An introduction to the literature of Indonesia, 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair’s Guest of Honour

Manneke Budiman, University of Indonesia

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country and among the most culturally diverse. Yet not many people are familiar with literary works by Indonesian writers. Why is that? Well …

Indonesian literature plunged into obscurity following an anti-communist massacre in 1965-1966 that brought Suharto’s repressive New Order regime to power.

As we enter the 50th year of the communist purge, this is about to change. Indonesia is the Guest of Honour in this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, taking place from October 14 to 16.

That means, for the first time, Indonesian literature is in the global spotlight at the world’s largest book festival.

Below, Manneke Budiman, of the University of Indonesia’s literature department, gives an introduction to Indonesian literature and explains how colonial legacy plays a part in determining “Third World” authors’ place on the international literary stage.

What is the state of Indonesian literature in translation globally?

Indonesian literature is not widely known compared to works from other countries. Writings of Indonesian authors do not get translated as much as works by other authors of “Third World” countries. Colonial legacy plays a part in this.


Authors from the former colonies of France and England have the attention of French or British publishers that own a large international market share. Big publishing houses such as Heinemann and Penguin have translated and published authors from India, Kenya, Senegal, Egypt, and Morocco.

In contrast, Dutch publishers rarely publish literary works from their former colonies, which includes Indonesia. Except for academic publishers, there are only few, if any, Dutch publishers with international access to global market.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet, published by Penguin, are the rare works that got translated into foreign languages during Suharto’s rule. His tetralogy eventually caught the attention of the Noble Prize Committee, which nominated him several times for the Noble Prize in Literature.

The Nobel Prize nominations show that Indonesian literature is not inferior to the literature of other countries. But there are questions as to whether it was his works or his status as political prisoner that made the Nobel Committee nominated Pramoedya. Some wondered whether the Committee nominated Pramoedya to pressure the Indonesian government to release him from prison.

How was the production of literature like following the communist purge?

Equinox Publishing Indonesia

Literary production remained consistently high even during the repressive era of Suharto.

In the 1970s and 1980s, works by women authors – such as Mira W., Marga T., La Rose, Ike Supomo, Titi Said, Nh. Dini, and Marianne Katoppo – dominated the scene. But many male critics tended to brush them aside as “women’s fiction”, which carries a negative connotation of having low literary quality.

After Suharto’s regime collapsed, the atmosphere changed dramatically. More women began to write. Very soon there was an “explosion” of titles by a new generation of female authors such as Ayu Utami, Linda Christanty, Nukila Amal, Fira Basuki, and Dewi Lestari. Ayu Utami’s Saman, for instance, has been translated into several Asian and European languages.

What are the characteristics of Indonesian literature?

The styles and characteristics of Indonesian literature change from time to time. They sometimes follow the political dynamics of the country and the region.

In the colonial era, local authors were heavily inspired by Western novels and poetry. Many writers produced adaptations of Western fiction in their local setting or even “plagiarised” works produced by their Western counterparts. Popular works such as Robinson Crusoe, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Sherlock Holmes were translated and adapted in Malay, Sundanese and Javanese languages in the late 19th century in the Netherlands Indies by Dutch, Chinese and indigenous translators.

In the 1920s and 1930s authors were preoccupied in finding the “right” language. Writers such as Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana and Sanusi Pane debated whether Indonesia had to abandon its traditional values and fully embraced Western modernity or vice versa.

Dalang Publishing

In the 1940s, as the nation struggled to free itself from colonial rule, authors became more straightforward and blunt. As the Japanese invaded and defeated the Dutch, a spirit of nationalism and militancy grew among authors. They also experimented with forms that were “borrowed” from the West – such as English war poems and works of fiction by European writers. Chairil Anwar and Idrus are examples par excellence of this instance.

Chairil’s poem, Antara Kerawang dan Bekasi (Between Kerawang and Bekasi) is suspected to be an adaptation of Sir Archibald Clark Kerr’s poem, whereas Idrus’ short-stories show striking similarities with works written by European writers in terms of the modernist ideas in his works, as discussed by Indonesian studies expert Keith Foulcher.

The Golden Age of Indonesian literature, according to many scholars, was the period between the 1950s and 1960s. Authors were working out how to connect traditions and local flavors with modern trends in literature.

In that period, the Cold War was raging. Many authors were fiercely involved in ideological tug of wars among themselves. Authors also began to seriously search for a distinct Indonesian identity through their works that could become part of the world culture. Unfortunately, that vibrancy had to abruptly end with the take over of power from Sukarno to Suharto.

After Suharto stepped down in 1998, there was a brief moment of euphoria among authors as freedom of speech and democratisation began to flourish. But the 32-year authoritarian rule seemed to have taught them not to be too optimistic. This is clearly reflected in the works of the post-Suharto writers, which are strongly marked by doubt and ambiguity about the future.

In those works, readers may sense a yearning for freedom from the haunting legacy of Suharto’s rule.

What are the main styles and themes?

Realism remains to be the dominant style, although sometimes it also blends with some kind of romanticism – a nostalgia for the lost past – and a sense of disillusionment that replaces it.

Dalang Publishing

There is also a trend of looking outward to what happens in other parts of the globe. Contemporary Indonesian writers are curious and adventurous in embracing cosmopolitanism and transcending national boundaries.

That’s particularly visible in the works of many current women authors. At the same time, their works also rebel against customary laws and traditions that marginalise women.

Young authors are not oblivious to the conditions of their country. They show genuine concern about what has happened in outer islands outside the primary island of Java.

Are there efforts to publish Indonesian literature in translation?

Amid the relatively meagre attention from big international publishers to Indonesian authors, a foundation and a small publishing house in the US are working to bring more English translations of Indonesian literature to international readers.

Lontar Foundation, founded by American John McGlynn, has done extraordinary work translating and publishing Indonesian literature in English. Lontar regularly publishes the Menageries Series containing translated works by Indonesian authors. It also published a collection of poems written by Indonesians about their American experience (On Foreign Shore) and a series of Indonesian classics.


California-based Dalang Publisher, owned by Lian Gouw, a Chinese-American who spent her childhood in Indonesia before her family migrated to the US, has published several works of contemporary Indonesian writers in high-quality translation.

Some of the works that have been published by Dalang in translation are Remy Silado’s My Name Is Mata Hari (Namaku Mata Hari), Lan Fang’s novel Potions and Paper Cranes (Perempuan Kembang Jepun), Erni Aladjai’s Kei, Anindita S. Thayf’s Daughters of Papua (Tanah Tabu), Ahmad Tohari’s The Red Bekisar (Bekisar Merah), and Hana Rambe’s Cloves for Kolosia (Aimuna dan Sobori).

That list is by no means exhaustive, and it keeps on growing. Gouw seems to have a sharp sense of knowing which works may appeal to non-Indonesian audience. Her choices include works that are concerned with pluralism, ethnic and religious conflicts, colonialism, and injustice.

McGlynn, meanwhile, prefers choosing works of established or well-known authors, such as the poet Sapardi Djoko Damono, short-story writer Seno Gumira Ajidarma, and novelist Oka Rusmini.

There are other small-scale publishers that have published Indonesian works in German, Dutch, and French. But in general those publishers do not have the requisite international stature to draw a significant attention.

For newcomers to Indonesian literature, what are the titles to start with?


Pramoedya’s tetralogy – The Earth of Mankind, The Child of All Nations, Glass House, and Footsteps – remain the most important books for foreign readership. Mangunwijaya’s The Weaverbirds is another classic that has become a must-read. These two senior authors are the best introduction to the dynamics and complexities of Indonesian society.

Oka Rusmini (Earth Dance), Seno Gumira Ajidarma (Jazz, Perfume & the Incident), Nukila Amal (Cala Ibi), Ayu Utami (Saman), belong to the generation that follows; and then young writers such as Erni Aladjai (Kei), Lan Fang (Potions and Paper Cranes), Anindita Thayf (Daughters of Papua), and Okky Madasari (Maryam).

The works of the new generation of writers works contain rich panorama of Indonesian social, cultural, and political dynamics viewed from different generational lenses.

The Frankfurt Book Fair runs until October 16. Details here.

The Conversation

Manneke Budiman, Lecturer at the Literature Department, University of Indonesia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Book Review: Phantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques Bonnet

‘Phantoms on the Bookshelves,’ by Jacques Bonnet was translated from the French original by Sian Reynolds and has an introduction by James Salter. The copy I have is a Kindle edition. It was first published in Great Britain in 2010 by MacLehose Press. It is a relatively short book at 123 pages in length, so it won’t take too much to get through it.

Phantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques BonnetThe introduction to the book by James Salter is a good, brief read concerning the author of the book and his book collecting ways. It could easily describe me, though I have nowhere near as many books as Bonnet, even though I have thousands myself in traditional form and/or digital format. I see similarities between the description given of Bonnet by Salter and myself, with my far fewer volumes. I too struggle now to find room for them all, with my virtual bookshelves requiring expansion in the near future to accomodate my book collecting ways into the current century and digital age. Traditional books have long run out of room in this house, as I suspect they have in Bonnet’s apartment.

Bonnet is a man who loves books and his thoughts on what is normal in a home, the presence of many books, is something I can relate to. I also find myself in wonder when I see homes with no books, particularly in some of the circles in which I move or have moved. How can they get by without books? Mind you it is probably not as easy a situation to read (no pun intended – truly not) these days, with books now being able to be stored by the thousands on a home computer and/or on an external hard drive or two. Still, I have wondered this for many years and I think Bonnet would probably agree with me. Relating to others is made easier when discussing books for Bonnet and I find this an agreeable thing also. It is the way of Bibliophiles, whether we use that term or not (perhaps for some Bibliomaniac is a better term).

I did not find Bonnet’s chapter on cataloguing and organisation helpful at all, though I expect it would help some. This is probably because I have developed my own system which closely resembles that of the Dewey to almost certainly be called a Dewey system. The Bonnet decsription horrified me and I thought it would become far too confusing and disorienting for me. He is certainly right about the Internet making a major impact on libraries and the need to have as many books as he has in his collection. It is not only the storing of works on the World Wide Web, in the cloud and on other digital storage systems like computers, external drives, etc, where libraries are changing and/or have changed, but also in the cataloguing and organisation of books. I have a large number of books stored on digital devices and by digital means, but I also have access to far more over the Internet from vast libraries that I can access online. But I also have both offline and online digital methods for assisting me in cataloguing and organising my books, which I use as best I can and with great relief for being able to do so. Yet it boils down to individual choice and comfortableness, being able to manage these resources in a way that allows the individual to harness them to the greatest effect, which is indeed something of an indiviual matter and process.

The Bonnet method of reading will not be everyones cup of tea, but that’s OK too, because that is also a very individualistic thing. Bonnet likes lying down to read, I prefer sitting at a desk. Bonnet likes to underline and write in his books as he reads, I prefer to highlight and collate quotes via other media. There is no one rule for all, but many different rules for many different people. The thing is to retain what one reads in some way, that I think is the key to reading. It is certainly not a requirement to read each and every book from cover to cover, but to take a dip in each one to some extent and to achieve some purpose when doing so is required if you wish to say that you read your books and they aren’t just display items.

The manner in which Bonnet has collected his books is almost baffling to someone who has not done so in the same manner. He seems almost obsessed with completing lists and collections of books, of following every author/book line that comes up in what he reads or experiences. It seems any book mentioned must be obtained for his library. This is the way of a Bibliomaniac, that is for sure. His obsession with collecting ‘picture’ books is another seemingly crazed hobby which almost seems to be a driving force for him. I too collect books, but this insight into how another book lover and lover of reading goes about collecting his books is one that is beyond my experience. It is a fascinating world of book hunting and gathering if ever there was one. Something about one book leads to another which leads to another, or some conversation leads to a book which leads to another, etc.

Bonnet’s reflections upon his books shows someone who truly absorbs what he reads and imbibes the being of those written about. He seems to feel them, to know them, far better than any creator of them. Authors of books, whether fictional pieces or biographical/autobiographical works fade with the passing of time, if indeed a true reflection of them is left in the pages of the books they write or in the annals of history. However, those created and placed within the realms of literature remain the same and can be known almost completely. There are places to visit, whether real or ethereal, people to meet and to greet. Books bring a whole world to one’s home and experience, and even beyond that one travels into the realm of fictional lands and peoples. A plethora of experience that is only exaggerated when the library is swollen by multimedia resources. What an amazing world the library can become – is.

Buy this book at Amazon:

Article: Building a Library with Diigo

The link below is to an article, which though old, will still be a useful introduction to the bookmarking service Diigo. The service is so much more than a bookmarking service though, being a very useful service for research and online library building.

Diigo V5: Collect and Highlight, Then Remember! from diigobuzz on Vimeo.

For more visit:

Video: Skitch – An Introduction

Sure, this web application isn’t directly about books or libraries, but it can be useful while using books – particularly ebooks. So hopefully it will be of interest to someone. I love Evernote and this is from the Evernote people, so I don’t mind plugging it.

Software: Calibre

Free Open Source Ebook Management Software

The link below is to a website for Calibre software, software for managing your ebook library. The software is free and open source software. There is a 10 minute introduction video on Calibre at the site.

For more visit:

Terrorism and the Illuminati – A Three Thousand Year History, by David Livingstone

I have started to read ‘Terrorism and the Illuminati – A Three Thousand Year History,’ by David Livingstone. I haven’t read a lot as of yet, but it appears to be a book full of conspiracy theories about a secret society (the Illuminati) that are behind world events. Not being a believer in such a theory I am not sure just how much of this book I’ll be able to stomach, but having only read the introduction at this point I’ll try and keep myself restrained from speculating too much on the book. I do have to say that what I have read in the introduction had me thinking ‘is this for real?’ I don’t mean that in the sense of being convinced, but rather in the sense of ‘can anyone really believe this?’

With the death of Osama Bin Laden recently and the various conspiracy theories that have surfaced as a result, this sort of book will probably be enjoying a wider audience at the moment. If conspiracy theories interest you, then this book may very well be of interest to you. There are various associated links below.

There is an online version at the book’s website:

You can also find the book at Scribd:

If you prefer to buy a copy at Amazon, it is available at:


Post War – A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt

I have now started to read ‘Post War,’ by Tony Judt. The edition I have was published in 2005 by The Penguin Press. It is a massive work of over 900 pages, that includes both photographs and maps.

The period of history being dealt with is post war Europe from the end of World War II to 2005. It includes the immediate aftermath of World War II, right through the Cold War period and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Though I have only just started (yesterday) I have completed about 100 pages thus far, which has taken me through the preface, introduction and the first chapter, ‘The Legacy of War.’ The first chapter deals with the immediate aftermath of the war and its consequences for the people of Europe. It is an horrific picture of post war Europe and the devastation it had on the entirety of Europe – nations, cities and towns, peoples and families. It is the legacy of total war.