That’s right, “a portion”. There are still more. As I told Sophie–a journalist and writer living in Balikpapan who had coffee with me at the airport before my departing flight–I feel like a hungry caterpillar on a giant leaf. There’s a lot of book for a professional bookworm to munch through. I’ve started the munching: I’ve finished two short-story collections. One is entitled Bingkisan Petir [A Parcel of Thunder]–an anthology of short stories by several different East Kalimantan writers. The other, Badadai, is an anthology of stories written by women from East Kalimantan (though it includes a few guest-writers from Jakarta). “Badadai” is a Banjarese word which means “to put laundry out to dry in the sun”; but it can also mean to display oneself in order to attract attention…or in the case of prostitutes, the attention of potential clients. As I reach for a third book (either a novel or an anthology of novel excerpts), I begin to digest what I’ve read so far and also what I’ve gleaned from conversations with the writers I met there.
Digestion is an apt analogy for this process. My doctorate is actually in English literature, and in English literary studies, so many of the works that we write on today have been digested for us already–part of an elite few that have “stood the test of time” to become “great”; that have been deemed worthy of analysis and representative of their period; that have already been the object of so much criticism. Multitudes of poems, stories, essays, novels are thinned out and become the few that we find published and republished again as Penguin or Oxford or Barnes & Noble “Classics”, or the few that high school teachers and college professors (including myself) assign for their courses on Victorian literature or postcolonial literature. Hmmm…I didn’t mean for this image to end up so human centipede-ish (if you don’t know the reference, don’t worry about it), but there you go.
In contrast, I embark on this project with an awareness–half exhilarating, half unsettling–that as I think about which texts to pay closer analysis to than others, what clusters and categories to sort texts and writers into, and what approach to take when reading these texts, that the comforting guidance of accepted syllabi and widely-accepted critical opinions is absent.
Gone also are other ways of sorting literary works that I never really thought too much about before this project: many East Kalimantan writers have self-published their work, or have had their work sponsored by the regional government in an effort to promote culture and the arts. But in this case, self-publication does not necessarily mean that the text should be taken less seriously. Many of the writers spoke of the difficulty East Kalimantan writers experienced in getting their work accepted by forums and publishing houses in Java. Some felt it was because they were regional writers–writers not from the centre, the metropole of Java–and thus lacked the connections needed to get their work accepted, circulated, or published. Others felt that it was truly because the quality of writing in East Kalimantan was, overall, still lower than the quality of works produced in Java, which they said had a more arts-friendly environment and culture; but they still felt that many self-published works were nonetheless important artistic milestones in the literary history of East Kalimantan.
Another question I face is what makes a text “East Kalimantan” enough? Several writers pointed out that a lot of East Kalimantan writers have actually relocated from somewhere else in Indonesia, or are descended from parents or grandparents from another part of Indonesia. Many East Kalimantan writers have also spent a considerable amount of time overseas. Many more East Kalimantan writers have written works that are vague about the location or specific cultural milieu in which takes place, or that take place in other settings like Jakarta. Stil others said that though they set their stories in East Kalimantan–Balikpapan, Samarinda, or Bontang for example–that setting wasn’t really that important to the story itself. If “local color” or “locality”, as many writers there termed it, isn’t present in a piece of East Kalimantan literature, how “East Kalimantan” is it?
The writers I spoke to were aware that East Kalimantan literature itself was in the process of defining its own identity–a process attested to by the very, very recent publication of several authoritative anthologies put out by a local publishing house with the help of government funds. These anthologies are themselves attempts to record a history of and identify key figures in modern East Kalimantan literature from the 1930s to the present. Through these anthologies, it seems that a canon is in the process of formation. And that is something that I, as a researcher, have to keep a critical awareness about as well.
In the meantime, I’ll keep reading.