An Interview with Nancy FloridaSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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J: I'd like to begin by asking you about these manuscripts, which have been the focus of your professional endeavors for nearly 20 years. Talk a little about the kind of material they contain, the form they're written in and so forth.
Florida:The majority of the texts are composed in classical verse form and the subject matter covers a wide range of Javanese interests. To name just a few of the kinds of materials that they contain, they include historical documents, political correspondence, court diaries, classical poetry, erotic lore, treatises on divination, language, law and Islamic theology. There are also Sufi lyrics, scripts for shadow-puppet plays and agendas for royal ceremonial displays.
J: The word "manuscript" means different things to different people. It would be helpful if you would describe what these manuscripts look like and what they're made of, and if you would say something about their dates.
Florida: They're written in a wide variety of hands, all in a script that is considered archaic in today's Indonesia. Many of these manuscripts are illuminated and some are adorned with gold leaf. The oldest surviving ones date from the 18th century and these were inscribed on indigenous mulberry bark paper. By the later 18th century through the mid 19th century, European rag-stock was often used. Many of the newer ones, dating from the late 19th through the 20th century, are inscribed on mass-produced wood pulp papers.
J: I understand that you were involved in a three-year project founded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, beginning in 1980. What was your role in the project?
Florida: My task was to prepare the manuscripts for filming. This meant identifying the titles they composed, trying to determine their authorship and provenance, describing their contents and their physical characteristics, and trying to determine some rational order in which they would be filmed. After three years, I initiated a second preservation and training project that the Ford Foundation funded. I worked with a group of young Indonesians to conserve the original documents that had been filmed. In 1984 that conservation work was taken over by the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture.
J: That sounds challenging.
Florida: Yes, the job did have its challenges. The collections' shelflists were far from complete. They noted the titles as they appeared on the volumes' covers, but these titles often bore no relation to the text or texts inside the boards. Multiple-volume texts were split up and scattered, often under different titles, throughout the library. A single volume might bind together as many as 60 separate and often fragmentary texts, none of which would be provided with title captions. Hundreds of forgotten manuscripts lay in uncataloged stacks in cabinets and corners.
J: What are we talking about in terms of quantity here?
Florida: Nearly 700,000 pages and over 5,500 titles in some 2,200 volumes.
J: How this all come about?
Florida: The original idea of the project goes back to 1977, when I was just beginning my studies of the manuscript literature of Java. The late K.R.M.T. Sanyoto Sutopo Kusumohatmojo, a high courtier in the junior Mangkunagaran Palace in Surakarta, was concerned for the safety of the collection housed in the palace library. He asked me to look into the possibility of preserving it on microfilm. I was leaving for Ithaca, New York, where I was to begin my graduate studies at Cornell. Three years later I received the NEH grant to film and catalogue the collection, and I returned to Java in 1980.
J: What was the physical condition of the manuscripts in when the project began?
Florida: It was much worse than I had anticipated. A lot of the manuscripts were really very deteriorated, with torn, missing, and soiled leaves. Some volumes were devastated by insect infestation; others, by water damage. All of the volumes required leaf-by-leaf cleaning, to remove dust, molds, insect and rodent droppings, insect carcasses, and sometimes, cigarette butts.
J: It sounds like rewarding work, but wasn't it also tedious?
Florida: Not at all. It was a joy.
J: How would you describe the outcome of the project - what its impact will be?
Florida: Before this project, the history of Javanese literature had been produced by colonial and postcolonial philologists who had based their studies on Dutch archives of Javanese manuscripts. In other words, "traditional Javanese literature" was a construct produced through investigations of a selection of manuscripts that Dutch and sometimes British colonial civil servants had chosen to collect in the 19th and early 20th centuries. With our project-and with several others that followed it-the formerly nearly ignored collections of Javanese-produced archives are now open for study both within Indonesia and abroad. A close examination of these archives that were produced and collected by Javanese subjects will, I think, truly revolutionize the study of Javanese literary and cultural history.
J: Where are the films now, and are they accessible for research?
Florida: Positive copies of all these films are available for use in the originating collections, and negative copies have been provided to the National Archives of Indonesia. In the United States the films are available for reading at Cornell, Michigan and the University of Washington. Copies are also available at the Australian National University. And I've heard that Leiden University in the Netherlands is also in the process of acquiring a set of the films.
J: I understand that you're continuing to work on this material.
Florida: I have a book in press now, the second volume of the manuscript descriptions. It should be out by early next year. This one will be the largest volume of the series; it describes some 2,745 titles in 944 manuscript volumes. Volume three will be mercifully smaller, and volume four will consist of facsimiles, general index, and notes. The series is being published by Cornell University's Southeast Asia Program under a grant from the Luce Foundation.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
Florida: There are at least two others. One is a translation and analysis of a 19th century poem of about 3000 lines. This poem, The Book of Jayengbaya, could be called a mapping of the cultural imaginary of colonial Java. It was written around 1830, right at the cusp of high colonialism in Java. It's written in a parodic voice, and it's an ironic and comical comment on the limits of imagination-of what it could mean to be "Javanese" under emergent colonial conditions.
J: And aren't you working on a project sponsored by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies under a grant from the Luce Foundation?
Florida:Yes, that one is primarily an oral history project. It involves a weaving of memories among women in the two palaces in Surakarta. Some of these women are marginal and marginalized-the likes of cast-off concubines and servants. Others are women of some power-a young princess who's very politically active in contemporary "Reform" Indonesia and an ancient royal "paranormal" sage. I'm looking at how these women remember pasts that have been repeatedly ruptured over the dramatic transitions of the colonial, revolutionary, and various postcolonial periods.
J: What really attracted you to Javanese literature?
Florida: Intricacy, complexity, (hidden) voice and drama. In Javanese literature, every tale has many tellings and every detail of character or event alludes to another—or to a web of others. Everything quite self-consciously references something else. The stories tend to form themselves into genealogical structures-and not only blood genealogies, but sometimes genealogies of ideas or ideologies, or discourses or futures. And often a single story is told differently every time it is told. It is that difference that attracts me. In the difference is drama-and history.
J: How different is Javanese from Indonesian?
Florida: How different is Spanish from French? They are different languages—mutually unintelligible. Different vocabularies, different-though not unrelated-grammars. Javanese, with up to twelve speech levels, is much more difficult, complex and intricate than Indonesian.
J: What initially sparked your interest in Indonesia?
Florida: Playing in the Javanese gamelan ensemble at Wesleyan. Actually I was a student at Connecticut College, but I was taking classes at Wesleyan and I started playing in the gamelan. Then I went on a study tour in Indonesia in 1971 and began working with a dalang, or shadow puppeteer. After that tour I ended up playing professionally in California. Before long my old puppet teacher was brought to America as a member of our troupe, and I became his writer-translator. Before our performances, he would tell me the story he was going to perform, and I'd write up the program for the English-language audience. Then I went back to Java from 1975 to 1977 to study Javanese literary traditions, including the oral traditions of the wayang shadow-puppet theater. This was before my graduate work in Southeast Asian history at Cornell.
J: What was your initial response to gamelan music, which is so different from Western music?
Florida: I was immediately, almost magically, drawn to it. Its shimmer of familiarity was, one might say, uncanny.
J: Now back to the royal honor, how were you notified about it?
Florida: It was a royal command that arrived by cyberspace! It was sent by one of the court ministers, saying "His majesty commands you to be at the palace" at a certain date. It arrived only six days before that date so it was impossible for me to be there.
J: You were just there, in Java, this summer. Did you have any idea of it then?
Florida: There were some rumblings that I might be installed, but nothing official.
J: It's unfortunate they didn't give it to you then, isn't it?
Florida: It has to be awarded in a ceremonial context. This occasion was the king's 56th Coronation Jubilee, which was held over a two-day period, November 10-11.
J: Will your having the title change anything for you when you go back?
Florida: It will change how I dress when I'm in the palace. My kain and my dodot—-two long lengths of batik cloth, one worn on the lower body and the other wrapped around the breast—-will be wrapped differently. And I'll be granted the privilege of bearing a weapon—-a wedung, a small ceremonial knife. It's specifically for high noble females and is worn at the midriff.
Nancy Florida, an associate professor of Southeast Asian literature and culture in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, recently received a royal title from H.R.H. Pakubuwana XII, the king of Java's most ancient court, the Kraton Surakartal. The title was awarded in recognition of her scholarship and service to the field of Indonesian studies. She was installed at the highest level of courtier (senior minister) that is possible for someone who is not a blood relative of the king. She is the first westerner in history to ever receive such an honor. The honor is a formal acknowledgment of appreciation for Florida's work in preserving, photographing and making available for research the complete collections of historical manuscripts from the three royal archives of Java and for her scholarly writings on Javanese literature and history. Florida, who earned her doctorate in history at Cornell in 1990, works on Indonesian and Javanese literature, history, historiography and cultural studies. She is the author of Writing the Past, Inscribing the Future: History as Prophecy in Colonial Java (Duke University Press, 1995), for which she was awarded the Association for Asian Studies Benda Prize in 1997. She has also written Javanese Literature in Surakarta Manuscripts, Vols. 1-2 (Cornell University, SEAP, 1993 and in press). Florida has been at Michigan since 1987. Her Javanese title, "Kangjeng Mas Ayu Tumenggung Budayaningtyas," translates roughly as "Her Ladyship the Golden High Minister in whose Heart Dwells Culture." Journal editor Bonnie Brereton interviewed her shortly after the award was announced.