Where the chick lit is political

An Indonesian author talks about the political significance of the much-maligned genre.

Page Rockwell
May 26, 2006 2:15AM (UTC)

Chick lit takes a fair amount of flak in our culture, even as the juggernaut continues to spawn subpopulation genres like chica lit (for Latina professionals), hen lit (for bachelorettes) and mommy lit (self-explanatory). But when we're debating whether the genre is pandering and brainless, or whether it's even possible for a chick-lit writer to plagiarize given how referential and recycled chick lit stories tend to be, we might be taking our freedom of lite reading for granted. Nerve is currently featuring a great, brief interview with author Ayu Utami, who argues that in her native Indonesia, reading and writing chick lit are political acts.

"People in Indonesia can talk about sex openly," Utami says, "just as long as it's not through a formal medium. As long as it's not printed. If you walk through Jakarta you will feel the difference between what is public and what is private."


Just depicting sensuality as a normal part of life is incendiary in Indonesia, Utami says; she has recently been agitating against a proposed anti-pornography bill that could fine couples the equivalent of $29,000 for kissing in public, or a woman up to $111,000 for wearing a short skirt. She's not out to titillate her readers as much as normalize sex in public discourse: "I'm not very interested in writing sex scenes. But I am interested in sexuality, and how that plays out in the lives of a country of people -- what it means. It's not that I am against sex in books, but the urgency was not to arouse people but to make them think, to make them celebrate the idea of sexuality."

None of this specifically has bearing on chick lit's place in America, but it's interesting to see how a much-maligned (and woman-centric) genre is being used as a form of political expression elsewhere. And here's a strange chick-lit fact from a place where chick lit is still strange: In Indonesia, the genre is called sastra wangi, or fragrant letters. Maybe American chick lit needs a new name.

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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