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Jakarta Post

View point: Frankfurt Book Fair: Indonesian authors on fire!

  • Julia Suryakusuma

    The Jakarta Post

Frankfurt   /   Wed, October 21, 2015   /  02:50 pm

What comes to people'€™s mind when they hear the name '€œIndonesia'€?

In the past it was Islamic extremist terrorism, currently it'€™s Indonesia'€™s gigantic forest fires that are contributing to global warming, featuring 94,192 fires in 2015 and costing US$1.4 billion in damage so far.

But in mid-October, in Frankfurt at least, the forest fires were temporarily forgotten, and the figures presented from Indonesia were cause for celebration, not commiseration. It starts with the number 17,000 '€” islands of imagination that is, the title of Indonesia as guest of honor (GOH) at the Frankfurt Book Fair (FBF), which ran from Oct. 14 to 18.

More than 70 writers, presented in 500 events, covering a vast range of topics: poetry, short stories, novels, science fiction, history, politics, traditional and contemporary arts, children'€™s books, comics and cookbooks.

Besides books, there were music and dance performances, art works, photographic exhibitions and film shows, spread out in the two main venues at the Indonesian Pavilion and the Indonesian National Stand, as well as at other venues in Frankfurt and other cities.

As Jürgen Boos, the director of the FBF said, '€œ['€¦] never before has Indonesia shown so many diverse facets ['€¦] visitors to the book fair will take home a completely new impression of this exciting country, far removed from all the classic stereotypes.'€

While it'€™s true that Indonesia has a centuries old story telling tradition, and a multifaceted literary culture, as Goenawan Mohamad, chairman of the GOH Organizing Committee pointed out, Indonesia'€™s book collection was '€œskinny'€ compared with other Asian countries such as China, India and Japan.

So was it to make up for this '€œskinniness'€ that Indonesian cuisine was featured very prominently at the FBF? Not just books on Indonesian cuisine, but dishes from around the archipelago.

In fact the culinary team was the '€œfattest'€ team, and apparently the biggest culinary team ever to be sent abroad by the Indonesian government. So with Indonesia as the guest of honor, the Frankfurt Book Fair this year also became the Frankfurt Food Fair.

If you'€™ve got it, flaunt it, right? Well, at least no one can deny that Indonesia has a wonderful culinary tradition.

It'€™s true that being guest of honor at the world largest biggest trade fair for books is an amazing platform for Indonesia, possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity (see '€œIndonesia: 17,000 islands of imagination'€, by Ahmad Fuadi, The Jakarta Post Oct. 17).

The importance of the event for the Indonesian government can also be seen from the size of the budget allocated for the event: Rp 147 billion (US$10.97 million).

So obviously we prepared well in advance right?

Well no, in fact, I got the impression that it was all rather disorganized and chaotic, many last minute preparations.

Even the per diems for the writers came in only five days after we arrived in Frankfurt. Hello?

The final evaluation will come much later '€” both the general one to create a broader and deeper knowledge of Indonesia, as well as the specific aim of negotiating international published rights and licensing fees for translated works by Indonesian authors.

I was one of the lucky ones to be invited to Frankfurt. It could not have been an easy process to select a relative few authors out of the many Indonesia has. I imagine there were many who should have been part of the Indonesian delegation but were not selected, while there were others who were less deserving who were.

At least the age range was well represented: from 8-year-old Nadia to several authors in their 80s.

There were also the inevitable controversies about certain authors given a lot of exposure as a result of their '€œconnections'€ with those having decision-making powers, but the protests subsided and the show went on.

In the end, one has to focus on the positive aspects of the event, of which there were many.

For me personally I was excited to have the possibility of meeting other Indonesian authors who I would otherwise never have met. I shared a room with Asma Nadia, a prolific jilbab-wearing 43-year-old novelist and short-story writer, who set up Forum Lingkar Pena, founded to encourage and help young writers to develop their craft and publish their works.

I rode the U-Bahn (German underground train) and chatted with Tere Liye, the pen name of Dawis, a science-fiction fantasy writer (who still keeps his day job as an accountant). I exchanged many Whatsapp messages with Trinity, a productive travel writer. And of course I met many old friends some of whom I had not met in decades.

For me it was not just a reunion, but an opening up of my horizons to the Indonesian literary world. Now I realize how much homework I have to do upon my return to Indonesia.

I hope that the organizers of future international events will also do their homework. There is a tendency for outsiders, particularly Westerners, to focus on just a few writers that they already know. For example, for a long time it seemed that Pramoedya Ananta Toer was the only good writer Indonesia had.

The fact that he was a '€œprisoner of conscience'€ helped. There is a tendency for the West to focus on writers who are or were persecuted, or on women authors who focus on '€œtaboo topics'€ like sex.

It has to do with certain stereotypes '€” albeit unconscious '€” that the West has about Indonesians '€”perhaps about Asians in general '€” as '€œThe Other'€.

Let'€™s hope that next time round, when you hear the words '€œIndonesian author'€, many more names will come to mind who can serve to further debunk the stereotypes the world may have of the mysterious, curious, exciting nation that is Indonesia.

The writer is the author of Julia'€™s Jihad.

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