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Jakarta Post

New Dawn For Indonesian Literature

  • Yuliasri Perdani

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Mon, December 28, 2015   /  04:06 pm
New Dawn For Indonesian Literature

Spice show:  A visitor walks past tables of spices, an attraction at the Indonesian booth at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Indonesia presented a wide spectrum of its cultural heritage, from food to performing arts, rather than solely literature.

The tide is turning this year for Indonesian literature, which until now has been relatively unknown abroad.

Indonesian literature took center stage at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair (FBF), one of oldest and largest events of its kind in the world. In recent years, the works of some of our nation'€™s authors, most notably Eka Kurniawan and Laksmi Pamuntjak, have been enthralling international readers.

However, this seemingly golden moment in the nation'€™s literary history faces some major challenges, most notably problems surrounding translation and fears about the reemergence of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) that have gripped society and some authorities.

Both Eka and Laksmi had a particularly noteworthy year. Eka was listed as one of the Global Thinkers in 2015 by Foreign Policy. The publication recognized Eka'€™s contribution to '€œpinning Indonesian literature on the map'€ through his books Cantik Itu Luka (Beauty Is a Wound) and Lelaki Harimau (Man Tiger).

The German version of Laksmi'€™s Amba (published in English under the title The Question of Red) sold 10,000 copies in less than three months after its launch on Sept. 25. The novel also topped the prestigious Weltempfaenger List as Best Work of Fiction from outside Germany translated into German.

Amba, which has also been translated to Dutch and English, tells the story of two separated lovers set against the backdrop of the historic 1965 tragedy. Laksmi is currently on a European tour to promote the book.

'€œIn my experience of touring German cities [...] most of the readers I encountered did not know much about the Indonesian tragedy of 1965, let alone about Indonesia,'€ Laksmi wrote in an email exchange with The Jakarta Post.

'€œBut they were curious, and ultimately found themselves empathizing with our struggle to deal with the past.'€

This year not only saw the significant accomplishments of individual authors, but also that of Indonesian literature in general as the nation took advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime chance to be the Guest of Honor of the FBF, which ran from Oct. 14 to 18.

The national FBF committee, led by Goenawan Mohamad, pulled out all the stops at the major event, bringing over 70 authors, 33 local publishers, hundreds of performing artists and musicians and a dozen Indonesian celebrity chefs.

Local publishers brought over thousands of Indonesian books including more than 200 English and German versions of Indonesian titles.

Nung Atasana of Borobudur literary agency said that during the fair, foreign publishers had expressed their interest in 413 Indonesian titles.

'€œ[The available translations] make the books more prepared for foreign publishing rights sales. Indonesia'€™s position as the Guest of Honor also fostered international publishers'€™ interest in Indonesian works,'€ remarked Nung.

Indonesia'€™s appearance at the fair was not without controversy. Before the delegation flew to Frankfurt, some authors questioned the selection process of writers who would take part in the event.

A group named the Youth Movement to Save Indonesia staged a protest in front of the Education Ministry, claiming that the FBF committee was promoting communism by featuring books centered around the 1965 tragedy.

House of Representatives Commission X overseeing education planned to summon Culture and Education Minister Anies Baswedan over the '€œexcessive'€ spending of 10 million euros on the FBF.

The 1965 controversy also entangled the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF), held from Oct. 28 to Nov. 1 in Bali, with authorities telling the festival committee to cancel three sessions dedicated to the victims of the 1965 massacre.

UWRF founder and director Janet de Neefe said that the unexpected censorship '€œshook the foundations of the Festival'€.

She emphasized that the UWRF had always addressed crucial global issues and would continue to do so.

'€œI believe we are the most important platform for dialogue in Indonesia, the most significant arena for discussing the issues that affect us all,'€ she wrote in an email correspondence with the Post.

'€œAnd with the economic boost we now inject into the community, we are also a powerful machine that cannot be ignored.'€

Publishing rights sales of Indonesian books grew steadily in 2015. Nung recorded the sales of 111 titles and three series of comics this year, more than a two-fold increase from last year'€™s 45 publishing rights sales.

Laksmi and Janet believe that the rise of Indonesian literature internationally must be sustained by steady translation efforts.

'€œMany works have great potential, but perhaps need the help of professional editors and the translation needs to be of a high standard,'€ Janet said.

Problems surrounding translation emerged during Indonesia'€™s preparation for the FBF, when local and foreign translators were hired to translate over 200 Indonesian titles.

The government reluctantly agreed on the fee for foreign translators, which was four times higher than the local rate. When the Lontar Foundation signed contracts with translators for 30 books, the government refused to pay the agreed rate.

Lucya Andam Dewi, the president director of Bumi Aksara publishing group, said that some of the books were poorly translated.

'€œWhen we checked the translated books for the FBF, we found a number of books needed some corrections, while some others had to be translated again from the beginning,'€ she said.

Lucya, who served as the Indonesian Publishers Association (Ikapi) head until Dec. 5, said that the association was seeking the government'€™s support to set up an independent body dedicated to the translation of Indonesian books.

Lucya and other publishers saw a slump in book sales this year, which she attributed mainly to Indonesians'€™ relatively low interest in reading. She expected that the new reading movement initiated by the Education Ministry would change the situation. From the middle of this year, the ministry has obliged students to read for 15 minutes before starting classes.

'€œIf the children are trained to read from an early age, we will welcome a generation of avid readers and writers in the future,'€ she said.

However, the global exposure of some Indonesian authors has propelled book sales at home.

Siti Greti, the general manager of Gramedia Pustaka Utama publishing group, said the Indonesian version of Eka'€™s books experienced a surge in sales after the titles received positive reviews from The New York Times, The Guardian and other prominent media outlets.

'€œWe reprinted Cantik itu Luka and relaunched Lelaki Harimau with a new cover,'€ said Siti, adding that Laksmi'€™s Amba had also experienced a similar boost.

Siti added that poetry books by Aan Mansyur, Sapardi Djoko Damono and Mario Lawi also booked significant sales.

'€” Photo courtesy of the Indonesian National Committee at the Frankfurt Book Fair

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