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Indonesian Literature and the Frankfurt Book Fair

Blog / Column

July 5, 2015 — by IDWRITERS

Last updated on August 13, 2018 at 2:31 pm

The slogan for Indonesia’s participation at the Frankfurt Book Fair is 17,000 Islands of Imagination. How this figure relates to the everyday lived experience of Indonesia and, in particular, an outsiders experience with Indonesia is somewhat curious. The point that the figure is making suggests that Indonesia is bigger, vaster and more complex than what the nation is presumed to be.


Of these 17,000 islands, only some seven thousand are inhabited. More negotiable is the figure of Indonesia’s 34 provinces which are found in seven regions: Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Java, the Lesser Sunda Islands, the Maluku Islands and Western New Guinea. A cynic may predict that the overwhelming majority of authors whose works are available for trade at the Book Fair will be Jakarta-based: the most intensely globalised city of Indonesia. So much for the 34 provinces, probably; let alone the 17,000 islands of imagination. Jakarta is a city that attracts much hyped performances for domestic audiences, while many foreign tourists prefer the imagined and well-packaged traditionality of Yogyakarta and Bali. Jakarta, after all is home to the publishing and artistic networks of the Kompas Media Group, Lontar Foundation, Komunitas Salihara and Ruang Rupa. Writers and artists in Sumatra, Sulawesi, Kalimantan and peripheral towns of Java state their hostility to the ‘hegemony’ (real or not) of Jakarta. Scholars who address cultural production in Yogyakarta are criticised for perpetuating a Java-centric vision of what Indonesia is.

This collection of short stories has been published in the lead up to the Frankfurt Book Fair (Frankfurter Burchmesse) of October 2015. Suddenly a lot of funds have become available for the translation of Indonesian literature; suddenly, many authors have the opportunity to have their works read globally. Translators of Indonesian literature are suddenly and unexpectedly in demand. In the past, when I have met with other scholars and writers and told them of my interest in ‘Indonesian literature’; I have been met with blank stares. This experience is common amongst researchers on Indonesia. Political scientists, economists, sociologists who research Indonesia, too, regard literature as peripheral. Perhaps so. At mainstream book stores in Australia, the UK, the Netherlands or France one may be lucky to find the Buru Quartet of Pramoedya Ananta Toer; if one is luckier one may find Ayu Utami’s Saman. In English language bookstores at airports in Indonesia, one finds a smattering of Lontar’s collection. Regrettably, these are rarely placed prominently. One of the main collections of literary works in Jakarta, the Pusat Dokumentasi H.B. Jassin at the Taman Ismail Marzuki has been poorly maintained for decades. But, now, with international exposure in the offing, sastra Indonesia, has regained some degree of street-cred.

The position of ‘literature’ as a privileged discourse has largely been debunked over the last several decades. Literary novels are regarded as being elitest and being a cultural product of consumption that takes up a lot of time and represents only a small set of particularists issues, tastes and imagination. Literature, far from having an enlightening movement, is a means to also perpetuating gender-stereotypes, racism, colonialist prejudices and re-inforcing national myths. So much for all of that. And so oral histories take their turn; books become antiquated and quaint in the face of TV, the cinema, the Internet and of course, increasingly, social-media – or in Indonesian, sosmed. The rare experience of finding someone reading a novel in a cafe, on a bus or in the lounge of an airport, suggests that there may well be a limited novel-reading audience in Indonesia. Sceptics who doubt the import of sastra Indonesia have much material to draw on. On the other hand, I’m not totally convinced that sastra or literature from anywhere has outlived its history. Art forms draw on each other, but, they do not annihilate one another: or, if they do, it is a process that happens slowly. One can take the re-emergence of the TV serial over the last decade as a cutting edge media as a case in point. Indonesian literature played an important role as a medium for dissent during the New Order era (1966-1998); this role cannot be taken for granted any more. And indeed, this is most likely a blessing for its practitioners.

I first started learning Indonesian language and literature in the late 1990s at The University of Melbourne, Australia. One of our lecturers and tutors, Assoc.Prof.Adelaar, a linguist, made us read short stories or excerpts of novels as the primary means for understanding how Indonesian functions as a language. Slowly, I developed a taste for it. Reading the photocopy of a short story on the train to or from university, or, later a proper novel during a semester break was the easiest way of being in Indonesia, engaging with Indonesian language without being there. This seems a very long time ago: we students were only hearing about the internet; we sent a few emails. Train and tramrides weren’t spent looking at a screen, but with grasping a paperback novel or a course reader. Choosing to read a novel over the instantaneous connectivity of social-media seems to be a conservative and safe choice. The literary discourse has many competing discourses to contend with: the endless 140character provocations and links of Twitter-users; the endlessly updated pages on Facebook describing where and what one is eating. One could also easily tune into live streaming of Indonesia’s domestic soccer league -through such websites as nobar.tv or beritasatu.com – to get a sense of the language and ‘Indonesian culture’. And yet quaintly, persistently, there are those who keep writing, keep producing material for the venerable tradition of Indonesian letters. The two authors who have the most experience with Seno Gumira Ajidarma and Afrizal Malna have maintained their relevance, through continually broadening their intellectual engagement and styles of writing in accordance with the changes of their context. They both remain ‘current’ and ‘contemporary’ and their work shifts beyond the works that initially brought them fame, notoriety and a career.

A book opens by itself and its pages begin to flick over. These pages begin to turn into curves and these curves become waves. The waves, with typed script upon them, roll by; fishermen, birds and a whale join the scene. In the background are a couple of large volcanoes. The music that accompanies the playful animation of words and imagery is casual, relaxed and cheerful. It’s a gentle melody played on a couple of guitars. The purpose of this animation is to make the viewer re-think their imagining of Indonesia. Mercifully, the sounds are not those of a Javanese gamelan; mercifully, too, the imagery makes a break with the endlessly promoted grand monuments of the past: Borobudur, Prambanan and the Sultan’s Palace of Yogyakarta. This one minute clip is a neat contrasting of some of the complexities of Indonesia: it is modern, urban and funky and yet, so much of the population relies on the sea and the travel between islands. And, within the struggle between the natural world and man’s attempt to shape his or her fate, there is the importance and belief in the value of stories, myths and more recent methods of constructing narratives and conveying ‘tradition’, ‘heritage’, ‘history’; and of course, ideology, social criticism and personal trajectories.

Elizabeth Pisani, author of Indonesia Etc (Jakarta: Lontar, 2014), takes the bountiful complexity and sheer number of its islands as a starting point for her book. After living in Indonesia for some 20 years, she wrote her commanding work based on one year of travel around the Indonesian archipelago. She travels intrepidly and without complaint. She turns down invitations for intimate companionship in the politest of manner. Her golden rule, which she follows 99% of the time, is to not turn down an invitation. This results in a narrative that is most likely to have been surprising, new and shocking for both the author herself and her reader. This is not a book that recounts the ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ of being an Indonesia expert after having lived and worked in the country for some 20 years. Pisani’s text is not free of contempt for some of the people she meets along the way, yet she shows, most frequently, a willingness for solidarity with those who open their lives to her. She places herself as an insider who reciprocates the generosity of others; most commonly this takes the shape of helping out with household chores or giving frank advice about how her new-friends could make the best of the sometimes-limited opportunities that lie before them. Elizabeth is welcomed as she presents herself without demands and expectations upon others.

Perhaps, methinks, that is the way of approaching ‘Indonesian literature’. We read it without expecting certain stylistic conventions, certain manners of conclusion. We seek to read it for what it presents us. We take what we like and leave what escapes us. The text though, as the cliche goes, is not the determinant of meaning; it is up to the reader to make meaning and to make sense. The author, whether one finds him or her in Frankfurt or through some other accidental means, plays with readers, twisting and toying with their expectations.

Written by Andy Fuller, this article was originally published in our bi-monthly literary magazine, 2nd Edition, May-June 2015.

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