Indonesian literature at the Frankfurt Book Fair

The island that literature forgot

In his essay, the Indonesian writer and literary critic Wayan Sunarta sheds light on the history of modern Indonesian literature, and explains why it has so far failed to establish itself internationally

Modern Indonesian literature began to emerge in the nineteen twenties. Its development since has been repeatedly influenced by political unrest, polemic and vested interests. Chronologically, the history of Indonesian literature stretches from the pujangga lama generation (the generation of the ancient poets, classical literature) to the generation of the 2000s.

But the appearance of the 1945 generation is regarded as a new departure in Indonesian literature. It was a generation shaped by revolution and the struggle for freedom. The poems of Chairil Anwar, one of the trailblazers of this era, still have a strong influence on the creative output of Indonesia′s poets even today.

In the creed of Surat Kepercayaan Gelanggang, the writers of 1945 describe themselves as heirs to a high culture worthy of preservation. They will never allow anyone to limit their freedom of expression. They want to write independently, and with a clear conscience.

Unfortunately, in the decades that followed, freedom of thought and expression were put to the test repeatedly, occasionally ceasing altogether.

Lekra versus Manikebu

The 1960s were a dark chapter in Indonesian literary history. The "Lekra" cultural institute (Institute of the People′s Culture), shaped by socialist realism ("art for the people") and supported by President Sokarno, had been founded in the 1950s. The institute′s most influential personality was the writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer. The existence of "Lekra", which was viewed as part of the Communist Party of Indonesia, split the writing community in Indonesia into two main groups.

Indonesian poet Chairil Anwar (photo: Wikipedia)
The revolutionary spirit of the struggle for freedom: the poems of Chairil Anwar, one of the pioneers of the 1945 generation, still have a strong influence on the creative output of Indonesia′s poets today

The writers who were against "Lekra" put together a cultural manifesto ("Manikebu"), in which they stood up for freedom of artistic expression, in accordance with the Indonesian state philosophy of pancasila (unity in diversity). There followed years shaped by polemic on both sides, which led to a stagnation in literary activity. This state of affairs ended with the tragedy of 1965, and the fall of Sukarno.

After Suharto came to power, many of the "Lekra" writers were killed or disappeared without trace. Pramoedya was sent to prison without trial. He spent a large part of his fourteen-year incarceration on the notorious prison island of Buru. This was where his most famous work, the Buru tetralogy, came into being.

Literature in the Suharto era

The PKI and "Lekra" had been destroyed, and the 1966-70s generation of writers emerged from the victorious cultural manifesto. This period also saw the founding of the literary magazine Horison, under the leadership of Mochtar Lubis.

The spirit of the avant-garde was particularly strong in this generation. A large number of incredibly diverse literary works was published during these years. Their dominant motto was "art for art′s sake". Left-wing tendencies, by contrast, were regarded as spectres in need of banishing. The best-known representatives of these years include Goenawan Mohamad, Sapardi Djoko Damono and WS Rendra.

In the 1980s, the literary market was dominated by romantic novels from young writers, the hallmark of another new generation. Literary critics like to group these works under the term pop literature – a movement Suharto was particularly keen on. The aim was to lull criticism to sleep with hedonism. But it was precisely such pop novels that aroused the interest of a lot of young people.

During those years, there was also an emphasis on literary publications in magazines. This was how poems, short stories, essays, and serialised novels by young authors found their way to readers. Fiction writers and poets of this generation who are still active and popular today include Dorothea Rosa Herliany and Afrizal Malna. Among the women writers, NH Dini should be mentioned in particular; her novels, such as Namaku Hiroko (My Name is Hiroko) dealt with the conflict between Eastern and Western thought.

Generation 2000

Students at the University of Indonesia (UI) demonstrate against Suharto (photo: Getty Images/AFP/R. Gacad)
An historic turning point in Indonesia: in 1998, Indonesia′s dictator was forced to bend to pressure from the streets and step down. The political spring (reformasi) that followed the end of the military dictatorship in 1998 gave literature a new impetus

In May 1998, persistent mass protests forced the dictator Suharto to step down, following a 32-year rule over the country. The people were gripped by the euphoria of the Reformasi. Freedom of opinion and expression were among the Reformasi movement′s most important achievements.

Wiji Thukul was the most popular writer of the Reformasi period. His poems, telling in their choice of words, gave voice to the sufferings of the socially disadvantaged, such as peasants and factory workers. But on 27 July 1998, Wiji Thukul vanished without trace. People suspect he was abducted and killed by the Indonesian security services. The "Reformasi Generation" lacked a strong spokesperson, and thus never managed to secure a place in literary history. But freedom of thought and expression have increasingly resurfaced since this time.

The renowned literary critic Korrie Layun Rampan filled the gap in the written history of this period with his three-volume work Angkatan 2000 dalam Sastra Indonesia (Generation 2000 in Indonesian Literature). His literary lexicon lists hundreds of writers, including some who have been active since the 1970s. The authors in Rampan′s list include, for example, Afrizal Malna, Ayu Utami, Oka Rusmini, Dewi Lestari, Andrea Hirata, Eka Kurniawan, Agus R. Sarjono, Laksmi Pamuntjak and Leila S. Chudori.

The works of Generation 2000 have captivated readers with their free and diverse themes, such as eroticism and sexuality, social policy, urbanity, philosophy, feminism, religiousness, technical progress (internet).

Fragrant literature

The term "sastrawangi" (literally: fragrant literature) appeared during this phase. It relates to books that deal with eroticism and sexuality, written by young female authors (pretty, fashionable, smart and rebellious). Ayu Utami, author of the novels Saman (1998) and Larung (2001) is the most well-known sastrawangi author outside Indonesia.

There is much controversial discussion among readers and observers of the literary scene about "fragrant literature", in particular Utami′s novel Saman. There is praise from some quarters for the breath of fresh air and the spirit of rebellion that feminists have brought to literature; others accuse them of dealing with vulgar themes, appealing to readers′ thirst for sensation. In any case, sastrawangi has introduced its own unique colour to Indonesia′s literary world.

Cover of "Saman" by Indonesian author Ayu Utami
Indonesia′s "fragrant literature": 46-year-old Ayu Utami′s novel Saman, published in 2000, influenced a whole generation

However, more than a few writers believed the morality of the young generation to be under threat. Since then, there has been a boom in religious (Islamic) literature to counterbalance the feminists. Helvy Tiana Rosa und Asma Nadia are the driving force behind this movement. They founded the Forum Lingkar Pena (FLP), which hundreds of young writers from all over Indonesia have since joined. One of the movement′s most popular authors is Habiburrahman El-Shirazy. His novel Ayat-Ayat Cinta (love verses) has achieved huge sales figures, and the film version was a great success in cinemas.

"Back to tradition"

Generation 2000 was also shaped by another movement: using the slogan "back to tradition", some writers are now drawing material for their novels from regional cultures and traditions. Examples of this are the Balinese writer Oka Rusmini and her novel Earth Dance, and the author Andrea Hirata, who drew on his childhood on the island of Belitung for his novel The Rainbow Troops.

But local subjects are nothing new in Indonesian literature. Much earlier, writers like Ahmad Tohari, for example, took their inspiration from the living traditions of Indonesia′s ethnic groups.

Cyber literature also began to blossom during this decade, providing a counterweight to the elite mainstream media. Cyber authors use the Internet (mailing lists, blogs and social media such as Facebook and Twitter) as a medium for publishing their literary works.

Poems, short stories, essays and literary criticism are the types of writing most frequently published online. And in this context, there is one name that must be mentioned: Saut Situmorang. The poet, who lives in the central Javan city of Jakarta, is one of the most influential and critical personalities of the online literature scene.

Komunitas Utan Kayu/Salihara

In 1994, Goenawan Mohamad founded the "Komunitas Utan Kayu" (KUK) cultural centre, which was renamed the "Komunitas Salihara" in 2008 when it moved to the Jalan Salihara (a street in South Jakarta). The centre also published the culture magazine Kalam, which was originally intended as a counterweight to the dominant literary magazine Horison. The magazine became an online-only publication in 2007.

Salihara, like Utan Kayu before it, frequently absorbs new intellectuals and writers into its group, helping them to become more widely known. The institution also sets literary trends. Successful examples include the authors Ayu Utami and Laksmi Pamuntjak. Goenawan Mohamad has succeeded in creating an empire that critics claim has led to hegemony in Indonesia′s literary world.

Author and publicist Goenawan Mohamad (photo: DW/Hendra Pasuhuk
Facing criticism: Goenawan Mohamad is accused of using the Book Fair to further the interests of his Salihara group. The Indonesian writer A.S. Laksana′s assessment of the selection process for the books to be presented in Frankfurt is that it lacks transparency and comprehensible criteria

The Boemi Poetra group has been speaking out against this for some time. The "leaders" of this group are Saut Situmorang and Wowok Hesti Prabowo. Saut Situmorang in particular uses social media to express his displeasure.

The Frankfurt Book Fair 2015

Although Indonesian literature is in the ascendant at home, it has so far failed to establish itself internationally. The number of works translated from Indonesian is still very small.

After Indonesia was chosen as guest of honour at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, the Indonesian government′s initial reaction was one of bewilderment. As a result, preparations have been slow and lacked structure.

There has been much discussion and advice on the upcoming event since 2014. But although a list of over 2000 titles from the most diverse genres was drawn up, a mere 300 were eventually chosen for the translation funding programme. The Indonesian ministry for education and training allocated a total of 144 billion rupiah to the project.

Initially, some writers didn′t pay too much attention to the event. A lot of authors prefer to retain independence from government agencies. But there was mutiny in the ranks when Goenawan Mohamad, of all people, was named as head of the organising committee for the Book Fair.

Writers like A.S. Laksana, Linda Christanty and Saut Situmorang took to social media to criticise the planning process for the presentation of Indonesian literature. Goenawan Mohamad is being accused of using the Book Fair to further the interests of his Salihara group. A.S. Laksana′s assessment of the selection process for the books to be presented in Frankfurt is that it lacks transparency and comprehensible criteria.

Aside from the polemic surrounding preparations for Indonesia′s attendance at the Book Fair, it remains a great honour for Indonesia and its literature. Hopes are high that in the future, more and more literary works from the island nation will be translated into other languages.

Wayan Sunarta

© 2015

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

Wayan Sunarta was born on 22 July 1975 in Denpasar on the island of Bali. Having completed a degree in anthropology, he went on to study painting at the ISI Denpasar (Indonesian Institute of Art). At the beginning of the nineties, he began writing poems, short stories, articles, art and literary criticism. His work regularly features in local and national publications, among others the magazine ″Tempo″ and newspapers such as ″Bali Post″, ″Kompas″, ″The Jakarta Post″.

More on this topic