Book Review: Gender, Resistance and Transnational Memories of Violent Conflicts

Pauline Stoltz. Gender, Resistance and Transnational Memories of Violent Conflicts. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

In Gender, Resistance and Transnational Memories of Violent Conflicts, political scientist Pauline Stoltz combines transitional justice and memory studies in an insightful investigation into transnational memories of conflict in Indonesia. Stoltz attempts to understand why Indonesia and the Netherlands have denied and continue to deny political and moral responsibility for violence in past conflicts, despite emerging international norms of transitional justice. The book focuses on three conflicts between 1942 and 2015 – the Japanese Occupation of the Dutch East Indies/colonial Indonesia (1942-1945); the Indonesian Independence War (1945-1949); and the 1965-1966 genocidal violence directed against suspected Communists –, and the narratives of resistance and denial that surround them. Situated at the nexus of memory studies and transitional justice, the book also contributes to studies of postcolonialism, masculinity and queer theory. Less directly, it adds to scholarship about postcolonial migration, notably regarding the Indisch Dutch (Dutch: Indische Nederlanders, both ethnic Dutch and persons of Dutch-Indonesian heritage who migrated from the Indies/Indonesia to the Netherlands after 1945). Stoltz’s investigation of this group, and indeed the book itself, is informed by a familial connection: as explained in the preface, Stoltz’s mother belonged to the first generation of these postcolonial migrants (vi).

The book is structured chronologically and thematically around the three conflicts. Following an introduction, Stoltz outlines her methodological and theoretical approach in Chapter 2 before explaining transitional justice and the historical context of each conflict in Chapter 3. Chapter 4 considers silence in relation to violence and gendered resistance in (Indisch) Dutch narratives of the Japanese Occupation, while Chapter 5 uses theories of masculinity and postcolonialism to complicate individual narratives of identity and resistances to Dutch narratives of denial about the Independence War. Chapter 6 turns to Indonesian accounts, examining counter-narratives to the Indonesian state’s hegemonic narratives about the 1965 genocide, which both deny and celebrate the violence. The final chapter utilises transnational affective relations to understand gendered resistances to state and collective denial of the genocide.

One of the strengths of the book is its use of novels to examine denial and resistance. Analysis of novels is somewhat rare in political science, a field which normally concerns itself with facts and real events, but in this case the novels chosen are loosely autobiographical and thereby allow Stoltz to investigate memories of conflict. Stoltz analyses two Dutch and two Indonesian novels which offer counter-narratives to the dominant state accounts of these conflicts. Her study of works by second-generation Indisch Dutch authors Adriaan van Dis and Alfred Birney is a discerning investigation of personal and collective narratives about the Japanese Occupation and the Independence War, as told in Indisch groups and in broader Dutch society. This is followed by analysis of novels by Indonesian authors Y.B. Mangunwijaya and Leila Chudori, whose respective novels Durga/Umayi (1991; trans. 2004) and Pulang (2012; trans. Home, 2015) problematise Indonesian state narratives about the 1965-66 genocide. Although the number of novels selected for examination is balanced (two Dutch, two Indonesian), because both Indonesian works centre on the genocide, this results in an omission of Indonesian narratives about the Occupation and Independence War. Analysis of these perspectives would have made for an interesting comparison with that of the Dutch narratives.

A second strength is the book’s multi-level approach to transnational memories of conflict. Stoltz applies levels of transitional justice (micro, meso, macro) and ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ narrative analysis to examine the narratives presented in the novels. While the novels themselves operate at the meso or societal level “due to their mass distribution to a national and sometimes international audience” (39), the personal narratives told within them about/by the characters (often based on real people, usually the authors) are situated at the micro level. This allows Stoltz to investigate personal identities and practices. Thus, her study of Adriaan van Dis’ Indische duinen (1994; trans. My Father’s War, 2004) in Chapter 4 is a perceptive investigation of silence as a form of agency, and Chapter 5’s examination of Alfred Birney’s De tolk van Java (2016; trans. The Interpreter from Java, 2020) usefully points out the consequences of social inequalities around race and gender for first- and second-generation postcolonial migrant identities. Stoltz engages with the macro level of transitional justice by interrogating the state narratives that the novels resist. Thus, Chapter 6 problematises the assumption in transitional justice of a linear transition from war to peaceful society: by engaging with narratives about 1965, Stoltz skillfully probes Indonesian state narratives of national identity and nation-building. Conversely, Chapter 7 analyses the non-reactions of global observers and bystanders to the genocide, and the resistances to state narratives told in this space, by examining Leila Chudori’s Pulang.This multi-level analysis, combined with the study’s research questions which focus on place, space, time and knowledge (‘who are the narratives’ I and we’; ‘what do I/we know about the past’; ‘how do we know what we know’; ‘what do we think of the past, present and future?’), enables Stoltz to extract information from the novels about the real-life state, collective and personal narratives told about the three conflicts (12).

Another important quality of the book is its broad theoretical engagement. Stoltz combines transitional justice with postcolonial, intersectional, gender and queer perspectives to plot intersectional inequalities in transnational narratives of conflict. In Chapter 4 she engages with structural conditions of patriarchy, whiteness and racism to argue that these can limit the ways in which second-generation migrants can express identity, while in Chapter 5 her application of masculinity theories to analyse the character Arto in The Interpreter from Java is particularly successful (120-122). Queer theory is utilised in Chapter 6 to interrogate the gender binary common in genocide studies of female victim/male perpetrator; queer theory also enables Stoltz to gain alternative understandings of “who is marginalised, when and how” (134, original emphasis). The final chapter builds on this by drawing on theories of affectivity. Here, the discussion of transnational affective relations with reference to bystanders of conflict in Chudori’s Pulang expands our understanding of the victim-perpetrator-bystander triad. Despite some repetition of theoretical explanation within and across chapters, Stoltz’s deep engagement with these theoretical models enables her to productively plot intersectional inequalities in narratives of transnational memories of conflict.

Gender, Resistance and Transnational Memories of Violent Conflicts successfully blends a range of theoretical approaches to investigate narratives of denial and resistance about past conflicts in Indonesia. It is a worthwhile read for memory and transitional justice scholars, but also for those interested in postcolonial migration or conflict in Indonesian history. Stoltz concludes her book with a call for researchers to pay greater attention to this combinational theoretical approach, ending with the hope (a theme present in her final chapter) that this may enable “better strategies” to be found “to obtain equality as well as both historical and social justice” (187), in Indonesia and elsewhere. Innovative and insightful, Gender, Resistance and Transnational Memories of Violent Conflicts offers a discerning reflection on past conflicts and a hope for equality and justice in the future.  

The University of Queensland

Birney, Alfred. De tolk van Java. Amsterdam: De Geus, 2016.
Birney, Alfred. The Interpreter from Java. Translated by David Doherty. London: Head of Zeus, 2020.
Chudori, Leila S. Pulang. Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, 2012.
Chudori, Leila S. Home. Dallas: Deep Vellum Publishing, 2015.
Mangunwijaya, Y.B. Durga/Umayi. Jakarta: Grafiti, 1991.
Mangunwijaya, Y.B. Durga/Umayi. Seattle: University of Washington Press in association with Singapore University Press, 2004.
Van Dis, Adriaan. Indische duinen. Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 1994.
Van Dis, Adriaan. My Father’s War. Translated by I. Rilke. London: William Heinemann, 2004.