Through Coloured Glasses

Su Lin Lewis

Richard Wright's The Colour Curtain (Cleveland, OH: World Publishing, 1956) has become not only an important primary source of the 1955 Asian–African conference in Bandung, but also a key text on the post-colonial predicament. The book is a travelogue that begins with Wright, in self-imposed exile in Paris, intrigued at the idea of a conference in Indonesia that brings together the new leaders of the post-colonial world, with participants and observers from both Asia and Africa. Wright sees in Third World idealism and the global struggle against white imperialism a vision of liberation that echoes the plight of African-Americans suffering the ‘burden of race consciousness’.

Indonesian Notebook, compiled by Brian Russell Roberts and Keith Foulcher, is a sourcebook of articles and essays that provide a new and valuable window into the reception of Wright by his hosts during his journey to Indonesia. It is an illuminating effort to 'demystify' Wright’s Colour Curtain by excavating silences, exposing tensions, and correcting Wright’s misreading of Indonesia (and of African-American literature by Indonesians) during his time there. It uses Wright’s journey to explore the way in which Indonesian intellectuals negotiated multiple routes of cultural traffic of the early 1950s, an era of optimism as well as escalating Cold War tensions. Both Wright and Indonesian writers are seen as grappling with theories of existentialism and phenomenology, alongside attempts to write authentic literature that speaks to the struggles of one’s race or nation.

Drawn to the idea of racial struggle, The Colour Curtain focuses on ‘race’ as the primary way in which the Asians he met identified themselves. Wright interacted mainly with members of the Konfrontasi study group, the cultural arm of the Indonesian Socialist Party (PSI), who were committed to universal humanism as an idea. Wright’s host, the writer Mochtar Lubis wrote to the UK-based Encounter magazine in response to a piece by Wright on his Indonesian journey, which accused Wright of seeing 'through coloured glasses', misquoting the Indonesians he met, and failing to provide a balanced picture of the Indonesian intellectual scene; the book ends by arguing ‘Colour or racial problems are just not our problems’. These tensions seem to have come to the fore in a discussion that occurred between Wright and his hosts about the Japanese; Wright was keen to see them as racial brethren while the Indonesians remembered the Japanese for atrocities during the occupation era.

One of the voices which emerges most strongly in the book is that of Beb Vuyk, a Dutch-born writer of Eurasian descent, who took Indonesian citizenship after her captivity in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II. In person, as well as in her review of Wright’s Black Power, his African travelogue, Vuyk is critical of Wright’s engagement with Ghana, to which he feels a racial affinity but to which she says he regards as any white American would, with a sense of technical and civilizational superiority.  Ghana's problems, she argues, ‘are more striking in his eyes than they would be for us, because [they] are in part the same as our problems’. Vuyk is also critical of Wright’s admiration for Kwame Nkrumah, whom she sees as giving ‘the masses as sense of fulfilment through a national super-belief and a sense of allegiance to party leaders’, fearing the route to fascism.

Although the Indonesian Socialist Party is only mentioned briefly throughout the book, it is worth considering Vuyk’s concerns on Wright’s depiction of Ghana from this perspective, given the Konfrontasi group’s connection to the party. The PSI advocated rational planning, economic development, and modernisation across the Third World. PSI affiliates were also critical of Indonesian President Sukarno, who created a cult of personality as a symbol of popular nationalism. Wright's visit coincided with not only the Bandung conference but the run-up to Indonesia’s first parliamentary elections in 1955, which the Indonesian Socialist Party lost by an extraordinary margin, partly because its technocratic message failed to resonate with a mass voting public.

Unlike the PSI, both Wright and Sukarno appealed to the zeitgeist of the post-colonial moment. Sukarno roused Bandung delegates with the acknowledgement that the conference was the 'first gathering of coloured nations'. By contrast, as Herbert Feith has argued, the PSI opposed 'impractical idealism, radical and utopian slogans which bore no relation to the existing realities in the country' as well as 'extreme nationalism’ (Herbert Feith, The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1962, 130). As the editors note, while Lubis accused Wright of viewing Indonesia ‘through coloured glasses’, the same rhetoric was employed by Sukarno in his vision of a continuing Indonesian revolution, and used to crush his opposition (Lubis was arrested in 1956).

Alongside Wright's tensions with the socialist intellectuals who hosted his visit, we also hear other Indonesian voices engaged with the work of Wright and other African-American authors, including Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who opposed the 'universal humanism' of the Konfrontasi group to focus on social realism. In 1977, Goenawan Mohammed, one of Indonesia’s most respected intellectuals today, drew on Wright's linking of politics to the human heart to call for a rehabilitation of politics as a concept. The collection also speaks to the failures of historical memory by both Wright's biographers as well as Indonesian writers in privileging English-language sources over Indonesian voices and memories.

In addition, the sourcebook gives us a glimpse of the way the Bandung conference was experienced by Indonesians, a subject on which we know surprisingly little despite the plethora of recent scholarship about the event. Translated articles from the Indonesian press show Indonesian high school students assailing delegates on the street for autographs; an oral history reveals how Bandung’s Indian community came together to meet Jawaharlal Nehru. For a conference that was so carefully ‘staged’ before the eyes of the world, we also get a sense of behind-the-scenes politics, as in the reluctance of the wives of Indonesian officials to entertain the second wife of a visiting head of state entering into a polygamous marriage. Lubis's newspaper disparaged the conference organisers for providing Wright, together with a Japanese journalist, with a dingy hotel room close to the toilets.

In compiling this sourcebook, Roberts and Foulcher have provided an important and nuanced exploration of tensions that underlie transnational networks. Behind the scenes of an event that symbolised Afro-Asian solidarity, we get a deeper sense of the way in which ideas were employed by African-American and Asian intellectuals who conversed, disagreed, and drew from each other to advocate their cause over the course of decades. The project of post-colonial studies has involved the necessary rewriting of the canon of intellectual history to include the black and minority voices; Roberts and Foulcher show that the canon of post-colonial thought is also implicated in marginalising the multiple voices in the Global South that participated in the reimagining of the post-colonial world, and have begun the important work of remedying this.

Feith, Herbert (1962) The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Foulcher, Keith (2012) Bringing the world back home: Cultural traffic in Konfrontasi. In: Lindsay, Jennifer and Liem, Maya H. T. (eds) Heirs to World Culture: Being Indonesian 1950-1965. Leiden: KITLV Press, 31–56.
Lindsay, Jennifer (2012) Heirs to world culture, 1950-1965. In: Lindsay, Jennifer and Liem, Maya H. T. (eds) Heirs to World Culture: Being Indonesian 1950-1965. Leiden: KITLV Press, 1–30.
Shimazu, Naoko (2014) Diplomacy as theatre: Staging the Bandung Conference of 1955. Modern Asian Studies 48(1): 225–52.
Wright, Richard (1956) The Colour Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference. London: Dobson.