Writing the Past, Inscribing the Future

History as Prophecy in Colonial Java

Writing the Past, Inscribing the Future

Book Pages: 464 Illustrations: 16 illustrations Published: August 1995

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies

Located at the juncture of literature, history, and anthropology, Writing the Past, Inscribing the Future charts a strategy of how one might read a traditional text of non-Western historical literature in order to generate, with it, an opening for the future. This book does so by taking seriously a haunting work of historical prophecy inscribed in the nineteenth century by a royal Javanese exile—working through this writing of a colonized past to suggest the reconfiguration of the postcolonial future that this history itself apparently intends. After introducing the colonial and postcolonial orientalist projects that would fix the meaning of traditional writing in Java, Nancy K. Florida provides a nuanced translation of this particular traditional history, a history composed in poetry as the dream of a mysterious exile. She then undertakes a richly textured reading of the poem that discloses how it manages to escape the fixing of "tradition." Adopting a dialogic strategy of reading, Florida writes to extend—as the work’s Javanese author demands—this history’s prophetic potential into a more global register.
Babad Jaka Tingkir, the historical prophecy that Writing the Past, Inscribing the Future translates and reads, is uniquely suited for such a study. Composing an engaging history of the emergence of Islamic power in central Java around the turn of the sixteenth century, Babad Jaka Tingkir was written from the vantage of colonial exile to contest the more dominant dynastic historical traditions of nineteenth-century court literature. Florida reveals how this history’s episodic form and focus on characters at the margins of the social order work to disrupt the genealogical claims of conventional royal historiography—thus prophetically to open the possibility of an alternative future.


“The books is a magnificent and playful study of an overlooked, nineteenth-century Javanese historical manuscript, the Babad Jaka Tingkir. It is a ‘must read’ for Indonesianists interested in Javanese culture, and deserves the attention of social and literary historians. . . . A richly annotated presentation of the BJT manuscript forms the core of the book, and Florida’s translation of the peculiar, talismanic work of history is exceptional for its elegance and lyricism. . . . Writing the Past, Inscribing the Future will help to make Southeast Asian cultural historians more cognizant of Islam as a political and aesthetic force in Java’s past and future, and will deservedly tower as a monument of translation.” — Kenneth M. George, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"Writing the Past, Inscribing the Future could only have been written by someone who has not only the most technically precise knowledge of the Javanese language and the history of its social uses, but also one acutely aware of the raging debates around the critical study of non-Western histories; recent work on poststructuralist and postcolonial understandings of literature, power, and agency; and a keen appreciation of the politics of historical scholarship on and in Indonesia. Nancy Florida succeeds on all counts." — Vincente Rafael, University of California, San Diego

"A highly original book. Florida’s superior reading and translation abundantly show that Babad Jaka Tingkur is a spectacular and exciting text. Writing the Past, Inscribing the Future is of great relevance not only for Indonesianists but easily could enrich and inspire discussions and polemics in the fields of literary theory, history, and anthropology." — Hendrik M. Maier, Rijks University, Leiden


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