Little-known Indonesian writers tackle taboos on world stage

Indonesian author Okky Madasari
Indonesian author Okky Madasari

Little-known Indonesian writers will take centre stage at the world’s largest book fair this week, led by trailblazing women tackling taboos in their conservative homeland, from historic injustices to sex and religion. Indonesia is the guest of honor at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, the industry’s biggest annual get-together for publishers, editors and writers from around the globe, with 200 titles from the country to be showcased at the five-day event starting today.

Around 70 authors from the archipelago will travel to Germany, bringing them face to face with hundreds of thousands of visitors, most of whom will be encountering Indonesian literature for the first time. “This is a big opportunity for Indonesia,” 30-year-old Okky Madasari, whose works touch on issues including discrimination against religious minorities in Muslimmajority Indonesia, told AFP. “We’re not known on the literary world map, but I hope this will be the beginning to bring Indonesian literature to the world.”

Another female author attending is Leila Chudori, whose latest book “Home” revolves around the murky events of 1965, when at least half a million alleged communists were killed across Indonesia in military-backed massacres for which no one has ever been held to account. Fellow writer Laksmi Pamuntjak, who will discuss her work at Frankfurt, also explores this atrocity in her book “The Question of Red”.

The increasing interest in this dark chapter comes at a time when pressure is growing on authorities to atone for the orgy of violence that preceded General Suharto seizing power. It was taboo to criticize the massacres during his rule, which lasted until 1998, with the killings presented as necessary to rid the country of the communist threat. Also attending is Ayu Utami-no stranger to controversy in conservative Indonesia as her works have delved into infidelity and sexuality.

‘Bringing Indonesian literature home’
Apart from the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer-who was nominated several times for a Nobel Literature Prize-little is known abroad about Indonesian writers, although the country is home to a prolific band of authors. But there are hopes Frankfurt could do for Indonesia what it did for South Korea and Turkey, which both saw global demand for translations of their literary works explode after headlining at the fair. An accompanying cultural program of contemporary Indonesian art, dance and film choreographed by acclaimed poet and essayist Goenawan Mohamad is also generating buzz among critics in Frankfurt. “Never in my life-and I have worked in the field of Indonesian literature since 1970 something-have I seen so many articles about Indonesia and its literature,” John McGlynn, who is spearheading Indonesia’s literary program at Frankfurt, told AFP. However, McGlynn concedes that preparing for the fair has been “a steep learning curve” for the country, which has little experience of taking a leading role in such major events. Finland, the fair’s guest of honor in 2014, began translating books six years before, but bureaucratic delays and problems with funding meant Indonesia only began 18 months ago. Against all odds, 200 books have been translated into German and English for Frankfurt. McGlynn, whose Jakarta-based publishing house Lontar translated a quarter of those titles, has also compiled an anthology of short stories from emerging Indonesian writers, boosting their chances of being spotted by a major publisher. As well as introducing the literature of the world’s biggest archipelago nation to a global audience, organizers hope they can generate enthusiasm in Indonesia, where literacy rates are high but reading is not a popular pastime. “One of the goals is not only to bring Indonesian literature to the world, but also to bring it home again,” Claudia Kaiser, vice-president for South and Southeast Asia at the fair, told AFP. — AFP

Back to top button