A Jakarta Romance

It was meant to be a holiday. When local theatre/film producer Lorna Tee, Options journalist Danny Lim and I bought our plane tickets to Jakarta, we were only meant to hang out with our mutual friend, indie filmmaker Amir Muhammad. But as our moment of departure grew nearer, we discovered that our holidaying plans would be synergistically hijacked by work.

As event co-ordinator of the inaugural KL International Literary Fest, Lorna was to meet up with a few Indon writers to recruit some of them for the Fest. Meanwhile, Danny would cover the parliamentary elections campaign. As for me, I reluctantly packed my laptop hoping to finish some overdue work in between bouts of shopping for batik shirts. It was all supposed to be very sedate. O but how naïve I was.

Not that I’m going to complain about it. Because, you know how it’s like when you fall in love: It always happens when you least expect it. And you don’t realise how deep in you were until you’re back home exhausted, alone in bed, thumb-sucking, recovering from the shock. And yes, I guess that’s what happened.  I fell in love with Jakarta. More accurately, with its books.

I guess I felt it first stir when I tagged along with Lorna to one of the Gramedia chain bookstores (the Indon equivalent of MPH or Times here) in Jakarta on the third day. The first thing I noticed was that most of the books were in Bahasa Indonesia. (It felt strange, yet exciting, not unlike the first time I read Derrida.) Although a large percentage were works originally written in Bahasa Indon, many were translated from other languages. While this wasn’t really surprising considering the fact that most Indonesians aren’t fluent in other languages, I was really taken aback by the range of translated titles on offer. They ranged from technical books on management and engineering to literature and philosophy (including one book by Derrida, of all people).

My first impression was that Indonesians are really thirsty for knowledge, unlike Malaysians who seem to have overdosed long ago. Also, the number of new books by Indon writers I’ve never heard of, some dressed in fashionably designed covers, with catchy and amusing titles such as Seperti Sebuah Novel Yang Malas Mengisahkan Manusia, by Afrizal Malna, or Ada Berita Apa Hari Ini, Den Sastro?, by Sapardi Djoko Damono. Although I only vaguely understood what they could about, it was so exciting. For a while, it was as though I’d stepped into an alternative version of Malaysia, one where writers were feverishly popping out one book after another and not always so concerned about distinctions between high and low art. Then again, these initial impressions were rather superficial.

To put some perspective on it, there are some things one has to realise about Jakarta. If size is anything to go by, Jakarta’s hardcore readership (say maybe 10 percent of the city’s estimated 15 million denizens) would easily dwarf KL’s softcore readership by 10 times or more. So it’s no big surprise. The demand is enough to justify the plethora of books. And due to the language barrier that Indonesians have inadvertently set up for themselves, I guess Indons are more inclined to read Indon stuff. I guess it’s a bit like being Japanese.

Jakarta’s sheer size would also go some way in explaining why the city has a robust publishing industry. According to Sitok Srengenge, a poet, painter, publisher and program co-ordinator at Komunitas Utan Kayu (a community of writers, artists and theatre practioners served by a multidisciplinary arts complex, which also has a great little bookstore, in the eastern Jakarta suburb of Utan Kayu), as many as 100 literary titles (mostly poetry and short story collections and novels) are published annually, with more coming out every year.

While most titles sell modestly, under 10,000 copies (which by Malaysian standards would qualify for a bestseller), some are bona fide bestsellers, such as Ayu Utami’s award-winning novel Saman, which moved 750,000 units. I’m not sure if any novel by any Malaysian has ever sold that many, not that that’s any indication of quality (e.g. Shahnon Ahmad’s controversial Shit). But it does make the average Malaysian writer feel somewhat inadequate. Even more impressive is the number of small-scale publishing houses, which number in the hundreds across Indonesia (although it’s mostly Java-centric), no doubt supported by a printing industry that manages to operate at a fraction of the cost in Malaysia.

Part of Jakarta’s hearty literary scene can be circuitously attributed to the fall of Suharto. While the experience was bitter for some minority groups such as the pribumi Chinese, Suharto’s exit allowed a breath of optimism to sweep through the whole country, including Indonesia’s arts scene. For the first time, according to Sitok, people were allowed to think freely (not that free thinking did not exist under Suharto’s regime). It was surprising to learn that when Gus Dur took over the country, one of the first things he did was dismantle the Ministry of Information, which freed publishers from having to seek government permission to publish. (Hey, that could be a lesson for Pak Lah!)

Suharto’s demise also produced a kind of ideological shift in the literary scene. While the works of poets and writers from an earlier era such as Rendra and Pramoedya were more concerned with identity, nationalism and politics, young writers are more interested with defining the existential worth of the individual, in thoroughly modern and irreverent terms. 36-year-old Ayu Utami, for instance, ignited the current feminist-centred literary revolution, in which female sexuality and gender politics are discussed and explored in a frank manner. Her success spawned a slew of young women writers hell bent on proving that men don’t have a monopoly on literature. Of course, it also indirectly sparked a whole gamut of sexploitation novels. One can’t have it good all the time, I guess.

Other young Indon writers explore equally morally challenging themes, with treatments ranging from neo­ pastoral spiritual wanderings to science fiction and fantasy to nonsensical Surrealist arty farty excursions (which excited me the most). The wealth and diversity of the works is simply stimulating, especially when one compares it to contemporary Malaysian literature, especially the examples sanctioned by our own proudly lackadaisical DBP. Curiously absent in Jakarta bookstores are Malaysian books, which perhaps explains why Indon writers are generally blissfully ignorant of Malaysian writers. (In fact, it’s hard to find Malaysian books over here.)

Placing the blame on Malaysia’s poor show of great writers and books is a bit disingenuous, however. A writer can only be as great as his/her audience, or the publishing structure that supports the writer. And I kind of agree that the success of Indonesia’s literary scene must also be attributed to a reading population and a diverse band of publishers ready to accept and toss around new ideas. But it’s definitely interesting how, judging by the sheer wealth of books, Indons don’t just see books as space fillers or eye candy but physical manifestations of their ability to continually re-invent themselves. And that’s definitely something Malaysians can’t be faulted for. Maybe it’s something in Jakarta water. Or maybe it has something to do with how Indons see themselves, culturally, which is a topic so beautifully vast that it makes the Malaysians-searching-for-Malaysian-identity issue (from which we have yet to move beyond since Independence) so humdrum.

So, it’s getting clearer. Do Malaysians in general suffer from a ‘tail wagging the dog’ complex? (God, have we always suffered from it? Burn.) Somehow, I can’t help feeling that, when it comes down to the bottom line, it’s about the courage and audacity of individual writers such as Ayu (who is a babe, by the way), unafraid of saying what’s on their minds, that makes Indon literature so rich and healthy. Even Indon batik looks more alive. Not to mention dangdut superstar Inul and her pelvic pummeling. All this makes me go: Hot damn, those Indons are really funky!

Nevertheless, if there’s any consolation for us Malaysians, Indons generally admire us for our economic and political stability. Despite what some of us may think of Mahathir, most Indons respect him for his assertive leadership (but only up until the Anwar fracas). And everyone I met said how foxy and talented Siti Nurhaliza is. Cold comfort is all I can say.

Anyway, I brought back some Indon books with me (plus a dictionary in case I stumble unknowingly) to prove that I have definitely been touched. (Lorna’s infatuation proved to be more severe, with a two-feet-high stack of Indon books to her credit.) And although I’ve yet to start devouring them, I’ve cleared a shelf just for them, to begin the next phase of my Jakarta book love affair.


This article was first published in Options 2, The Edge, July 26, 2004.

First Published: 12.08.2004 on Kakiseni

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