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Lontars Modern Library of Indonesian Literature


Those with an interest in Indonesia have typically learnt about Indonesias history, society,
traditions and politics by reading newspapers, books and journal articles written by
commentators, travellers, academics and journalists. However, we know that an alternate, and
indeed often more enjoyable, route to learning about a country is to read its creative
literature. Novels and short stories, even poetry, allow a reader to enter the minds of its
ordinary and extraordinary people as they confront lifes challenges, tragedies and
opportunities.
Indonesia has a rich heritage of imaginative literature and is read voraciously by Indonesians
in the same way citizens of other countries enjoy the creative endeavours of their own
writers. A common language gives one access to the minds of people of other countries and
provides an insight into other ways of life. Australians have easy access to the literature of
Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the US. Thus John Steinbecks Grapes of Wrath has
helped many throughout the English speaking world to understand how the Great Depression
was felt by rural Americans. Similarly being able to read the novels of Australian writers
such as Patrick White, Richard Flanagan and Kate Grenville provide English-speaking nonAustralians with a way of experiencing Australian life, culture and society.
To access the literature of non-English speaking countries, English-speakers are reliant on
there being translations. It has been commonplace for European novels and literature to
become available in English, and to some extent this has been the case for countries such as
Japan and China. However, for Indonesia, translations have been rare and until recently,
virtually non-existent. Those who studied Indonesia in the 1960s can still remember when
Mochtar Lubis fine but banned novel, Twilight in Jakarta [Senja di Jakarta], was secreted
out of Indonesia and became the first Indonesian novel ever to be published in English
translation. Over the years, there have been a further few such novels that have become
available in English, but the pickings have been slim.
This all began to change in 1987 when the Lontar Foundation, a not-for-profit
organization based in Jakarta was founded by a cooperative endeavour between four
Indonesian writers (Goenawan Mohamad, Sapardi Djoko Damono, Umar Kayam, and
Subagio Sastrowardoyo), and the American translator, John H. McGlynn. To find out what
inspired John McGlynn to undertake this endeavour, and more information on Lontar, see

William Gibsons An Armchair Travelers Pleasure


(http://www.popmatters.com/column/189981-clove-cigarettes-and-indonesian-books/).
Lontars webpage [http://www.lontar.org/en/home] lists an impressive range of Indonesian
books now available in English translation, and increasingly these translations are also
available in digital form [http://typhoon-media.com/page/2/?s=lontar&x=0&y=0 ].
Lontars rich offerings offer a fascinating opportunity to experience the daily lives of
Indonesians. The books typically have an introductory chapter or afterword which posits the
book in Indonesian society, history or literature and provide fascinating insights about the
work under consideration. Pamela Allen in her introduction to Leila S Chudoris The Longest
Kiss, a collection of short stories, provides a particularly apt observation that is relevant to
virtually all the books translated by Lontar:
They are stories of Indonesia without necessarily being explicitly stories about
Indonesia. Indonesia is, however, present on every page.
There are books whose themes touch on the universal dilemmas of being human. Leila S
Chudoris The Longest Kiss covers a diverse range of topics: love; marriage; divorce; suicide
of a mother; sibling love-hate rivalry; childhood sexuality; religion; infidelity; sexual
impotency and loneliness. However, in each case the issues are explored in a particular
Indonesian context. On the other hand, some stories are grounded in Indonesian society and
history, such as those that examine particular Indonesian events, such as the Bali bombings or
repression in the Suharto era.
Similarly a book like Lily Yulianti Farids Family Room allows an outsider to enter the
Indonesian world. As Melani Budianta says in her introduction to the book:
Through these stylistic strategies and the crystal clear voice of a little girl as the call
of conscience, Lily Yulianti Farids short stories voice feminist resistance to
patriarchy and power-hungry masculine politics. There are still many undiscovered
mines in Family Room. So brace yourself for surprise as you enter the book.
The reason for Melani Budianta to issue the above warning becomes evident as one turns the
pages and learns how a great variety of universal topics faced by individuals in any country
are played out in Indonesia. However, again we are also brought face-to-face with a wide
range Indonesia-specific problems and issues, including the Bali bombings; sectarian

(Christian/Muslim) conflict in Ambon; anti-Chinese riots; outer island and rural resentment
of Jakarta; political abduction and disappearance of leftists; familial tensions within a Muslim
family over a life-long Christian servant who is chooses to die in their home; the plane crash
at Yogyakarta airport; inter-family relationships where a man has multiple wives; the
treatment of lepers by family members; and the reactions of Chinese and indigenous
Indonesian family members when inter-marriage occurs.
Other books in the Lontar library also cover a diverse range of topics, both universally
relevant to the human condition, and others that are specific to Indonesia. Interestingly, S.
Rukiahs The Fall and the Heart even briefly refers to the political experience of communists
in Australia and its relevance to how Indonesian communists considered their own situation.
For those Australians who have come to know Indonesia through travel to Bali, a world
beyond Kuta Beach is revealed in Oka Rusminis Earth Dance. Again we have the fictional
world exploring such universal themes as the discovery of ones sexuality; patriarchy; the
restrictions faced as one passes from childhood to adulthood; and inheritance under
patriarchal conventions all discussed in the Balinese context. However, the specifics of
Balinese society are also directly confronted and examined, including the way that in Bali
caste determines a persons life chances and opportunities; and the particular situation of
women, and of commoners in this caste determined society, including those who marry into
royalty and must leave their commoner life and family behind.
Again, Pamela Allen in her essay in the book entitled Afterword - Earth Dance: An Antidote
to Exoticism, states:
Oka Rusminis Earth Dance is an important contribution to this literary process of
exposing the underbelly of Bali....Earth Dance is the story of four generations of
Balinese women, as narrated by Ida Ayu Telaga, a Balinese woman in her thirties.
The development of the narrative in many ways centers on conflicts that arise
between the demands of caste, on the one hand, and personal desires on the other...
Throughout the novel Telagas mother, grandmother and female peers are motivated
primarily by two factors: the yearning to be beautiful, and the desire for a brahmana
(high-caste) husband.
As in many of the books translated by Lontar, the issue of sexuality is often treated in an
explicit manner that may come as a surprise to Western readers with pre-conceived notions

about Indonesian society. For example, one of the main characters in Earth Dance, Luh
Kenten, is a lesbian while Telagas sister-in-law, Luh Kendran, is an independent, wealthy
city prostitute, which, as Pamela Allen observes, does not fit with traditional Orientalist preconceptions.
Another of the books translated by Lontar, Dewi Lestaris Supernova, has just been made into
an Indonesian blockbuster movie. The novel does not shy away from sexual issues and deals
explicitly with extra-marital relationships in the context of the lives of young urban
Indonesian professionals, including the two main characters who are in a homosexual
relationship.
Other books deal with more public issues, such as Iwan Simatupangs The Pilgrim which
discusses public good versus individual rights; authority versus authoritarianism; civil
servants and public responsibility, and artistic creativity. Again, these universal issues are
explored both generally and within the context of Indonesian society.
Of particular interest is the way race is examined and dealt with in the novels. Nh Dinis
Departures examines the life in the 1950s of an Indo, a young mixed-race IndonesianDutch woman, whose family has chosen to return to Holland. The novel explores the way
racism and sexism combine to circumscribe the main characters desire for self-expression
and fulfilment. The fact that the author is one of Indonesias foremost feminists ensures that
the characters explored in the novel provide a range of life options in those troubled times.
While all the translators, many of whom are Australian, provide sensitive and highly readable
translations, it must be said that I found Toni Pollards translation of this novel particularly
pleasing and competent.
Some of the Lontar library provide historical context to contemporary Indonesia, and in this
regard one might particularly mention Ismail Marahimins And the War Is Over that looks at
love in a time of war, the plight of prisoners of war in Indonesia, and learn what the Japanese
occupation was like for both the Dutch and for Indonesians. Also of interest is its portrayal of
how Japanese soldiers reacted when defeat came.
Some of the novels are set both in Indonesia and abroad and in this regard Umar Kayams
Fireflies in Manhattan is a good example. Fireflies is a collection of interwoven short stories,
a number of them dealing with 1965. Given that aspects of the novel are autobiographical, it
is of interest that the authors widow has written a commentary to the events depicted in the

novel which include the devastating effect that the events of 1965 had on left-wing
intellectuals in Indonesia.
Enough to say, that Lontar has provided those interested in Indonesia with a treasure house of
hours of enjoyable reading that will refresh memories, whet the desire to re-visit Indonesia,
and provide new inter-cultural perspectives on lifes joys and dilemmas.
Ron Witton
Austinmer, NSW
rwitton@uow.edu.au