Indonesian writers have always written in a multitude of languages, including English. (JG Photo/Mikael Johani)

The Problem With Promoting Indonesian Literature Abroad?: A Simplistic White Gaze

BY :THEODORA SARAH ABIGAIL

MARCH 05, 2019

Many foreigners hold a mental image of a primitive Indonesia that is full of slums and dirty rivers and piles of garbage. They imagine, at best, the bamboo huts, the rice paddies and pastoral scenes. The Indonesia filtered, then presented by foreign translators and well-meaning international organizations has been selected to compound this image of a provincial country, one fragranced with nose-biting spices and jasmine blooms.

But Indonesian writers tell a more expansive story. In their books, Indonesia is rich with bustling, vibrant cities, glass airports, museums full of art. The cities burst with becak and kopaja and buses and trains; every minute a plane leaves an airport. People fall in love in a grand mall, fall to their knees in a mosque; they fall out of love in a coffee shop. Families dance until night falls, and the people are not so different from you and I.

Indonesian literature is flourishing. Independent publishers are releasing new books that blend genre and language; with the addition of new, literary-focused divisions, even Gramedia, the largest publisher in the country, is becoming more daring. All over the country, writers are releasing books in English or Indonesian (or even a mix of both), and readers are loving it. These books roam an incredible range of topics: life in the city of Jakarta, a woman’s search for home, horror stories made modern.

So why, then, are we still reading essays lamenting the lack of popularity of Indonesian literature?

Is It the Fault in Our Stars if We Are Too Complex?

Some say that Indonesia’s books are so serious, so steeped in historical and political context and so preoccupied with identity, that they are too intimidating or complex for ordinary readers. But the process of fully understanding a book requires—demands—an understanding of its sociocultural context.

For decades, American and British literature has been exported all over the globe untouched, and it is natural for their readers to expect that a great literary work published in English will require careful analysis to properly understand—even high school students in the United States who are assigned The Great Gatsby or Tom Sawyer or To Kill A Mockingbird are taught about the era in which the book was published; the setting in which the story takes place; the meaning of certain motifs to the culture at the time. It is considered an honor to be able to understand "the classics."

In light of this, it seems unfair and disingenuous for consumers and publishers to dismiss Indonesian literature as being "too complex." Sure, it may be easier to shift the blame onto Indonesian writers by saying they craft intimidating work, but are these books and translations really inaccessible, or are we simply being too lenient on English readers?

Bowdlerizing Indonesianness

When seeking international publication and acceptance, many Indonesian writers are expected to Goldilocks the Indonesia within them, to turn Indonesia tasteful. Too much historical and political context might frighten the sensitive Western reader; too little might bore him. No, the western reader would rather read stories that compound his conviction that other countries are different and strange in a nice way, a clean way.

This sort of modification and erasure is carried out everywhere. Many authentic Chinese dishes, for example, have been watered down and adapted to please Western tastes in a decades-long process that has resulted in the somewhat horrifying abomination of "Chinese takeout." In our desperation to find acceptance and popularity in English-speaking regions, are we turning Indonesian literature into oversweet, artificial Chinese takeout?

The authentic voices of Indonesia may not necessarily sound how the western world expects them to. And that’s healthy; that challenges pre-conceived, inaccurate notions about this country. The pressure should not be on Indonesian writers to finagle themselves into some universal and agreeable position. Rather, we should be encouraging readers to welcome the perspectives and experiences so different from theirs—to put in the effort that others do for their canon.

Translation as a Political Act

Translation, much like the act of writing, is a political act—one that can have far-reaching consequences and shape the world’s perspective of a specific language or country for decades. A translator is an ambassador; a translator is a weapon.

The idea that Indonesian literature’s popularity worldwide suffers because of a lack of "literary-level" (aka, "native English-speaking"?) translators in the country should inspire more support not only for native-Indonesian freelance translators, but for those who wish to learn the craft. Ultimately, this is a discussion about who controls the narrative and manages the international audience’s perception of Indonesia; we should be treading carefully.

(If the issue is the general standard of literary translation from Indonesian to English, then perhaps it would be best to begin training English-native and Indonesian-native translators to work together for fairness and authenticity).

It is important to question who translators are—their history, their background, their techniques, their communication and relationship with the author, whether or not they understand the meanings behind certain sections or phrases, their ideologies. These factors give a translation color; the result may not always be pretty.

A lauded, officially-recognized, or popular translator may not necessarily be accurate or "good"; in some cases, authors may find themselves shocked by how misrepresented their work became due to a so-called "international quality" translator. This unpleasant situation can arise even during international literary festivals—and a reckless translation, once released, can be impossible to retract.

Either way, let’s carry out our Indonesian writers’ wishes to be translated carefully and respectfully instead of taking advantage of them for our own organization’s reputation or fame. At the end of the day, which is more important? A translator’s portfolio, or the truth and quality of their work? Translations of literature are just as weighty as the books they are derived from—they shouldn’t be treated as products to churn out simply to win favor from new readers.

The White Gaze

It is telling that although the essays published by the National Centre for Writing focus on the Indonesian literary industry, all three of them are written by white foreigners. Apparently, Indonesian writers cannot be relied upon to accurately reflect Indonesia’s publishing industry; we need white spokespersons to steer the boat and hold the mic.

Many Indonesians have internalized the notion that what we craft is not good enough unless it is praised and acknowledged by the west—by English-speaking people, by international publishers, by, perhaps, we might say, "colonizers."  When we are given crumbs of attention, we rejoice and nudge others, saying, "Be grateful!"

These essays emphasize the notion of Indonesian inferiority by arguing to us and the world that Indonesian writers are invisible; unloved. To these essay authors, perhaps it doesn’t matter if a book has become a cultural phenomenon within Indonesia or won national awards; if it does not fulfill western expectations, if it has not captured the western heart, then it is considered inadequate.

Indonesia’s literary canon is full of history and warmth, war and resistance and tenderness; our focus when publishing or translating these internationally should be ensuring that the stories are told accurately and respectfully. Instead, we concern ourselves with whether or not they will sell well; whether they are palatable; whether they are too exotic; whether they are exotic enough, whether they “measure up” to internalized western ideals.

Failing Middlemen

John McGlynn, a translator and one of the most powerful people now controlling the narrative of Indonesia’s literary industry, writes in his essay that for years, he has tried and failed to arouse the interest of English-language publishers in Indonesian literature. Finally, in the late 1980s, he founded Lontar, mostly to solve the problem of "single fighters" (sole translators publishing in a vacuum, isolated from others). Since then, he has said, Lontar has been "dedicated to the promotion and production of Indonesian literary translation, taking on the role eschewed by commercial publishers of creating a canon of Indonesian literature in English."

The organization has now published hundreds of titles; it has worked closely with the Indonesian government to create funds like LitRI, designed to support Indonesian-foreign language translations. John McGlynn himself now wields tremendous power: he has apparently met with representatives from numerous national translation funding programs from countries like South Korea and Poland and the Netherlands, "to name a few." He has also become the supervisor of the Translation and Literature Funding Programs of the National Book Committee, which means he has a large say in deciding where grants go and who gets support.

Surely he can carry out his vision now? Surely he has won the attention of the international community, made Indonesian literature accessible?

Apparently not, because despite all the power Lontar has amassed, we continue to find essays mourning Indonesian literature’s continued lack of visibility.

Unloved and Invisible? Think Again

But let’s not get so far ahead of ourselves for now. We should first question whether the premise—that Indonesian literature is unloved and invisible—is even true to begin with. Now, we’ll look at the world outside of Lontar and other foreigner-led organizations.

In 2015, Eka Kurniawan’s sprawling novel "Cantik Itu Luka" was translated into "Beauty Is A Wound" by Annie Tucker and published by prestigious US publisher New Directions. It has now been translated into 33 languages. His second novel "Man Tiger," published by Verso Books, was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2016. 

Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s poetry collection "Sergius Mencari Bacchus" ("Sergius Seeks Bacchus") won first place in the Jakarta Arts Council's poetry manuscript competition in 2105. After being translated by Tiffany Tsao, it won a PEN Translates award; in 2019 it will be published by Tilted Axis Press in the United Kingdom.

Intan Paramaditha’s short stories have been translated by Stephen J. Epstein and compiled in "Apple and Knife." In the UK it is published by Penguin/Harville Secker; in Australia it is published by Brow Books.

And Indonesian authors have been succeeding since the 90s: Saut Situmorang won poetry awards from the Victoria University of Wellington (1992) and the University of Auckland (1997) in New Zealand. His English-language haiku “such boredom” was the first place winner of the 1992 International Poetry Competition held by the New Zealand Poetry Society; this poem was later collected by the Haiku Museum in Kyoto, Japan.

There are many more Indonesian writers who have been translated and published abroad; countless others have received positive coverage in online media, both nationally and internationally.

Regardless of the spotlight (or supposed lack thereof) on Indonesia’s literary scene, grassroots movements all over the country are dedicated to celebrating literature. Where are all the Indonesian writers? They are right here. Paviliun Puisi’s monthly poetry slams, organized in collaboration between Mikael Johani, Gratiagusti Chananya Rompas, Kezia Alaia, Mikhael Ray and Rendy Satrya are consistently packed; the Paviliun28 building in Kebayoran Baru overflows with their collective energy during each gathering. Communities like Lakoat Kujawas, which is based in Mollo, South Central Timor and founded by Indonesian author Dicky Senda, brings Indonesian cinema and literature to local communities.

And so we forge on: Saut’s code-switching, boundary-defying legacy is being expanded upon by modern poets-slash-translators like Rara Rizal, Syarafina Vidyadhana, Eliza Vitri Handayani and Dwiputri Pertiwi. Other young writers, like Madina Malahayati Chumaera and Ray Shabir, are telling urban stories—but with distinctly Indonesian perspectives. The canon may be considered young, but it is impressive and growing more so each day. None of this is made less valuable or impactful because the western world is unaware of its thriving.

So again—why are we still running into pessimistic essays that completely erase true Indonesian stories and writers?? Why do white middlemen and foreign organizations continue to emphasize that outdated belief that west is best, and push authors to desire international recognition at the cost of their authenticity? Why do organizations like the National Centre for Writing assist white scholars in establishing authority over Indonesia and promote incomplete narratives? What happened to advocating for diversity and representation?

Are these publishers and organizations aware that there is a country teeming with love for literature; that a whole world lies beyond their elite organizations and circles? Or are they intentionally excluding others’ success stories from the narrative in favor of promoting their own groups?

These essays are being studied in schools and universities abroad; because of them, we risk generations of people around the world believing in the same outdated notions of Indonesia as a backward place with few benevolent white translators and fewer Indonesians who even care. International publications should stop allowing outsiders to tell Indonesia’s story on its behalf. (Even the argument that international platforms require writing in proper English is no longer sound—not when there are so many English-speaking Indonesian writers; not when there are great editors; not when we can request translations).

It’s about time that we give Indonesian writers their power over how the world interprets their literature. They have written the canon—let them speak about it, sing about it, shout about it—too.

Theodora Sarah Abigail is the author of a self-published poetry chapbook, "Warchild" (2016), and a book of essays, "In the Hands of a Mischievous God" (2017). She lives in Cikupa, Tangerang.

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