It’s Bigger on the Inside than It is on the Outside: Thoughts on ‘Regional’ Literature from East Kalimantan

In a little less than a month, I’ll be giving a presentation on recent short story anthologies from East Kalimantan at a conference held by the Asian Studies Association of Australia. It’s part of the larger research project on East Kalimantan literature I started earlier this year. It’s meant to be a harbinger…kind of like the first robin of spring or John the Baptist. Wouldn’t that be something? A literary research project that would thaw snow, bloom flower-buds, forgive sins, and raise the dead! Those were definitely two analogies that got completely out of hand. In any case, the point is that this conference paper will be my first formalish attempt to coherently condense and express some of the thoughts that have been percolating inside my head during the past few months I’ve spent reading these short story collections. So…what are some of those thoughts?

They mostly have to do with how the subject-matter dealt with by the stories in the collection defy attempts to read them as purely ‘regional’ or ‘local’ in focus, even though all five of the short-story collections I’ll be examining explicitly identify themselves as of ‘East Kalimantan’. Certainly, you do find:

1. elements in the stories that are undoubtedly ‘regional’ or ‘local’. For example, many of the stories are set in East Kalimantan: the major cities of Samarinda (the capital city of the province) or Balikpapan, small towns like Bontang, villages in the remote inner regions of the forest, or mining and logging sites. Some of the stories deal with or are set against the destruction being wreaked on the natural environment in the region due to coal-mining and logging. Some of the stories highlight or mention various traditions held by indigenous ethnic groups such as the Dayaks.

But many of the same stories, and some of the other stories, also possess:

2. elements that situate a story within the larger national context of Indonesia. For example: characters who were born in East Kalimantan but are living elsewhere in Indonesia to attend university or find work; characters who’ve returned from schooling or working in other cities and islands; characters who now live in East Kalimantan, but have their origins elsewhere. And then there are the stories that are, very simply, set somewhere else in Indonesia entirely: Yogyakarta or Jakarta or Makassar, to name a few.

In addition to both ‘local’ and national elements, one also finds:

3. elements that situate a story in an international context. For example, a story that takes place against the backdrop of a Malaysian-Indonesia border dispute concerning the Ambalat Territory; or a story about a man who grows up as a pariah in his home-village because he is half-bule or Caucasian–the result of his mother being raped by one of the many foreign workers imported by the natural-resource companies operating in the area; or a story about a 15th century sailor and his daughter who migrate from China to settle in East Kalimantan; or a story about a former gangster who is performing the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca; or a story about a woman who lives in Paris whose former lover writes to her from East Kalimantan where he works and where he has married a local girl.

And last but not least, there are:

4. elements that are…well…not evocative of place. Stories in which location is not disclosed or simply doesn’t play a significant role at all. The girl who falls in love with Twilight and rejects the love of the Moon; the corrupt public servant who signs up to win a free tour of heaven, and instead, ends up being sent to hell; a young woman who learns to acknowledge and respect her step-mother as her own mother.

One way of interpreting the sum of these elements would be to say that some of the stories are ‘regional’ in focus, while some aren’t. But I’d like to propose another way of thinking about them: that they are ‘regional’, but not ‘regional’ in the narrow way one often understands ‘regional’ or ‘local’ literature to be.

I was poking around a bit in the scholarship on American regional literature studies, and there are a few people who have written on the complicated nature of the ties between regional literature and the non-regional: the national, the cosmopolitan, the global, and so on. For example, Tom Lutz in Cosmopolitan Vistas (2004) notes how a sort of ‘cosmopolitanism’ was inherent in impulse to create and pay attention to ‘regional literature’ in America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. That those interested in portraying cultures and communities at the local, non-metropolitan level were acting out of the desire to expand and enhance existing knowledge of America. That their portrayal of the local went hand in hand with an awareness of a regional setting in relation to other regions and the wider world.

We could consider works that identify themselves as from a particular region but that don’t deal with the regional in their subject-matter to be not really regional at all. Or we could think about how the category of the ‘regional’ in these cases is expanding and engulfing other categories that we think of as bigger in some way: the ‘national’, ‘the ‘international’, the ‘universal’. To use a silly analogy, let’s think for a moment of the TARDIS from the TV series, Dr. Who. For those unfamiliar with the series, this Youtube video might help. Alternatively, here’s a picture:

I’m not going to go into immense detail about the Dr Who series, so some of you can breathe a sigh of relief. I just want to say that this is the TARDIS, or Time and Relative Dimension in Space device that the Doctor basically uses to travel through …well…time and space. A time machine, basically. It’s always described as ‘bigger on the inside than it is on the outside’ because it is. There are several large rooms and cool gadgets in the interior. Again, it’s a somewhat random parallel to draw for the sake of illustrating a way of thinking about ‘regional’ literature: that the ‘regional’ might be ‘bigger on the inside than it is on the outside’; or that, it’s like Walt Whitman’s speaker in “Song of Myself”:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

But conceptually, they might be useful analogies to make. So that’s the direction the ASAA conference paper is taking at the moment, and that’s the general thematic direction in which I’m thinking the whole project will go!

3 thoughts on “It’s Bigger on the Inside than It is on the Outside: Thoughts on ‘Regional’ Literature from East Kalimantan

  1. CG Olsen says:

    I made a TARDIS reference in my dissertation (together with a Wardrobe reference). Also a Johnny Cash “Ring of Fire” reference. Not that I’m bragging or anything…

    The idea of “regional” literature sounds like an interesting topic for me to take up in my new position here at Gustavus– our department is based on the idea of Scandinavia as a region, after all, and it would tie in well with my work in cultural memory, heritage, and communal identity.

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