast into the role of Indonesian) became more numerous in Tapanuli.

Titles here include Sinar Merdeka and Soeara Sini from Padangsidimpuan; Soeara Ra’jat and Pardomoean from Sipirok (the latter paper mixed Angkola Batak and Malay), and Bergerak and Hindia Sepakat from Sibolga. But the 1920s press and fiction scene was still somewhat distant from these more nationalist concerns and from this heavier use of Malay. We can turn now first to a text from Sitti Djaoerah and then to some of its vernacular press settings in Poestaha, to begin to trace some of the ways that the modern was written in these types of texts. Recall that this novel first appeared in print as a serial on the front pages of Poestaha. ‘This age of progress’ in a 1927 Angkola Batak-language novel Issues of being maju, ‘progressive, forward-thinking’, were present in the southern-Batak-language press as early as 1914. A front-page story from the 8 January edition of Poestaha from that year, for instance, was headlined ‘Sai maju nian bangso Batak!’ (‘May the Batak people indeed always go forward!’

Henceforth I shall use the new spelling conventions, although the original text read, ‘Sai madjoe nian bangso Batak’). Becoming maju was a subtler though no less important trope in southern-Batak-language fiction of the 1920s. The novel Sitti Djaoerah painted ‘modern’ timescapes, social landscapes, and distinctive multifaceted language worlds in author Soetan Hasoendoetan’s efforts to show readers what being maju in Deli could mean. Here the work of literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin is especially eye-opening in appreciating Soetan Hasoendoetan’s writing strategies in evoking Deli language worlds. In his essays on the novel Bakhtin (1990) claims that this specific form of literature is radically anti-canonical in the ways in which it consumes and playfully redacts earlier forms of writing and speech such as romances, letters, oratory, and jokes. Bakhtin (1990) notes that novels ‘oversee’ vast language worlds, much as they incorporate historically earlier forms of writing and speech. Part of the peculiarly modern terrain of the novel is its panoptic quality of standing on a linguistic mountain peak, as it were, to ask readers to join the novelist in the exhilarating experience of looking out over a jumble of diverse language formats (jargons, various registers of speech, even different ethnic languages). In the novel, Bakhtin goes on to contend, writers allow these planes of communication to all jam into each other and to mutually undercut each other’s seriousness and legitimacy. Forms of discourse in the novel interpenetrate and, in Bakhtin’s words (1990:12), inter-illuminate each other. Bakhtin goes on to assert that this type of language universe is like that of the nation, as a political form. Bakhtin’s insights add to Benedict Anderson’s work on novelistic fiction and early nationalism, by pointing to specific ways that early novelists tend to write about language.

Batak fiction of the time period under study fostered a vision of Sumatra as a luscious, variegated language world which modern Indies persons could savour as they would a treat. Numerous sections of Sitti Djaoerah show an enthusiastic embrace of this specific language imagery for Sumatra, set out for readers as a place full of languages, registers, and texualities. This way of narrating the island’s language-scapes, so to speak, was Soetan Hasoendoetan’s key mode for narrating modernity. After a brief summary of the book’s main plot action we can consider textual examples of this. Sitti Djaoerah, the novel’s heroine, is a Padangsidimpuan girl living in  that Tapanuli highland town in about the 1890s. The action of these Bataklanguage novels (like that of many of the Malay-language Balai Poestaka books) takes place in the first-generation reader’s own immediate past. Sitti Djaoerah’s hard-willed father is a prosperous cloth and forest-resin trader named Mananti Kayo, Awaiting Riches. Many of the novel’s characters have sobriquets of this sort, which allude to the naming practices of the turi-turian epics (not to mention Malay tales).

Among Awaiting Riches’s favourite young people is the brilliant 18- or 19-year-old assistant schoolteacher Djahoemarkar, the book’s hero. His fine name (also a turi-turian appelation) is Raja-Opener-of-Hearts, Raja Opener of All Things Sad and Painful. This entire poetic phrase is often used to introduce Djahoemarkar back into the action after a short absence. This is a nod to epic style, from the turi-turian chant tales.

Djahoemarkar’s late father, Young Martial Arts Battler, had been Awaiting Riches’s closest associate in the forest-resin trade. Young Martial Arts Battler was from a once-wealthy aristocratic family that had fallen on hard times. As a 15-year-old or so, Young Martial Arts Battler and two spooky, purported pals (but actually, nefarious scamps) manage to gamble away most of the noble boy’s inheritance. They do this out in the illegal gambling dens off to the side of a big horja celebration (a communal feast of honour, a buffalo sacrifice ritual drawing hundreds of participants). Gambling dens and catastrophic losses therein were staples of Batak fiction of the time.

After the gambling losses and a sojourn in the deep forest in which he loses consciousness and crosses over briefly into a turi-turian chant world of mystic powers and dangers, Young Martial Arts Battler comes to and goes to work for Awaiting Riches, to help support himself. Travelling around southern Tapanuli to buy up supplies of aromatic resins, this young man courts a village girl via a barrage of shy courtship rhymes. The pair marry. Soon after, they have a son (Djahoemarkar). While the latter is still a baby in arms, Young Martial Arts Battler dies in a poison-leaves attack: he has been viciously done in by his former gambling mates. All of this constitutes the action of Volume I. The full text has two volumes and takes up 457 pages (the better to sell newspapers).

Volume II opens at the time of Sitti Djaoerah’s happy childhood in Padangsidimpuan. She is the pretty, much-loved little daughter of Awaiting Riches. In public school her teacher is the half-orphaned Djahoemarkar, an outstanding assistant schoolteacher just a few years older than his pupils. The pair grow fonder of each other and start to plan a future. Awaiting Riches, however, soon capitulates to the blandishments of greedy friends and starts to plot a sudden arranged marriage for the now 14-year-old Sitti Djoaerah to a horrible-looking rich old merchant – whom Awaiting Riches seeks as a new business partner. The dilemmas of arranged marriages for loving young couples is another staple of Batak-language fiction of the time. Balai Poestaka novelists from Sumatra also often relied on this plot device. 

Sitti Djaoerah’s reader, clearly intended to be firmly on the attractive young couple’s side, soon finds that the girl and her mother are planning to secretly run away from home to a town in Mandailing, in a covered mail cart. They hope to do this directly before the start of formal brideprice negotiations with the agents of the decrepit old merchant. At this point, Djahoemarkar’s mother’s small herd of water buffalo (their only significant source of family wealth) all come down with a livestock pestilence and promptly die. This is the novelist’s reference to an actual epidemic in Tapanuli, in 1901-1902. Forced by dire financial circumstance, Djahoemarkar and his mother part (with many accompanying andung laments) and the young man leaves Tapanuli for Deli in hopes of getting salaried work there. Djahoemarkar’s mother dies, driven mad by all her losses.

In exile in Mandailing, the loyal Sitti Djaoerah and her faithful mother sell cakes in the marketplace to support themselves for several months and then they too flee poverty and family sadness for Deli. They sign up with a group of Mandailing friends who are running away from the Company’s (that is, the colonial state’s) harsh corvee labour demands. They walk on foot to Deli, as Djahoemarkar has before them (he walks to Medan via the Toba Batak region).

In Deli, after many adventures (including a near-drowning in the Straits of Malacca where he is saved by a kindly, and talkative, white crocodile – an allusion to Malay magical fish tales), Djahoemarkar finally succeeds in securing paid work as a kerani, a head office clerk, on a Dutch-owned tobacco plantation near Medan. The plotline here has evident autobiographical parallels with Soetan Hasoendoetan’s life.

Sitti Djaoerah and her mother have now arrived in the city of Medan and are staying in a boarding house, haplessly searching for Djahoemarkar. Eventually light dawns regarding a plan and they place a personal ad (‘In search of…’) in Pertja Timoer. The novelist Soetan Hasoendoetan knew that his readers would recognize this as an actual newspaper of the time, edited by the Maindailing man Mangaradja Silamboee (who shows up in the action too, under his real name). United at last in a pleasant scene in Mangaradja Silamboee’s editorial offices, Sitti Djaoerah and Djahoemarkar go on to marry and settle down in plantation housing on the Onderneming Parsaulian (the Prosperity Plantation, in a mix of Angkola Batak and Dutch).

At the end of the book, the couple, their son and daughter, and Sitti Djaoerah’s old mother rent a fancy motor car with a driver to return briefly to Tapanuli to pay a visit to the grave of Djahoemarkar’s mother. While there, they find out how the self-interested old Awaiting Riches has fared: he has lost most of his customers and is living in his big old drafty house with an attractive but sharp-tongued and demanding young second wife. She bosses him around mercilessly and keeps asking why he can’t get her more household help. The book ends with the advice that fulfilling one’s true family obligations to love and especially to respect one another is the only path to satisfaction and success. Sitti Djaoerah and company return to permanent, happy residence in Deli. Note again that this resolution stands in contrast to the more downbeat denouements of the typical Balai Poestaka title (where the young women protagonists often end up either mired in disastrous forced marriages, or dead). 

Sitti Djaoerah’s event-filled plotline is perhaps the least of this immensely entertaining book’s narrative trajectories. Other more subtle ones include the following. As the reader moves from Volume 1 through Volume 2, turi-turianderived narrative devices recede and ones like those used in the Balai Poestaka love story novels come to the fore. Along the same pathways, as the novel progresses (indeed, reading the book is in itself a journey to Deli), the realistic social world of tobacco plantations, east coast train stations, and Medan boarding houses begins to take over fully from earlier uses of mystical locales such as spirit worlds out in the Tapanuli forest, where some of the Volume 1 characters get lost in turi-turian chanted epic spaces. And, thirdly, in Volume 2 the reader finds that a ‘more modern’ love story has succeeded the ‘more traditional’ love story of Volume 1. That is, Djahoemarkar and Sitti Djaoerah’s pairing takes over and in effect replays (in a Tapanuli-to-Deli key) Volume I’s core love story between Young Martial Arts Battler and his village friend Si Taring (a Mandailing family usage way of saying, littlest girl in the family).

In fact, the novel takes all the major elements of Volume I, which had been set in Tapanuli locales, and re-does them within an expanded Tapanuli-to-Deli social landscape, in the personal histories of Sitti Djaoerah and Djahoemarkar as they seek prosperity, love, marriage, and those fat Deli salaries on the Parsaulian Plantation. Deli was portrayed in the book as, literally in one passage, ‘Deli het dollarland’. This was a phrase in common usage at the time, far beyond Batak-language fiction.

This ‘Deli het dollarland’ usage and also the book’s frequent reliance on smatterings of Batakized Malay words indicate the harlequin linguistic nature of Sitti Djaoerah’s narrative. This was part of its charm for readers in the late 1920s. The novel has a playful, near-constant penchant for mixing Angkola Batak-language high ritual speech registers with conversational Angkola Batak and then with snippets of Malay and Dutch. Soetan Hasoendoetan even includes long sets of pages in other Batak dialects that are close to Angkola Batak (for instance, a long passage written in Angkola-ized Toba Batak when some of the characters happen to walk through the Toba region as they migrate to Deli).

Presenting a repast of Indies-era languages for the reader’s enjoyment is one of the book’s key modes for evoking the modern. Many passages show this, but one section from late in Volume 2 can suffice to illustrate the way Sumatran language worlds are portrayed in this language-obsessed novel.

Chapter 16 (pp. 363-7) is called ‘Ketjet dapoer’, or ‘Kitchen chat’, a Malay term. This chapter is the only one in the book to use this dramatic dialogue format. The chapter concerns some Mandailing folks who are contemplating a secret departure from Tapanuli for Deli, to try to escape the corvée labour demands the state has imposed. They do not have official passes for their trip but they decide to hazard the journey anyway. The first sections of the chapter go as follows:[14] 

‘DjaToeba and Djasiala (Dj. T. and Dj. S) are at a rice stall at Aek Godang (that is, along the Girl River).

Dj. S.: Tok…tok….tok…. ’Oh….Djatoeba, are you here or not?’

Dj.T.: ‘Who is it? Oh, well, come on up into the house, I’m here all right’, he said, opening the door of the house. ‘Aha….so it’s you, is it, Djasiala? Come on up and have a seat on the mat right here. Oh……Taring’s Mom! Get up, look, Djasiala’s come for a visit. Get the coffee going, you hear?’

Dj. S.: ‘Oh, now what are you doing? And here you are getting ready to go to sleep.You certainly do keep good adat. But I guess this is the sort of thing you have to do when you run a rice stall, isn’t it?’

Dj. T.: ‘Oh, now what are you thinking of – what’s the use of buying a woman as your wife, after all, if she’s not here to take care of us and our family, right?’

More banter about women’s worth ensues. Dj. T. is joking about the payment of a brideprice, as part of wedding transactions. At one point Djasiala sticks up for Taring’s Mom, and at that,

[she] felt much better, for she always sided with the women. Even though she was a bit put out to hear what her tuan had had to say earlier, now she bustled off to get the coffee on and to rustle up some snacks made out of red sugar and pounded rice.

As soon as Djasiala heard Taring’s Mom hard at work in the kitchen he was pleased, especially when he smelled the red-sugar-coconut treats. They smelled delicious.

‘Oh, honestly… to be carrying on about me like that. If you’re mad at something, don’t get mad at me – but! If you’re longing for someone, then just make sure it’s me, all right?’ said Djasiala.

Dj. T.: ‘Oh, go on with you, Djasiala, honestly. You have entirely too many snakes in your belly.’

Dj. S.: ‘Yeah, well, that’s because folks are always talking about me behind my back, since I’m so poor. But to change the subject a bit here, have you heard about the new law that’s just been issued?’

Dj. T.: ‘What law? You’re sure full of information – what, do you get a newspaper or something?’

Dj. S.: ‘Oh, come on… That’s why I keep my ears open and why I get around the countryside some, you know. So I can find out a bit about what’s happening.

 Earlier today, I went to Pidoli [a nearby town] and on the way home I stopped over at the mosque to say my prayers. That’s where I heard the district chief say that the Controleur has ordered everyone to haul a cubic metre of sand for the government.

 You’re not allowed to have one grain of sand less or more than that – not so much as a little finger’s worth over or under. Every time we turn around we have to go and do corvée labour, it seems…’

The short chapter continues on with this pair and their family members deciding that these corvée demands have grown too onerous to bear: they will escape to Deli, walking there in a big group, for protection’s sake. Sitti Djaoerah and her mother opt to join them; they are tired of languishing in Mandailing, imposing on the hospitality of relatives. This chapter serves to move the action along on that plotline front, but several features of its linguistic and literary character are also important.

The short chapter has several striking language facets. First, it is phrased entirely in Mandailing Batak, not in the Angkola Batak that is the novel’s base language. Angkola readers can easily navigate Mandailing prose, but all would know a dialect shift has occurred when they start this chapter. Sitti Djaoerah often flatters the Angkola reader in this way, implicitly assigning to him or her the pleasurable task of reading a multiplicity of Batak dialects as the novel’s characters happen to walk through those regions of Sumatra. One message here: Deli moderns (southern Batak versions) are language adepts, well able to oversee a broad linguistic panorama. This is much the sort of language world that Bakhtin predicts will be evoked in the early novel.

Beyond this, this ‘Kitchen chat’ chapter’s unusual dialogic formatting highlights issues of writing per se. Batak readers of the 1920s were probably caught up short when the action suddenly shifted away from Sitti Djaoerah’s more typical mix of prose with the occasional verse insert, to this dialogue format. In their modern lives in Deli readers are expected to be literary sophisticates, well able to navigate multiple formats of writing in a single text. Finally (and this third aspect of the chapter is especially telling, vis-à-vis Soetan Hasoendoetan’s understanding of what a novel is), ‘Kitchen chat’ is something of a set piece. That is, the entire chapter had appeared earlier as a kind of entertaining feature item, in this same round of Tapanuli newspapers.

He had recycled the set piece as a chapter for his novel. The language world of this novel’s Tapanuli-to-Deli journey (in the reader’s autobiography or hopes, and in the long narrative itself) is thus composed of the following assumptions. All are in line with Bakhtin’s predictions.

Sumatra has an exhilarating jumble of dialects of Batak, special speech registers of Angkola Batak, and other hata, such as Malay, Dutch, Javanese, Minangkabau, and Acehnese. The traveller to Deli will gain a more and more comprehensive knowledge of these wider planes of language as he or she walks along on foot from Tapanuli toward the east coast. So too, the reader of a Batak-language novel, as he or she moves along from page to page, toward a book’s denouement. The reader of Sitti Djaoerah emerges by the end of the text as a Sumatran language maven, as a connoisseur of the island’s estimable linguistic diversity. Colonial Sumatra’s buzz of language action is laid out before the reader as a tabo, a most delicious, banquet.

If reading Sitti Djaoerah was an occasion for relishing ‘the modern day’s’ increasingly variegated and fascinating language world, it was also, quite concretely, a text for reading about Deli’s southern-Batak-owned and managed newspapers. For instance, several chapters after ‘Kitchen chat’, all the protagonists have finally made it to Medan, but in one of the novel’s many minor crises, they cannot locate each other. Sitti Djaoerah and her mother are in one rooming house while Djahoemarkar is out in the plantation where he works, oblivious to the fact that his sweetheart and her mother have arrived in Medan on their quest for him. Chapter 18, ‘In the Delilands’, contains the following action about how the newspaper Pertja Timoer and its stalwart editor Mangaradja Silamboee come to the rescue. I have edited these passages for length here but even this short version indicates the factual fiction mix of reportorial styles at work in this novel. This is especially so when Soetan Hasoendoetan brings the press directly into the plot’s centre. Numerous subtle allusions to high ritual oratory are also embedded in these passages. The chapter begins as follows[15].

One time it happened that Sitti Djaoerah was sitting there, perched on the windowsill on the street side of the rice stall, gazing out at the busy thoroughfare

 [she is in her rooming house in a street in Medan]. Many different sorts of people were passing by, a pleasing sight for contented people. But for Sitti Djaoerah things were not like that. After all, she had yet to encounter the one she sought. She sat there morosely, rubbing her chin, perched on the pillows laid out atop the windowsill.

When Nandjaoerah [Djaoerah’s Mom] noticed this, tears began to flow down her face. Straightaway she asked her daughter: ‘Well, now, what do you think, Djaoerah?

What can we do to find that guy faster, do you think?’

‘You know, Mother, I had a dream last night, and in this dream I climbed up into a big leafy banyan tree. It was full of fruit. I had a terribly hard time climbing up to the top of this banyan, for it had many treacherous deep folds on its trunk and a multitude of scary biting beasts at its base such as snakes, bees, and stinging wasps. I felt I was surely risking life and limb to scale its heights.’

‘And so what happened, my girl? Did you make it to the top of the banyan tree?’

‘I did, Mother, and once I got up there I sat upon a big branch and I wasn’t afraid at all anymore. I felt just perfectly happy and content’, said Sitti Djaoerah.

By happenstance (a favourite plot device in this novel) Sitti Djaoerah soon glances downward on the sill and sees that Djahoemarkar himself had once lightly pencilled in a message on the pillowcase. It reads, ‘To whomever should read this letter. I hope and pray to be freed from my great suffering. If I should die, please convey word of that to Sitti Djaoerah, in Panyabungan. Wg. Djahoemarkar’ (Rodgers 1997:338; Hasoendoetan 1929:375). The ‘Wg’ is an abbreviation of the Dutch for ‘signed by’. Heartened a bit, Sitti Djaoerah writes out a message of her own on the pillow, under her friend’s name (Rodgers 1997:338; Hasoendoetan 1929:376):

‘I have come to Deli searching for you. Come and fetch me. Whoever should happen to read this letter


The girl tells her mother that Djahoemarkar had dated his missive 10 April 1904. Sitti Djaoerah has another thought (Rodgers 1997:338; Hasoendoetan 1929:376):

‘Well, look, Mother, I see that the rice shop owner here subscribes to the newspaper. Let’s ask his help in placing an advertisement in Pertja Timoer saying that we’re looking for Djahoemarkar. That way we can find him fast. And other folks who read the paper will want to help us too. They’ll want to tell us where he’s living, and then as soon as he knows where we are he’ll come and get us. That’s the easiest way to locate missing persons’, declared Sitti Djaoerah.

‘Well, so what sort of words should we put in our ad?’

‘Well, these! “In search of a man named Djahoemarkar. We ask whomever might happen to encounter him to inform same that his parent has come to Medan. From me,


In this ad Nandjaoerah is calling herself Djahoemarkar’s parent in a figurative sense. She writes this ad in Malay.[16] The story continues (Rodgers 1997:338; Hasoendoetan 1929:376-7):

‘But what if the newspaper owner isn’t willing to publish it? What then? What will we do then?’

‘Oh, he’ll want to. The editor’s one of us; he’s our sort of folks, after all. He’ll take pity on a poor woman – especially one who is willing to put up fifteen centsper word.’

The commodification of the word in Delilands print capitalism would have been evident to Sitti Djaoerah’s original readers. They were quite probably also hearers of ritual speech, in horja buffalo sacrifice feasts. There, the blood spilled in the sacrifice of the animal was said in the oratory to ‘open the words’ of the beneficent ancestors. Sitti Djaoerah’s readers were thus located at the centre of a diversified language universe, one that stretched from newsprint words that could be purchased, to novels for sale, to oratory’s magic phrases. Sitti Djaoerah’s mother continues (Rodgers 1997:338; Hasoendoetan 1929:377),

‘Here, look: here’s a copy of Pertja Timoer. It says its editor is Mangaradja Silamboee. If he’s named Mangaradja, well, that clinches it: he’s our sort of folks for sure, especially since it’s Silamboee. He must be one of the Silamboee people from over in Greater Mandailing.’

The women soon fetch the rooming house proprietor and give him five rupiah to go place the advertisement for them. He asks (Rodgers 1997:339; Hasoendoetan 1929:377),

 ‘Why are you putting it in the newspaper? What do you say to just telling the police?’ asked Malim Patience [the boarding house owner].

 ‘If we tell the police it will be like we are searching for some big criminal. This way everyone’s real friendly. Once the newspaper comes out word will get around.

And everyone in Deli who reads the paper will see the ad. Everyone who reads it will take pity on us, and the public will help us search for him.’

 ‘Oh well, true enough’, said Malim Patience. Then off he went to the Pertja Timoer office, at J. Hallerman Publishers on Kesawan Street (which is called Varekamp nowadays). As he was on his trip to the newspaper office it occurred to Malim Patience what a very smart girl Sitti Djaoerah was – and what very nice handwriting she had, too.

 ‘You know, I do think she’s a cut above the average. My gracious, what she’s written here is so pretty. Why, she could even be a secretary (a schrijver) in the office of the Resident himself, I declare.’

Readers are asked here to appreciate all manner of language use in Deli: excellent penmanship on the part of well-brought-up schoolgirls; helpful and practical aspects of the city newspapers such as personal ads; and novels like this one where one can read about imagined characters interacting with reallife Pertja Timor editors. The scene continues at the newspaper office (Rodgers  1997:339; Hasoendoetan 1929:378):

The newspapers dispersed like a huge flock of birds throughout the city of Medan and the surrounding areas and the public read the ad. However, no one in Medan  knew anything, although everyone diligently asked around.

This flock of birds allusion also points to ritual oratory. Word eventually gets to Djahoemarkar out on the Prosperity Plantation that Tapanuli relatives are looking for him. He rushes to the newspaper office (Rodgers 1997:341-2; Hasoendoetan 1929:381).

‘All right’, said Djahoemarkar, going in to stand in front of the editor. Djahoemarkar had no more than caught sight of him when he lowered his head and offered a respectful greeting.

This last is a tip of the hat to ceremonial etiquette used in horja feasts of merit: lower-status men bow to higher-status rajas, or chiefs. This thoroughly urban Deli scene – a plantation clerk interacting with a famous newspaper editor – is outfitted in the personhood categories of Tapanuli chiefs and their supplicant underlings. The reader conspires with this self-evident fiction and can again relish the mixing of language registers and types of social imageries. Hilariously enough, the editor and Djahoemarkar do not know where to find Sitti Djaoerah and her mother, so yet another round of personal ads ensues. Eventually, the three manage to meet at the Pertja Timoer office. Sitti Djaoerah dresses in fine style, something that the novelist evokes as follows (Rodgers 1997:344; Hasoendoetan 1929:384):

‘Oh, all right’, said Sitti Djaoerah, going back in to change her clothes once again. She put on an elegant, flowered Pekalongan sarong, and her kebaya jacket was made of fine cloth all the way from Paris. She strung a gold medallion around her neck; it was big and round like her row of gold jacket clasps. She hung gold ornaments from her ears and covered her head with a gersik scarf (that is, one from Surabaya). She descended the stairs to the first storey. ‘Well, let’s go so we won’t be late’, she said with a sly little laugh.

This sort of description of a beautiful girl attired in resplendent costume, alluring to all, would allude to turi-turian epic narrative for readers familiar with that form of storytelling. In these epics a lovely girl is often eulogized by the bard  as he recites her ‘seven lovelinesses’, from head to toe. Again, the traditional interpenetrates with the modern, with each mutually defining the other for the novel’s readers in short, carefully crafted oratory-derived prose passages.

The meeting at the Pertja Timoer office has a good deal of gaiety on all sides, and when the threesome get back to the rooming house Nandjaoerah leaves the young couple alone for a while, on purpose (Rodgers 1997:345; Hasoendoetan 1929:387). Sitti Djaoerah happily flings herself at her beau.

 ‘Oh, c’mon, you’re behaving like a kid’, said Djahoemarkar, catching Sitti Djaoerah in a hug and then sitting her down. After a bit, Nandjaoerah came back, toting along a big rice meal and coffee. She didn’t forget to cough softly at the door, either, so they wouldn’t be embarrassed at getting caught kissing. But, what can you say… There never was the least embarrassment between the pair of them, not in the past nor now. So they just pretended that her mother had not seen them.

Sitti Djaoerah is thus the complete modern Indies, southern Batak girl: forthright in her affections with men, well-spoken but also accomplished in the literate arts such as penmanship, determinedly wilful but all for a good cause – finding her man and succeeding in Deli, far from hidebound Tapanuli family constraints. Readers learn of this positive turn of events by reading a prose narrative with, ironically enough, continued ties to Tapanuli village ritual speech. Novels like Sitti Djaoerah, with their language exuberance and variety, allow this sort of discovery of Deli-in-the-Indies.

In Sitti Djaoerah, newspapers like Pertja Timoer are integral parts of this type of Delilands scene and this way of writing about language. Newspaper front offices are social service agencies for confused new migrants; the papers themselves are news organs about Deli time passages. In the novel this is a press that records the daily lives of a Tapanuli population on the move, toward Deli and new social worlds. The Angkola Batak-language press ‘back’ in Tapanuli itself demonstrates similarities to this.

Language landscapes in a Tapanuli newspaper 

If southern-Batak-language newspapers and southern-Batak-language novels were engaged with similar thematic content in the last three colonial decades, did they also cohere in dterms of their ways of narrating colonial Sumatra? Again,  this is too broad a question to answer here in its entirety, but to begin such an inquiry, we can look at representations of language on the newspaper page.

Typical front pages of the newspaper Poestaha will allow exploration of this. Poestaha’s first year of publication was 1914. The following stories and fillers appeared in March, a typical month for 1914 in terms of Poestaha’s coverage. Throughout the month, a serialized turi-turian epic, called the Turiturian of Raja Tagor of the Sea, occupied the bottom fifth or so of each front page. Higher up on the page were oratory-style editorials and Letters to the Editor, on such topics as why formal education was important to halak Batak  (the Batak people, in a phrasing common in this journal). Another recurrent theme: why newspapers themselves were welcome additions to the Indies scene. Poestaha, in fact, sported many verse-form and also oratory-style notes of congratulation (to itself), on the happy occasion of the paper’s ‘birth’. Editorials also often dealt with issues of adat, or inherited custom. These pieces tended to include long snatches of high-register ritual speech.

The occasional snippet of Dutch would also appear in items of all these sorts; this usage was also found in many Indies newspapers of the time. In addition, in a regular section captioned ‘Nederlandsch-Indië’, there were numerous stories on thefts of cash from merchants’ homes and on especially exciting accidents (such as the drowning deaths of two German men, who were in Sumatra to hunt Mandailing’s elephants). There were also pieces on the exploits of efficacious datu (spellcasters, spell-removers). 

Poestaha was written in Angkola Batak, to an overwhelming extent. But the paper also offered readers a boisterously variegated language world. In surveying just the front page of each issue of Poestaha, readers would encounter  Dutch words and phrases, Malay words and phrases, and Batakized versions of Malay words and phrases (for example, ‘bangso’ for ‘bangsa’, people). There were also multiple levels of Angkola Batak, reaching from schoolbook-like expository prose to the very highest ritual-speech register. This same sort of combination of soupçons of Dutch phrases and Malay, generous doses of Angkola and ometimes Mandailing and Toba oratory, along with more  mundane, conversational-level Angkola Batak renditions of crimes and other news – plus turi-turian epics, plus serialized novels on top of that – all continued  on in Poestaha through the late 1920s, as the paper periodically closed down and then opened up again under new editors. In this case, government censorship was apparently not as large an issue as was the sheer difficulty of keeping management staff for this complex journal.

Especially interesting is a type of front-page story in which the writer sets out almost his entire contribution in ritual oratory style. One such entry called ‘Sinta-sinta’ (Fond hopes) from the 12 February 1914 issue goes in part as follows:[17]

 In the original text, the opening phrases go as follows: ‘Sinta-sinta. Jumolo do au marsantabi, manyomba mangali-ali di alak na martua na markaratan, di angka na mora-mora ula dohot dongan na manise boru ni siguriton on, ngada nian au na mangasahon sinaloan, taringot tu alimus ni parbinotoan na pataya-taya boru ni siguriton on, ngada on dibaen linjang ni bisuk hira-hira…’

Firstly I offer respect with my fingers clasped upward, praying humbly to those who have magic luck powers, to those rajas who possess great abilities, to all our blessing-giving mora wife-providers, to all our friends and companions, all of them reading Writing’s Lovely Daughter Words here, not I surely who does all this, thinking only of money income, as my Writing’s Lovely Daughters here pursue lines of knowledge as I scratch them slowly, slowly across the surface, this is all not done at all to simply show off, No! And because of this I was shaken and startled, all awoken from sound sleep, all startled to hear the sounds of…, startled to hear the voice of the warning musical instruments there, though there is no enemy at the village gates, startled to hear the Daughter of the Moon warning-gongs, booming sounds bringing in a forceful wind carrying great news, flowing in toward the Eight Villages, coursing in toward the mystic domains all around, all throughout these sacred deep valleys here in the Batak land, that forceful wind bringing fateful news, of the all-are-in-agreement, all-are-gathered-together-to-say-yes gathering, to acclaim with one voice the newborn Poestaha…

Paragraph one goes on for endless couplets more of this, as do nine additional paragraphs, enlivened near the end with a command in caps to readers (listeners) to ‘CHEER AND CLAP!!!!’ (‘OLOPKON!!!!’). This front-page story (Poestaha’s lead that day) is executed entirely in the very highest register of Angkola ritual speech, where hand is Hand the Honoured Asker for Favours, head is Head the Honoured Bearer of Burdens, and so on.

This is turi-turian  speech, the kind of speech used by the great rajas or chiefs in their most exalted  buffalo sacrifice feast orations, alok-alok. This story was contributed by Datoe Maradjar, or Datu (an honorific title for men) Most-Learned. This was a pseudonym for ne of Mandailing’s (and Poestaha’s) most prominent turiturian  folkloric writers, Mangaraja Gunung Sorik Marapi.

In this poem/oration/feature story/Letter to the Editor and birthday greeting to the newborn Poestaha, Datu Most-Learned goes on at length about the exact nature of the newspaper, seen generically as well as in terms of Poestaha itself. What is a newspaper? Why, he answers his own question, it is a sio rancang parpidoan pardomuan, a Village Meeting House Where All Bring in their Requests, Where All the Populace and Rajas Meet Together. Another article on the same page (entitled ‘The Uses of the Batak Newspaper for the Batak People Who Live in Far-Off Domains’, ‘Hasaya ni surat kobar Batak di bangso Batak na mian di luat na legan’) makes the same point. This second story too is phrased in oratory style, although not at so elegant a level as that found in Datu Most-Learned’s contribution. Additionally, a poem in verse called ‘A request to Poestaha’ follows these two stories as one’s eye scans across the page.

This poem also casts the newspaper as ‘gonti ni sopo godang’, as the replacement or stand-in for the sopo, the village meeting house up on wooden posts. In Poestaha’s many articles and poems of this sort, Angkola and Mandailing ritual oratory’s aesthetics profusely flood over international journalism’s narrative conventions, engulfing this media form and reconfiguring it (for   amused readers?) as a gathering of village chiefs in a sopo meeting house. At one level, Deli and Tapanuli newspaper readers find themselves pleasurably cast into the role of rapt listeners at an oratory conclave. But, this was something that they surely knew was a fiction: they were reading the press, after all. Additionally, by this date widespread public familiarity with the highest registers of ritual speech was in decline. Perhaps that is why newspapers like Poestaha hired writers like Datu Most-Learned: such freelancers could record ‘old speech’ and serve it up as newspaper entertainment for readers somewhat cut off by their vaunted progress from attending actual oratory congresses and understanding what was going on there. Pieces like ‘Fond Hopes’ may also have been intended as guidebooks on old literature, for study in a continuing education way for adult readers. This mode of presenting old ways was vibrant and respectful in tone; old customs were not portrayed as quaint and fusty but as linguistically brilliant.

Running alongside these oratory-drenched stories was another type of writing in Poestaha in 1914. This range of articles also appeared on the front page. It consisted of searing critiques of Batak ‘backwardness’. The latter tended to be presented in this newspaper as a matter of rusticated village ways that kept children out of schools (seen as the portals to high-prestige salaried jobs in Deli). Instances of Batak lack of modernity were many, according to Poestaha’s contributors and editors.

Two typical storylines indicate this: writers condemned such practices as allegedly overly-high brideprices on Nias Island (payments that discriminated against young men of modest means), and the tendency of some village chiefs to demand too high an amount of tribute from their followers at weddings and funerals. The tone in such stories was hortatory and worried: the Batak were falling behind in Sumatra’s march toward progress! The contrast here was often with the Minangkabau, whose success in supporting elite schools in Bukittinggi and Padang was well-known at this time in southern Tapanuli.

The newspaper’s imagination of progress combined a continued loyalty to southern Batak ritual speech excellence (and authoritativeness), a continued fondness for special speech forms such as turi-turian chanted epics (after all, ethically grounded moderns needed to know the old tales), an openness to such Poestaha favourites as serialized novels, and a dose of scepticism about such village ways as exorbitant brideprice payments. In the larger scheme of things (Poestaha contributors opined) a sort of old-fashionedness of thinking about formal schooling, women’s role in society, and the ability of the Indies’ peoples to actively engage with the plantation economy worked to hold the Batak ‘back’, in contradistinction to more maju, more progressive, peoples.

These were such admirable populations as the Minangkabau and also the Javanese. Their accomplishments in the economic and educational spheres were often praised in Poestaha, this supposed journal of Batak custom Evidently, this ‘treasure box of ancient, inherited custom’ (this is the sense that the name of this paper conveys in towns like Sipirok) had quickly taken on a character as a politically engaged newspaper in Indies debates about history and peoplehood, starting with its first year of publication.

One telling front-page story along these lines, ‘Nipi’, from the 18 June 1914 issue, illustrates this approach to Batak-ness along an imagined backwardness/progress historical and moral timeline. This article is, after all, a Poestaha product, so it takes a rhetorical form familiar to its readers (and familiar to audiences of southern Batak folktales and turi-turian). That is, the story is phrased in large part as a dream that the writer has had, about a great Javanese raja, a glowing court, and an array of supplicant audience members. This nipi or dream format deftly inscribes ‘traditional custom’ (the recitation of dream narratives in village ritual narrative) into Poestaha’s hagiography about Progress.

The ‘Nipi’ story is quite different in narrative style from Datu Most-Learned’s ritual-oration-in-print to Poestaha’s birth. ‘Dream’ spins out like a folktale. It tells of a shimmering dream the writer has had about rajas (kings, in this case) of the Javanese people, the Minangkabau people, and the Batak people who have all gathered in a conclave to discuss their relative degrees of success at Progress in the Indies, in terms of such measures as school graduations.

Shamefully, alas, readers learn, the Batak raja and his people come in dead last. I gnominiously, they bow down to the others. Poestaha’s many articles of this sort tend to have similar self-abnegating tones. Told in an old customs format in the sense that they often evoke such images as resplendent gatherings of chiefs (and often phrased via such storytelling devices as dream sequences which were well known from Batak oral tales and schoolbook renditions of these), this range of stories turns journalism’s jaundiced and critical eye on Batak custom. Poestaha’s reader of the time was flattered as a connoisseur of complex Deli language worlds and as a knowledgeable consumer of old oratory and chant tales – but he or she was also given the task of redacting custom, to make it fit (supposedly) for Indies worlds on the move.

Poestaha’s readers in 1914 saw laid out before them a concrete, specific imagery of colonial Sumatra’s customs and the language worlds linked to these. The Angkola Batak reader was (supposedly) the most sophisticated overseer of the island’s diverse contemporary news stories but also its diverse traditions, languages, registers, and dialects. For Poestaha’s imagined readers,  Sumatra was a place chock full of tasty ‘old tales’ like turi-turian that moderns could consume with their morning coffee. Further, Sumatra was ‘moving toward’ more polyglot social precincts like Deli and toward more polyglot texts like the up-to-the-minute Batak-language papers. They were purportedly shifting ‘away from’ more monolingual Tapanuli village life and oratory, delivered as such. Newspaper readers were cast into the role of being lifelong students of their own bangso’s (people’s) old oral customs. And, these readers must beware lest they fall into the sort of backwardness that their less sophisticated, less newspaper-literate relatives were heir to.

Clearly, the action-packed language world and social universe of this one small sector of the Batak press had marked similarities to the language universe and social landscapes evoked in the novel Sitti Djaoerah


The strongly indigenized southern-Batak-language novel and newspaper of late colonial Tapanuli and Deli shared some striking commonalities of staffing, content, and print history. They also shared certain ways of imagining language worlds. In this regard they participated in much the same project: writing the modern by writing language landscapes. From studies such as Davis’s history (1997) of the early English novel, scholars have long known of the twinship of these two forms of commercial print, the novel and the newspaper. Anderson went on to tie these two forms of publication to systems of ideas about nations, while Bakhtin pointed out that the language universes of nations in the making were evoked and commented upon quite precisely by the language worlds of the novel, as a specific form of writing that could oversee other genres and critically and often playfully comment upon them. Pages from Sitti Djaoerah and Poestaha have borne out some of these contentions about early novels and newspapers, language ideology, print, and the social imagination, and suggest that perhaps it is not accidental that so much of Sitti Djaoerah’s action takes place in locales such as Mangaradja Silambuee’s editorial offices in Medan.


[1] Earlier versions of parts of this article were presented first at the Association for Asian Studies meetings, 6 March 2004, San Diego, CA, and at an April 2004 conference on ‘Novels and newspapers in Southeast Asia: Instruments of modernity’, at the Center for Southeast Asia Studies, University of California, Berkeley. The titles of those papers were, respectively, ‘”Ancient culture” as a front-page feature story; Batak reporters write heritage in the vernacular press of the colonial Indies’ and ‘Entangled genres; The novel-newspaper in colonial-era southern Batak visions of the modern’. I also wish to thank two anonymous reviewers of this article for their helpful comments. Mrs Djodjor Situmeang, staff associate at the newspaper archives at the Perpustakaan Nasional (National Library), Jakarta, was also a great help throughout this project.

[2] The research literature on the history of the novel is immense, as indicated by the scope of essays anthologized in McKeon (2000). Of direct relevance to the study of the Batak novel are such works as George Quinn’s sharp analyses (1983, 1992)

[3] It was not only indigenous authors whose work straddled journalism and fiction: see Termorshuizen (1988) for an excellent intellectual biography of a Dutch writer with this broad scope. It could be that a productive way to appreciate Batak novelists and newspapermen’s print experiments in the 1910s and 1920s would be to look at this literature contrapuntally in relation to Dutch writing in the Indies. Many southern Batak journalists in the papers examined here spoke fluent Dutch.

[4]My claims here are based on ethnographic fieldwork on ritual speech, with orators, from 1974-1977, 1985, 1992, and numerous short trips following that, all in Sipirok and Padangsidimpuan. Rodgers (2005:1-103) gives an account of the oratory setting, in Sipirok, of colonial-era Batak folkloric writing.

[5] The Perputakaan Nasional (National Library) in Jakarta has an extensive collection of these newspapers, in partial runs, some on microfilm and some available only in the originals. The library’s Katalog surat kabar (Wartini Santoso 1984:239-43), lists their holdings for North Sumatra.

[6] See Adam 1995 for rich background information on these Sumatran urban press developments. Medan’s large Batak press presence (in terms of reporters and editors, if not many actual papers) is documented in Said 1976. Chatterjee (1993) is illuminating to read in relation to these sectors of the Sumatran press: Chatterjee predicts that international print forms will take radically localized forms, when they arrive in colonial Asia.

[7] The imagery of Indies society ‘on the move’ is recurrent throughout the archipelago during this period and shows up abundantly in print. See Shiraishi 1990, for examples from Java. This claim comes from my interviews with elderly retired schoolteachers, tailors, bus drivers, and shopkeepers in Sipirok and Padangbujur and Bungabondar villages.

[8] This claim comes from my interviews with elderly retired schoolteachers, tailors, bus drivers, and shopkeepers in Sipirok and Padangbujur and Bungabondar villages.

[9] The Toba towns of Balige and particularly Tarutung, in the Selindung Valley, were important for this Protestant mission press. I do not know to what extent mission papers such as Bendera Kita, from Balige, and Palito Batak and Soara Batak; Pinatoere ni Hatopan Kristen Batak, from Tarutung, were accessible to southern Batak press people and regular readers.

[10] A classic source on the Balai Poestaka publishing phenomenon is Teeuw 1972. As Freidus (1977) points out, Sumatran writers were pivotal here. Much future research, in fact, could be done on West Sumatran literature in relation to the southern Batak literature of the 1920s and 1930s.

[11] This biographical information comes from an interview with one of Soetan Hasoendoetan’s daughters, who was living in retirement in a village directly outside Sipirok.

[12] Castles (1972) offers a historical timeline here for the Padri conversions of the southern Batak regions.

[13] My English translation of a 1941 folkloric printed version of the turi-turian of Datuk Tuongku Aji Malim Leman (Sipirok’s own great epic) includes numerous examples of this sort of flowery speech (Rodgers 2005:109-257). Soetan Hasoendoetan (1941) himself was the folklorist author here.

[14] Rodgers translation, 1997:327-8; Hasoendoetan 1927:363-5. Portions of the original text will give the flavour of this part of the book. Hasoendoetan’s chapter (1929:363) begins: ‘Djatoeba dohot Djasiala (Dj. . dohot Dj. S.) di jambur aek godang (Batang Gadis…)

Dj. S. Tok…tok…tok…O…Djatoeba disi do amu eh!

Dj. T. Ise dei…manaek kamu da, dison do au ning ia lao mamuka pintu di bagas i. Bo..amu dei alak Djasiala, lalu on kamu tu injangon eh, juguk kamu tu amak on. O…inantaring ngot ko eh.

Ro dison bo alak Djasiala, pamasak kopi i….’

[15] Rodgers 1997:337-45, for all of these passages; in the original, Hasoendoetan 1929:374-83; the passage above is from page 374. In the original novel, the initial part of this passage went as follows (Hasoendoetan 1929:374): ‘Dompak di sada hatiha juguk Sitti Djaoerah manulpenulpe di jandela di loteng ni kode nasi I laho manaili tu dalan na rame I, marragam halak na mamolus di dalani, anggo di halak na marsonangsonang, nada tauken angkon mambaen ria ni roha do i tu ibana, tai anggo Sitti Djaoerah nada dope dapot hatiha na songoni, angke laing so marsuo dohot na dijalahan. Tondo ia martungkol isang di bantalbantal ni jandela i. Marnidai bulus marobak muse ilu ni nandjaoerah, disapai ia ma boruna: dia do ma sitiar na rohamu Djaoerah anso tibu dapot hita halahi?…’

[16] The original reads as follows (Hasoendoetan 1929:376): ‘Songonon [‘So like this’ in Angkola Batak, as a preface]: Dicari seorang yang bernama Djahoemarkar, barang siapa berjumpa dengan dia harap di chabarkan bawa orang tuanya sudah ada di Medan. Dari saya, NANDJAOERAH.’

[17] In the original text, the opening phrases go as follows: ‘Sinta-sinta. Jumolo do au marsantabi,manyomba mangali-ali di alak na martua na markaratan, di angka na mora-mora ula dohot dongan na manise boru ni siguriton on, ngada nian au na mangasahon sinaloan, taringot tu alimus ni parbinotoan na pataya-taya boru ni siguriton on, ngada on dibaen linjang ni bisuk hira-hira…’


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