How have Indonesia's islands, languages, oral storytelling tradition, faith and politics influenced its thriving contemporary literary scene? UK journalist Georgina Godwin interviews Indonesian author Feby Indirani and scholar Annabel Gallop.
This article is a transcript of the podcast An Introduction to Indonesian Literature, recording during the 2019 London Book Fair It has been edited for length and clarity.
Georgina Godwin: We're discussing Indonesian writing. That is because the country has been selected for the Market Focus programme and the London Book Fair. It's an initiative that creates commercial and cultural partnerships around the world, by highlighting publishing trade links with the country or region that is showcased.
In preparation for the spotlight falling on Indonesia, we wanted to explore the rich literary and cultural heritage of the country. So, I've come down to the British Library, where we have a couple of guests waiting to introduce themselves.
Feby Indirani: I'm an Indonesian author, and I'm doing my master's degree in London through a Chevening scholarship. My last book was called Bukan Perawan Maria, or Not Virgin Mary, published in 2017. It is a collection of short stories based on Islamic myths, fairy tales and daily life in Indonesia. I call it 'magical Islamism'.
Annabel Gallop: I'm head of the south east Asian section here at the British Library, and I'm in charge of the Indonesian and Malay collections. We have wonderful manuscripts in different languages, in Malay and Javanese and Bugis. We also have a big collection of printed literature and printed books, including modern Indonesian literature from the early 20th century right up to now.
Georgina: Tell us about your country. The scale of it, the languages. It's a very big and diverse place.
Feby: It's true. We have 17,000 islands. As you might imagine, it's large, and I haven't visited each one of the islands. But we've always been proud of our diversity. We are the largest Muslim-population country, and we also run a successful democracy. We have more than 7,000 spoken languages, and more that 300 ethnic groups.
Georgina: Annabel, can we ask you about the dawn of Indonesian literature? I know you have some of the earliest works here at the British Library.
Annabel: As Feby says, Indonesia is an enormous and complex country. Thousands of islands, hundreds of different ethnic groups and languages.
But only about 15 of those languages have been written. So, we have manuscripts in the British Library which are in Malay, Javanese, Balinese, Bugis and Batak.
That tells you how important orality is in the Indonesian literary tradition. Stories were told and listened to. Even our manuscripts – going back hundreds of years – were not designed to be read individually by one person. They were designed to be read aloud to an audience, often at night.
They're very evocative. Sometimes the manuscripts say 'please take care of this precious book, don't let any beetle spit fall on it, or any lamps blacken it'. So, you can imagine the situation at night. All the villages are gathered, and these manuscripts are read out by lamplight while people are eating and socialising.
I think a little bit of that comes through today, even though modern literature is designed as a print medium. It's read in newspapers and books, but that sense of literature as a communal thing is still there.
Georgina: Tell us about contemporary Indonesian literature.
Feby: The tradition of telling stories is strong in Indonesia. We used to tell stories orally, and it's still happening, but we're also using more written mediums. Like you mentioned about the short story and newspapers.
Digital media makes a space for short stories, and it's quite diverse thematically. Before 1998, we were under a dictatorship, and our freedom of expression was limited. But since 1998, there have been more topics that can be expressed, like religious and sexual issues, and women's issues. Contemporary writers are free to express whatever they want, and there's always a reader for that.
Georgina: Your work has been quite controversial in the way that it addresses religion.
Feby: Religion is a sensitive issue. Two years ago, the former governor of Jakarta was jailed after a blasphemy case. It was quite tense at the time, because religion is massively used in politics. Launching a book in that situation is also quite tense.
But that was exactly my point in launching the book, because it's full of humour. I'm telling a religious story in a magical surrealism setting. That's why I call it magical Islamism.
The whole point is to lower the tension of the so-called tense situation, and also show people religion in different ways to appreciate each other's differences.
Georgina: Annabel, has religion not always played a big part in Indonesian literature?
Annabel: It's very interesting to hear Feby talking. You can trace back the tensions that Feby is talking about hundreds of years.
I think there have been ebbs and flows. When I started studying Indonesian literature, it was a literature of the revolution of the new nationalism. Indonesia fought a war of independence for five years, declared independence in 1945 and fought and gained independence from armed struggle. And the literature of that time is imbued with a passionate nationalism and revolutionary fervour. Very concise and crisp.
One of the first Indonesian novels I read was The Atheist by Achdiat K Mihardja, which is about the turmoil of a young boy from a very religious, rural background. He goes to the city and he's confronted on the one hand with a more relaxed lifestyle, and on the other hand, fervent politicking.
Our collections here in the British Library include Malay manuscripts that date back hundreds of years. We have one manuscript in Malay, that's a precursor of the national language of Indonesia, Indonesian. It's about the stories of Prince Panji, a pre-Islamic hero whose stories are still very familiar, especially from the shadow puppet theatre, and still performed today.
In a manuscript that we have in the British Library, we have a story of Prince Panji written in Malay in the Arabic script, and across the top of each page is the warning 'don't believe this, don't believe this'. At the beginning and end of the book it says 'don't take it too seriously'. It's a form of controlled censorship. You don't ban the book, but you put a sort of religious health warning at the top.
So you can see how these contestations have been taking place over hundreds of years, right up to the present day.
Georgina: Which plays into your whole Islamic realism theme.
Feby: Religion is integrated into Indonesian life. There's also an effort to relax a little bit, and try to look at the humorous side of a very serious thing.
Our former president was an intellectual, and he was famous for making funny jokes about religion. We can laugh together; that's a long Indonesian tradition. I find that recently, many people have been getting more anxious about religion. I suspect political issues are responsible for that. But that's how it is right now.
The humour is a tradition I want to start again, by writing the book and also the movement.
My movement consists of three elements. First, I wrote the text. Second, I invited many young artists, like visual artists, to invert and respond to the stories, and create some other mediums talking about the same issue or the same story. But they can express their opinion or their experience of religion and the particular issues by responding to my stories.
I think young people responded well to that, because it's not something new. It's actually there, it's in our blood, and people can express their religious experience in different ways. It doesn't have to be so tense all the time.
Georgina: Annabel, Feby is talking about the cross-cultural nature of her work, and I wonder where literature sits within Indonesian culture generally.
Annabel: Short stories appear in all the newspapers. At the weekend, they will have at least two or three short stories. Now, that does not happen here in England, and it just shows how important fiction is.
The genre of the short story is particularly strong in Indonesia and always has been. And maybe its prominence in newspapers is a factor. In earliest newspapers printed in Indonesia, in Jakarta in the late 19th and early 20th century, in Romanised Malay, which was quite a new medium. There were detective stories and serial stories, a bit like you would have found in the UK.
As Feby says, there is such a burst of creativity in Indonesia at the moment. In fiction, there is such a diversity of topics. And yet there is so much drawing upon past myths and beliefs; I see that coming up in such a range of writers' works. You can see that myths, spirits, and beliefs from the past are creeping in and are being used in exciting ways.
Georgina: What about the publishing industry in Indonesia. How long has there been a big commercial push?
Annabel: It has really exploded since the end of the new-order dictatorship. It was fairly controlled up to that point. Censorship was very strong, and you saw the way the writers wrote allegorically. That also impacted on the physical product. Books in those days looked like poor, thin relations. It's a very glossily packaged product now.
The Indonesian book industry is also contained in Indonesia. Outside of Indonesia, it doesn't always reach far, because not many books have been translated into English. I hope to see a big change in that. At the moment there's so much that happens in Indonesia, a lot of publishing, but often on a small scale and without international presence.
In theory, the digital age should help to overcome that. But you still need good translators.
Georgina: Feby, how have you found working with the local publishing industry in Indonesia?
Feby: I think the publishing industry is flourishing now, especially since 1998.
I think we still have a distribution problem, especially to the eastern part of Indonesia. But there are more and more literary movements, like a growing community, all over Indonesia.
I'm one of the people who never believed that Indonesian people don't read. I believe they do read, but there is still a problem in terms of how people can access books more easily. Books are still quite expensive, and there is a day-to-day distribution problem that still has to be overcome by the local publishing back home.
That is one of the reasons that the current government is trying to provide more infrastructure to connect the islands. It's always so expensive to distribute books from island to island.
I would like to add to what Annabel said. There's a lot going on and still, few works have been recognised internationally. We still need good translation and we still need a strategy to introduce more Indonesian work internationally.
Georgina: So for those of us who are new to Indonesian literature, what's our introduction to Indonesian literature? Perhaps if we start with something slightly more historical, Annabel.
Annabel: I can recommend a book by one of the first women writers in Indonesia, and one of the first books published by a woman. Her name was S. Rukiah, and she published a novel which has been translated into English as The Fall and the Heart.
It was published in 1952, and it's about a woman during the revolutionary period, who was torn between the demands on her domestically, and her heart, and her guerilla lover in the hills. Every time I read it, the hairs on the back of my neck rise. So, that gives you an idea of how moving it is.
That has been translated and published in the amazingly pioneering series by the Lontar Foundation, which has been publishing Indonesian literature in translation for the past 30 years. Most of the classic Indonesian writing which you will find in English is available in the Lontar library.
I'd give a couple of recommendations from the 1950s and 1960s. The revolutionary short stories of Idris Surabaya use extraordinary control of language. Pramoedya Ananta Toer's stories and his long historical novels going back to the revolution are quite dark, but very moving.
Feby: I would recommend work by Eka Kurniawan, Man Tiger, which was on the Man Booker Prize longlist in 2016, and Beauty is a Wound, which has been translated into more than 25 languages. That's one of our contemporary novels gaining more acknowledgement internationally
Annabel also mentioned Intan Paramaditha's work. Her latest collection, Apple and Knife, has been published in the UK this month. I think those books are a good entry point for readers to get to know Indonesian literature.
Indonesia is the Market Focus country at this year's London Book Fair.