Mapping the Alam: West Sumatran Girls Envisioning the World (1920-1921)

Bronwyn Anne Beech Jones

PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne

In November 1920, Retna Tenoen, a student at Padang’s Holland Inlandsche school, published her first map of the world radiating outwards from Mt. Marapi, the symbolic heart of the Minangkabau alam (world), in the women’s newspaper Soenting Melajoe. This presentation contends that these four linguistically and cartographically complex documents provide a basis to re-orient static conceptions of ethnicity in early-twentieth century West Sumatra toward multiple, co-existing local, linguistic, racial, and transnational conceptions of belonging. I compare Retna’s attempt to have these maps incorporated into curricula with other girls’ articulations of adat (customs) as a basis of a just, knowledge filled future of ‘progress’ (kemadjoean). Drawing on Werbner’s (2018, 285) theory-work on vernacular cosmopolitanism as ‘a welcoming encounter with difference,’ I analyse the extent to which world-making attempts in Soenting Melajoe sought to assimilate, accommodate, and hybridise difference. I first examine Retna Tenoen’s education and her father Datoe’ Soetan Maharadja’s ethnonationalist Minangkabau politics. Then, I turn to unpack geographies derived from Minangkabau literature, ethnography, and transnational print culture networks. This presentation seeks to approach an understanding of how girls, women and communities understood and amalgamated multiple ontologies and epistemologies.


Bronwyn Anne Beech Jones is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne and holder of the Hansen Trust PhD Scholarship in History. Her dissertation analyses trans-local networks of community-run craft schools and discourses on adat and gendered communality in four early-twentieth century Sumatran women’s newspapers.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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