“17,000 Islands of Imagination,” this year’s title of the most important book festival in the world, refers to the event’s honored guest: Indonesia.
The international spotlight at the Frankfurt Book Fair (the Buchmesse), which opened Oct. 13 with a lecture by Salman Rushdie and runs through Oct. 18, is a rare opportunity for the country to introduce itself. For despite being the fifth most populous nation, the home of the most Muslims and having an impressive cultural and linguistic diversity, Indonesia struggles to catch the world’s attention.

That goes especially for its literature. In Italy, you can count the number of translated Indonesian works on one hand.

There are the seminal works by Alessandro Bausani, the world’s first great Malay-Indonesian specialist, who in the 1960s published an anthology of poetry and legends from the greater cultural region that includes modern-day Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. In addition, two Italian scholars, Luigi Santa Maria and Giulio Soravia, have translated the work of modern authors, such as Mochtar Lubis (Endless Road), Sitor Situmorang and Indonesian poets, in the magazine In forma di parole.


The publication of Indonesian contemporary works, such as The Dragon of Cala Ibi by Nukila Amal, Saman by Ayu Utami and Tiger Man by the emerging writer Eka Kurniawan (all of them for Metropoli d’Asia), is very recent. Considered the successor to Indonesia’s greatest writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Eka uses a style that blends magical realism and blogger-speak. (It should be mentioned that Pramoedya is the only Indonesian ever nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.)

Then there are the books released by the publishing house Atmosphere, such as The Dance of the Earth by Oka Rusmini and Leila Chudori’s Home in the collection Asiasphere. And that’s the entire list.

Not just local writing

This brief bibliography of translated Indonesian works indicates the sense of lacking — and not just in Italy. But intellectuals, writers and the Indonesian government want to change that, and they see the German Buchmesse as an opportunity to rouse new interest.

Not an easy task considering only recently have Indonesian works even been translated into English.


A special guest at the Buchmesse — photo Alexander Heimann

For decades, the Indonesian writer’s activity has been for the benefit of a very local audience. That audience has been all the more local because of the cultural and linguistic richness of Indonesia and its oral tradition, which have prevented a unitary, linear national literature. Now for the first time at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Southeast Asian country has a chance to reveal itself through the voices of its authors. The Lontar Foundation played a key role in this unveiling. Established in 1987 by John McGlynn and other Indonesian intellectuals in Jakarta, its aim is to raise awareness of the Indonesian literature in English.

Yet even the canon of Indonesian-language works dates only to the 20th century. Before 1928, the concept of national language did not exist, since the Indonesian archipelago has been dominated by the Dutch colonization. The first truly “national” writers emerged in this period. Until then, the local literature was defined as “Malay” and comprised authors of various origins and languages, such as Javanese, Balinese and Sundanese.

The year 1928 witnessed the so-called “Youth Pledge,” which stated the existence of a country with a population and a language. The Bahasa Indonesian tongue was born out of a conviction by young intellectuals that their land under Dutch rule should foster a unifying element. This element — given the distance from Sumatra to Papua, a topography of greater water surface than land, and the varied customs and religions — could only be language.

The “creative” stages

The first literary works, though influenced by Dutch censorship, which, through the publishing house Balai Pustaka sought to limit “immoral” writing, emerged in the early 1920s in the form of novels pitting East against West, between customary laws and new ways to see the world. Siti Nurbaya is representative of this style.

Later, Indonesian literature received its foundational medium in Pujangga Baru, a magazine launched in 1933 by Alisjabana and Pane. Here was the root of a national consciousness and a desire among poets and writers to plant a strong westward-looking intellectual class.

The third stage was the so-called “generation of ‘45,” when authors re-asserted themselves after the war. With the Japanese occupation over, Indonesians aspired to independence, and poets such as Chairil Anwar came onto the scene. Chairil died young, but he was a symbol of a new form of poetry in which individualism and realism gave way to more abstract values ​​of idealism and romanticism. Anwar’s poetry is still the model for many intellectuals who see literature as a freewheeling form of expression — a primordial concept of “art for art’s sake.”

But the post-independence period undermined this movement. President Sukarno, head of one of the most powerful communist parties in the world, established a cultural association, the Lekra, to produce works of art inspired by socialist realism. Pramoedya became the most representative personality in the Lekra, and he was opposed by young writers and thinkers who did not agree with the idea of deploying art for political purpose. They signed a cultural manifesto, the Manikebu, promulgating the ideals of freedom of expression. The conflict between Lekra’s writers and the signers of the Manikebu caused a schism between the artistic, cultural and intellectual community that has been a source of friction until only recently.

Events following the failed coup in 1965, which led to the rise of General Suharto, forced radical changes in the intellectual landscape. The Lekra, labeled as an organ of the Communist Party, was dismantled and its members, along with hundreds of thousands of other Indonesians accused of communism, were killed or exiled to remote islands, like Buru. It was from there that Pramoedya produced his Buru Quartet, including This Earth of Mankind and Child of All Nations, the only novels in Indonesian literature known throughout the world, banned at home until the fall of Suharto.

The dictatorship fiercely censored any work inspired by social realism. So authors learned a subtle form of self-censorship that prevented them from becoming targets. One such author was Goenawan Mohamad, a signatory of the Manikebu, who became the editor of one of Indonesia’s most important magazines, TEMPO. The publication came under constant threat of closure by Suharto (it was forced to shut down from 1994 to 1998) for investigative articles accusing the government of corruption and nepotism.

After the fall of Suharto, in 1998, Goenawan gave up journalism to devote himself to the Komunitas Salihara, one of the landmark cultural centers of Indonesia, which also puts on a biennial festival of literature. Goenawan continues to write as a champion of freedom of expression, and he was a key organizer for the Frankfurt Book Fair.


Intersections of generations

Goenawan’s nomination for the book fair role, made by the Ministry of Education, has not been immune from critics. But the presence of writers, poets and essayists of various extractions in Frankfurt is massive and broad.

Authors belonging to the older generation, such as Nh. Dini, are the bearers of a kind of prose where the confrontation between East and West is evident. Meanwhile, poets of the older generation, such as Sapardi Djoko Damono, Afrizal Malna and Dorothea Rosa Herliany, give voice to a form of poetry on the one hand intimate, on the other expressionist, alongside younger writers such as Nirwan Dewanto, intimate and refined, and Joko Pinurbo reflects with sarchasm on themse like faith with a sort of reversed logic.
Among the prose authors are primarily those who were loudest immediately before and after the fall of Suharto, who gave rise to what has been called the “literature of the reformation,” characterized by topics such as eroticism, sexuality, social policy, urban life, philosophy, feminism, religion and new media.

First among these is the writer Ayu Utami, now an advocate of “critical spiritualism.” With her novel Saman, she surged the banks of respectability and tradition, offering a prose far from norms of unity of time, place and action. The novel, published just before the fall of Suharto, opened the way for an all-girl genre, originally described as “fragrant literature,” a derogatory term abandoned by the writers themselves. Saman is an innovative novel on the Indonesian scene: It explores topics considered taboo, such as sexuality and its liberating function for women.

Ayu Utami will be in Frankfurt, as will the Balinese writer Oka Rusmini, author of Dance of the Earth. In her book, she talks about women in a traditional Indo-Balinese society where the caste patriarchal system is described as ruthless and a source of frustration and unhappiness. Indeed, the protagonist, in spite of belonging to a high Brahmin caste, shows how, by marrying a low-caste man, she emancipates herself and affirms her freedom to love. In this same thematic current are Dewi Lestari, who laid the groundwork for a popular and imaginative literature, and Nukila Amal, who uses in her novel Cala Ibi a sophisticated and experimental language, masterfully weaving together fantasy and reality.

The Islamic Bestseller

Indonesia will not only be represented by unconventional authors but also by those who reach large sections of the population, developing themes of Islam and a return to their roots, counterbalancing the rise of sexual and protest novels.

The leaders of these styles — also present in Frankfurt — are Asma Nadia and Helvy Tiana Rose. They’re the founders of an organized network, Forum Lingkar Pena, that encourages women, especially in remote areas, to express their aspirations as Muslims.

Asma is a prolific author of Islamic literature, whose bestselling novels have inspired a number of successful films. Habiburrahman El Shirazy is the author of another Islamic novel, Love Verses, that encourages a “return to tradition” and spawned a blockbuster film. The work is especially uplifting for Indonesians in villages, who also have also found inspiration in Sumatrana Belitung by Andrea Hirata and Java by Ahmad Tohari (The dancer). Hirata’s novel (Rainbow Troops), along with Dance of the Earth, introduced a trend that continues to attract international attention for its exoticism and, in Indonesia, for its counter-narrative to the frantic race toward Western values.

These themes — treated only in an allegorical way by various authors in the past — could be seen, in novels by Laksmi Pamuntjak (The question of Red) and Leila Chudori (Home), as a desire to tackle that story manipulated by the regime. With these two fiction books, Indonesians are slowly awakening their consciences, 50 years after it suffered one of the greatest genocides in history. In particular, the novel Home, recently published in Italy, evokes a glimpse of the last 50 years in Indonesia, a history unknown to the most, where love, betrayal, laughter, smells, tastes and nostalgia intertwine masterfully.

In the last three years, Indonesian literature has introduced another key theme: giving voice to the people history has forgotten. Those who, in the aftermath of the failed coup in 1965, endured arrest, torture, confinement, separation from their loved ones and separation from their homes.


Originally published at il manifesto, Oct. 13 2015: http://ilmanifesto.it/ritorno-a-giacarta/

Antonia Soriente
is Associate Professor of Indonesian Language and Literature at University of Naples ‘L’Orientale’. As a linguist working on minority and endangered languages in Borneo has published several papers on bilingualism, language documentation and description of Kenyah and Punan languages of Borneo. After an experience of twenty years of living, studying and researching in Indonesia, she is now teaching Indonesian language and literature in Naples, she engages in translation of Indonesian works in Italian involving her students and keeps on working on the languages and oral traditions of Borneo.