A woman reads 'We Are Nowhere And It's Wow,' a poetry collection by Indonesian poet Mikael Johani. Written in English, it touches on the experiences of being a third-culture kid. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

Is Indonesian Literature Written in English Still Indonesian Literature?


APRIL 12, 2018

Jakarta. In 2015, a short story collection "Monsoon Tiger and Other Stories" by Indonesian author Rain Chudori was published by Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia (KPG), one of the biggest publishers of serious literature in Indonesia. The entire book was written originally in English.

Rain published another book in English last year, a novel called "Imaginary City," under KPG’s new imprint Comma Books, where Rain also works as a curator.

Rain said she chooses to write in English because of all the languages she uses everyday – from Minang to French – it's the one she finds most comfortable writing in.

"English was the predominant language when I grew up, at home, at school – I attended international schools my entire life – and then later on, when I lived abroad," she told the Jakarta Globe.


Rain was not the first Indonesian to publish a book in English. Laksmi Pamuntjak and Maggie Tiojakin had already gone down the same path.

Laksmi, also famous for her Jakarta Good Food Guide series, writes in both English and Indonesian.

Some of her books in English include the poetry collections "Ellipsis" and "The Anagram," and a short story collection, "The Diary of R.S.: Musings on Art."

Nevertheless, English works by local authors are still largely ignored – or if paid attention to, denounced as not fit to be part of Indonesian literature.

According to poet Gratiagusti Chananya "Anya" Rompas, who had also just published a book of personal essays in English titled "Familiar Messes," there are literary discussions almost every week in the country, but few critics would bat an eyelid when Indonesian authors publish works in English.

"In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were already a bunch of people who wrote in English on the internet, but senior authors back then said online stuff was all rubbish," she said.

But that has not stopped younger writers to keep writing in English.

Novelist Alanda Kariza, whose previous books were all in Indonesian, released her romance novel "Beats Apart" in 2015.

Young illustrator Lala Bohang released her poetry collection "The Book of Forbidden Feelings" – filled with Pinterest-worthy black and white sketches – in 2016.

Naela Ali released "Stories for Rainy Days," a short story collection with cute watercolor illustrations, also in 2016.

Another young poet, Madina Chumaera, released a science fiction-inspired poetry collection called "Contact Light" last year.

And aside from these writers, who though young are established enough to get their works in English published as a book, the "Instapoet" scene in Indonesia is also flourishing, with dozens of accounts clamoring to be the next Rupi Kaur or Lang Leav.

Indo Lit, It Just Happens to Be in English

Unlike in neighboring country Malaysia, where works in Malay, English, Chinese and Tamil have no problem being accepted into the canon, English works by Indonesian authors have often been denied entry into "Indonesian Literature."

But there are signs that things are changing, albeit slowly.

Dwiputri Pertiwi, who has had two poetry collections in English, "Hiatus" and "Visions of Mundane Madness," printed by an independent publisher, said her works definitely belong to Indonesian literature.

"I believe that these days, more and more people are able to see language as a tool rather than a symbol of nationalistic pride. Content should always come first. Why should we discredit a story/poem/essay that portrays or borrows from the everyday truths of this country/the cities of this country just because it's not written in Indonesian?" Putri told the Jakarta Globe.

Anya said that if Indonesian literature only refers to works written in Indonesian, that would be tantamount to turning a blind eye to the reality that many locals, at least in urban centers like Jakarta, are constantly being exposed to the English language.

"Every day our ears are bombarded by English-language songs. Hollywood films rule the cinemas. We also read news in English. This affects our lives, including mine. And I write to reflect that experience," Anya said.

According to Norman Erikson Pasaribu, whose debut poetry collection "Sergius Mencari Bacchus" (Sergius Seeks Bacchus) won the Jakarta Arts Council Poetry Competition in 2015 and who also writes in English, deciding where a literary work belongs to requires us to think "sideways."

"If we insist that Indonesian literature should only be texts written in Indonesian, that means we're still thinking with our colonial cap on," he said.

Norman mentioned the curious case of Jhumpa Lahiri as an example. The Indian-American writer often writes about issues faced by her immigrant community.

Lahiri's place in American literature is never questioned.

"People who judge her works as Indian literature still see her with 'white eyes,' none-too-subtly suggesting that writers like Lahiri should just 'go back to their own country,'" Norman said.

Lahiri's case got even curiouser when in 2012 she uprooted her family from New York and moved to Rome. A year later, she was writing in Italian.

Geography and language seem to be no longer the main factors in considering where a work of literature belongs to.

Take Clarissa Goenawan as another example, an Indonesian-born Singaporean writer who recently published her first novel "Rainbirds" in English. The book is filled with Japanese characters. Where does this work belong to?

Norman, who is also the Indonesian editor-at-large at Asymptote, a journal for world literature in translation, said that instead of obsessing about which country a writer belongs to, we should focus instead on the experience the author wants to convey and on where his or her emotional attachment lies.

Should They, Shouldn't They

In an interview with the Jakarta Post in September last year, John McGlynn, an American translator based in Jakarta and the founder of Yayasan Lontar, a non-profit foundation that translates Indonesian literature into English, made the claim that "it’s very rarely possible" to find bi-lingual writers who is equally eloquent in both languages, with R. A. Kartini – the Indonesian national heroine who wrote her famous letters in Dutch – being an exception.

McGlynn said despite having lived in Indonesia for 40 years, he still cannot attain emotional depth when he writes in Indonesian. He then said "a lot of stuff that Indonesians write in English tends to be flat."

But this new wave of Indonesian writers beg to differ.

Rain, who spent long stretches of her formative years in different places overseas, said she has been exposed to many different languages since she was a kid – Indonesian, English, French, Dutch, German, Minang.

She said assuming that Indonesians can't have English as their mother tongue "erases the experience of third-culture kids."

A third-culture kid, like Rain, is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture.

Rain, whose mother Leila S. Chudori is a senior journalist-cum-novelist, said "A friend once told me, 'Language is your consciousness.' I dream in both English and Indonesian. If I can code-switch in my dreams, why shouldn’t I code-switch in my writings?"

Rain said her publisher Comma Books leave it to their writers to choose the language they write in.

One of those is Anya, whose "Familiar Messes" is part of a personal essay series – all written in English – called "Self-Portraits," which also include Isyana Artharini's "I Am My Own Home" and Theodora Sarah Abigail's "In the Hands of a Mischievous God."

Yogyakarta-based stage actor-cum-poet Landung Simatupang also thinks that everyone can write in any language they like, though the quality depends on the person’s familiarity with the language.

Landung recently translated his own poems into English for the "Borobudur Women" exhibition at Jakarta's National Gallery.

Last year, he also directed "Queen at Last, Beyond the Folktale of Lutung Kasarung," a play written and performed in English by the students of Yogyakarta's prestigious Gadjah Mada University.

"We adapted the local legend 'Lutung Kasarung' into English. We don’t need to fear expressing ourselves artistically in languages other than Indonesian," he said.

Putri said it's getting tiring that writers outside the "global literary meccas" are constantly made to feel they need to explain why they write in English.

"It's as if we have to 'catch up' to a certain standard that changes at the gatekeeper's disposal. The game is getting old. We shouldn't have to answer to anyone or ask for anyone's permission," Putri said.

"Writers should focus on the truth, even if they have to lie about it through poems and fiction," the poet said.