THE INDONESIAN WRITERS ARE WHERE THEY’VE ALWAYS BEEN AND STOP MAKING THEM INVISIBLE


note: I originally published this essay as a Twitter thread. I retain the block-formatting and capital letters for readability. This version also makes a correction: Pam Allen’s essay actually appeared in late 2017, not early 2018.

I repeat here what I say in the essay: Pam Allen has been a tireless friend and advocate of Indonesian literature and I respect her efforts and dedication immensely. In my opinion, any shortcomings of her essay simply expose the shortcomings of the western Anglosphere as a whole (and of which I too am part, lest we/I feel too smug about ourselves/myself.

I apologize in advance for any deficiencies in my own westernized perspective via this essay. As Norman Erikson Pasaribu has also said via Twitter, Indonesian writers need to be handed the microphone.


Also, I know I said I was going to discontinue this blog, but then I wrote this
and wanted to post it in its entirety for ease of public access. Apologies.

*ESSAY BEGINS*

Some context: this thread is prompted by an essay that was circulated by the National Centre for Writing as part of the preparatory buzz for this year’s 2019 London Book Fair (March 12-14). The essay, by Pamela Allen, originally appeared in late 2017 in the translation journal IN OTHER WORDS.

This thread is secondarily a response to the 2 essays on Indonesian literature by Harry Aveling and John McGlynn respectively that were also published by In Other Words in subsequent issues.


Allen’s essay was undoubtedly penned with the intent of championing Indonesian literature – she has long been a tireless translator, scholar, and advocate of Indonesian writing. BUT…


despite the author’s best intentions, I believe the essay does more harm than good, especially by being circulated on the eve of the London Book Fair when its remarks will be taken as accurate insight about modern and contemporary Indonesian lit.


Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the essay gives the impression that the only Indonesian literature available in English translation are Lontar’s Modern Library and Annie Tucker’s translations of Eka Kurniawan and Ratih Kumala . This is patently untrue.


In writing exclusively about the above works while lamenting the immense global unpopularity of Indonesian literature, the essay sends the false message that there are no other works of Indonesian lit to be found in English.


And thus ignores and erases the accomplishments of so many Indonesian writers, their translators and publishers. I include herewith some examples of books, not in order, with no assessment of their ‘quality’. It’s not comprehensive, but I admit my partial knowledge.


Take the poetry of Khairani Barokka – INDIGENOUS SPECIES from Tilted Axis Press and ROPE from Nine Arches Press , or Eliza Vitri Handayani’s novel FROM NOW ON EVERYTHING WILL BE DIFFERENT, which came out with Vagabond Press in 2015…


Take Amazon Crossing’s pub. of Nukila Amal’s THE ORIGINAL DREAM; Abidah El Khalieqy’s NIRZONA; Laksmi Pamuntjak’s THE QUESTION OF RED and THE BIRDWOMAN’S PALATE, the latter of which I translated…


…as well as Dee Lestari’s PAPER BOATS, also for AmazonCrossing (but you wouldn’t know about the latter from Allen’s essay which implies that no other translation of Dee Lestari’s work apart from Aveling’s trans. of SUPERNOVA published by Lontar exists…


How about the translations by Dalang Publishing? (writers inc. Hanna Rambe, Erni Aladjai, Lan Fang) – some of which are highlighted here by Indonesian academic Manneke Budiman (like mine, not a comprehensive list by any means).


Or Y.B. Mangunwijaya’s DURGA/UMAYI trans. by Ward Keeler, or Ayu Utami’s SAMAN (which Allen herself translated)?, or Burton Raffel’s trans. of Chairil Anwar’s poetry?


The partial list I provide here takes into account the fact that Allen’s essay was published in late 2017. Since then, there have been several more translated Indonesian books published in English by non-Indonesian presses…


such as Intan’s Intan Paramaditha’s short story collection APPLE AND KNIFE (trans. by Stephen Epstein; Brow Books and Harvill Secker); and from Vagabond Press, Eliza Vitri Handayani’s trans. of Avianti Armand’s WOMEN WHOSE NAMES WERE ERASED…


Or the translations of two collections of short stories by the literary great, Sitor Situmorang: OCEANS OF LONGING and RED GERBERAS, which came out recently with Silkworm Books ?…


Not to mention Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s queer poetry collection SERGIUS SEEKS BACCHUS, which I translated and is forthcoming with Tiled Taxis Press imminently…


I’ll add myself. I consider myself an Indonesian writer, albeit a hyphenated one (I have lived outside Indonesia for most of my life). My novel UNDER YOUR WINGS came out mid-last-year w/ Penguin Australia and the US edition is forthcoming w/ Atria Books as THE MAJESTIES…


The aforementioned are books published by non-Indonesian publishers. Actually, a lot of Indonesian writers write in English or codeswitch—Mikael Johani, Theodora Sarah Abigail …


…Madina Malahayati Chumaera, Yacinta Kurniasih have written in English and have been published in Indonesia.


And those are just the books: there have been countless translations of poems and short stories published by numerous magazines both off- and online. To give only 3 examples: 1) Eliza Vitri Handayani’s translation initiative InterSastra …


2) Kill Your Darlings’ Indonesian lit showcase in conj. w/ UWRF: ……


3) And works published by Asymptote via their issues … and blog (inc. this multipart showcase Norman and I curated (link to final instalment and all preceding ones here …)


In short, by failing to even hint at the other Indonesian works that were available at the time of the essay’s penning, and by circulating the essay without an addendum or updated information on the cusp of a book fair purporting to focus on Indonesian literature…


the author and the National Centre for Writing have done more harm than good, again, despite best intentions, *because* they have broadcast to those most curious about its availability that these other works and writers do not exist…


My concern: informed that Lontar’s Modern Library series, Eka Kurniawan, and Ratih Kumala are the only Indonesian works in English to be found, those hunting for Indonesian lit may search no further. This is terribly, terribly sad.


A little while ago, I tweeted my worry that the London Book Fair would act like a spotlight: shining on some, but also creating the illusion that no one else exists on the Indonesian literary stage.


Another analogy for my worry: this London Book Fair’s Market Focus will function like the internet: if something’s not online, we privileged net users assume it doesn’t exist because for us, the internet gives the illusion of comprehensive coverage.


In the same way, essays such as this one which imply comprehensive coverage or full authority on a subject—in this case, Indonesian literature—do a great disservice by committing the sin of omission.


I repeat: in this case, to omit is to erase, and the erasure in question is of the hard-earned accomplishments of numerous Indonesian writers and their translators and publishers.


So when in subsequent essays published by IN OTHER WORDS, Harry Aveling and Lontar’s head and cofounder John McGlynn provide a very selective list of Indonesian works available in English while lamenting the unpopularity of Indonesian literature on the world literary scene…


the effect is the same. Because people trust these purported authorities on the subject. And so asserting that Indonesian literature in English does not exist or is wildly unpopular becomes a self-fulfilling statement, obscuring Indonesian literature from view.


Thus McGlynn claims in his essay that his has been ‘a steeply upward climb to promote Indonesian literature in translation’, yet fails to reflect on how his omission of numerous translated Indonesian literary works contributes to, compounds the problem.


How do you promote something that you deliberately erase? (For there is absolutely no doubt that he knows of these writers and their translations.)


If as McGlynn asserts in his essay that Lontar has been unsuccessfully promoting Indonesian literature among English-speaking audiences since 1987, perhaps this failure to acknowledge non-Lontar-published Indonesian writing in English has contributed to this failure.


For is it not suspicious that the fourth most populous country in the world has such a small global literary footprint in spite of its extraordinarily rich and diverse literary history and incredibly active literary scene?


But there are still other factors to blame, as we shall see. Let’s now consider how Allen’s essay and the others’ are symptomatic of the problems with the way the English-speaking West approaches Indonesian writing.


(I want to restate: there is no doubt that Pamela Allen means to be a friend and advocate of Indonesian literature. Of this I have no doubt. The time and passion and effort she has pored into her scholarship and her translation work is undeniable and I respect her accordingly…


…The deficiencies of her essay simply demonstrate deficiencies that plague English-speaking western scholars and those in the publishing industry, even those knowledgeable about Indonesia.)


The essay states that Indonesian literature ‘has come to be understood as not merely a product for consumption and entertainment, but as a significant part of the project of nation building’.


In what ways does this linking of writer to ‘nation-building’ narrow and filter the lens through which Indonesian writers are to be understood?
Eka Kurniawan has posted a critical response to Allen’s essay on his FB page and expresses the same concern.


Perceiving Indonesian writing as inextricably tied to nation-construction, flattens individual voices into literary loudspeakers for ’the nation’, and sets up an interpretive framework that dismisses writers who don’t write about national issues.


Let’s also examine the essay’s speculation as to why Indonesian writing is apparently so unpopular, so ‘invisible’, which Eka’s FB response has also addressed:…


…that ‘a full appreciation of many literary works from Indonesia is in some ways contingent upon an understanding of socio-political context’, which Allen concludes from many people saying so.


At this juncture, I think we should take Allen’s observation seriously and use it as an entry point to consider if this is indeed true. For, as Eka’s FB response points out, the same might be said of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or Grass’s Tin Drum.


And I’d like to add: what about Dickens’s novels, Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, James Joyces’s work? Do not those unfamiliar with their sociohistoric contexts (Indonesian readers, say) take these cultural and historical details in their stride?…


Indonesian readers are sent the message by the English-lang hegemon that comprehending such ‘great works’ requires effort, and so they accommodate their reading tastes accordingly, rather than relying on the assumption that ’literary classics’ are ‘too hard’ and ‘complex’.


Why isn’t the reverse true? Why is it that beloved Indonesian classics have, if McGlynn is to be believed, ‘little chance of commercial success’, worth only to be pity-published by Lontar although they are venerated at home?


The observations of McGlynn and Allen regarding Indonesian lit’s commercial unviability are self-fulfilling (by asserting Indonesian lit is unappealing, it becomes so in the eyes of readers) and alarming: Is this really what Indonesian literature’s staunchest advocates think?…


and rather than continuing to directly challenge this assumption, rather than condemning Anglophone publishers and readers for erroneously believing this, is the best course of action to submit to and on some level swallow this myth? –


This myth that Indonesian literature can’t be fully appreciated by those who don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of the country?


Believe it or not, I understand somewhat why they have assented to, or at least, given up fighting this myth. It is maddeningly pervasive. I have heard countless times the question, ‘How well does this book travel across cultures?’ at lit fests and trade conversations.


This question is infuriating because when people say a book has ‘universal appeal’, when ‘universal’ or ‘accessible’ what they usually mean, whether they know it or not, is ‘Is it in line with western literary aesthetic norms?’


This imposition of subjective western literary aesthetic values on other literatures such as Indonesia’s while claiming ‘universal’ objectivity is something I have experienced firsthand many times. I offer 3 examples.


Anecdote 1: Just before Annie Tucker’s and Labodilah Sembiring’s translations of Eka’s novels were published to critical acclaim, I translated one his most acclaimed stories, “Caronang” and attempted to find it an Eng. lang. home…


It was rejected multiple times, even by a journal that had specifically requested we make a submission for a special issue on Asia. It finally found a home in a Southeast Asian journal of speculative literature, LONTAR (not to be confused with the Lontar Foundation)…


On at least one of these occasions I found out that the story was considered insufficiently engaging. This baffled me because of how beloved Eka’s story was among readers at home.


Anecdote 2: Very recently, I was asked to do a reader’s report for an indie publisher in Australia who is clearly committed to publishing ‘culturally diverse’ voices. They were deliberating publishing Mahfud Ikhwan’s award-winning DAWUK…


The editor wanted to know whether the work ‘might speak across cultures’ and was concerned that the writing was ‘embedded in historical and political contexts, which could be challenging for both reader and translator’…


(I had to turn down the request, partly because such concerns in turn concerned me, partly because he ended up being quite rude to me in subsequent emails when I tried to negotiate regarding payment)


Anecdote 3: Before the trans. of Sitor Situmorang’s stories OCEANS OF LONGING had found a publisher with Silkworm Books, I had offered to help seek out interested publishers during a UK trip and put them in touch with a publisher I admire very much who expressed interest…


The translators received the following response, despite the fact that Sitor Situmorang is one of Indonesia’s most venerated writers: ‘While interesting, we felt the author was not going deep enough into social and political issues, and the writing wasn’t arresting enough.’…


…(Interestingly, in this case, the publisher wanted more ‘social and political’ content, not less.)


In all 3 anecdotes I provide, the editors’ responses to literature that had been critically acclaimed by its country of origin were dismissive and more or less stated that the reason the pieces were rejected for publication fell short in some way:


not interesting enough; too much historical and political content or too little. In sum, THE INDONESIAN LITERARY TEXTS THEMSELVES WERE BLAMED FOR NOT BEING WORTHY OF ENGLISH-LANGUAGE PUBLICATION.


McGlynn has reported in his essay that this was the feedback he received time and time again during his early years of hawking Indonesia’s literary wares…


And this response is apparently what forced Lontar into publishing ‘classic’ Indonesian works rather than merely acting as a conduit between Indonesian writers and Eng. lang. publishers…


and this state of affairs is what has forced the most influential and revered of Indonesian literary works into the demeaning position it finds itself in today:


…published mostly by a non-profit foundation (i.e. Lontar) that now regards Indonesia’s greatest literary works as ones ’whose chance for commercial success outside Indonesia’s borders is limited at best’, to quote John McGlynn;


…published by a foundation who, after more than 30 yrs of operation, by its own admission has still not succeeded in achieving its aims of spreading the literature it advocates to the English-speaking world;


…published by a non-profit foundation who has apparently been forced to charge astronomical prices for hard copies of its books even when people outside of Indonesia do want to order them.


this I glean from personal experience. I bought a copy of Lontar’s trans. of Ahmad Tohari’s extremely popular THE DANCER for a whopping $65 at a past Singapore Writers’ Festival


and when I attempted to teach the same book in my world literature class at The University of Newcastle, Australia, the university bookshop told me that Lontar had quoted a price so high…


that I was forced to instead assign the Penguin edition of Pramoedya’s short stories because my students (many from working class backgrounds) wouldn’t have been able to afford the book…


(it should be noted, this problem has happily been addressed somewhat by the availability of electronic editions of Lontar’s books through Amazon).


Though McGlynn observes that Lontar fills a niche in publishing Indonesian literary classics b/c a commercial publisher ‘will do little to promote’ a book that doesn’t sell well, ‘and let it languish or go out of print’. While this is true…


it appears to me that being published by Lontar is not materially more advantageous to Indonesian writers. To be perfectly frank, I have been less than impressed with the quality of many of its translations, which are passable, but could be better…


According to Allen, McGlynn says this is not Lontar’s fault, but rather the severe dearth of high-quality literary translators…


Yet funnily enough, most of the rising stars of IND-ENG lit translation are to be found among non-Lontar translators: the ‘single fighters’ McGlynn refers to in his essay whose efforts he asserts are ‘doomed’.


These ‘single fighters’ have won literary translation competitions: Annie Tucker won the PEN/Heim; Norman and I have won the English PEN Presents and PEN Translates;…


Daniel Owen won the poetry category for this yr’s @asymptotejrnl ’s Close Approximations contest for his trans. of Afrizal Malna’s DOCUMENT SHREDDING MUSEUM (forthcoming from Reading Sideways Press)…


Mikael Johani’s trans. of Gratiagusti Chananya Rompas’s poetry was selected for one of Asymptote’s special features on multilingual writing.


(Not in original Twitter thread: I want to also note that Stephen Epstein and Intan Paramaditha have won a PEN/Heim and PEN Translates. They were paired up originally by Lontar, but if I’m not mistaken are now going it alone. I wasn’t sure, so I left it off, but I think I should mention it.)

If McGlynn’s assertions that the efforts of us ‘single fighter’ translators are doomed to failure, then these victories seem to suggest otherwise.
I am not saying that Lontar should not exist. I do think they could occupy a valuable place,…


but not if its founding editor dismisses other efforts to make Indonesian literature well known as ‘doomed’ while giving meagre acknowledgement to the existence of Indonesian literature written in English apart from Lontar’s publications…


Lontar should be more supportive of translators and writers who operate beyond its reach rather than being dismissive or undermining, as many Indonesian writers and translators have confided to me, which has been most distressing.


Allen mentions that McGlynn cites Indonesia’s colonial legacy as a contributing factor in its literature’s relative invisibility…


I agree in the sense that Lontar’s exclusionary curation of Indonesian literature as it is viewed by the Anglophone world may also be interpreted as neo-colonialist in its attitudes and actions…


…and I also level the same accusation of neocolonialism at the Anglophonic western publishing industry I mentioned above for claiming that they want to publish Indonesian literature…


…yet using western aesthetic sensibilities disguised as objective aesthetic judgement to dismiss its most respected works as unsellable and unappealing…


…rather than using the opportunity to challenge their own aesthetic credos and the western-centric tastes of the reading public…


Hindsight is of course always 20/20: I wonder if Eka’s short story would have had such difficulty finding a publisher if I’d had the good sense to submit it after he was nominated for the Man Booker…


…I wonder if that UK press I mentioned would have rejected Sitor’s story collection if they had known it would be one of AAWW’s Staff Picks of 2018…


…It turns out that the judgements of these editors were in fact highly subjective – that these writers were indeed appealing and noteworthy because of course they were appealing and noteworthy.


So it is the neo-colonialist attitudes of the literary Anglosphere who should blame themselves for the absence of Indonesian writers from the Anglophonic literary stage.


To answer Allen’s question, which doubles as the essay title – Where Are All The Indonesian Writers? – I answer: RIGHT WHERE THEY HAVE ALWAYS BEEN, writing amazing literature and EXISTING NOT FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE WESTERN GAZE…


If Indonesian literature is invisible, the Anglosphere’s publishing industry and reading public, of which Lontar is part, is responsible for its erasure.
The English-speaking world should consider itself lucky to gain access to it and should reconsider the culturally subjective criteria they implement in order to deny such works publication.


To the Indonesian writers and fellow ’doomed’ ‘single fighter’ translators out there, I send encouragement via a line from @nrmnp’s forthcoming poetry collection SERGIUS SEEKS BACCHUS, mostly because my translator’s head still rings with its words…


‘this doesn’t mean we labour in vain. It means we labour in the hope of perfection…’


*END ESSAY*