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Literature is the new cool

Sebastian Partogi

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Tue, December 19, 2017  /  09:15 am
Literature is the new cool

Preserving culture: Citra writes Balinese script on a lontar (palm leaf) during a Lontar exhibition at Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2016. (JP/Anggara Mahendra)

Recently, there has been increased demand among the Indonesian public for quality literary works thanks to the influence of social media, literary references in popular culture and thriving literary festivals across the country as well as international recognition for some local authors.

That is why Indonesian bookworms are seeing more new titles and reprinted works than ever in the literature section of mainstream bookstores — both works penned by local writers as well as translations.

Indonesian mainstream publishing powerhouse PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama (GPU), for instance, has not only reprinted the works of well-known writers this year, but also promoted emerging ones.

GPU General Manager Siti Gretiani said the usual suspects included in GPU’s reprinted titles include poets Sapardi Djoko Damono, M. Aan Mansyur and Joko Pinurbo, as well as novels and short story anthologies by Intan Paramaditha, Cyntha Hariadi, Eka Kurniawan and Clara Ng. To celebrate Sapardi’s 77th anniversary this year, GPU has reprinted seven of the poet’s most prominent works. Grasindo, meanwhile, has reprinted the works of Balinese writer Oka Rusmini.

New names whose debut books are being published through GPU include Nunuk Y. Kusmiana (winner of the 2017 Kusala Sastra Khatulistiwa award) with Lengking Burung Kasuari (The Cassowary Bird’s Scream), Angelina Enny with Nokturnal Melankolia (Nighttime Melancholy) and Dias Novita Wuri with Makrame. Gratiagusti Chananya Rompas, meanwhile, has been known to write poetry in English and she has just released her Indonesian language poetry collection titled Non-spesifik (Non-specific).

Independent publishers are also thriving as well. Banana Publisher founder and writer Yusi Avianto Pareanom said the publisher had been enjoying success recently.

Read also: A wave of diaspora books

“We are publishing 10 translated works this year, including that of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Aside from that, my novel Raden Mandasia si Pencuri Daging Sapi (Raden Mandasia and the Beef Thief) has also been reprinted a few times, having sold 7,000 copies since it was published in April 2016,” Yusi said, referring to his novel, which won the 2016 Kusala Sastra Khatulistiwa award for the best prose.

Other popular books from the publisher include a translation of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. In the non-fiction category, the translated version of Richard Dawkins’ atheist manifesto The God Delusion is also in high demand.

Supporting factors

According to Gretiani, the increasing demand for literary works has been propelled by thriving literary festivals and awards across the country — such as ASEAN Literary Festival in Jakarta, Makassar International Writers Festival in South Sulawesi, Borobodur International Festival in Yogyakarta, Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, the Kusala Sastra Khatulistiwa as well as Tempo weekly magazine’s annual literary people of the year awards — which help to popularize literary works.

Literary references in popular culture also popularize such works. A film called Hujan Bulan Juni (Rain in June) has just been launched based on a novel with the same title by Sapardi, who has also written a widely popular poem under the same title.

Read also: Sapardi Djoko Damono reveals why he became a poet

According to Yusi, his independent publisher does not distribute its books through conventional bookstores, and enjoys certain benefits from this.

“Exhibiting your books through distributors costs you a lot of money — which could amount to around 35 to 55 percent of the total production cost. Not to mention the promotional costs you have to cover,” he said, arguing this was why his publisher had chosen to distribute its books through community bookstores and online stores, distribution channels requiring lower production costs.

Banana Publisher’s books are distributed, among other channels, in community bookstore POST Bookshop in the Santa market, Kebayoran Baru, South Jakarta, as well as the Demabuku online bookstore.

Thanks to the high quality of the titles published by independent publishers: Yusi’s Raden Mandasia si Pencuri Daging Sapi, published by Banana Publishers, as well as Mahfud Ikhwan’s Dawuk: Kisah Kelabu Dari Rumbuk Randu (Dawuk: Gloomy Tale from Rumbuk Randu) published by Marjin Kiri, among other titles, have both earned the Kusala Sastra Khatulistiwa award, in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

Besides that, the limited availability of independent publishers’ bookstores has also increased the prestige of readers who 
manage to get hold of their books, compelling readers to order the books online so they will be considered cool by their peers, according to Yusi.

“We writers are greatly helped by readers who read our works and voluntarily promote them through their social media accounts such as Instagram,” Yusi said.

POST Santa founder Teddy Wijaya Kusuma said thanks to social media platforms such as Goodreads and Instagram, literary works had become cool again among Indonesian youngsters.

“Goodreads, for instance, allows you to set a target of how many books you would like to read in a year. Because they can also keep track of what other people are reading, netizens now find it necessary to read high-quality literary works so they will appear knowledgeable; they don’t want to read stuff considered lame by other people. Apparently, this has become lifestyle,” Teddy told The Jakarta Post recently over the phone.

Thanks to this trend, readers have also become more serious about expanding their literary references. “People often come to us in POST Santa and ask us to recommend new titles which could suit their personal interests,” he added.

International recognition

The Indonesian film and literature sectors have faced a similar phenomenon: often, a work will become successful at home only after it gains international recognition.

Author Eka Kurniawan’s Lelaki Harimau (Man Tiger) made it onto the longlist for The Man Booker International Prize 2016 and the book was named winner of the FT/Oppenheimer Funds Emerging Voices 2016 fiction award. His other book, Cantik Itu Luka (Beauty Is a Wound), won the World Readers’ Award 2016. This year, Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas (Vengeance is Mine, all Others Pay cash) was his third work to be published by an international publishing house, Pushkin Press.

“The ‘Eka Kurniawan Effect’ is pushing the sales of literary books,” Gretiani said in an archived interview with the Post from 2016. 

Read also: Eka Kurniawan: Writing fearlessly

His wife, Ratih Kumala, also published through an international publishing house for the first time this year, with her novel Gadis Kretek (Cigarette Girl) published by Monsoon Publishing.

“Indonesia doesn’t yet have a strong literary agency that is required to have your works published overseas. We have lobbyists from domestic publishers offering the works of local writers in international book festivals, but they are not quite well-organized yet because they tend to work on a freelance basis. This makes it harder for Indonesian writers to have their works published overseas,” Ratih said.

She said many international readers were actually curious to read literary works about Indonesia, thereby making the effort to internationalize local literary works was worth the time.

“Based on my experience at international literary festivals and book fairs, most of them are interested to understand about communism [in Indonesia], our local cultures as well as the Indonesian Islam.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Paragraph 14 of this article has been edited. In the original version, we incorrectly stated the publisher of Mahfud Ikhwan’s Dawuk: Kisah Kelabu dari Rumbuk Randu (Dawuk: Gloomy Tale from Rumbuk Randu) as Mojok. The correct publisher is Marjin Kiri. We apologize for the error.

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