Commentary: Of Borders and Neighbors — Indonesia at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Indonesian novelist Eka Kurniawan at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. (Photo courtesy of Edith Koesoemawiria)

By : Edith Koesoemawiria | on 8:35 PM October 21, 2016
Category : Opinion, Commentary

Flat comfortable shoes — and for women, maybe an eight-hour lasting lipstick — are needed to feel well when chasing through the back-to-back readings, talks, book launches, writer's signings and podium discussions presented at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair.

Even after a daily multivitamin dose, pure exhaustion from temperature changes between outdoor shortcuts, long indoor promenades and warm halls will leave a person looking sickly and pale. At the end of day, only the slightly pink eyes — and perhaps the lipstick — still show the livid passion for voicing one's thoughts here. A business built on intellectual thought, the Frankfurt Book Fair is perhaps one of the most political trade fairs in the world. For Indonesia, it has always been a challenge to be present here.

Last year, as guest of honor at the fair, the Indonesian literary and cultural world was present en force. The huge investment of time, energy and funds has begun to reap a harvest. The first day had publishers from various countries visiting the Indonesian stand. They were interested in specific titles promoted last year and in the previous international fairs. It also saw the signing of copyright contracts for Ratih Kumala's "Gadis Kretek" ("Cigarette Girl") with Monsoon Publishers from the United Kingdom and for several graphic novels.

Capitalizing on last year's promotion, the LitRI program — a translation funding program for foreign publishers, intended to foster translation of Indonesian literature and other works into foreign languages — quoted some 70 translation funding applications that are being processed this year alone.

Midday soto lunches, happy-hour meetings and afternoon music bring a crowd, but it is still tough going to ensure international interest and readership post-guest-of-honor year. Like our expectations, the competition grows and they never let off.

With the shock of Brexit still so near and Europe's changing demography a current challenge, the Frankfurt Book Fair's focus on "Europe or being Europe" seems a timely choice, as is the slogan "this is what we share," which the 2016 guests of honor, Flanders and the Netherlands, have hanging on the outside wall of their pavilion. Entering the darkened pavilion one finds an almost ethereal bright landscape of the wide North Sea — one can even affirm that to a large extent, the world shares the sea, if not its beaches. An interesting play between closed and open space, the pavilion stands out in the feeling of closeness in the small booths where visitors watch films, read and do things together.

On the background screen at the opening ceremony, hand-drawn pictograms and words in different languages coincide with specific locations on the globe. Each picture calls for freedom of speech. Frankfurt Book Fair president Jürgen Boss expressed his preference for a plurality of equal importance. Although they are not one country, Flanders and the Netherlands share a language and cultural area that crosses boundaries. He reminded the audience that the two countries are less than three hours away from Germany, but even with some common history, there is still much to discover and learn together.

Borders, like legal boundaries, are human-made. Hence, it is also people who can push through them. Besides the natural commonalities of Flanders and the Netherlands, there is vibrant cooperation between the two countries' book industries. Their presence together as guest of honor extends their cooperation with Germany and other countries in the rest of the world. The latter is just part of what the Indonesian Book Committee hopes to achieve at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Edith Koesoemawiria is an Indonesian journalist based in Germany, previously with the international broadcaster Deutsche Welle. She was a local coordinator for the Indonesian program at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015.

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