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Two Indonesian ballet dancers (a man and woman) wearing traditional costumes
Rama and Sita from the dramatic version of the Ramayana. Prambanan Temple near Yogyakarta, Indonesia, June 2012.

Indonesia will be the guest of honor at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, a prestigious international book and media event held mid-October every year.  Jamie James of the Jakarta Globe reports that this is the first time a South East Asian country has been selected for this honor.  The Lontar Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to promote Indonesian culture and literature via translations of Indonesian literary works, was reportedly instrumental in gaining the invitation.  It hopes to add 50 new titles in translation to its Modern Library of Indonesia, along with 50 e-books.  However, Kesty Pringgoharjono, the executive director of Lontar, points out that a translation subsidy program would be needed.  The government of Indonesia has pledged to fund an unspecified number of translations, along with some of the programming related to the fair.

Indonesian literature has a rich and diverse history, as does the country itself.  The nation comprises thousands of islands and nearly as many languages.  Its literary history has its roots in the oral traditions of these linguistic areas, Malay literature, Hindu literature, and has been influenced by the archipelago’s exposure to other cultures through trade.

Indonesia categorized its literature into three major categories for the ASEAN Anthology of Literatures project:  regional oral literary traditions, literature of the pre-Islamic period, and literature of the Islamic period.  These categories seem greatly simplified to me, but of course, when you’re dealing with a tradition that ranges from improvisational religious poetry to animistic folklore to grand, adventurous epics, you have to start somewhere.  I’ve tried to put together a brief overview of Indonesia’s literary history below.

A Brief Hisory

The Hindu influence comes from several Hindu kingdoms that took root on the islands of Bali, Kalimantan and Java (click here for a map) from approximately the 4th century onward, reaching a peak in the 14th century (Bali is still largely Hindu). Islam began to spread throughout the archipelago in the 13th century, reached Java around the 15th century, and had gained a majority stronghold by the end of the 16th century.  Aceh, in northern Sumatra, was a key area for the spread of Islamic influences and the Malay language, with Malay being used as an important written literary language beginning in the 17th century.

The shadows of Prambanan temple in the foreground, the sunset in the background

Prambanan temple at sunset. The Prambanan complex is the largest Hindu temple site in Indonesia, thought to date to the late 9th or early 10th century. June 2012.

The Dutch colonized Indonesia during the 18th and 19th centuries.  Modern Indonesian literature took off in the early 20th century, flourishing in the 1920’s and 1930’s, during of a period of heightened national identity that occurred in response to anti-colonial sentiment.  Support grew for a national language, Bahasa Indonesia (a version of Malay, which had become the lingua franca throughout the Strait of Malacca).  This led to a meeting of young nationalists adopting a famous “Youth Pledge” (Sumpah Pemuda) that, among other things, declared Bahasa Indonesia as the “language of unity” in 1928.  The first Indonesian novels were written during this time.  Poets were exploring European meters and aesthetics, including Romanticism, Symbolism, Objectivism and Realism.  The first major Indonesian literary magazine, Pudjangga Baru (The New Writer) began publication in 1933.

Japan occupied Indonesia from 1942-1945.  Indonesia declared independence following World War II, which resulted in a period of conflict until the Netherlands recognized Indonesia’s independence in 1949.  Key writers during this period include poet Chairil Anwar, and Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who wrote his first novel Perburuan (The Fugitive) while imprisoned by Dutch authorities.

Indonesia faced another period of upheaval in 1965 – 1966 in the events surrounding Suharto’s rise to power.  Suharto ruled Indonesia from 1967 to 1998. He’s considered the father of modern-day Indonesia by some, as his rule brought about rapid economic expansion, and a tyrant by others for his authoritarianism and questionable role during the violence associated with his rise to power. He resigned in 1998 after an economic collapse that resulted in the devaluation of the rupiah, excessive inflation, anti-government protests and rioting. The literature during this period was subjected to censorship, and many writers were imprisoned (Pramoedya Ananta Toer was held without charges for 14 years, and then kept under house arrest until 1992).

I’m afraid I don’t know much about recent Indonesian literature in the post-Suharto era.  I spent three weeks in Indonesia last year, but only managed to read one work related to the country — a work of fiction written by an English author that I really can’t recommend.  If anyone has read any recent Indonesian literature they’d like to share, please comment!

The Ramayana

A side note related to Indonesian literature:  The photo at the top of this post is from a dramatization of the Hindu epic the Ramayana.  I’ve become fascinated with this story because I’ve found versions of it all throughout Southeast Asia and Oceania (although, unfortunately, I have yet to read a translation from start to finish) .  It’s a love story, as you might imagine from the photo, and involves kidnappings, battles, and a strange monkey-king. Episodes from the Ramayana, and from the Mahabharata, another important Hindu epic, are portrayed throughout Bali and Java through shadow puppet shows and Indonesian-style ballet.  The Javanese Kakawin Ramayana is thought to be the oldest poetry written in Old Javanese, believed to date back to the 9th century.  (A kakawin is an narrative poem written in Old Javanese.)

For More Information

For further reading, please see:

“Pudjangga Baru: Aspects of Indonesian Intellectual Life in the 1930s,” by Heather Sutherland in Indonesia, No. 6 (Oct., 1968), pp. 106-127.

A review of “Indonesian Literature vs. New Order Orthodoxy: The Aftermath of 1965-1966,” (Anna-Greta Nilsson Hoadley), by Melani BUDIANTA, in SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Vol. 24, No. 1 (2009), pp. 143-145.

A History of Modern Indonesia Since c. 1200: Fourth Edition, edited by M.C. Ricklefs, Stanford University Press, 2008.  ISBN 978-0804761307, available on amazon.

The BBC article “Rise and fall of strongman Suharto,” September 28, 2000.

The New York Times article “Pramoedya Ananta Toer, 81, Indonesian Novelist, Dies,” May 1, 2006.

The Rāmāyaṇa in the Literature and Visual Arts of Indonesia, by Laṅkā Eastwards, KITLV Press, Leiden, 2011, available here.