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Is Indonesian literature written in English still Indonesian literature

In 2015, a short story collection “Monsoon Tiger and Other Stories” by Indonesian author Rain Chudori was published by Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia (KPG), one of the biggest publishers of serious literature in Indonesia. The entire book was written originally in English.

Rain published another book in English last year, a novel called “Imaginary City,” under KPG’s new imprint Comma Books, where Rain also works as a curator.

Rain said she chooses to write in English because of all the languages she uses everyday – from Minang to French – it’s the one she finds most comfortable writing in.

“English was the predominant language when I grew up, at home, at school – I attended international schools my entire life – and then later on, when I lived abroad,” she told the Jakarta Globe.

Rain was not the first Indonesian to publish a book in English. Laksmi Pamuntjak and Maggie Tiojakin had already gone down the same path.

Laksmi, also famous for her Jakarta Good Food Guide series, writes in both English and Indonesian.

Some of her books in English include the poetry collections “Ellipsis” and “The Anagram,” and a short story collection, “The Diary of R.S.: Musings on Art.”

Nevertheless, English works by local authors are still largely ignored – or if paid attention to, denounced as not fit to be part of Indonesian literature.

According to poet Gratiagusti Chananya “Anya” Rompas, who had also just published a book of personal essays in English titled “Familiar Messes,” there are literary discussions almost every week in the country, but few critics would bat an eyelid when Indonesian authors publish works in English.

“In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were already a bunch of people who wrote in English on the internet, but senior authors back then said online stuff was all rubbish,” she said.

But that has not stopped younger writers to keep writing in English.

Novelist Alanda Kariza, whose previous books were all in Indonesian, released her romance novel “Beats Apart” in 2015.

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‘17,000 islands of imagination’: discovering Indonesian literature

In February last year, I was sitting in Cafe Batavia on Fatahillah Square in Jakarta, talking to an Indonesian friend. We were discussing how any novelist might describe a country to a readership who know nothing about it. We were surrounded by framed photos of Indonesian politicians and Hollywood stars, and the ceiling fans turned overhead. Outside, it was hot and overcast, and students milled around the front of the History Museum, built by the Dutch in 1710 and now housing objects from the founding of Jayakarta in 1527. How could any writer portray such a diverse culture?

My friend smiled wryly. “You only have the same problem as the rest of us,” he said. “Indonesia isn’t a nation. It’s an imagination.”

There are some countries so vast and diverse that any attempt to summarise them feels insulting: such is Indonesia. With a population of 258 million, it is the world’s fourth most populous nation and the largest formed by an archipelago. When it was guest of honour at the Frankfurt book fair last year, it appeared under the banner “17,000 islands of imagination”, a phrase describing its geography but also encapsulating the complexities of representation. Indonesia is home to hundreds of different ethnicities speaking as many languages, and, along with Hindus, Christians and Buddhists, has a majority Muslim population that is the largest in the world. But, as yet, little of its literature has been translated into English.

Elizabeth Pisani is a writer and epidemiologist who has lived in Indonesia for many years. She has a simple explanation for this: ignorance. “Indonesia has no place in the British imagination,” she says. “It wasn’t a British colony and there’s virtually no Indonesian diaspora here, which means Brits aren’t even introduced to the country through food or a cultural presence.” In the absence of such historical links, can literature fill that imaginative gap?

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12 Indonesian books you should add to your reading list

Before Dawn: The Poetry of Sapardi Djoko Damono ( 2005 )

Author: Sapardi Djoko Damono

Translated by John H. McGlynn, this book contains poetry written by Sapardi Djoko Damono, one of Indonesia’s most renowned poets. It contains 30 more poems than Before Dawn – Suddenly the Night, which was released in 1987.

Some of the most popular poems in the 2005’s book are Rain of June and I Want, with the latter being commonly quoted by and even put to music by fans.

Man Tiger (Lelaki Harimau) ( 2004 )

Author: Eka Kurniawan

The book, which recently named a nominee for the prestigious Man Booker International Prize, follows Margio, a youngster from a rural area in Indonesia, who decides to kill a man. This leaves the whole village confused as Margio doesn’t seem like a person who could actually harm anyone. The worst crime he has ever committed is stealing a chicken, which was regarded as something that “happened out of spite”.

But, Margio really did kill the man, moreover in a brutal way. When asked why he did it, he answered, “It wasn’t me. There’s a tiger in me”.

The Land of Five Towers (Negeri 5 Menara) ( 2009 )

Author: Fuadi

Alif was a country boy from Maninjau in Padang, West Sumatra. Even though he dreamed to be another BJ Habibie, the country’s former president, circumstances led him to enroll at Pondok Madani, an Islamic boarding school in East Java.

Although disappointed at first, he learns the words man jadda wa jadda during his time there, which translates into “He who works hard must be successful” in Arabic, and later finds his life changed because of it.

Winter Dreams ( 2011 )

Author: Maggie Tiojakin

Nicky F. Rompa went to Boston, Massachusetts, to have a new life. During his stay, his new family, lover and his boss—apparently everyone around him—teaches him new lessons about living in a multicultural society.

Not only does he have to learn more about himself through it, he also embarks on a journey that will last throughout his life.

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The case of reading and preserving Indonesian literature

In March 2016, a study conducted by Central Connecticut State University (CCTU) entitled “Most Literate Nation of the World” placed Indonesia as the 60th most literate nation out of 61 nations on the list, above only Botswana, and below fellow ASEAN member Thailand. A survey by UNESCO in 2012 records that only one out of 1000 people in Indonesia have an interest in reading. It might sound meagre enough, but what if we ask this next question: how many of the 0.1 percent read books that were written by an Indonesian author?

In most developed countries, especially English-speaking countries, high school students are taught to read books, being exposed to the work of English literature greats like Mark Twain and Shakespeare and encouraged to enjoy and find fun in reading literature. However, in Indonesia, this practice is rare or not practiced at all. Yes, we are taught about the history of Indonesian literature and the periods that divide the styles of literature in Indonesia, but we are not given time to read in class nor are we properly taught to read and appreciate the works of our own people.

To find out whether Indonesians are knowledgeable about their own literature, the Aksaranesia (Aku Suka Sastra Indonesia; I like Indonesian literature) Campaign conducted a survey by asking basic questions about well-known Indonesian literary works. The team specifically targeted the younger generation in the age group of 15-25 during Car Free Day Jakarta and in two universities in Jakarta.

Based on those surveys and quizzes, it found that Indonesian youngsters are not entirely aware of Indonesian literature. None of the respondents got a perfect score, and most are not even familiar with some of the names of the writers being mentioned. Even a simple question like “name three Indonesian books” was difficult to answer. On top of that, it was easier for them to answer questions about English books instead.

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Great Indonesian Literature: Tales of Panji

The stories of Javanese cultural hero, Prince Panji Inu Kertapati, dating from the 13th century, mark the development of a truly Javanese literature that was no longer overshadowed by the great Indian epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Set among the eastern Javanese kingdoms, the stories tell of Panji’s search for his beloved Princess Candra Kirana, before the two lovers are happy-endingly reunited. During the Majapahit empire from the 14th to 15th centuries, the Panji stories became extremely popular, spreading from Java to Bali, Lombok, Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Sumatra.

The Panji tales were spread by merchants along the trading routes, and became one of the most popular forms of literature in Southeast Asia during the 17th and 18th centuries, and crossed the borders to the Malay region where they are known as “Hikayat”. The tales further spread to Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. The Panji influence is described by renowned scholar Adrian Vickers as “a Panji civilization in Southeast Asia.”

Panji tales are unique as there was no single author; the tales were written by diverse authors, each bringing in their version of the story and in their local languages. For instance, Bali calls the Panji character Malat and varied Balinese customs can be found in the stories. In Thailand and the neighboring countries, the character of Panji is known as Inao or Eynao, and his lover as Bossaba.

There is no specific Panji storyline. Generally, the story is about Kuripan’s Prince Raden Inu Kertapati, who is engaged to his niece Dewi Galuh Sekartaji from childhood. However, the mother of Dewi Galuh plans to marry her to another prince. Galuh escapes to the forest where she experiences adventures and disguises herself as varied characters including a warrior who conquers other kingdoms.

Prince Inu Kertapati begins his search and enters the woods. He goes through a wide range of adventures that encompass meeting with ogres, amorous scenes, going through numerous disguises, and waging wars. At the end, the two lovers are reunited. The love story and the adventures are popular among all layers of society.

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