Zita Reyninta Sari on Navigating through English and Indonesian Literature

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“The national language and literature month is celebrated in October. In response to that, this article recounted Zita Reyninta Sari’s story as a Master of Arts in English Literature student at The University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her true passion for English and Indonesian language and literature, as well as her life mission were also described in this article.”

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I remember vividly how I met Zita Reyninta Sari, or Zita for short, for the first time. It was winter in July 2015 in Auckland. Jet-lagged and cold, I was waiting for her in front of the campus’ bookstore. “Disa,” a gentle voice called me. There she was, waving hands at me from the top of the stairs.

Zita in a musical performance with Swara Nusantara
Zita in a musical performance with Swara Nusantara. Source: Personal documentation

Zita is the most literary friend I have ever had in my entire life. After graduating from Universitas Padjajaran with a B.A. in English Literature, she worked for a renowned public relations agency in Indonesia and had some experience in being a radio broadcaster and a professional translator. In the middle of her career path, she reached a point where corporate life no longer excited her. Even volunteering activities couldn’t cure this hollow feeling. Deep inside her heart, she knew exactly that she wanted to pursue higher education abroad. But how?

That was when an ex-colleague introduced her to Lembaga Pengelola Dana Pendidikan (LPDP). She applied for the scholarship and nailed it, opening a pathway to a new chapter of life as a Master of Arts student in English Literature at The University of Auckland, New Zealand, in 2015-2017.

Finding Comfort in English Literature

“Since elementary, my English subject grades were always the highest, simply because this was the easiest and most enjoyable subject for me. People describe me as ‘the master of English,’ while it is actually because I suck at anything else,” Zita told me with an amused expression when I asked her why she chose English literature in the first place.

She once aspired to study International Relations in the hope of becoming an ambassador, but in high school, she did not click with her civic education teacher. Besides, the memorization technique typical in social sciences did not suit her. So, she dumped the idea of studying International Relations completely and returned to her forte: English and literature.

Presenting the Indonesian students manifesto on the cross cultural art event in St Paul's Gallery Auckland
Presenting the Indonesian students manifesto on the cross cultural art event in St Paul’s Gallery Auckland. Source: Personal documentation

Zita explained further, “I’m an abstract thinker and am absolutely conceptual. I can effortlessly imagine and deconstruct something intangible instead of my weakness in talking about real-life issues. In my undergrad study, I was the only student discussing spatiality and temporality in poetry, which was deemed too advanced for my degree at that time.”

Despite her excellence and passion for English Literature, Zita’s postgraduate study life at The University of Auckland was not free of obstacles. She admitted that she did not perform well in the first semester. In addition to the difficulties in adjusting to her new life, she found that the courses did not really explore what she liked. It was until the second semester when she took a course on “Representing Imagining”, which totally fascinated her. From then on, she learned so much more stimulating materials, such as Performing Arts, Art History through museums, and, most stirringly, Maori history and culture.

More on poetry, Indonesian Literature, and translating for Indonesian fishermen

For her Master’s thesis, she continued her zest for poetry analysis (in her BA thesis, she discussed the modern poems of Edward Estlin Cummings) and chose the works of Afrizal Malna, an Indonesian poet whose poetry is in the same vein as those of Cummings. She analyzed the English translations of Malna’s poems, zooming in on cyclicity patterns and exploring the theme of “tongue”, which could mean language, the literal tongue, and one’s identity in using a language. She looked at how two translators of different nationalities and mother tongue present distinct “senses” in their works.

Zita and Professor Lisa Samuels, Ph. D, her main thesis supervisor
Zita and Professor Lisa Samuels, Ph. D, her main thesis supervisor. Source: Personal documentation

Unfortunately, when Zita was writing that thesis, her main supervisor was on leave for a semester. But this was a blessing in disguise. During this period, she was paired up with an interim supervisor named Selina Tusitala Marsh, who is partially of Pacific Islander ancestry. This experience was such an honor as Selina is one of the most prolific artists, poets, and academics in New Zealand, specializing in Maori culture and literature. In Zita’s memory, Selina was really kind but also very busy, so she only met Selina on some infrequent occasions. “But she did encourage and inspire me a lot during the little time we had together,” Zita remarked.

While working on her thesis, she also got an opportunity to work for a law firm in Auckland. At that time, this firm handled a human trafficking case involving Indonesian fishermen and a South Korean fishing company in New Zealand’s waters. She was tasked to translate essential documents and act as an interpreter as well as a liaison officer between the fishermen and the lawyer. Although her work was hectic, this did not interfere with the progress of her thesis. In fact, she graduated on time with honors (cumlaude).

Zita and Karen Harding, a Criminal Lawyer, during her time working as a Legal Assistant and Interpreter
Zita and Karen Harding, a Criminal Lawyer, during her time working as a Legal Assistant and Interpreter. Source: Personal documentation

Back for good to Indonesia, redefining life mission

Zita has returned to Indonesia since early 2018, now enjoying her roles as a full-time mum and wife, a part-time translator, and a writer. In May 2019, Zita and I embarked on our first entrepreneurial venture in the publishing industry by establishing Peri Bahasa Press, with Zita being the Creative Director and I as the Managing Director. On her part, this decision was driven by her belief that giving back to this country can take many forms. She has long intended to take the road less travelled: Nurturing a healthy environment of Indonesian literature.

“As a writer and a reader, I often find the landscape of Indonesian literature not friendly enough for aspiring writers, let alone the translations of Indonesian works into foreign languages,” Zita noted. She wants everyone, especially potential writers, to understand that they all deserve an equal chance to showcase and develop their talents in a constructive and positive environment. As a local indie publisher running in a vanity system, Peri Bahasa Press is the perfect vehicle to achieve this aspiration.

Given our shared interests and visions in literature, my friendship and entrepreneurship with Zita should endure for a long time. Surely, I feel lucky to have crossed paths with this brilliant lady. To conclude this article, here is a message from her for aspiring Indonesian writers: “Keep on writing. Keep on practicing. Keep on reading as much as you can. Then set some realistic goals: What do you want to achieve by writing? What kind of audience would you want to reach? And more importantly, do not falter. One day, someone will read your book, and thank you for changing his/her life through your writings.”

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Writer: Lavinia Disa

Editor: Yogi Saputra Mahmud