Ayu Utami is an award-winning Indonesian writer who was the 2000 laureate of the Prince Claus Award. During Indonesia's military regime, Ayu was a journalist and activist for freedom of the press. She was one of the founders of the Alliance of Independent Journalists, later banned by the military regime. Her first novel Saman (1998), published just a few days before President Suharto stepped down, was highly acclaimed by literary critics and became a bestseller as well as a beacon of freedom during the movement for political change (Reformasi) in Indonesia. In Indonesia’s democratic political system, she believes that religious radicalism constitutes the main challenge to freedom of expression. To cope with this challenge, she focuses her works on the promotion of what she terms “critical spiritualism.” This concept was first mentioned in her novel Bilangan Fu (The Number Fu, 2008) and has permeated all her works since then.

Name: Justina Ayu Utami

Born: Bogor, 1968

Studied at:  University of Indonesia, Faculty of Letter, Depok; Tarakanita Catholic High School, Jakarta; Regina Pacis Catholic Elementary School, Bogor


Director of Literature & Ideas Festival (LIFEs) at Salihara. Program Director of Komunitas Utan Kayu. Previous Work: Literary Committee at the Jakarta Arts Council, editor at Kalam Journal on Culture; researcher at ISAI (Institute for the Study of the Free Flow of Information; Komunitas Utan Kayu; Radio 68H; cofounder of the Alliance of Independent Journalists; journalist at Demokrasi & Reformasi and Forum Keadilan news magazines.

Fellowships (among others): Iowa Writers' Workshop, USA, 2004; Asian Leadership Fellow Program, International House of Japan, 1999.

Awards (among others): The Jakarta Arts Council's Best Novel 1998 for Saman; Khatulistiwa Literary Award 2008 for Bilangan Fu; Ayu was awarded the 2000 Prince Clause Award and 2008 Mastera (South East Asean Literary Council) Creative Writer Award.


Novels (fiction & nonfiction): Saman (1998), Larung (2001), The Number Fu (2008), Manjali & Cakrabirawa (2010), Enrico's Love Story (2012), Lalita (2012), The Confession of A (2013), Maya (2014), Simple Miracles (2014)

Other genres: The Single Parasite, collection of essays (2003, renewed 2013); The Moral Trial, playscript and collection of essays (2008), Soegija 100% Indonesia, popular biography of first Indonesian bishop (2012), Kartini & Katini (libretto, 2017)

Co-author: Banal Aesthetics & Critical Spiritualism (with husband & photographer Erik Prasetya, 2015); The Zodiac Series (with students of Ayu's writing class, 2014)

How-to: A Critical Spiritualist Handbook for Creative Writing and Thinking (2015)


What is Salihara and the Literature and Ideas Festival (LIFEs)?

Komunitas Salihara is a cultural enclave active since 2008. It is the continuation of Komunitas Utan Kayu, formed in 1997 during the period of the military regime. The organization was started by a number of writers, artists, journalists, and activists as a place to promote freedom of thought and expression. The Literature and Ideas Festival (LIFEs) is also a continuation of the Utan Kayu Literary Biennale. The organization moved from its initial location at Utan Kayu street to a bigger location at Salihara Street in order to reach a larger audience.

Once named The Best Art Space (2010) by the magazine Time Out Jakarta, and as one of the 10 Most Unique Places in Jakarta (2010) by Metro TV, the architecture of Komunitas Salihara has also been described as, “Architecture which applies environmentally friendly aspects,” by the Green Design Award 2009.

The vision of Komunitas Salihara is to maintain freedom of thought and expression, respect difference and diversity, and foster and spread artistic and intellectual resources. Komunitas Salihara was once attacked by the Islamic Defender Front for organizing a discussion with Irshad Manji, a Moslem feminist who defended the gay rights.

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What is The Alliance of Independent Journalists?

During the military regime the press was strictly controlled. One of the most effective means of control was the Association of Indonesian Journalists (Persatuan Wartawan Indonesia, PWI), the only union of journalists acknowledged and allowed by the government. Editors and leaders in print media were required to become members.

After the banning of three major media outlets, including Tempo magazine in 1994, a group of young journalists decided to fight against censorship. They established the Alliance of Independent Journalists (Aliansi Jurnalis Independen). AJI was declared illegal during the military regime. Three of its activists were imprisoned and several others had to work underground.

In the democratic era, AJI now operates legally.

What are KUK, ISAI and Radio 68H?

The history of KUK, ISAI and Radio 68H is related to the situation of press freedom during the last decade of Indonesia's military era (the 1990s). When AJI was banned and some of its members were in jail, activists for freedom realized that they needed to continue their activities openly, apart from the underground movement.

A group of militant journalists, including Goenawan Mohamad (founder of Tempo magazine), established the Institute for the Studies of the Free Flow of Information (ISAI). Its legal activity was conducting research, but its main goal was networking and distributing censored information. ISAI is no longer active. Goenawan Mohamad provided a complex of buildings for this activity at Jln, Utan Kayu 68H, Jakarta. In the same complex, he also established a theater, a gallery, and a cafe. The space was later called Komunitas Utan Kayu (KUK). During the military regime, KUK was continuously monitored by the state security apparatus. In the democratic era, KUK was once attacked by the Islamic Defender Front for hosting activities under the umbrella of the Liberal Islam Network.

The journalists who set up ISAI later started an organization for radio news production, KBR68H. During the military regime, broadcast news was monopolized by the state television and radio stations, TVRI and RRI. KBR68H was set up to develop skills and networks among journalists in anticipation of the coming era of information technology. Soon after the political change, KBR68H developed its own station, Radio 68H. As a result of a new radio regulation that forbade national broadcasting of private radio, it had to change the name of the station. It took on a new name, Green Radio. For financial reasons, the majority of its shares were sold to new owners and Green Radio is now run as a commercial venture.

KUK is run as a company. The small theater regularly hosts philosophy classes and small-scale performances.

What are Demokrasi & Reformasi and Forum Keadilan?

Initially an internal bulletin for judges and lawyers, Forum Keadilan was later published for the general public in the early 1990s. Half of the shares were owned by Tempo magazine group. Forum reached the height of its popularity when Karni Ilyas was the editor in chief. Later Tempo sold its shares. Forum is no longer a prominent magazine.

Demokrasi & Reformasi (DR) was a news magazine published by ex-Tempo workers not long after Tempo had been banned. After General Suharto stepped down, Tempo was reestablished. DR no longer exists.

What is Demokrasi & Reformasi and Forum Keadilan?

Initially an internal bulletin for judges and lawyers, Forum Keadilan was later published for general public in the early 90s. Half of the shares was owned by Tempo magazine group. Forum reached its popularity when Karni Ilyas was the editor in chief. Later Tempo sold its shares. Forum is no longer a prominent magazine.

Demokrasi & Reformasi (DR) was a news magazine published by ex Tempo workers not long after Tempo had been banned. After General Soeharto stepped down, Tempo was reestablished. DR no longer exists.