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The case of reading and preserving Indonesian literature

Theo Kalangi
Theo Kalangi

Public relations student, literature enthusiast, and a member of Aksaranesia Campaign

Jakarta  /  Wed, January 4, 2017  /  01:25 pm
The case of reading and preserving Indonesian literature

Indonesian youngsters are not entirely aware of Indonesian literature. (Shutterstock/*)

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. 

(Read also: 12 Indonesian books you should add to your reading list)

Did our writers not provide the readers with top class quality options to read? Should the writers be partly blamed for this? In 2015, when Indonesia became the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the biggest book fair in the world, Dewi “Dee” Lestari was invited to represent the Indonesian literature circle. Germany, ranked 8th in the aforementioned CCTU study, has been on the receiving end of some translated Indonesian works, including from the likes of Andrea Hirata, Ayu Utami and iconic figure Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who has received global attention since the 1970s. Such accolades should be enough proof of the quality of Indonesian writers.

Aksaranesia Campaign later interviewed Reza Pahlevi, the writer of the book (Ex)perience and an internet celebrity, and asked his opinion on the preservation of Indonesian literature. He said, “Once you’ve written in online blog platforms, there’s really no problem if you want to send your script to a publisher. It allows your creation to be preserved in physical form. In addition, we will have even more original Indonesian writers, which allows us to compete with other writers globally.”

Literature is an art form of language, with words as its tools. Indonesian people are well known for their high level of appreciation of any form of art, but the very basic form of art in literature has started to be cast aside. But has Indonesian literature really been left behind? This brings us to the next question: Is it too late to catch up? (kes)



Theo Kalangi, born in Manado on July 1st 1992. Exposed himself to literature at the early age of 7, a gamble he took to live abroad in Germany for about 4 years deepens his love to his country's literature. Currently continuing his study in Public Relations major in Jakarta.

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