Why does Indonesia inspire so little quality literature, except novels about sexy bar girls?
Some days back, on his impressively productive new blog, our own Ross begged the question of why so few of "us" write books about "life here". By "us" he meant foreigners in Indonesia, of course; and by "life here" he meant the life these foreigners lead in Indonesia – and he was, naturally, alluding to his own role as chronicler of the little slice of grubby bohemia that is Jalan Jaksa. Ross does, it seems, suffer a certain amount of sniping about his books, but all issues of taste, style and politics aside I certainly wouldn’t criticise anyone for writing about what they know, and Jaksa must certainly offer ample inspiration for story-tellers.
However, I’m sure that everyone – the Poet of Pappa Cafe himself included – would acknowledge that the idea of Jaksa and its denizens constituting a meaningful part of the Indonesian scene is debatable in the extreme. And what’s more, books about that particular alleyway (though it is in fact a thoroughfare, in literary terms I might be tempted to call it a cul-de-sac) surely form a sub-set of the genre best known as Asian Sleaze, or perhaps "the prurient expat memoir". This genre is one of the best represented in the English-language publishing industry of Southeast Asia. Take a look at the "local titles" next time you’re in Periplus – all those dominant-black covers with silhouettes of mini-skirted Asian females beneath the title! Yikes!
For me the question is not why so few of "us" chronicle our adventures here in book form; it is why there are so few serious, informed, interesting and genuinely well-written books about Indonesia itself and its people, in English, by foreigners, for a non-specialist, non-academic readership.
Take a look at the meagre annual global English-language output of mainstream books about Indonesia and it generally looks something like this:
something with a title along the lines of
and – if we’re very lucky indeed – a mediocre travel book full of linguistic and historical howlers, heavy-handed “unity in diversity” references and patronising caricatures of “the locals”, with a title along the lines of
Oh, and something from a regional publisher with a black cover and a silhouette of a petite Asian woman on the front...
Given Indonesia’s richness, its vastness, its sheer capacity for inspiration it’s a pretty poor showing.
Now take a look at the general output of books in English, by foreigners, about another large Asian country – India. (Apologies – I know my habit of using India as a warped mirror in which to view Indonesia is tiresome but it does so often work).
There is an absolute wealth of magnificent, informed, intelligent books about India, still aimed at a general readership and written by foreigners. So high is the bar there that the Orientalist clichés and shameless self-indulgence that typifies even the best output about Indonesia is scarcely to be found. Even the two-bit journalists and second-rate travel writers dealing with Indian subjects generally wipe the floor with almost all the miniscule band who tackle Indonesia.
Some of these India-focused writers are so spot-on, so steeped in the Subcontinental scene and unlikely to drop a clanger – and such good writers – that that they have become virtual adoptees of the country they write about. But where is Indonesia’s William Dalrymple? Where is Indonesia’s Mark Tully? What does Indonesia have to hold up to those colossi? Kerry B Collison?
Indonesia – or rather the body of foreigners who might want to write about it – does of course have some mitigating excuses when this comparison is made. India is, as everyone knows, a partly Anglophone country. Even a journalist or travel writer with no other language besides English can go to the country and talk, directly and without the facilitation of a translator (and all the insurmountable sense of separation and superiority on both sides that such a device engenders) to a far broader sample of people than just tourism workers and the urban elite.
Likewise for those dealing with historical matters. Because of its particular colonial history India as a subject offers a massive, staggering wealth of accessible archival material in English. Fancy writing a biography of a swashbuckling imperial archetype? Or retracing the steps of a 19th Century explorer? Or investigating some totally forgotten but totally fascinating historical episode from the 1920s? Can’t speak a foreign language but can handle old-fashioned handwriting? Then the eternal wellspring of the India Office Records will never run dry.
But to do the same for Indonesia, English will be of very little use, and even Indonesian won’t get you much further. You need Dutch and, to really make headway, Javanese too – and how many non-Dutch, non-Javanese, non-academic writers have those?
This is largely the reason why in the only two recent major books of popular narrative history for which Indonesia is the backdrop – Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa and Giles Milton’s Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, both excellent – the country itself is largely incidental.
However, this excuse alone is not enough to get the English-language writers of the world off the hook. Even with the admitted linguistic challenges Indonesia still offers enormous potential for high quality, literary journalism, reportage, travel writing and cultural investigation. So where is it?
Mainstream books that fit this bill are so few and far between that they send me into an over-compensatory frenzy of delight on the rare occasions that they do appear. The most recent example was Andrew Beatty’s A Shadow Falls, which we discussed on this site, and which I think very highly of. But even that is a slightly odd book, still too rooted in its academic foundations and obscure in its subject matter to have the impact of something like William Dalrymple’s Indian debut, City of Djinns.
And for every A Shadow Falls Indonesia inspires a dozen books about middle-age divorcees finding themselves in Bali, and many honourable attempts that fall hopelessly flat (John Keay, who does very well indeed on Indian soil, missed the mark when he came to Indonesia in the 1990s; Cameron Forbes’ recent Under the Volcano is best left unmentioned).
There are, of course, plenty of very well-versed foreigners writing very seriously about Indonesia, but they are almost all academic historians or anthropologists, and few of their books turn up amongst the Asian Sleaze in Periplus. MC Ricklefs and Dr Peter Carey are very fine historians and decent writers (and the former gets at least some attention beyond the library shelves, having written a "standard text"); the work of the late Clifford Geertz had some real literary merit, and Adrian Vickers would certainly cut it as a non-academic writer. But it seems unlikely that any of them ever will take the time out – and lower their brows – to pen a colour-filled travelogue or a vibrant narrative history for the masses.
And that mention of the masses leads me on to a possible – and thoroughly disheartening – final explanation for this paucity of proper literary books about Indonesia. It’s all very well penning a magnificently researched, impeccably structured and informed and very well written book about Indonesia – but then you have to find someone to publish it. And publishers are, being concerned with the business of making money, loathe to put out something that no one will buy. Is that the problem? Is it the market itself, not the writers, who keep so much of the Indonesia-focused output so near the level of utter dross? Is that why those with literary capabilities and a genuine knowledge of Indonesian subjects either don’t bother at all or concentrate on purely academic efforts?
India has an advantage in that it has a huge English literate – and English literary – class; William Dalrymple almost certainly sells more books in India than in his native Britain. But there are clearly still thousands of outsiders buying all those books about India – backpackers, tourists, armchair travellers and idle observers willingly consuming weighty tomes (and non-English-reading China and Japan still manage to inspire a respectable output of respectable books too).
But I have to ask myself, how many Jakarta resident expats or Bali-bound tourists would happily pick up a copy of an Indonesian equivalent of The Last Mughal or India: a History, or Liberty or Death, or even – poke me in the eye and call me a hypocrite – A Million Mutinies Now?
Many? Enough for even a small regional publisher to justify putting such a book out? Any at all?
In truth, I really don’t know the answer. I hope many; I hope I’m not the only one with such complaints, because otherwise the only option is to head down to Jaksa, crack open the Bintang and start making notes for something called "Jakarta Velvet" with a backlit image of long-haired bargirl in a miniskirt on the cover...