Beyond Borders: Rediscovering the Literary Legacy of Sariamin Ismail

OV Digital Desk

Image Courtesy: Google Doodle

Sariamin Ismail (31 July 1909 – 15 December 1995) was the first female Indonesian novelist to be published in the Dutch East Indies.

Life and Career

She was born on 31 July 1909, Sariamin Ismail was born in Talu, West Sumatra, Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia). She began to explore the world of poetry at the age of 10, and by 16, her writings were published in several local newspapers. Ismail became a teacher after graduating high school and worked in various cities across the Indonesian archipelago while continuing to write over the following decades. Ismail was an active writer during a time when Indonesian women’s voices were censored and used many pseudonyms to avoid persecution from local authorities.

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Based on real-life experiences of romances gone awry, Ismail’s first novel—”Kalau Tak Untung” (If You Are Unlucky)—was released under the pseudonym Selaish in 1933 and made history as the first novel authored by a woman in Indonesian history. This daring book exemplified a rejection of widely held Indonesian traditions such as arranged marriages, a controversial idea that characterized her work throughout her career.

In 1937, Ismail began publishing stories in “Soeara Kaoem Iboe Soematra,” a local women’s magazine that promoted the values of the nuclear family in contrast with relationship conventions of the time. She taught into the late 60s and wrote into the mid 90s and left behind numerous anthologies of poetry, novels, and even two children’s stories. She died on 15 December 1995 in Pekanbaru, Indonesia.

Award and Legacy

She is widely regarded as the first woman in the nation to publish a novel.  On 31 July 2021, Google celebrated Sariamin Ismail’s 112th birthday with a doodle.

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