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

Friday, August 11, 2006



There’s a small group of active Indonesians who dare to blog in English.

Why ‘dare’? Because they open themselves to attacks by nationalists who claim Indonesians should use their country’s official language. These xenophobic throwbacks to Sukarno-era isolation see use of the international tongue as a betrayal of the Revolution – almost a threat to the Unitary State.

In their defence the bloggers argue that it’s only by using English that they can communicate with the world and help outsiders understand this complex country. The reality is that Indonesian is little used beyond a slice of South East Asia.

Now local writer Maggie Tiojakin is taking the same track by publishing her first book in Indonesia in English, complete with retail prices on the back cover in Singapore and US dollars – but not rupiah.

Is she letting down the side – or pioneering a necessary move? I think she’s doing more for this nation’s image with one slim collection of short stories now accessible beyond the archipelago than untranslated volumes in Indonesian only a few scholars will read.

Writers from the former British colonies have bested their one-time masters by producing shimmering English prose that pushes the language – and our understanding of ourselves through different cultures – to new intellectual levels.

V S Naipul and Jean Rhys from the West Indies; Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Arunhati Roy from India; Tash Aw from Malaysia and scores more have all enlarged our minds and world.

Jakarta-born Tiojakin is an emerging talent. She studied and worked in the US for almost six years and handles English competently and with clarity. She’s an easy read, sometimes too easy.

Clearly she’s still discovering the extraordinary versatility of English and its ability to explore new byways in the search for meaning. Writing short stories is considered one of the most difficult literary tasks. Wider reading and a spell in Britain amongst expat Asian and African writers might refine her skills and style.

None of this is meant to dissuade. The five stories handle with care the universal emotions we’ll forever try to express and comprehend: Defining a sense of place and the quest for purpose; the blood-rushing joy of new relationships and the scald of schism; living with compromise; maintaining hope when much seems hopeless.

Good literature gives us insights into life – and Tiojakin provides a few with her cameos. A sick lad returns from America to die at home. A young woman in the US struggles to understand desire. A man opts for another woman while forever lusting for his first love. An affair fractures a childless marriage. A couple break up. This is adult angst, not teenage trauma.

Tiojakin has learned to restrain her emotions. Maybe she should let them loose, step in, not back. Absent from Homecoming is a loving obituary for her father ‘2194 words too short’, written three years ago. You can find that on Keep a tissue close by.

This is a serious writer at home in Western culture with its moral freedoms and the difficulties these create. Her characters worry about love and sex but not in the coy way of early Malaysian authors nervously itching for release from cultural constraints.

Tiojakin is a global girl. When her characters are Indonesian this is incidental. The settings are mostly America, apartments not kampung. There are no tut-tutting aunts and interfering neighbours despairing of the young, no nostalgic pars on smouldering kretek, shadow puppetry and other clichéd images over-used by outsiders fumbling to explain Indonesia.

She doesn’t touch on the sexual mores and religious hang-ups that torment this nation. Perhaps later? Let’s hope so. As a smart young local she knows these issues define modern Indonesia to outsiders through hypocrisy and double standards.

Thanks to two-dimensional journalism the world tags this country for its corruption, natural disasters and seemingly weird priorities: Playboy over poverty, skirt lengths over the length of schooling. What a rain forest of tropic topics to enliven cold climate readers if handled with panache.

The ‘Commonwealth Lit’ post-colonial writers share a common past and similar education. Many are Anglophiles, craving for contact with the ‘Old Country’. The Republic’s former Dutch bosses left no similar love-hate heritage, so Indonesian writers have to make their own journey. Frequently that’s to the US rather than Europe.

Tiojakin is taking that rugged trip alone. It takes grit. People who read English are unforgiving of sloppy prose and garrotted grammar – as writers for this paper know well. High standards are expected.

Overall Tiojakin pleases and deserves applause. More careful and tighter editing would have helped and the cover is bland. Put these quibbles aside; Tiojakin’s next book will be better as she takes greater risks with the language and her feelings, and hopefully uses these to explore her homeland and the people she knows better than we foreigners.

Then you’ll be glad you read her first offering. I am.


Homecoming, published by Mathe Publications, Jakarta. 121 pages.

(First published in the Sunday Post, 6 August 2006)


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