“If one reads enough books one has a fighting chance. Or better, one’s chances of survival increase with each book one reads.” — Sherman Alexie
Sometime ago, I stumbled upon this report released in March 2016 by Liz Dwyer about “The 10 Most Literate Countries in the World”. Not a surprise that Indonesia doesn’t sit as the top 10 most literate countries in the world. But what stroke me is that because Indonesia sits in the bottom 5 together with Colombia, Morocco, Thailand, and Botswana.
There were several factors considered in this study such as the internet and library resources, newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, years of schooling, and literacy scores on standardized tests.
Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country and among the most culturally diverse. Yet, not many people are familiar with literary works by Indonesian writers. Why is that?
Indonesia has a long tradition of poetry and a lot of well-known poets. Indonesian literature plunged into obscurity following an anti-communist massacre in 1965-1966 that brought Suharto’s repressive New order regime to power.
In order to understand Indonesian history in literature as well as the fact that reading is not a cultural habit, we need to take a step back to our history. Writings of Indonesian authors do not get translated as much as works by other authors of “Third World” countries. Colonial legacy plays a part in this.
Authors from the former colonies of France and England have the attention of French or British publishers that own a large international market share. Big publishing houses such as Heinemann and Penguin have translated and published authors from India, Kenya, Senegal, Egypt, and Morocco.
In contrast, Dutch publishers rarely publish literary works from their former colonies, which includes Indonesia. Except for academic publishers, there are only few, if any, Dutch publishers with international access to global market.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet, published by Penguin, are the rare works that got translated into foreign languages during Suharto’s rule. His tetralogy eventually caught the attention of the Nobel Prize Committee, which nominated him several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The Nobel Prize nominations show that Indonesian literature is not inferior to the literature of other countries. But there are questions as to whether it was his works or his status as political prisoner that made the Nobel Committee nominated Pramoedya. Some wondered whether the Committee nominated Pramoedya to pressure the Indonesian government to release him from prison.
The Production of Literature in Indonesia Following the Communist Purge
Literary production remained consistently high even during the repressive era of Suharto.
In the 1970s and 1980s, works by women authors – such as Mira W., Marga T., La Rose, Ike Supomo, Titi Said, Nh. Dini, and Marianne Katoppo – dominated the scene. But many male critics tended to brush them aside as “women’s fiction”, which carries a negative connotation of having low literary quality.
After Suharto’s regime collapsed, the atmosphere changed dramatically. More women began to write. Very soon there was an “explosion” of titles by a new generation of female authors such as Ayu Utami, Linda Christanty, Nukila Amal, Fira Basuki, and Dewi Lestari. Ayu Utami’s Saman, for instance, has been translated into several Asian and European languages.
The Golden Age of Indonesian literature, according to many scholars, was the period between the 1950s and 1960s. Authors were working out how to connect traditions and local flavors with modern trends in literature.
In that period, the Cold War was raging. Many authors were fiercely involved in ideological tug of wars among themselves. Authors also began to seriously search for a distinct Indonesian identity through their works that could become part of the world culture. Unfortunately, that vibrancy had to abruptly end with the take over of power from Sukarno to Suharto.
After Suharto stepped down in 1998, there was a brief moment of euphoria among authors as freedom of speech and democratization began to flourish. But the 32-year authoritarian rule seemed to have taught them not to be too optimistic. This is clearly reflected in the works of the post-Suharto writers, which are strongly marked by doubt and ambiguity about the future.
In those works, readers may sense a yearning for freedom from the haunting legacy of Suharto’s rule.
Indonesia’s literary legacy and reading habits
Despite the richness of Indonesia’s literary tradition, one should note that reading for pleasure or enlightenment is not yet part of the culture of average urban Indonesians and plays little, if any, part in the life of village people. Indonesia has made literacy and widespread elementary education a major effort of the nation, but in many rural parts of the country functional literacy is limited. For students to own many books is not common; universities are still oriented toward lecture notes rather than student reading; and libraries are poorly stocked.
As far as I know children have a natural love for reading and would reach out for books when they see them. My own earliest childhood memory is always having reading material in my hand, wherever I went. My mom gave lots of books as my birthday present, even the infamous Harry Potter fills my book stack.
I consider myself was fortunate enough to be brought up surrounded by books as my mother was a bookworm to say the least. However, the situation doesn’t apply to all the children in Indonesia. The majority of Indonesians have very limited access to books. There are very few public libraries if you live outside the big cities. Books are relatively expensive to buy and these days, the ubiquitous television and increasingly affordable video, online games, and social media are also competing for everybody’s time and attention.
In any case, we’re still more or less confined to the oral tradition, preferring chats and hanging out talking with friends to the solitary activity of picking up a book and be lost in our own world. This is probably why the social media and chat applications are a big thing in Indonesia.
Meanwhile, reading infrastructure, such as libraries, is often poorly stocked and maintained, not to mention limited in number due to lack of funds and inefficient management.
School children’s experience of reading, therefore, is more inclined to be associated with carrying out tedious tasks and assignments than exploring how a good novel is crafted, how beautiful sentences are written and what makes a book a joy to read as well as the depth of thinking behind the writing. How could the country expect children to develop a good reading habit when the parents, the teachers and the policy makers don’t even like to read?
Sometime ago, I started an action on my Facebook by putting #ShareTheCulture. The action starts by sending only one books through a chain mechanism to other people that perhaps you don’t know across the world. As guessed, the people who participated in this action were only the people who have great interest in literature as well while what I want to do is more to touch people who has no interest in forming a reading habit yet.
Therefore I am thinking of changing my strategy. Instead of just raising the awareness for people to read, I also want to support any institution to make library available in remote areas across Indonesia. (Should any of you have that information, kindly let me know 🙂 ).
At last, I wanted to quote J.K. Rowling, “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book.”