In the Bay Area, a Trailblazer Lights the Way for Indonesian Literature

Dalang Publishing’s Lian Gouw, center front, with Forest Book’s Gregory Wood, back, and, from left, translator Stefanny Irawan, authors Anindita S. Thayf and Erni Aladjai, and translator Hayat Indriyatno. (JG Photo/Nikki Potnick)

By : Nikki Potnick | on 11:02 AM December 30, 2015
Category : Life & Style, Arts & Culture, Featured

San Francisco. “Indonesia,” declares Lian Gouw, “is more than just the island of Bali.”

Gouw, at 82, is a diminutive figure with an outsize presence, gifted with a voice that commands attention and the masterful air of a seasoned impresario revealing The Next Great Thing.

That thing, on this sunny fall afternoon at the Foster City public library in the San Francisco Bay Area, is the literature of Indonesia, the country of her childhood and a passion that consumes her every waking hour (and a fair deal of the not-so-waking hours of her associates back home, some of them confide).

Gouw is the founder and proprietor of Dalang Publishing, a two-person outfit based in San Mateo, in the Bay Area, that specializes in translating historical fiction from Indonesia. It’s a rarefied field, she’s quick to point out, but like its owner, Dalang strives to punch above its weight.

Hence the event at Foster City, the penultimate stop in a weeklong series of talks about two translations published by Dalang. But these are no ordinary discussions; in a first of its kind, Gouw and Dalang have arranged to bring over the two sets of writers and translators behind the books, presenting their works at universities and bookstores across the Bay Area.

“She sincerely wants to help Indonesian literature, introduce it to the world,” says Stefanny Irawan, the translator of “Daughters of Papua,” one of the books in Dalang’s “A Taste of Indonesian Literature” tour.

No other publisher has done anything like this before in aid of Indonesian literature; complicating matters is the fact that Stefanny is the only one of the four participants who has ever been to the United States before. Of the other three, only Hayat Indriyatno, the translator of “Kei,” has traveled outside Indonesia before; for authors Anindita S. Thayf (“Daughters of Papua”) and Erni Aladjai (“Kei”), this is their first trip abroad.

Funding is also tight; Gouw received a subsidy from the Indonesian government for promotional work, but finds she has to dig into her own pocket to cover the costs of hosting her visitors.

Putting on a show

None of that shows at Foster City this afternoon. Their performance is clean and polished. Gouw keeps the crowd engaged with a combination of friendly banter and heartfelt insights; Anin enchants with her animated reading and Erni charms with her humble backstory; Stef impresses with her own cred as a published translator and aspiring theater impresario, while Hayat, an editor at the Jakarta Globe, throws out jokes and vignettes into Indonesian current affairs.

Things didn’t go quite this smoothly four days earlier when the group held its first discussion at Forest Books, an independent bookstore in the Japantown area of San Francisco. Prompts were missed, readings went long, and Erni, unaccustomed to straight-talking Western audiences, got baited on a couple of curveball questions from the crowd that aimed to politicize the issues raised in her book.

But on the whole the night was a success; they charmed their audience, and on the ride back to San Mateo, Gouw has them identify areas they can improve on.

They end up giving a series of six talks over six days, including at the University of California, Berkeley, and San Jose State University, closing out at the residence of Ardi Hermawan, the Indonesian consul general to San Francisco. Along the way, they draw some distinguished individuals to their talks, including Danilyn Rutherford, the chair of the Department of Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz; Sylvia Tiwon, an associate professor at UC Berkeley’s Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies; Virginia Shih, the Southeast Asia librarian at Berkeley; and Ninik Lunde, an Indonesian lecturer at Berkeley.

Lian Gouw with Ardi Hermawan, the Indonesian consul general to San Francisco. (JG Photo/Nikki Potnick) Lian Gouw with Ardi Hermawan, the Indonesian consul general to San Francisco. (JG Photo/Nikki Potnick)

What it's all about

Gouw is the first to acknowledge that the audience for the tour is limited (many are Indonesians living in the Bay Area who show up at more than one of the talks), but, ever the impresario, is constantly looking for more ways to promote her life’s cause.

Case in point: SJSU’s Martin Luther King Jr. Library, which is open to both the university students and faculty, and the general public. On a quick tour of the eight-floor library prior to their evening discussion there, the group asks to see its world literature section. They duly make a beeline for the shelves marked “I” – for Indonesia.

“And there were two books. Two,” Gouw later says, gesticulating wildly with her index and middle fingers extended. “Can you guess what they were?”

She pauses, then blurts out: “They were two dictionaries. Dictionaries!”

Disappointed that this is the extent of the Indonesian-language collection at the largest joint university-municipal library in the United States, Gouw acts quickly. She offers to give the library the original versions of the eight books that Dalang has published to date – the library already has the translations – and librarian Emily Chen promptly takes her up on it.

Within a week, the books are on their way to the library.

“Now the originals are going to be there and represent Indonesian literature. And that’s great, that’s what it’s all about,” Gouw says.

The 'watch-outer'

The authors and translators say they recognize and appreciate the efforts that Gouw has made to get their works published and publicized.

“It’s every writer’s dream to be published and read worldwide,” says Anin. “I feel a great sense of accomplishment to know that my work is out there, available to readers.”

Erni acknowledges the long process – two years – that it took from Gouw contacting her about translating her book, to the finished product rolling off the press last year.

“I think she’s a marvelous mentor,” says Stef. “I personally know that she cares about the writers and the translators that she works with.”

She adds that while Gouw “might not be the easiest person to work with,” the publisher has a genuine desire to see her authors and translators grow. This is reflected in Dalang’s work ethic; in an interview with the Globe last year, Gouw said it was her policy “to only publish literary novels, only use Indonesian translators who live in Indonesia, and solicit Indonesian reviewers along with foreign reviews,” in hopes of proving that “Indonesian literature can be successfully presented by Indonesians.” Even the cover designers of Dalang’s later works are Indonesian.

Hayat says he admires Gouw for her perseverance and tenacity – “Bu Lian for the Nobel Prize!” – and the role she serves in bridging little-known Indonesian writers to the English-speaking world.

“She can be a hard taskmaster, but when you see the finished product and the lengths she goes to to promote her books, you realize how deeply meaningful this is to her,” he says.

Gemah Rahardjo, an Indonesian living in the Bay Area and the other half of Dalang Publishing, speaks of Gouw in admiring and almost reverential tones. “When you look at her doing what she’s doing, at her age, it’s amazing,” he says. “I don’t know of anyone like her.”

Back at the Foster City library, the great impresario is doing what she does best. She fields questions on e-books (she has never used a smartphone and hates even her Nokia featurephone); publishing in other languages (“If a publisher in, say, Sweden wanted to publish one of these books, they could use my translation as a bridging language”); and the importance of book clubs in helping promote Indonesian literature.

Gouw is under no illusions about the magnitude of the challenges to bringing Indonesian literature to the world. For her, the solution is a grass-roots one: nurture and build up a base of Indonesian translators, people who know and understand the language and the cultural context better than any Western translator ever could, but who also have a strong grasp of the nuances and vicissitudes of the English language.

She calls herself a “watch-outer,” someone who looks out for the interests of her translators as much as her writers.

“I think it’s very important to acknowledge our translators, because the greatest writing will only stay within the language without a translator,” she says. “Translators are very often cheated, I feel, and I think I am a forerunner in helping translators get recognized.”

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