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A wave of diaspora books

Prapti Widinugraheni

The Jakarta Post

Perth  /  Mon, December 11, 2017  /  08:53 am
A wave of diaspora books

The last decade has seen a wave of book-writing and publishing by enthusiastic new authors in Indonesia, a healthy sign that writing is being increasingly accepted and popularly used as a means for self-actualization. (Shutterstock/File)

Through genres ranging from self-help and travel to children’s fiction, old people’s biographies, personal memoirs, scholarly non-fiction and everything in between, new Indonesian authors are reaching out to the public to tell their story, share their knowledge and sometimes, attempt a bit of everything.

Among the non-historical subsection of books that has recently emerged and seems to have piqued public interest is the story of the diaspora: the Indonesians living abroad and making their mark in a land far away.

To many Indonesians, being able to read about places that would otherwise be unimaginable (and unattainable) is perhaps why narratives about contemporary diasporic characters, both real and fact-based fictitious, have found a niche in the popular “inspirational-reading” market.

For example, there is the diaspora-themed novel Green Card (2014, Gramedia Pustaka Utama) by Ramdani Sirait about the life and dreams of struggling Indonesians living in America.

Having been the New York-based correspondent of national news agency Antara in the early 2000s, Ramdani had plenty of material to work with and more than enough inspiration to create characters that resonated with the average Indonesian dreamer/explorer.

Then there are diasporic non-fiction books: these tend to be compiled chapters by overseas Indonesians — personal accounts, valuable experiences, life-lessons learned — edited by one or two writers.

Examples of this include Surat dari Rantau (Letters from Foreign Lands, 2015, Kreasi Mitramedia Utama), edited by Bina Bektiati and Nugroho Dewanto, containing snippets of insights by about two dozen diasporic Indonesians; Going Global (2017, Grasindo), Ramdani’s first diaspora-themed non-fiction, encouraging aspiring members of the diaspora to explore the world.

And most recently, there is the lengthy-titled BerliburBerburu BeasiswaBelajarBekerja dan Bermukim di Australia Barat (2017, Gramedia Pustaka Utama), written by Novi Wilkinson and a small band of other Indonesians living in Western Australia. This book is about everything listed in the title: holidaying, pursuing scholarships, studying, working and living in Western Australia.

When authors of diaspora-themed books are asked why they write, two themes seem to emerge. The first is a desire to share knowledge.

In a recent interview, Novi described how her struggle to find practical information about Perth inspired her writing. “When I first arrived in Perth I didn’t know where places were, or how to do things,” she said.

Soon she met other Indonesians who shared her frustration and eventually became the book’s co-writers. Contributors to BerliburBerburu include students living in Perth for up to four years: some are scholarship-holders with families, some are single self-funding students, others are working-holiday visa-holders.

Co-author Tio Novita Efriani said the book’s many writers exposed readers to a variety of experiences and perspectives. “It’s not always easy being part of the diaspora and readers will learn about some of the hardships we’ve had, such as what it’s like to live as a single-parent scholarship-holder with kids and having to temporarily leave a spouse behind.”

While recent arrivals and “temporary diaspora” members like Novi and Tio tend to write about surviving and thriving in a new country, Indonesians who have lived overseas for much longer have a second reason for writing — that is, “to give back” to the country.

These diasporic Indonesian writers have gained permanent residency, perhaps obtained foreign citizenship, and readily call their adopted country “home.”

Monique Arianto, a mother of two young girls, is a Perth-based author of a children’s fiction book titled Kamu Anak Hebat! (You Are a Super Kid!, 2017, Gramedia Pustaka Utama).

“This book is my response to Indonesia’s current sad state of affairs; I hope it will help Indonesian children navigate the moral uncertainty and polarizing hatred that seems so prevalent today,” she said. As a permanent Australian resident living a comfortable life, she could have chosen to do nothing, “But I felt writing this book was something I had to do.”

Kamu Anak Hebat! tells the story of friends who face ethical dilemmas and friendship issues. Written bilingually with paragraphs alternating between Bahasa Indonesia and English, the book contains four stories carrying moral messages encouraging appropriate behaviour.

Monique said she was amazed at how well her book was received by the publisher, who agreed it was a timely topic for Indonesian children today. The book has since been reprinted and distributed to children living in remote eastern Indonesia.

As travelers, workers, spouses and students of the Indonesian diaspora write their stories, they are finding support for their work in Indonesian publishing houses. This suggests there is a sizable market of compatriots ready to read them. But that is another story.