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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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Writing about Indonesia

By Anita A Thomas

Photo credit - Anita A Thomas.jpg

‘Writing about Indonesia’ predicates a knowledge of the country, and the panel discussion hosted by Books Actually on March 22nd presented interesting viewpoints from Singapore-based author Shivaji Das (also humanitarian, photographer and management consultant) and award-winning Indonesian author Okky Madasari, currently writer-in-residence at the International Writing Program, University of Iowa.

While both panellists spoke of (and write about) Indonesia from individual perspectives and experiences, their sentiments were similar – socially conscious, politically cognisant, concerned with the effects of nationalism, populism and patriotism, the increasing polarities between communities, the plight of the lesser-known groups and people on the fringes, the marginalised and the displaced.

Geography undoubtedly underpins Mr. Das’s understanding of Indonesia and all its variegated dissimilarities. The density and sheer diversity of people and experiences from across the archipelago have found a place and recognition in the pages of his Stories of the Other. His appreciation embraces it all – the physicality of the mountains, seas, forests, rivers and calderas, the pervasive humidity, the ubiquitous odour of merokok (Malay for cigarette), the buzz of urban areas with the aroma of sausages, rows of Betawi dolls and loud music in the streets and cafes; the sulphur mines of the Kawah Ijen caldera/ volcano and the incomparable electric-blue fire streaming down its sides (visible at night), funeral rites in far-flung islands, Makassar with its prostitutes, sailors, sea, ships, trucks, dandut music and scantily clad women.

Ms. Madasari’s writing – shaped by her experience of being a woman in a patriarchal society dominated by gender inequality, and compounded by the situational conflicts of minority groups, human rights and women’s rights – uses fiction to focus on individual stories that reveal the larger picture; stories about life, humans and conflict in society. Her books reflect her conviction that fiction can influence perspectives and that literature is an agent of change, as the act of writing or reading becomes, in itself, a political activity.

Mr Das found demographics and geography a block to literary research. With no access to a body of literature, writers like him have to depend on oral history in localised languages beyond the island of Java.

Ms Madasari was vocal about Indonesia’s underlying issues needing to be written about with courage and sensitivity, as a citizen and a human being. She spoke of the need for women to stop being ‘objects of consumerism’ and become ‘subjects’ inspiring other women to make their own choices, without having to justify those choices.

Both panelists agreed that Indonesia today is almost a country of strangers unto itself. Geography, demographics and intra-island migration has given rise to minority groups seeking identity and community. Religion, an anchor for those seeking to ‘belong’, has led to overt and intense religiosity. It was posited that Indonesia’s current problems stem from the Suharto regime, noted for protectionism through collusion, power and nepotism. Decades later, the system, culture and habits have not changed and repression and intimidation continue the tyranny of the majority and the legacy of colonialism. Indonesia has the ‘great capacity’ to forget and carry on with a smile, noted one panelist.

Errant stewardship of the environment, intense nationalism, provincialism, parochialism and frustration with traditional political groups; inequalities in education and opportunities, the need to discourse values, culture, knowledge and ideas – all these call for awareness and demand a society of writers, artists and activists to rise above current popular chick-lit and religious themes to influence and bring about change. It was noted that newer Indonesian writers largely aspiring to the book-to-film route, write within the context of a ‘city’ reflective of western cities and not representative of other parts of Indonesia like Aceh, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Papua, Flores or Lombok.

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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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Pramoedya Ananta Toer: Why You Should Know Him

Pramoedya Ananta Toer is widely regarded as one of Indonesia ‘s best writers.

At a young age, he joined the anti-colonial struggle against Japan during World War II and later enlisted in an army to fight Dutch colonialists .

He was captured and jailed by the Dutch in 1947. His foray into writing began in prison, at age 24. The Fugitive, his first novel, came out during his two years of incarceration.

Pramoedya or “Pram” – a hero of Indonesia’s anti-colonial movement and a champion of human rightsand freedom of speech – was born on February 6, 1925, in the poor Javanese town of Blora.

He died in the capital, Jakarta, on April 30, 2006 at age 81.

Pramoedya “dedicated his whole life to this country through his work”, his daughter Tatiana Ananta told The Associated Press at his funeral.

Google Doodle  marked the 92nd birth anniversary of the Indonesian writer and activist who spent most of his adult life in jail, imprisoned first by colonial powers and later by Indonesian governments.

“Each injustice has to be fought against, even if it’s only in one’s heart – and I did fight,” Pramoedya was quoted as saying in the book Exile: In Conversation with Andre Vltchek and Rossie Indira.

Pramoedya’s father was a schoolteacher and nationalist who inspired him to join Indonesia’s struggle against colonialism. His mother came from a pious Muslim family.

Despite only having a primary school education, he went on to write more than 30 books, both fiction and non-fiction.

The novelist is best known for the Buru quartet, which traces the birth of nationalism in Indonesia. A Javanese boy named Minke, who rejected the country’s hierarchical society, is the protagonist in the series.

“In fact the books were smuggled out of Indonesia by Pram’s friend, a German priest, to avoid being taken  or destroyed, and have now been translated into more than 20 languages worldwide,” Google Doodle wrote.

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Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer honoured in Google Doodle

GOOGLE Indonesia on Monday marked what would have been the 92nd birthday of one of the nation’s most prominent writers with a “doodle” on its homepage.

The Internet giant commemorated Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s birthday with an animation of the prolific novelist hard at work on his typewriter.

Known as a proponent of human rights and freedom of expression, Pramoedya or ‘Pram’ as he is affectionately known, has a reputation for fighting Japanese and Dutch colonialism in Indonesia.

Pram, who was born on Feb 6, 1925, in a village called Blora on Java, learned about political activism from his father. His first stint in journalism was as a stenographer for a Japanese news agency.

Imprisoned by Dutch troops for being “anti-colonial”, Pram wrote his first novel The Fugitive Behind Bars during his incarceration from 1947-1949. Read more

Source: Asian Correspondent


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Jaipur blows out candles on decade of promoting Asian writing

By Victoria Burrows

Without the storytelling traditions of his native Indonesia, writer Eka Kurniawan says he’d “just be a boring writer who literally followed what was being said by language teachers at school.” Instead, last year he became the first Indonesian writer to be nominated for a Man Booker International Prize.

Kurniawan will be on stage speaking about his work at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival (jaipurliteraturefestival.org), which runs from January 19 to 23 in Rajasthan, India, and is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

The inaugural Jaipur Literature Festival hosted 18 writers and drew a crowd of about 100 attendees, including some who “appeared to be tourists who had simply got lost,” according to the author William Dalrymple, who is the event’s co-director. Read more

Source: Asia Times


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Lost in translation: why the world is missing out on Indonesia’s best writers

By Dene Mullen

JK Rowling, Paul Kalanithi, John Grisham, David Baldacci, Bill O’Reilly. These people have a few things in common: they are the authors of Amazon’s five best-selling books of 2016; they all made millions of dollars for their publishers; and they are all from English-speaking countries. As English becomes ever more predominant as the world’s lingua franca, works written in English increase their stranglehold on the global literary scene.

It is acutely difficult for a ‘foreign’ author to break into the English-language market, where only 3% of the published works are translations from other languages. Even the world’s fourth most populous nation is struggling to have its voices heard: despite Indonesia being Southeast Asia’s most prolific literary nation, producing tens of thousands of books per year, its most renowned authors remain relatively unknown to the wider world.

Yet before Indonesians can even contemplate access to the vast English-speaking market their books need to be translated – and that is often where the problems begin.

“I think there’s a critical mass of very good writers [in Indonesia] who deserve much greater exposure, but they are only going to get that exposure if their work is translated well,” says Gill Westaway, a freelance translator and editor who lives on Lombok island, Indonesia. Read more

Source: Southeast Asia Globe