Fairly Prepared

The preparations for Indonesia’s turn as Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair reflect both the excitement and frustrations of contemporary Indonesia.

This year Indonesia is to be the Guest of Honour at Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest book fair in the world. This is a great opportunity for Indonesian literature to be the centre of attention on the global stage.

For those interested in Indonesia and Indonesian literature this is an exciting time. Indonesia’s appearance at the fair is an opportunity to celebrate the cacophony of voices in Indonesian literature that have contributed to the vibrant public sphere that has emerged since the fall of Suharto’s military dictatorship.

A recent issue of the online magazine Inside Indonesia reflects this sense of excitement, as is conveyed in the subtitles of the articles it carries:

Pam Allen – Young Indonesians are leading trends in Indonesian writing and publishing

Meg Downes – ‘Fragrant literature’ is giving way to a diversity of literary voices and identities

Hendrik M.J. Maier – The story of Indonesian literature is a fragmenting journey from national myth to bewildering multiplication

Details of those attending the Book Fair suggest that at least some of this diversity will be on show. Among the list of publishers one that stood out to me was Mizan, a publisher with an Islamic slant, which has published (besides much else) some very interesting books on the relationship between Islam and Politics. Another is Marjin Kiri, a left wing publisher whose representatives seemed to have had a very productive time networking at the fair in 2014 according to their account in Indoprogress. Yet another is Lontar, who have done amazing work in translation of Indonesian literature.

However, an endeavour on this scale was never going to be free from the tensions of contemporary Indonesia. One issue has been bureaucracy, with Goenawan Mohamad, chairman of the National Committee, decrying the ‘bureaucratic absurdity in the funding system’. There has also been squabbling over the selection process for authors going to Frankfurt. The leaking of the list of authors attending, before it was announced in Indonesia, did not give the impression of smooth organisation. Moreover, whilst the official theme is ‘17,000 Islands of Imagination’ others have pointed to the stranglehold of Jakarta (and Java more widely) in the publishing industry, with one publisher lamenting the underexposure of authors from Eastern Indonesia. Yet another point of tension is the legacy of the political violence of 1965-6, with controversy over the degree of prominence given to authors of works related to these events at the fair.

However, whilst there were always going to be problems and complaints, this should not obscure the positives I mentioned above. Moreover a recent study found that only 4-5% of the poetry, fiction and drama published in the United Kingdom (my home country) was translated from another language. There is a whole other literary world out there that Britain is largely missing out on. If Indonesia’s appearance as the Guest of honour can lead to the greater dissemination and accessibility of translations of Indonesian works then it is to be celebrated.