In 1999, as Indonesians were still celebrating the end of 31 years of dictatorial rule by Suharto, their second president, an unemployed philosophy graduate started writing a sprawling novel that blended his fascination for martial arts and horror stories with an acerbic take on his country’s twisted history.
Eka Kurniawan finished Beauty is a Wound three years later, in 2002. Weaving together graphic violence and rape with vicious takedowns of officials, religious figures and even the idea of Indonesia itself, it may have seemed designed to flop. This was, after all, a country with a limited literary culture and many lingering political sensitivities.
Sure enough, after being picked up by a tiny local publisher and reprinted briefly by a bigger rival, the book disappeared. Undeterred, Kurniawan wrote another, Man Tiger, two years later. His second novel was barely more successful. “Those two novels gave me almost no money, so I started to work as a scriptwriter and editor for a television production house,” says Kurniawan.
Yet somehow, over a decade later, he has found himself at the forefront of a revival of international interest in Indonesian writing that has resulted in global publishing deals, glowing reviews and Man Tiger’s longlist nomination for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.
Besides Kurniawan and other Indonesian authors, such as Leila Chudori and Laksmi Pamuntjak, who have emerged on the world literary stage, a strange cast of characters has helped to bring about this awakening. They include a US documentary-maker dedicated to exposing the truth about Indonesia’s 1965 mass killings, a grizzled expatriate translator in Jakarta and executives of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest literary trade show.
It is a suitably unlikely story for a country dubbed the “improbable nation” by US journalist and scientist Elizabeth Pisani in Indonesia Etc., published last year, which asks why a country so large and diverse still attracts so little attention from the rest of the world.
Not since Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the former political prisoner who wrote in the second half of the 20th century about Indonesia’s struggle for independence from Dutch colonial rule, have writers from Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, attracted such interest.
The development of a literary scene in Indonesia has been hobbled by an exploitative colonial history that left many illiterate, a long period of censorship under Suharto and a weakened education system that does not teach literature, even in today’s more open and democratic society. The new buzz around Indonesian authors has caught the few people slaving away in the nation’s small publishing industry unawares.
“I can’t believe it’s taken this long, after working in this field for 40 years and publishing close to 200 titles,” says John McGlynn, a US translator who runs the Lontar Foundation, a Jakarta-based organisation that promotes Indonesian literature — the only one in the country that is trying to do so to a global audience. “There’s a basic ignorance and lack of knowledge about Indonesia abroad, which you can blame on the Indonesian government as well as the international media. Then there’s the global publishing industry, which is usually unwilling to take a chance on introducing foreign-sounding authors.”
As he chain-smokes Indonesian clove cigarettes in his office in a small villa, McGlynn, who translated Chudori’s 2012 novel Home into English, explains that the Frankfurt Book Fair’s decision to name Indonesia as guest of honour in 2015 was the “key turning point”.
With tens of thousands of international publishers, agents and journalists in attendance, the fair is one of the few opportunities for talented non-English writers to make the connections they need in order to succeed. Following in the footsteps of writers from previous guests of honour such as Turkey and South Korea, Indonesia’s authors suddenly found the book world was listening to what they had to say. “They’ve been able to change the perception of Indonesia as a country that doesn’t know what it’s doing,” says Claudia Kaiser, the Jakarta-based vice-president for South and Southeast Asia at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Kurniawan, Chudori and Pamuntjak all have very different backgrounds, personalities and writing styles. What stirred international interest in these authors was that they had all written about the 1965 massacres of more than 500,000 Communists, leftist sympathisers and their families and friends, which Suharto had used to take control of the nation. “It’s all about 1965,” says Kaiser.
Indonesians are still taught the Suharto-era propaganda that the mass killings were a necessary and limited pre-emptive move against an imminent Communist takeover. But since the fall of Suharto in 1998, a handful of Indonesian journalists and writers have tried to broadcast an alternative version.
Joshua Oppenheimer, an American film-maker with a love for Indonesia, thrust the painful truth in front of a global audience with his horrific, Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary The Act of Killing.
In Germany, which is still struggling with its own genocidal history, readers seemed to connect with Indonesian writers’ battles to make sense of a past that refuses to retreat into history. “I couldn’t breathe at some of the events because there were so many people trying to interview me,” says Chudori, who is a senior editor at Tempo, Indonesia’s most respected weekly news magazine.
Pamuntjak, who co-founded Aksara, one of Jakarta’s best-loved bookshops, says that readers are drawn to writing framed around what conflicts do to ordinary people. “Were friendships possible between the oppressor and the oppressed, was forgiveness possible?” she asks. “These questions, which inevitably open up so many grey zones of the human psyche — doubts, ambiguities, inconsistencies, good versus evil, man versus woman, friend versus foe — are wonderful material for the novel.”
Yet despite the global attention, the debate about 1965 in Indonesia is still a limited one and the domestic publishing industry remains weak. One of the great ironies of the resurgence of Indonesian writing is that it has been facilitated by a lack of domestic interest, which has allowed authors to tackle taboos about sex, Islam and politics without censorship or a concerted backlash from hardline political or religious groups.