The second annual Asean Literary Festival seeks to unite writers from across the region. (Photo courtesy of

Southeast Asia’s Brightest Voices to Flock to Jakarta


MARCH 10, 2015

Jakarta. The literary festival presented by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), will again come to town next week after its successful debut last year.

Themed “Question of Conscience,” the Asean Literary Festival will be held from March 15 to 22 at Taman Ismail Marzuki in Central Jakarta and several other spots across the city.

Dozens of prominent writers, poets and publishers from the region will speak on the relevance of literary works and global digitalism through a lens of social justice issues, specifically in the wake of economic growth among Asean countries.

The festival’s official opening night on March 19 will pay tribute to Sitor Situmorang, one of Indonesia’s greatest poets.

“The festival will be officially opened with various interpretations of Indonesian legendary poet Sitor Situmorang’s works in the form of poetry readings, musical performance and dancing,” writer and co-founder of ALF Okky Madasari told the Jakarta Globe on Sunday.

Sitor, born in 1923 in North Tapanuli, North Sumatra, remains one of the country’s most prominent and respected poets and writers. He was one of the few Indonesian poets to obtain international recognition and in his lifetime received multiple awards for several of his works, including “Pertempuran dan Salju di Paris,” (“Struggle and Snow in Paris,” 1956), a collection of short stories.

In 1967, following the fall of Sukarno and the rise of Suharto, he was imprisoned by the New Order regime and was not released until 1976. He never stood trial. Sitor lived in the Netherlands until he passed away in December last year at the age of 91.

World-renowned Indonesian classical pianist Ananda Sukarlan has created a musical composition based on Sitor’s 1955 long poem, “La Ronde,” with Nikodemus Lukas, a talented young vocalist from Surabaya, singing the lyrics.

The festival aims to show that literature is not only about poetry, but also about the echoes of resistance against injustice and oppression, said Okky, an award-winning novelist. In the same spirit, the opening night of the festival will present a lecture by writer and freedom activist Ma Thida, a former prisoner of the Burmese military regime.

“She will speak on how literature helps build freedom and democracy in Asean, in this case through her writing and human rights activities,” Okky said.

Over the festival’s opening three days, events will focus on workshops and discussions at University of Indonesia (UI) and Jakarta's Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN).

Public spaces such as Taman Menteng, the West Jakarta Library and the South Jakarta Library will also play host to a number of events.

Dozens of writers from more than 20 countries — both Asean members states and non-Asean partners such as China, the United States and India — are billed for the festival.

"Most participants in this festival come from developing countries, with their own challenges with their own governmental system. The point is, we want to answer how literature captures the challenges of development, along with its globalization issues,” Okky said.

She added that one of the festival’s events, “Consumerism vs. Literature Work,” would discuss injustices as a result of consumerism.

“We are in an era where consumerism is increasing due to globalization and the advancement of technology. We would like to highlight that literature could be an option for people to avoid getting trapped in consumerism and shallowness,” Okky said.

“In addition, children's literature will also be highlighted this year, as an antitheses of consumerism. Here we want to push the idea that literature could be an alternative for how children spend their childhood — instead of going to malls, for instance,” she added.

Indonesian writer Clara Ng and China’s Peng Xuejun will lead this discussion.

The session “Literature and Media” aims to dissect and criticize the role of media in supporting literary development. China’s Zhang Ling, Indonesian writer Bre Redana and Idriss Bouskine from Algeria will share their experiences.

“Literature in a Digital Era” will present Hassan Hasaa’ree Ali of Singapore, scholars Saut Situmorang of Indonesia and Shintaro Uchinuma from Japan to analyze the relation between literature and digital development.

The talks will be followed with the “Digital Generation Tells Their Stories” session presented by young Indonesian writers such as Adimas Immanuel, Bernard Batubara and Rio Johan.

“This year we will give specific attention to literature development in the digital era. The main aim is to question whether literary works will follow the flow of such immediacy or whether they will stay deep, with critical comprehension,” Okky said. “With technological advancement, people can easily write and publish their works. Sadly, we often take this for granted without realizing the danger and challenges posed by such an instant and crowded culture,” Okky said.

“We cannot forget that it is really important to write quality works. Digitalism shouldn’t be a moment of banality celebrated.”

“We have to stay critical. We have to keep a distance and observe clearly with no excuse for instancy. Can we do this? Can we benefit from digitalism but stay critical? These are questions we must answer together,” Okky said.

Another discussion to be held in the festival is “Women and Literature: the Voice of Victims” which will present Indonesia’s Zubaidah Johar, Kyoko Ushida of Japan and Anne Ostby from Norway.

“We want to give specific room to portray women in literature where we know that discrimination and patriarchal culture are the root of the issue,” said philosopher Tommy F. Awuy, a member of the festival’s steering board. “So, one of the ways to fight against this discrimination is through literary works. We can’t just protest. We have to change the mindset through novels, stories and essays. Literature functions as a deconstruction tool in bringing a new mindset to the society,” Tommy said.

The festival is hosting a film screening of “Sebelum Pagi Terulang Kembali” (“Before the Morning After”) followed by a discussion about corruption in Indonesia, featuring Bambang Widjojanto, former commissioner of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), as a speaker.

“Literature has great power in bringing about change,” said Damhuri Muhammad, a literary critic and steering board member, adding that a change in mindset was needed to effectively fight corruption.

Damhuri pointed out that Asean has established many economic forums. “However, we don’t know much about each country’s writers. The ALF was born from the awareness that we lack knowledge of each other’s stories,” Damhuri said.

Okky agreed that literary works and festivals are a source of knowledge necessary to tackle social problems.

“Our literary works are as good as those of Europe or America, but we do face language barriers. That is why ALF is important, to develop a common understanding among people in this part of the world,” Okky said.

The Indonesian Foreign Ministry has thrown its support behind the festival.

“This is a good venue for Asean writers to meet each other and build strong networks,” said Deputy Foreign Minister A.M Fachir.