From Abroad, a Champion of Indonesian Literature

Expatriated publisher Lian Gouw aims to bring Indonesian literature to an international audience through its authors and translators at the Frankfurt Book Fair. (Photo courtesy of Dalang Publishing)

By : Jaime Adams | on 2:25 PM November 15, 2014
Category : Life & Style, Arts & Culture

As a child, Lian Gouw grew up in Bandung, and early on, books, blank pages and pens became her closest companions. But the tumultuous changes that hit the country during World War II and Indonesia’s war for independence that followed compelled her to search for a safer place to live — a place where she could find a taste of her own independence.

So she packed her bags and moved to the other side of the world.

“Being raised Dutch, I had difficulty adapting to the political change Indonesia’s independence brought,” Lian recalls. “In a sense, it turned my whole world upside down. Being young, I was self-absorbed. My personal discomfort meant more than the need of a nation to be free from oppression. Yet, in a sense, my emigration to America was an attempt to find freedom.”

Having lived in the United States for the longest part of her life, Lian never forgot about her roots. Her memories of Indonesia are still vivid.

She remembers the warm rice porridge she had for breakfast, the colors and scents when standing in her grandmother’s garden, and the distinctive sounds of crowing roosters, chirping birds and croaking frogs.

Most of all, however, she has kept the values and identity she grew up with.

“The one thing that has remained a stronghold through my life is a respect for all living things,” Lian explains.

“This value is the basis of my love for nature, my closeness to plants and animals, my compassion for people in need.”

During World War II and Indonesia’s independence struggle , Lian’s family made her aware of her Chinese identity, she says.

“Regardless of the fact we didn’t speak the language, we were Chinese. Our political and social loyalties were with the Dutch; however, we were Chinese,” Lian says.

“This reasoning has anchored me in a Chinese identity I can’t shed: respect and concern for elders; the servile role of a woman in the realm of family; loyalty toward family; respect and remembrance of the deceased. It is from adherence to these values that I speak when I say, I am Chinese.”

Leaving behind her home country for a fresh start abroad came with many struggles.

“During the first decades of immigration I desperately worked on ‘belonging’; trying to find a place in society to settle and assimilate,” Lian explains.

“Somehow, my soul was never able to. Despite the physical appearance of being completely settled and rooted into American suburban living, I never felt the same loyalty and integration I once had toward and with the Dutch. For instance, I could not wrap my head around the Vietnam War and never have been able to accept the notion of ‘convenience’ that drives American life.”

However, Lian says she is aware that as an American citizen she now carries a certain responsibility toward the country she has lived in for the better part of her life.

“But fulfilling a responsibility doesn’t mean feeling an attachment, affinity toward the entity one is responsible to,” she says.

In 2011, Lian founded Dalang Publishing with the goal of providing Indonesian writers and translators an international platform, to stress the importance of preserving the Indonesian language and to raise the quality of translations, thereby protecting the integrity of original work.

This mission stems from her passion for the written word, as well as a newfound awareness of belonging that created a sense of urgency to contribute effectively.

“I chose to address the lack of Indonesian literature available to the general public, such as libraries, bookstores and book club rosters,” Lian says.

“The absence of readily available reading material is coupled with a lack of general knowledge about Indonesia. During presentations I’m always amazed how little the audience — mostly well-read — knows about Indonesia. With Dalang, I hope to bring Indonesia’s history and culture to my immediate world through story.”

Lian sees a golden opportunity arising at next year’s Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany, where Indonesia has been chosen as the national Guest of Honor. The fair, the biggest of its kind worldwide, takes place each October. Guest of Honor countries usually receive a great deal of media and publishing industry attention.

“Indonesia can share with the world its history, culture and geographic wonders through story and thus show off its many talented writers,” Lian says.

“I am hoping to be given a chance to contribute to the event as well with the 10 translations Dalang will have by then. As it is Dalang’s policy to only publish literary novels, only use Indonesian translators who live in Indonesia, and solicit Indonesian reviewers along with foreign reviews, I hope to prove that Indonesian literature can be successfully presented by Indonesians.”

She is convinced that Indonesia, with its colorful history and rich culture, offers great resources for writers.

“Indonesian writers are ardent, their work is a rich tapestry of history, cultural experience and vivid description of place,” she says.

At the same time, Lian realizes that talented writers are not enough for a successful performance at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Instead, the whole industry needs to pull together, because preparations are lengthy and should not be taken lightly.

“In order to present well, the focus should be on the quality of the material brought to the stage. The original work should represent unadulterated Indonesian language, whereas the translation aside from accurate should conform to the target language’s norms and sensibilities of the readers of that language,” she says, adding that authors and translators should be given a chance to be present.

“After all, it’s their talent and hard work that is on display. Thinking along those lines, it has been my intent to take two writers and their translators to Frankfurt. Of course materialization of this dream depends on being given the opportunity to participate and available funds. For openers, I plan on using the subsidy funds Dalang will receive for the three titles it submitted and were approved for this.”

Lian, who herself is a writer with several published short stories and poetry, as well as the novel “Only A Girl” under her belt, is currently working on a new oeuvre.

“Currently, I have another historical novel ‘between bookends,’ meaning there’s a beginning, middle and end, that needs ‘filler’ and fact checking, and a chapbook of poetry of which several poems have been published in anthologies,” she explains.

“Unfortunately, the work that Dalang generates doesn’t leave any time to pursue or market my own writing. However, 2016 is around the corner and that’s the year I have marked as my finishing line to complete work still outstanding.”

In 2010, Lian went back to Indonesia the first time since emigration and tries to travel there once a year. She admits that her relationship to Indonesia is not an easy one.

“Indonesia is the country of my birth. In its soil, my roots are anchored and my soul finds sustenance there,” she explains.

“Unfortunately, it took the better part of my life before I realized this. I often feel like a relay runner who is assigned to run the last track of the race without having had the proper training. I feel very much a part of Indonesia in that it has not only my political loyalty but also my soul’s concern.”


For more information about Dalang, check out

Show More