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'It's about time': Transit, an indie bookstore that wants you to read more women

Devina Heriyanto
Devina Heriyanto

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Wed, July 10, 2019  /  04:38 pm
'It's about time': Transit, an indie bookstore that wants you to read more women

The main shelf at Transit Bookstore, located at Pasar Santa, South Jakarta. (JP/Donny Fernando)

The earthquake that struck Jakarta in early 2018 meant many things. First, it was the first of many natural disasters that would hit Indonesia throughout the year, in what would be known as "the year of disasters". Second, it shattered the illusion that the capital city was a quake-free zone. Third, it shook Indra Soaloon Situmorang and reminded him of a long-forgotten dream.

Indra was at a meeting on the 27th floor of a high-rise building in Jakarta when he felt the quake. As with almost everyone else in the city, he panicked. The majority of Jakartans had not experienced an earthquake for a very long time, so the afternoon was quite unusual.

When the tremors hit, the idea of Transit Bookstore leaped into his mind. "The first thing that crossed my mind was: Oh God, I haven't opened a bookstore," he said, "It was not marriage or work, but the bookstore."

By the end of the year, he did just that. Indra teamed up and took up co-ownership with Aliendheasja "Alien" Fawilia, with whom he had been friends since junior high school. They launched Transit in December 2018, and the bookstore began its regular operation early this year. Transit occupies a tiny place, along an alley in the hip Pasar Santa, South Jakarta. The bookstore is so small that Indra and Alien often sit in the alley between the store and a coffee place, where people often pass by. Every now and then, people stop and enter the bookshop, looking at the neatly arranged shelves and sometimes take a picture of the chicly decorated store. Sometimes they talk to Indra or Alien. Then, they move on.

It was as if the location of the bookstore itself a metaphor for its name. "Transit itself invokes a journey, that we are at the middle and about to move somewhere else. It has a sense of borderless journey and travel. We want to present this intersection between journey, travel and the self," Indra told The Jakarta Post.

On one side of the shop, there is a map hanging on the wall with colorful sticky notes on top. Each sheet contains the name of a book and its writer, placed accordingly to where the author is from. All the names are women.

A map displaying the name of books written by women writers from various countries.A map displaying the name of books written by women writers from various countries. (JP/Donny Fernando)

When the Post came to visit Transit on Sunday afternoon, Indra was sitting alone in the alley. Alien had not come in that day, as they sometimes took turns managing the bookstore. A speaker at a nearby shop was blaring sounds of music and there was the constant smell of freshly ground coffee. He was reading a blue-covered book with its title embossed on the cover. It was Vivian by Christina Hesselholdt, which told the story of American photographer Vivian Maier, who took almost 150,000 pictures during her life, all of which were almost unknown lest for a strange turn of events.

Vivian is only one among other books written by women displayed at Transit. Since April, Indra and Alien have been running the "World's Women Writers" program, a curation of various women writers from across the globe.

"We want to bring back women to the shelves," Indra said. The representation of women writers had been inadequate, he added, pointing to the Nobel Literature Prize as one glaring example. Since 1901, the Prize has been awarded to 114 writers, only 14 of whom are women.

For Alien, the drive to discover more about women writers came during National Book Day in 2017.

"I just started using Instagram back then and joined the Bookstagram community. I was about to take a picture of books from my favorite author before I realized that my favorites were all men. This took me by surprise and I asked myself why," she told the Post separately via messaging app.

"So when we brainstormed about our next theme, it seemed fitting to choose World’s Women Writers," Alien said, "It's about goddamn time."

The theme is quite a success. There has been a growing awareness to read more women in literature, both home and abroad. Online, there is the There But For The Books, curated and managed by Sekar Wulandari Yogaster of the duo-illustrator Sukutangan.

To keep up with the global theme, Transit only presents one book from an Indonesian author: Indigenous Species by Khairani Barokka, a poetry book, written in English and published by Tilted Axis Press.

A corner at Transit Bookstore. The book on the front is 'Indigenous Species' by Khairani Barokka, a poetry book, written in English and published by the Tilted Axis Press.A corner at Transit Bookstore. The book on the front is 'Indigenous Species' by Khairani Barokka, a poetry book, written in English and published by the Tilted Axis Press. (JP/Donny Fernando)

"By design, we are not going to focus on Indonesian writers. The business consideration is the existence of POST Santa, which has become an icon for Indonesian indie bookstores. Thus, we are focusing more on translated works in English, mostly from independent publishers," said Indra.

Transit and POST Santa are practically neighbors. POST first opened in 2014 and is known for carrying books from local independent publishers and translated works in the Indonesian language. To avoid unnecessary competition, Transit decided to focus on books that are published in English instead.

The "World's Women Writers" program will end in August, although precisely when has yet to be decided. The next topic is "Know Your Neighbors", presenting books from Asia, Australia and Southeast Asia -- whose authors are rarely read in Indonesia compared to that from the United States or United Kingdom. One book from Indonesia on the list is Sergius Mencari Bacchus by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated into English as Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Tiffany Tsao.

"I was reading a book at a cafe in Grand Indonesia when someone asked me who I was reading. When I told him that it was from Gerald Murnane, he looked surprised. Apparently, according to him, even in Australia, Murnane is rarely read," said Indra, "This might sound vain but I was very happy as a curator."

Indra Soaloon Situmorang, the co-owner of Transit Bookstore. He co-owns the store with Aliendheasja Fawilia, whom he has been friends with since junior high school.Indra Soaloon Situmorang, the co-owner of Transit Bookstore. He co-owns the store with Aliendheasja Fawilia, whom he has been friends with since junior high school. (JP/Donny Fernando)

Here are five books, written by women, which are recommended by Transit:

1. Housekeeping

Author: Marilynne Robinson

"This story about two sisters in Idaho is tender, moving and powerful. Marilynne Robinson writes with an eerie quality and with tenderness. Familial love, the sense of identity and finding one’s place in the world are among the themes explored in this beautiful, haunting book. If the home is where the heart is, then housekeeping is also the tending of the soul."

2. The Lottery and Other Stories

Author: Shirley Jackson

"The Lottery is one of the most powerful short stories ever written. Upon its publication in The New Yorker, the magazine broke its record for the most mail it had ever received for a work of fiction. In this book, the potency of Jackson’s craft is in full display. The stories collected here are full of strange turns but written with remarkable subtlety."

3. Belladonna

Author: Dasa Drndic

"Dasa Drndic’s prose is unflinching and incisive. In Belladona, she directs her gaze toward the 20th century and what she finds there is horrifying. World War II, the extermination of the Jewish population, the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and the war crimes related to it are some of the themes explored here. Dasa Drndic is one of the finest writers that come from the Balkan region."

4. Lost Children Archive

Author: Valeria Luiselli

"Valeria Luiselli worked as an interpreter for undocumented children involved in the migrant crisis in the US. That experiences informs and inspires this book. This polyphonic novel haunts the reader with the evocation of displacement and separation. A timely book that is moving and thoughtful."

5. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

Author: Angela Carter

"Angela Carter is the source from which springs writers such as Neil Gaiman and JK Rowling. In this collection, she retells familiar fairy tales but imbued them with darkness and blood. As an ardent champion of feminism, her stories revolve around female protagonists. Reading her short stories, you think you will know where the story goes, but you will not find what you expect, you will be pleasantly surprised."

Transit Bookstore can be found at Pasar Santa on the upper floor. The store opens on Saturdays and Sundays from 2 to 9 p.m. (wng)

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Editor's note:

This article has been changed to revise the ownership of Transit Bookstore. The previous version implied that Indra was the sole owner.