Claudia Landini has just returned to her native Italy after spending 30 years as an expat, most recently in Jakarta. She here gives a personal account of her encounters with Indonesian literature.
One of the best things about my four-years stay in Jakarta was my membership of the literary study group of the Indonesian Heritage Society (IHS).
IHS is a non-profit association that promotes and spreads the artistic and cultural patrimony of Indonesia. As an expat, I was eager to discover all I could about my host culture, so I started attending events and tours organised by the association. It was with great delight that I went to a presentation by its literary study group, which I discovered to be a book club focussing on Indonesian literature. It is open to all nationalities, and all kinds of readers, and it only reads books that have been translated into English.
Indonesian literature is rich, but Bahasa Indonesia is not a widely read language. Luckily Indonesia has another wonderful organisation whose aim is to promote Indonesian culture through literature. It’s called the Lontar Foundation and it was founded in 1978 by a group of Indonesian writers and the North American translator John McGlynn. Since its creation, Lontar has served as a means of enabling a wide foreign public to gain access to the rich and diversified experience of Indonesian literature.
What Lontar mainly does is to translate Indonesian literary works into English. In 2015 Indonesia was the guest of honour at the world-renowned Frankfurt Book Fair. This was in large part thanks to lobbying by Lontar. I remember well the effort they all put in, at Lontar, to finish the translations of many of the books they wanted to represent Indonesia at this important event. Many of them we had already read and discussed in the literary study group, and we were proud to see them presented to an international public. As for our own literary study group, it couldn’t have existed without Lontar. Translations into English are essential for many non-Indonesians attending the group. Long term expats may have been living in Indonesia long enough to be able to read Bahasa, but often they, like myself, need to read in English.
The IHS literary study group does not read only works by Indonesian authors, but also those about Indonesia. From June to September, the choice falls on foreign authors writing about Indonesia. This is how we read, for instance, Savage Harvest, by North American journalist Carl Hoffman, on the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in 1961 in New Guinea.
Meanwhile, Indonesian authors are incredibly prolific, and one of the reasons I am grateful to the group is that it made me realise how varied is their literary production. We read superb novels, short stories, biographies and poetry, both contemporary, like the latest Eka Kurniawan novel, and from the past, like The Buru Quartet by Pramoedya Ananta Toer.
I found reading Indonesian authors so important in getting to know my host culture. Group discussion of a given title would always enrich my understanding of it, and also of Indonesia, as my fellow members related their experiences, and anecdotes, and gave information about Indonesian politics, society, or history.
What was really special, though, was that the group was able to host, from time-to-time an author, a translator, or someone otherwise directly involved in publishing a given book.
Once we discussed Indonesian poet Siti Nuraini in the presence of her daughter, who told us fascinating stories about the time when Indonesian artists, among them her mother, fought to recreate an Indonesian identity in many fields, after having been colonised for so long.
Another time we hosted the translator of In a Jakarta prison: Life stories of women inmates by Sujinah, a political prisoner under Suharto. It was so interesting to listen to him. He told us a lot about Sujinah, and about how the prison experience had left a mark on her.
Our most delightful host was Leila Chudori, who has written one of the best novels of Indonesian literature, Home, among other works. It was very nice to be able to sit with the author in an informal setting and listen to her talking about how her art developed and the main challenges she encountered in her writing journey.
Indonesia has a rich and captivating culture for its authors to explore. I would urge anyone unfamiliar with its literature to begin to discover what’s on offer. IHS’s literary study group is an excellent starting point, if you live in Jakarta. But if not, you can simply pay a visit to the Lontar Foundation website, where you can order its translated books, to start getting a glimpse of this fascinating and complex literature, and also of this equally fascinating and complex country.