The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Saturday, September 29, 2007



In many other countries novelist Budi Darma would be a National Treasure, probably the recipient of a hefty grant to help the septuagenarian keep keyboarding.

But this is Indonesia, and as this eminence grise of modern Indonesian literature knows well, culture and the arts aren't on the government's must-fix list. Nor are books the top buy in the average family's shopping trolley, despite more people finding the courage to enter bookshops.

Now if Budi had been a fading TV star instead of an academic luminary we'd be elbowing each other aside to get his autograph and words of wisdom.

"There have been two print-runs of my Orang-Orang Bloomington (People of Bloomington) each of 5,000 copies," he said. "For Indonesia that's not too bad."

For an acclaimed collection of short stories first published 27 years ago and still on the shelves, that wouldn't be considered too bad in somewhere like New Zealand where reading is the national pastime and there are more books than sheep. But the population of the archipelago is 60 times larger than the Shaky Isles.

"The problem is our culture," said psychologist Audifax, who is also an author, analyzing characters and plots in popular fiction, including Harry Potter. "We're an oral society. We watched events like wayang kulit (shadow puppets) in the past, and now we're hooked on television."

But there's another, more sinister factor operating. Writers have long been considered dangerous people in Indonesian society, terrorists with word grenades. The Dutch built the jails that were filled by Soekarno and then Soeharto.

During the New Order government it was unsafe to be seen in the company of books authored by people like the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the greatest of Indonesian writers last century. Overseas he was being nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature; in his homeland he was black-banned.

In the darkest days of Soeharto bookshops were like chemists; the plastic-covered products were in a glass case behind the counter. You had to make your selection (that carried the censor's approval stamp), and then run away to read your purchase in somewhere less austere.

There's no tradition of free public government-funded libraries as in much of the British Commonwealth, and the idea of reading a book at bedtime is considered weird.

Bookshops are better now, though most still deter browsing by shrink-wrapping, denying customers chairs while a stockpile of staff watch your every move.

They have reason: When workers' backs are turned some students whip out their mobile phone cameras and snap the pix or text they need for the next assignment.

There are some great exceptions, like novelist Richard Oh's welcoming QB World bookshops that look and feel more like Borders in Singapore, the necessary stop for all book-loving expats on visa runs to the island state. Then there's the new kid in Indonesia, Johan Budhie Sava with his TM Bookstores, also trading as Togamas.

His shops are spacious with some spots to sample the text and not all books are sealed. The store in Surabaya has 20,000 volumes and the place is far more welcoming than the Gramedia and Toko Agung stores.

"It's little by little," Johan said. "People are slowly starting to become more interested in books. Times are changing, but price is still a factor. It's difficult to move anything with a tag of more than Rp 50,000 (US $ 6)."

Budi Darma is also cautiously upbeat. He reckons the change started in 1999. When fourth president Abdurrahman Wahid closed the Department of Information there were 292 magazines and newspapers. That number rapidly jumped to more than 2,000 before a shakeout. Around 830 have survived.

"It's been the same with book publishers, particularly in Yogyakarta," he said. "Three or four people in a kos (boarding house) with some computer skills could become instant publishers. Of course the problem has always been distribution and competition for shelf space."

Much of this output has been a waste of trees; there may be hundreds of new titles but the print size is large, the print run small, pages are few and the quality of language and grammar worries purists.

The much awarded Budi Darma, who is now an emeritus professor, has spent much of life training teachers at the State University of Surabaya.

"The reality is that writing is a lonely job and most Indonesians prefer to be in groups," he said. "It's not a high status profession as it is in the West. (He studied in the US).

"Nor does it enhance your status to have a library at home. People are more concerned with cars and houses and furniture. They think buying books is a waste of money."

Although she accepts the truth of this statement, the electric Lan Fang is outraged that men prefer to spend on tobacco instead of type. "People are also so busy, with both parents working," she said. "Many genuinely don't have time to read."

Lan has been writing for about 20 years and although she started as a teenager she's no superficial author of chick lit, a genre that bookseller Johan Budhie Sava believes is now boring readers. She writes about relationships with more maturity and understanding.

Like her mentor Budi, she has also tried her hand with success at short stories, a form that does well in Indonesia but not in the West. Many writers, like Lan Fang, got their break in newspapers.

This is another big plus for Indonesia; in Australia and other Western countries, short stories have had to yield to the pap of infotainment. For some the road into the bookshop must start with the discovery of fiction while checking the sports results over breakfast.

But when the nascent bibliophile does make it past the surly security guards who know everyone is a thief, they're likely to be disappointed. A good guide to public taste (or the publishers' definition) is shelf space.

The sastra (literature) shelves look like an afterword; tomes on theology, how to make a mint in business (from the US) and comics (from Japan) push everything else off the edge. Most depressing is that large numbers have been written and published overseas where they've proved their salability; then local publishers buy up the rights.

"You can make a better living as a translator into Indonesian rather than an author in Indonesia," said Budi wryly. "I agree that there's a great gap in our national literature caused in part by bad education and the censorship of the New Order era when generations of creative talent were crushed and we were not encouraged to inquire.

"After we gained Independence most intellectuals looked to the West and did not try to understand the philosophy of their own country – even up to now. In many ways we have become too westernized.

"Most writers live in the big cities. They don't really know society in the country as Pram did so can't reflect it in their writing. We do not understand our own earth. Authors have been cut off from their traditions. And of course Indonesia is dominated by Java.

"Many still think that literature is not enjoyable, that it's difficult to digest. They just want to read a synopsis rather than the book.

"Now we have the freedom to write and read. But it seems that we haven't yet learnt how to handle that freedom."

(First published in The Weekender (JP) October 2007)

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