Category Archives: Literature

Why Aren’t More Indonesian Literary Works Published Abroad?

It’s a question often posed to me by foreign writers and scholars, maybe because I speak English or maybe they know me at one time as a bookseller and a publisher of translated works of Indonesian writers. In any case, it’s not an easy question to answer.
Most of us thought at first, with the international publications of Pramoedya’s tetralogy, more writers from Indonesia should by rights follow on the path he had opened up. The reality is nothing of the kind. Only a few writers – Seno Gumira Adjidarma, Goenawan Mohamad, Sapardi Djoko Damono, Danarto, Ayu Utami and Eka Kurniawan — have been published abroad, albeit through small publishing houses or university presses. No writer after Pramoedya Ananta Toer has enjoyed the kind of success as Pramoedya did. Pramoedya’s books are on the Fiction & Literature shelves of Barnes and Noble, W.H. Smith, Borders and most well stocked bookstores everywhere in the world. Pramoedya’s first international fame was introduced by Max Lane’s translations of his famed tetralogy. These novels were published by one of America’s most respectable publishing houses, Hyperion. Later, Penguin also secured rights for U.K and the commonwealth countries.
For quite a long while, over 20 odd years under the repressive scrutiny of the New-Order regime, Pramoedya was principally known abroad for his four novels: This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass; because none of his other works were translated. Around year 2001, in the initial bloom of reformasi here in Indonesia, fresh interest in his other works still not translated gathered pace. Tales of Djakarta was published locally by Mark Hanusz of Equinox, translated by The Nusantara Translation Group, then C.W Watson’s translation of It’s Not An All Night Fair, published also by Equinox, a version of Girl from the Coast was published by Select Books in Singapore, later retranslated by Willem Samuels (aka John McGlynn), who afterward also translated All That Is Gone. Most recently, Max Lane translated Arok of Java published by Horizon Books in Singapore. When I talked to Max Lane last, he was planning to work on next in the trilogy of the Arok legend, Reverse Current (Arus Balik) and Mangir. The last years before Pramoedya’s death, he enjoyed the success and recognitions long overdue to him. He received the Fukuoka Cultural Grand Prize in 2000, The Norwegian Authors Union 2004 and Centenario Pablo Neruda 2004. He was always rumored to be in the run for the Nobel Prize. His works were translated in some forty countries worldwide. He bought a house in Bogor. He got an agent based in Barcelona named Anna Solar-pont, who helps manage the sales of rights of his works and the collection of royalties. There were various speculations of This Earth of Mankind to be filmed by a renowned Hollywood director, but nothing came out of that. Meanwhile, Pram’s agent in Barcelona vexed about the lagging response from his family to her queries about requests she had received from international parties on various rights of his works.
One can simply wonder whether the Pramoedya Ananta Toer Estate will be in good care under his children’s watch. For it is apparent from what I’ve learned it is in disarray, either for lack of communications skills or the awareness of the mechanism of the international rights systems on the part of Pramoedya’s heirs.
Most Indonesian authors can seem rather intractable when it comes to interactions with foreign interests. Some writers remain stalwart about not letting any editors circumcise their texts; they believe in absolute artistic autonomy over their works. Editors are dismissed as charlatans unequalled to their art; they have no idea if Hemingway had a dedicated editor, Maxwell Perkins, who made his unruly spellings look good on the page and James Wood, the revered literary critic, has a youthful editor who constantly tells him off. Communications with some of these writers – whether because of their inability to grasp other languages or plain disinterest – can brook misunderstanding and not often incite outrages.
Most of the works of these writers, through no fault of theirs really, have not been translated. There is no concerted efforts by the government to promote these writers abroad, albeit throughout the years there have been attempts from a few private enterprises, such as Lontar Foundation through the support of various international bodies, in putting out master works of established writers. However, these trickle efforts often face an impasse in distribution outside of Indonesia; because of various reasons, I assume, but foremost of which I believe is funding to participate in international book fairs. There are, however, also no genuine efforts from the writers themselves to seek translation of their works.  There’s a sense that their works are done, let the others worry about them.
The young generation of writers is less complacent. In answer to my question, Eka Kurniawan, dubbed recently as heir to Pramoedya by Benedict Anderson, the renowned author of Imagined Communities from Cornell University, says, “Let’s face it, after Pramoedya, we don’t have a world-class author the equal of Haruki Murakami, Moyan, or Orphan Pamuk.” When told only three percent of world literature is published by the publishing giants in New York and London, he replies, “Then we should try to be good enough to fit into that three percent.” While I can’t completely agree with his assessments that we don’t have the equal of these preeminent authors he mentioned, I do admire his exuberance and his determination. His novel, Beauty is A Wound, was published this year by a Japanese literary publishing company and he just came back from an invitation to a university in Tokyo to talk about his new novel. He has had a good start and sees his future beyond the limitations that have enclosed his predecessors’ ascent to world literary stage.

A version of this article was published in The Jakarta Globe, January 2009

The Future of Reading

How often have we heard these refrains from parents about their children’s reading habits? They’re too engrossed with their Wii players to bother with books. Schoolwork has left them no time to curl up in a couch with a book. There are too many video games out there! Too many distractions, cable television programs: MTV, V, Hannah Montana, malls, coming-out bashes, birthdays on top of extra-curricular studies: math, science, music lessons, etc. Meanwhile, children of less fortunate parents bemoan their parents’ inability or ignorance for their needs for books.
In a recent television documentary by BBC that sparked a controversy over the correct method to measure the intelligence of today’s youth, the experts argued that the ignorance of today’s youth about classical works of Homer and Socrates et al should not be construed as their lack of intelligence or the decline of education. Today’s youth knows more than their parents about virtual technology: blogging, java script, cookies, cellular technology, systems software, video games, and to some extent, black holes, cloning and the superstring theory. Their times confront them with this knowledge and as a result in their daily struggle to stay abreast with the rest of their peers, their time is consumed in grappling with what is immediately before them. Should they be blamed for not knowing who wrote The Marriage of Figaro or what to make of Anabasis? However, one is persuaded to believe, should they be challenged to dip into Mozart or the writings of Xenophon, they are now more equipped than ever before with the most advanced technology to find out about them within seconds, just a click away to a wealth of information waiting in the virtual world of the internet.
Recently Sony introduced a new eBook product called Reader Digital Book. The size of a hard cover novel, this digital book ‘boasts a six-inch display, utilizing e-Link technology that’s almost paper-like.’ The device can ‘hold up to 160 books with expandable memory.’ It costs $299.99.  Just as Mozart, through digital mastering and packaged in CDs and accessible for download thanks to the internet, now reaches many more listeners, books of all kinds will reach more readers worldwide through such a device as Reader Digital Book.
Several years ago in a interview, Ken Kesey, the famed novelist of the psychedelic age who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, revealed that the modern times has allowed anyone to become a writer, in real time. A writer can bypass the publishing giants in New York or London, by posting his or her work on a blog. The problem is, he admits, writers still don’t know how to make a living from their writing in this way. (Ken Kesey remained poor to the day he died, an irony incommensurate with his fame and enlightenment.) Recently in a break from a dour session at The National Congress of Culture in Bogor, I had the opportunity to talk to James F Sundah, the composer of the renowned song Lilin Lilin Kecil (Little Candles) made famous by Chrisye. He told me composers can hardly expect to make money from their albums, with rampant piracy and lack of royalty systems in this country. But, he says enthusiastically, composers shouldn’t just resign helplessly to the onslaught of technology. He then detailed how he penetrated various virtual music communities and lured the members to his blog and download his compositions for a fee. He revealed triumphantly he’s making more money this way now than ever before. “As creators, we should always watch out for new technologies to distribute our works. Especially now in this technologically advanced age,” he says. Albeit, enthused by his admission, but I have yet to hear a similar success story from a writer. I know for a fact that Dewi Lestari, author of the popular Supernova series, released her latest literary works, through an agreement with Telkomsel, to be downloaded to the cellular phone at a reasonable price. However, the last time I met Dee, I didn’t detect the same jubilance as I sensed from James. From both these examples, at least we recognize, although it has missed Ken Kesey by a few years, the opportunity is out there to be plumbed by artists.
While most parents bemoan their children’s disinterest in books, the reality of the publishing world, at least in most parts of the world, paints a different picture. More books have been churned out each year in the past ten years. In fact, some writers liken the publishers’ excessive output to shooting at their own feet. Because most books in print pander to voracious readers of crimes, easy to follow self-help that promises immediate results, various guides from get-rich quick schemes to successful prom nights, romances in various guises, and fantasy. A quick glance at the New York Times will give one the indication where the reading public worldwide is headed: mindless reading. Ironically, the book supplement page in the New York Times boasts the most rigorous literary reviews in the world.
More bookstores have sprung up recently in Jakarta, but look in the shelves for more tasteful selections of books and one will be disappointed. Somehow, the phenomena that afflict most developed countries have found their way in Asia. The same books that enjoy major publicity, boosted by a large promotion fund, in New York and London, will similarly be devoured by a clerk in Hong Kong, Singapore and Jakarta. Since these books have been accepted by the majority of readers in the more established world, therefore they are read in like-minded conformity. There is hardly any critical resistance toward the trend. It’s as if it is in bad taste to revolt against what the rest of the world has unanimously agreed to be good.
Will these trends cause the decline of the intelligence of our children?  The BBC documentary has amply illustrated that is not likely to happen. The facts I presented above have also shown that books will still be read, albeit not necessarily through printed pages. The more immediate question that needs to be addressed: What will be the future of reading? Will our children simply gobble up Twilight, the ruling vampire romance by Stephenie Meyer, as their main intellectual fare? The answer to the last question, it’s already happened. It’s an undeniable reality. As for the answer to the former question, I think it depends on how we inculcate a sense of intellectual curiosity in our children. Banning them from reading certain books or worse damning them are futile efforts. It will only provoke disdain and more rebellious curiosity in our children. What we should do, I believe, is to stay away from thinking books as the first source of knowledge and intellectuality. The parents are. We should start seeding intellectual curiosity by engaging our children on a wide range of truths: life, death, faith, love, hatred, success & failure and issues of the world: economy, politics, environment. See which one of these subjects finds a foothold in their minds. Challenge their generalized assumptions and engage them thoroughly. In their rebellion, drop a few names of authors, which naturally will puzzle them and in their frustration, draw them to where they can truly look for more solid erudition (or in their minds, refutations): good serious books.  You’ll be surprised how ingeniously these smarty-pants will get back at you! And they will go further for more. That I reckon is how a tradition of intellectuality will begin.  At home. This tradition will check the hubris of the world at the door. Although how they will be reading their books, through a Reader Digital Book or their cellular phones, we can only surmise. And it hardly matters.

Rediscovering Raffles 200 Years On

Nearly two centuries after it was first published in 1817, The History of Java by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, thanks to Narasi, an independent publishing company based in Yogjakarta, is finally brought out in Indonesian language. The Indonesian version of The History of Java is a doorstopper at 904 pages, an agreeable hardbound single volume assembled from the two-volume Oxford University Presss’s original publication.

To many of us Indonesians, the name Raffles somehow has the associative ring of a posh British colonial-era club house, where we imagine, to those who read a bit, Somerset Maugham used to perch himself at the bar, with his pipe and whiskey, eavesdropping on the many tales being transacted among passing colonialists. In truth, we know less about Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, whose name is emblazoned on the shingle of a five-star hotel and shopping arcade and a college in Singapore, than say Daendels or the many Dutch governors of Batavia. And here was a man, a great visionary, who saw well ahead of most colonialists of his time that the Borobudur Temple proved that civilization had been in Indonesia thousands of years prior and more importantly that through industrious organization and the flourishing artistic skills, any indigenous people were capable of building a great civilization, thus culture and civilization were not per se the dominant traits of white Western people. Years later, after his discovery of The Borobudur Temple and the eventual return to oblivion of the same site once Indoneisa was handed back to the Dutch, his insight was proven afresh with the discovery of Angkor Wat.

When he arrived in Batavia, he rectified the forced land utilization laws implemented by the Dutch to the more encouraging land tax reform, understanding the difference between enforced slavery and regulatory land use. His understanding of the natives was never influenced by the biased opinions of the Dutch, who repeatedly pictured Javanese as being ‘vengeful, insubordinate to superiors, despotic and ruthless to their subordinates, cunning …’ Raffles’s own assessment on the ‘Amuk’, blind rage, which had often been attributed to the insensible temperament of the natives by the Dutch was recorded in The History of Java: “This frenzy, as a crime against society, seems, if not to have originated under the Dutch, certainly at least to have been increased during their administrations by the great severity of their punishments. For the slightest fault, a slave was punished with a severity which he dreaded as much as death. He often preferred to rush on death and vengeance.”

On a mission from the British Empire clearly to furnish her coffers with as much gains as he could muster from the rich spice trade, Raffles made sure enough provisions were sent back home to satisfy his bosses in The British East India Company. The rest of his time here, ensconced in his gubernatorial mansion in Bogor, he preoccupied himself with his pursuits for rare floras and faunas of Java. He was the discoverer of many species of plants and animals, which have now been tagged with his name: among others, Megalamia Rafflesi (Red-crowned Barbet), Chaetodon Rafflesi (Latticed Butterfly Fish) and the well-known parasite plant that attaches itself on palm trees, grown rampantly in Bengkulu region, Rafflesii Arnoldii. He was also collector of the magic coins called Gobog Wayang, relics of Javenese currencies during his time in Java, 1811-1816, now collected in The British Museum.

The History of Java might be read by some as a historical tract of a period of time in Indonesian history, for me it should be rediscovered as testament of an enlightened mind whose love and passion for this country was shown abundantly in his clear-minded, unbiased work, the forerunner of many such enlightened minds as Clifford Geertz and Benedict Anderson, that helped illuminate to us the richness and complexity of our people and culture. In an uncertain time such as what we are undergoing now, what with the ridiculous disputes over our Wayang, Batik and folksongs heritages with our neighboring kinsfolk, and finger-wagging condescendence for our incompetent self-governance from the Land of Oz, we need to go back to these invaluable works time and again to remind ourselves that our potentials as a people and a nation and as a culture had long been recognized, undisputed and well-recorded by an impartial and erudite soul as Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles.

If there were a luminary from a foreign nation worthy of our reassessment, in addition to the many accepted heroes in the annals of our history such as Multatuli etc., we should definitely reconsider Sir Thomas Raffles’s status in the history of our country. For after all, his idea of Singapore as a nation state with a leading port came about only after his return to Sumatra in 1819, that too because of his attachment to Java that he never stopped regretting to have been conceded back to the Dutch.

A version of this article was published in The Jakarta Globe, November 18, 2008

Being Intelligent in A Bling-Bling World

In modern-day estimate, a person’s level of intelligence is measured by h/her worth in the bank. By this estimation, Bill Gates is the most intelligent person on the planet by any category. Larry Ellison of the Oracle fortune is more intelligent than Donald Trump. Tiger Woods is the most intelligent person in the world of sports, above Phil Michelson and Ernie Els by a few visible notches. The two Toms in Hollywood, Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise, are the most intelligent men in the glitzy world of glamour, over such contenders as Will Smith and Denzel Washington.

What about Garrett Lisi? The genius on surfboard that wrote a paper, An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything, which, in the very near future, might just crack the impasse in the research for Theory of Everything of the universe. Granted, Mr. Lisi still has a ways to go before he would be considered anywhere near a contender to Einstein, who is incidentally the only person one would think of as being intelligent without in the same breath considering his worth in the bank. But Lisi is undoubtedly ranked way up there, above and beyond Bill Gates or Tiger Woods or the Toms, in the general measurement of intelligence quotients. Unless he breaks through brilliantly with affirmation of his theory, Lisi will, however, be considered a person with contentious intelligence in the select community of scientists. Outside of this community, he’s just a geek.

Ironic and unfair? Oh sure, but that’s the reality of modern day’s sense of value for intelligence. Ask a regular Joe about what he understands by Einstein’s intelligence, he will most probably scratch his head and at best jots down E=mc2. He wouldn’t be any wiser of course that the formula is supposed to explain how energy can be converted by multiplying the mass by the square of the speed of light. Ask him why he thinks Bill Gates is intelligent, he might suddenly wax loquacious, describing an expansive empire of Windows EX software packages, Xbox players, and the recent investment forays into the search directory domain, etc. etc. In a fuzzy logical way, intelligence has become the generic term for success. Erudition is a redundant marker that bears no significance.

It’s also interesting to note how intelligence has become the thing to be avoided at all costs in conversations. To the list of religion, politics and race, now we should add intelligence.  Any crazy dude who comes to a party and tries to make an opening gambit in a conversation with how excited he is that now after almost twenty years in construction the biggest atom smasher, Large Hadron Collider, is in full operation, will definitely encounter a grimace and awkward shifts of legs, and quick exits in the group. Or try another approach, talk about the new translation of War and Peace by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. How much improved and more precise this new version is as opposed to the Constance Garnett’s version. Eyes rolled up, glazed over, sudden acknowledgment of invisible beckoning hands from the next table. Whoever this guy is, he will be branded for sure a social moron.

Intellectualism is considered poor taste. One is supposed to hide it, conceal it with great discretion, to eschew the wrathful disdain of general public. Try and make a serious film with intelligent dialogues, the writer and filmmaker will be accused of being high-mindedly patronizing. No writer in h/her right mind would think of going for another War and Peace or The Novel of the Century. In an egalitarian society, all men and women are equal. Or in more layman terms, try and impress a girl at the bar with your intelligence, chances are you’ll be tooted with an upturned nose and a shrug of cold shoulder. You might have a better crack at it by being a funny bone.
No man or woman deserves the highchair of wisdom (intelligence) unless he or she has amassed great fortunes to show for it: see J.K Rowling. In the film industry, see Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. That seems to be the rule of thumb these days. In other words, intelligence is meaningless unless it can be measured in clear materialistic or commercial terms, such as how many private jets Bill Gates owns. Or by how many orphanages Angelina Jollie helps to build in underdeveloped countries. There must be a tangible value for it to count.

Any efforts in scholarly studies or pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself will be seconded by any studies that promise clear commercial gains. It’s easy to see nowadays why intelligence shouldn’t be flaunted, because it is generally considered inappropriately pretentious in any social setting, while great wealth should be visibly bragged about: watch how Oprah Winfrey wags her coiffeur in mock humility while commiserating with her multimillionaire sports star guest on the pains of being a celebrity and being rich. Measurable or immeasurable wealth is in our age the new badge of intelligence.

A version of this article was published in The Jakarta Globe, November 25, 2008

What’s in a Name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

So says Shakespeare. And the world would be a better place for all of us if we only heeded the old Bard’s words. What is swirling in the vortex of today’s conflicts can be traced back to this one meaningless term: identity. In the name of identity, the Israelis are waging wars against the Palestines. In the name of identity, Christians are pitted against the Muslims, the liberals against the conservatives, women against men. Americans against the rest of the world. There is no sign any of this is letting up any time soon.

What is identity, really? Why does it trouble the world so? On the surface, it’s a label attached to a person since birth. The label then becomes a badge of honor that constitutes a person’s proud heritage, unity within a group or organization. This label is inescapable. Amartya Sen in his book Identity & Violence describes how we are mindlessly drawn into this penumbra of identity and just as mindlessly, almost in a sort of an illusion, consider it our destiny. He strongly rejects the mindlessness of our association with any group or creed.
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