Literature Lack Lament

Jul 9th, 2010, in Opinion, Society, by

Why does Indonesia inspire so little quality literature, except novels about sexy bar girls?

Where are the books? A lament for the lack of literature on Indonesia

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.

Asian SleazeAsian SleazeHowever, 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:

  • My New Life in Bali
  • My Long Holiday in Bali
  • Schapelle – the True Story (Pt XII)

something with a title along the lines of

  • The Glittering Scimitar – the terrifying true story of how al Qaeda has infiltrated the Indonesian government, by Australia’s 104th-best non-Indonesian-speaking journalist
  • My New Villa in Bali

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

  • The Emerald Islands, or;
  • Between the Volcanoes

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.

William DalrympleKerry B CollisonSome 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?

KrakatoaNathaniel’s NutmegThis 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?

A Shadow FallsCity of DjinnsMainstream 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…

63 Comments on “Literature Lack Lament”

  1. madrotter says:

    well, Periplus also put out quiet a few really good books written in the colonial time by Dutch writers, maybe you’ve read a few already, E. Du Perron’s Country of Origin is a pretty amazing book, also translated in English are the books from Madelon Lulofs-Szekely (which caused quiet a storm in colonial Indonesia)…. But when it comes to modern times you’re right, not a lot is being written. Kerry B Collison always gets a bad rap but I kinda enjoyed some of his books, he’s no Hemmingway for sure but I’m surprised they sell his books here, seeing they mainly deal with corrupt generals, politicians and businessmen and the destruction they cause…

    Last year I met John Chester Lewis in Bali at the house of a friend and he put out a book with his poems, selling them in the same way that Ross does:

    There’s Westerners all over South-East Asia doing stuff, putting out stuff, writings, music and other forms of art but mostly it’s in very small amounts (it’s kind of a nice idea for a blog, Stuff Put Out By Expats In SEA)

  2. madrotter says:

    Dutch guy who came to Bandung for a while after working in Bali for 6 months, he put out this cd, it was for sell in distro’s in Bandung and Jakarta, All the music is his and all the rappers are from the Bandung scene:

  3. Oigal says:

    Thanks Timdog, I must chase up a copy of “A Shadow Falls” . Indeed, Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa and Giles Milton’s Nathaniel’s Nutmeg are very much a part of the bookshelf. Krakatoa lends it self to many re-readings and is the book that get grabbed when all else fails on the way to the airport.

    Collison’s books are very easy to enjoy and perhaps the best part is defining who is he really referring to in his not overly disguised real life characters. The “Asian Slease” infestation pretty much leaves me for dead, most expats have been through “the kid in lolly shop” phase and moved on. Pretty much cookie cutter stuff no matter in which SEA country the “exploits” are based.

    Anyway thanks for the tip/s

  4. Ross says:

    timdog is correct re the dearth of books here, though madrotter makes a valid point about that series on the colonial era, all of which I’ve read and then gifted to a friend who is building up a private library – he’s got lots.
    Winchester’s Krakatoa was very readable too.

    For my part, there’s no pretence that any of mine are ‘great literature,’ (‘hear,hear,’ I can hear Oigal shouting) I write for fun, and people with a sense of humour seem to enjoy reading Jakarta Suckers! and such-like.

    But I don’t go in for ebony covers, as I use the backdrop of Jaksa’s naughtiness on which I try to develop some kind of adventure tale. I try to vary the colour of the cover with each successive book, to make them easily distinguishable when the next Nobel Prize is being discussed!

    As for Jaksa life being unrepresentative, of course one street is going to be, but the bule world here is qute small, and in truth you’ll find much more appallling behaviour in Blok M than on Jaksa. I rarely visit Kemang, where the more affluent nonsense occurs, but I’d guess some posh expats can no more hold their drink than certain bule miskin.

    FYO, I was on Jaksa last night, and saw no whiff of aggro. If you go to Mocca Cafe or Cocktail, they’re mostly frequented by younger Indonesians, often couples, who behave impeccably and thus make those places agrreeable for bules who like a pleasant night out. Few of the Blok M bars can match that description.
    As for Pappa Cafe, it’s almost always nearly empty these days. Since Romance closed, Absolut is the busy place – went there for a drink and a snack last night too, and it was quiet and peaceful.

  5. Oigal says:

    “For my part, there’s no pretence that any of mine are ‘great literature,’ (‘hear,hear,’ I can hear Oigal shouting) I write for fun, and people with a sense of humour seem to enjoy reading Jakarta Suckers! and such-like”

    Ross I have a great sense of humour, why do think I spend so much time teasing you (I know its not a challenge so it must be for humour’s sake).

    In this case, you are paranoid (oops all cases) I was not referring to your book but rather the general style of “book”. The we went and conquered all these sneaky whores and drink heaps holds little interest to me is all.

    but the bule world here is qute small

    I would agree the world of the stumbling drunk bule world is relatively small and gets far more publicity than is deserves or warrants. On the other hand, the Bule world in general in Indonesia is remarkedly diverse and interesting. With any number of interesting characters, living, working, partaking in Indonesia far beyond the insular worlds of Jaksa and Blok M.

  6. Ross says:

    Of course it’s a small world, Oigal, A tiny percentage of bules…
    Oke, you write about it. Use your humour sparingly, as it is bizarre.

  7. rayner says:

    I think that there is quite a market in the West for the type of books that you described. I am always being asked after one of my trips for a less scholarly book than the ones that I will pursue. Not very many that I can recommend.

    Thanks for the article, I will read some of those books that you mention.

  8. rayner says:

    Bit off topic for this newsgroup but is anyone else concerned with the media reports that there are many women awaiting to be stoned to death! Also reports that several boys and girls have been whipped for doing what their Western cousins do without any such drastic punishments.

  9. madrotter says:

    women waiting to be stoned to death? here? in indonesia? where did you read that?

  10. timdog says:

    The question I was begging was why there is an apparent lack of quality factual writing on Indonesia (be it journalistic, historical, travelogue of cultural investigation).
    Any thoughts…

    I’m glad you dropped by madrotter – I was hoping to have a Hollander to answer this question: how about in Dutch? Is there much researched but non-academic modern factual writing about Indonesia in Dutch? Travel books? Journalism? or popular narrative history using colonial archive sources as base material? It would be interesting to know…

    I have read some of the Periplus reprints of Dutch literature (though not Country of Origin). Albert Alberts The Islands is, out of what I’ve read so far, the best piece of foreigner-written fiction to emerge from Indonesia.
    However, the main topic of my post above was not really fiction (though there are similar issues with the small volume of fiction about Indonesia in English), but factual books, history, travel literature etc.

    You mention “stuff put out by expats”. Although there is a great deal to be said for DIY when it comes to music, I’m afraid to say i strongly feel that the opposite is true for books, and – with a very few exceptions – self-publishing is something that deserves all the sniggering contempt it receives (Ross, all apologies and no disrespect intended specifically to you – you’ve apparently found a specific little niche, and perhaps a market, and if you really are able to recoup some money from something you do for pleasure, then fair play to you, but I won’t hold back my feelings on the topic of self-publishing in general).

    It’s often said that “everyone has a book in them”. This, unfortunately, is not in any way true. If I want to record a DIY album of Celtic folk songs on the violin, I need to be able to play the thing first, and if I am completely unable to do so, even if I am possessed with monumental self-delusion, that fact will be obvious to me, and I won’t bother (or I’ll go away and learn to play first).
    But because of the slippery, hard-to-pinpoint, indefinable nature of “being able to write” (or otherwise), plenty of people who manifestly CANNOT WRITE FOR SH*T are blissfully unaware of the fact and believe that just because they have the physical capability to type out a lumpen dollop of 80,000-odd constructs that might, taken individually, be identifiable as “words”, then they are a “writer”. And even if every agent and publisher they approach laughs in their face, they continue to believe – usually now with the added embittered motivation of failure – that the public at large still deserves, indeed needs, to be able to sample their work. So they self-publish.

    This might sound horribly snobbish, but there is a reason why most self-published books are self-published: because no real publisher will take them. And there is a reason why no real publisher will take them: because they are BAD; in most cases, not just bad, but atrocious….

    One reason for this is that a key part of the real publishing business is editing – even the best writers have a professional editor whose job it is not to massage their egos, but to make their work presentable to the public, to suggest revisions, and to cut the bad bits – and even to decide that the whole thing is not working and that the writer needs to start all over again. Every book needs this, and getting your mates and family members to check it for spelling mistakes does not amount to the same thing.
    But in any case, in virtually every example of self-published fiction that I have ever seen, this scarcely matters so eye-wateringly poor is the writing itself – really, the literary equivalent of someone recording an album of folk songs on the violin without ever bothering to learn the instrument first…

    There are just a very few exceptions where self-publishing is just about justified – poetry (barely, and only because it’s almost the only option), and slender pet projects on obscure subjects by amateur enthusiasts. “A guide to the old buildings of Bandung”? “The History of Parish Churches in Norfolk”? “Bird-watching on Madura”? There are various little gems along those lines, which sadly won’t appear through any other method but self-publishing. But if it’s fiction, travel, broader history, or polemic then NO NO NO!

    The howl of protest from the self-publishing community in response to such comments goes something like this: “but mainstream publishers won’t take risks/won’t look at anything except celebrity biographies/no one will publish you if you’re not an attractive 20-something woman/mainstream publishers are prejudiced against rightwing viewpoints/are prejudiced against left-wing viewpoints/it’s almost impossible to get a foot in the door if you don’t know someone on the inside etc etc etc…”
    Now, there would be some merit in those complaints, were it not for the fact that, all marketability aside, almost all self-published books, and especially self-published fiction, is so badly structured and written that it would be completely un-publishable in a conventional sense even if it did deal with a zeitgeistian hot potato of a subject…
    Sorry, but it’s true.

    If you’ve written something that you think is a “book”, and if you’ve spent a year or so sending it off to agents and publishers, and not one of them has responded favourably then, trust me, there is a good reason, and the answer is to sit down, cold-headed and clear-eyed, assess what you’ve done wrong and realise that it’s either terminal (i.e. you can’t write), or choose a new, better topic, and start again.
    Because if you have an obscure, apparently uncommercial subject but you write about it spectacularly well, with verve, universalism and originality, then you’ll eventually get published, or if you’re a capable writer and you choose a subject and present it in a way that will make an agent or publisher say “Yes, I can see this working” as soon as they read the synopsis, then you will also get published.
    Otherwise, don’t bother, and for god’s sake don’t self-publish; it’ll make you go blind…


    On poor old Kerry B Collison, and why he doesn’t have trouble with his “controversial” subject matter – I’d be inclined to say that’s it’s because no one can manage to read beyond the second page of any of his books. But in truth it has more to do with the facts that,
    1) he’s writing in English and is therefore totally irrelevant to the authorities, and
    2) that actually the idea of Indonesia as a draconian free-speech hampering totalitarian state a la Iran, especially when it comes to books, is wide of the mark, and actually, probably always was to some extent. Apparently you could always buy Pram’s books fairly openly, even at the height of their New Order banning…

    Finally, Rayner is, I believe, referring to the case of a woman who had been sentenced to death for adultery, not in Indonesia, but in Iran. Not nice, but happily it was announced today that the sentence will not be carried out.

    Finally, for Ross, having been so utterly horrible about self-publishing (and I really, really wasn’t intending it to be an attack on you and what you do – I’ve never read your books, so I exempt them from everything I’ve said above until I do), I give a little compensatory love by reiterating, as I so often do, that for all its irrelevance, I am not of the type to sneer haughtily at Jaksa from the ivory towers of Kemang, good grief no! I find the place amusing and charming in a ramshackle way…


  11. Andrew Beatty says:

    The editor has kindly alerted me to this debate and timdog’s rather mean little puff for A Shadow Falls. A few thoughts…

    Apologia pro vita sua….er, My own trumpet.
    An original experience told in a new way is not likely to fit neatly into the travelogue genre, but it’s an error to see A Shadow Falls as obscure or academic. (Where are the endnotes, references, explanations, theories, jargon?) Faber & Faber would not have looked at it if that were the case. And none of the emails I receive from Javanese or Westerners conveys that impression. Think of it as a story about people: if it seems “slightly odd” to timdog, that’s probably because he has never met such people or tasted their world. But do you want to enlarge your experience or merely confirm it? Do you want to fill a 2cm gap on your travel/history/exotica shelf or think about putting up a different shelf?

    Publish and be damned.
    Timdog’s suspicions about the publishing market are spot on. India and subSaharan Africa occupy very big, exclusive niches in the British imagination. And not only there. Institutionally, in the literary establishment, up- or downmarket, the empire strikes (or strokes) back. Almost anything with a Raj, ex-colony or migration angle is bankable and backed by big marketing budgets and newspaper coverage. Now there are – literally – curry memoirs. The big names mentioned by timdog are riding this wave. (Good solid authors, but none of them comes close to the dread Naipaul for subtlety of vision or quality of prose.) But Latin America? Southeast Asia? Forget it. No top publisher will touch anything on Indonesia now because they can’t recoup their outlay. My book squeaked in before Black Wednesday (or whenever) which forced the publishing industry to tighten its already anorexic belt. I hope that A Shadow Falls will ease the path for the next author (or my book on Nias!), but who knows? We need all the encouragement we can get.

    Anthros do it better.
    A shout for the profession. I’m sad to see the late great Clifford Geertz patronized as “having some literary merit”. Maradona had some skill with the ball… (See my article on Geertz in Makers of Modern Culture, or email me and I’ll send you a copy.) For all their solid archival research and access to important people, even the best popular historians and journalists can’t match anthropology’s insight into the lives of ordinary people in unfamiliar settings. Two, three, or four years living among – not near, but actually with – the people you write about, speaking their language, and sharing their lives is vastly different from securing an interview with a VIP, mingling in the crowds or chatting in coffee shops. And the theory-backed understanding of how societies work and cultures evolve – knowledge which may be muted in the finished product – is of a different order. So here are a few more suggestions for the holiday reading list: Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, which begins with the immortal line: “I hate travelling and explorers.” Anything by Hugh Brody, but try The Other Side of Eden, Oscar Lewis’s Pedro Martinez (Mexico), Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land (Egypt). These are all brilliantly written anthropological books that any intelligent reader will enjoy. And if you really want to understand India and fancy a mind-blowing intellectual challenge, Louis Dumont’s Homo Hierarchicus. Curry will never taste the same.

  12. madrotter says:

    Been looking for quiet a while for A Shadow Falls but here in Bandung I haven’t found it yet and I’m mighty curious!

    And yes Timdog, there is an incredible wealth of Dutch literature dealing with Indonesia or rather the Indies as it was called when most of these books were written. Countless books about the Japanese time (books with titles like “The Yellow Terror, The Yellow Hell), loads of books from authors who’s parents were born in Indonesia but had to leave for Holland after independence (the Indo’s in Holland deserve a whole topic for themselves actually).

    If you can find it, also in that same Periplus series a book called “Mirror of the Indies” a history of Dutch colonial literature…

    Pramoedya sheds a bit of light on the diverse productivity in writing in colonial times in his Buru quartet

  13. Ross says:

    madrotter, the stonings are due in Iran! No doubt Oigal will want to import the custom to Aussie to make it even more delightfully multicultural – see RRA for his latest ramblings!

  14. madrotter says:

    wouldn’t it be more fun to give the folks who are going to throw stones in Australia boomerangs instead?

  15. timdog says:

    Andrew – thanks very much indeed for showing up; it’s an honour to have you here.

    I do think, however, that you have strayed a little wide of the point in your response above, especially when it comes to your complaints of “meanness” about your book, of the “patronising” of Clifford Geertz (heaven forbid!), and in your staking a claim for the value of anthropological works. None of that is what this piece is about.

    If you ask me, purely in terms of my personal opinion, about your book, I’ll say it’s absolutely fabulous, the best recent book about an Indonesian topic by a long way (and not only because it has so little competition), and something that I would urge anyone to buy.

    But when I “meanly” mentioned its oddness and obscure nature, I was not talking about what I thought of the book myself, but discussing its chances (or, sadly, lack of) of becoming a best-seller, or matching the success of Nathaniel’s Nutmeg or Krakatoa.
    Would that it wasn’t so, but it is.

    If you present me with a list of recent books about Indonesia and ask me to rank them according to my preferences, of course I am going to rate the one with real authority, based on a long and total immersion in the place and an unimpeachable linguistic and theoretical foundation – not to mention fine literary quality – well above something middlebrow about sailors or volcanoes, hacked together by someone with no discernable specialist knowledge of Indonesia. Of course I am.

    But unfortunately I am neither a commissioning editor, nor a very good representative of the tastes of the book-buying masses.

    And that is what this piece is about – because even when it comes to middlebrow narrative history and Paul Theroux-style travel writing, Indonesia suffers a glaring deficit. It was that I was bemoaning – not criticising you or Clifford Geertz!

    This matters, because a broader body of work in the middle range would, most likely, create a little extra space for the admirably odd and obscure: had your book been about a community on the slopes of the Indian Himalaya rather than a Javanese volcano it would have done very well indeed.

    Personally I would love nothing more than to go off tomorrow for three years to research a book – literary, not academic – about the intersections of modernity, orthodoxy and traditional belief in Nusa Tenggara. But even supposing I had the time and finances to do so I wouldn’t, because I know it would never get published. Much better to knuckle down and bash out some gristly piece of pop history with an empire connection…

    I’m not happy about that, but it’s the way it is, and in my piece I was asking why. I know about the straightened circumstances and narrow perspectives of the publishing business, but I was pondering whether there was more to it than that, and wondering – considering the dreary general standard of books about Indonesia (yours very much excepted) – whether the answer lies in the market.
    The total population of potential English readers in Indonesia alone (expats or English-literate locals) is, I’m sure, enough to have gobbled up the entire print run of your book several times over. And then think of all the frequent tourist visitors…
    But my question was – and this is where I really think you misinterpreted me – not should they do so, but would they?
    I don’t know; I hope so, but I really don’t know

    A point of order – in taking umbrage to me “patronising” Clifford Geertz you both misread and misquoted me. I was listing some exemplary academic writers who deal with Indonesia. I hardly need to point out to you the difference between academic and non-academic books, but these are people for whom the need to impress marketing departments and to create a buzz at the book fairs is simply not an issue when they are doing their work. And though they may have – and indeed I hope they do have – literary motivations of their own, these are not the raison d’etre for the existence of their books.
    So in that context, when I say that Geertz’s work “had some real literary merit” it’s hardly a sneer of contempt. And please note that “real”, which you seem to have missed. It makes a big difference, tipping the balance from patronising faint praise to unreserved admiration.

    And another minor protest – I share entirely your views about the great value of books of anthropology, whether written as academia or literature, over the casual observation of transient travel writers and journalists. In fact, I’m surprised by your apparent praise for Naipaul in this respect; he’s a prime example of a writer who awards himself an air of authority on topics about which he has no such thing. You tower over him when it comes to Indonesia. (Interesting, though, that you note Ghosh’s In an Antique Land; I was reminded of it when I read A Shadow Falls.)
    But in defence of historians: history and anthropology are different things, and if William Dalrymple wants to spend four years up to his elbows in the archives researching the fall of Delhi while you spend four years absorbing the intricacies of a Javanese village I’m not going to rate your work over his in terms of merit, authority or value, and I won’t be rating his over yours either. Different things.

    Anyway, once more, thank you for joining in, and please do share your thoughts on the points which I hope I have drawn attention to here – they were the ones I was actually getting at in the original piece.

    Finally, do you have a publisher for the Nias book yet? I for one am looking forward to reading it. If not, maybe you should write some Asian Sleaze into it (that’s a joke, please). And if all else fails, though it would be disheartening not to find a UK publisher, I’m sure one of the regional SE Asian houses – Monsoon or Periplus Editions in Singapore, or maybe Equinox in Jakarta – would take it (though financial rewards would, of course, be negligible )…

  16. Ross says:

    Oya, timdog, I accept you are not having a go at me, this time! But your point about publishers taking on some books, leaving other aspiring writers to resort to self-publishing…

    I like nothing better than to sit in the garden on Sunday and read novels, which I usually buy in Toko Cyntia on Jaksa, second-hand but in good shape.

    The thing is, I often chuck the books halfway through – a lot of those published by big name companies are boring. Publishers are not at all omniscient in their choice of authors. I know you didn’t say that they were, but you implied that if a good writer is prepared to wait up to a a decade, he/she will get into print.

    In fact, I have had some of my short stories published by ‘reputable’ firms, but when it comes to a full-length novel, I can’t be bothered wasting years while some geezer sifts through hundreds or thousands of type-scripts.
    Like I say, I do it for fun, and don’t make much money -happy if I break even. But I want to see them in print before khiamat!

  17. Andrew Beatty says:

    1 Timdog, thanks for the kind words. I agree with the general thrust of your original piece, but I think you are asking for the impossible: “a colour-filled travelogue or a vibrant narrative history for the masses” which is also a “proper literary book”. Can’t be both. So I recommend you do that book on Nusa Tenggara, and the hell with royalties.

    2 I misunderstood you about Geertz.

    3 Naipaul is un-PC, but his prose is peerless. “The Enigma of Arrival” rather than the travel books.

    4 You pose an interesting chicken-and-egg conundrum of the sort Javanese mystics like to discuss over a late night bitter coffee. Why isn’t there a market for good books about Indonesia? Is it because people aren’t writing them or because nobody would buy them (therefore people aren’t writing them)? I don’t know, but blogs like this help to generate interest, so keep up the good work…

    5 I last visited Jalan Jaksa in 1981 when I stayed at Nick’s Losmen (run by a charming Chinese called Hermann). It sounds a lot more interesting than I remember it. Must do some serious research there next time around.

  18. rayner says:

    Sorry for that error, and the delay in replying. I had misread my paper. The sentence will not now be carried out but she will probably be hanged instead. Which must be a great relief to her!

  19. Oigal says:

    “No doubt Oigal will want to import the custom to Aussie to make it even more delightfully multicultural”

    Aaww Ross, A slightly more compassionate view about the very complex issue immigration, refugees etc does not make me a supporter of thugs, bullies and idiots. As I have said I find little difference (besides the physical aspect) between your views and the stoners, just different targets.

    Having said that and as much as I am flattered by being in your every thought, perhaps it would be better not to hi-jack this thread? We have plenty of room to joust elsewhere.

    I am enjoying this thread, those books you mentioned MR are they in Dutch or English?

  20. Ross says:

    Well, Oigal, you have the field to yourself today, as I’m off to Jaksa to watch the footie.

    Andrew, Nick’s Losmen is still there, but don’t know who runs it these days – was invited to dinner there by an expat and his girl-friend last year. The meal was excellent, yet I can’t understand why anybody who could afford to move elsewhere would want to reside there.
    But as I said on RRA, it takes all sorts, and all tastes are catered for on that unique street.

  21. timdog says:

    Andrew – it was indeed that “chicken and egg” question that I was really getting at, and I don’t know the answer either.

    I may be asking a lot when I beg for crowd-pleasing travel or history that also has real literary merit and substance, but I don’t think I’m asking the impossible.
    Sorry to keep going on about him, but on Indian subjects I think William Dalrymple manages to do just that. He has been able to take his audience with him as he has progressed from lighter (but still very scholarly) travel writing into much weightier matters; his his most recent books (with the exception of his most recent – a publisher’s stop-gap if ever there was one) have been very seriously researched history that could be – and is – used as accademic text, but which also pleases the crowds.
    But anyway, to be honest, I’d be happy just to see some more lightweight pop history and cliche-riddled travel writing on Indonesia…

    One day, I really do hope I will do that Nusa Tenggara book. However, I confess with shame that I’m busy working on getting a couple of chunks of gristly pop history with empire connections under my belt first – perhaps doing so will buy me breathing space later…

    Ross – You certainly do seem to knock ’em out at a formidable rate, so if you genuinely do mean what you say above, and genuinely prefer to do things your way then that is absolutely fine, and absolutely admirable, and I wouldn’t have a go at you for it – just so long as you’re not secretly harbouring those “rararara, the publishing industry has done me a terrible wrong, it’s all a leftwing/right wing/Oxbridge/celebrity conspiracy and they don’t know what their missing!” bitternesses that so many woefully misguided self-publishers labour under…

    And you’re right of course that there are huge numbers of terrible books published commercially. But they may be terrible to you or I, but somewhere there is a demographic that would – in theory – be interested in buying them; they generally bear the all the marks of having gone through the process of being turned from a raw manuscript into a real book (something which involves far more than one person), which self-published books never do. And generally the authors can, in some sense, write. Even the really bad ones are usually a huge step up in terms of ability from most self-publishers – unless, of course, they have come up with a concept so spectaculalry marketable (generally something involving boy wizards, teenage vampires or the Holy Grail) that ability to write has become irrelevant…

    A-ha! How about an Indonesian Twilight cash-in? An innocent young female, straight out of college, arrives in Indonesia to take an English-teaching job, deftly side-steps the attentions of the grizzled old bules in the staff room and falls instead for a charismatic but haughty Javanese youth from her upper-intermediate class… He turns out, of course, to be… um, maybe not a vampire… how about a weretiger with powers of invulnerability and magnificent karisma? She cannot have sex with him before marriage because if she does she’ll turn into a sundel bolong, but they go off and have all sorts of adventures and defeat legions of diverse demons (possibly out to take over the world at the behest of a corrupt Jakarta tycoon), and then, I suppose, get married on the beach in Bali at the end of the fourth book…
    Whadaya reckon? You can have that for free if you want Ross…

  22. Ross says:

    My collection of short stories, HANTU, has been out of print for a while and I’ve been contemplating a second enlarged edition. Maybe your idea, timdog, could fill it out admirably!

  23. BrotherMouzone says:


    Oh it’s the silhouette of a bargirl with bats on her dress! (Sorry, I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly the image on the front of your book was… got it now).


    I think the lack of decent books about Indonesia is just a symptom of a general lack of awareness of Indonesia. Remember the thread about movies set in Indonesia? Not very many. For the world’s fourth most populous nation, Indonesia is almost invisible in the world’s eyes.

    I had the misfortune to read a book called “The Flame Tree” by Richard Lewis about the son of a missionary somewhere in Java who gets kidnapped by cartoon fanatic Muslims who behead people left, right, and center and eventually forcibly circumcise him to make him a Muslim (no, seriously).

    I stopped reading at that point so I could throw acid in my eyes.

  24. berlian biru says:

    “I think the lack of decent books about Indonesia is just a symptom of a general lack of awareness of Indonesia. Remember the thread about movies set in Indonesia? Not very many. For the world’s fourth most populous nation, Indonesia is almost invisible in the world’s eyes.”

    Ding Ding Ding, folks we have a winner!

    It’s not rocket science, we’ve discussed this in other forums related to travel and news coverage of Indonesia, for 90% of the population of the world Indonesia features on their radar somewhere below Paraguay, except that most people probably have a fair idea of where Paraguay is.

    This is not helped by the fact that Indonesia doesn’t have a literary tradition, people in Indonesia simply don’t read books, unless you’re Chinese and you need to buy the latest business management guru, personal enlightenment fad or of course some nice book about Jesus. I remember reading somewhere that being fluent in Bahasa Melayu (Indonesian) was the equivalent of having the key to an empty wardrobe, if Indonesians can’t be bothered to read and write about their own country why should anyone else?

    Just for the record however here’s a few choice fictional and non-fictional extracts from my bookshelf, not all of which I enjoyed but which should be of interest to some people here.

    Firstly of course, Christopher J Koch’s “Year of Living Dangerously”,

    John Hughes “The End of Sukarno”

    Theodore Friend “Indonesian Destinies”

    Joseph Conrad “Victory”

    eds Hellwig and Tagliacozzo “The Indonesian Reader”

    Richard Lloyd Parry “In Time of Madness”

    Keith Loveheard “Suharto”

    John T Sidel “Riots, Pogroms, Jihad”

    Nigel Barley “In Raffles’ Footsteps”

    Geoffrey Bennett “The Pepper Trader”

    and I suppose if you really must you could read Pram’s stuff.

  25. Ross says:

    Congrats, Brother! You are correct!

    Berlian, you might add that interesting history of Tempo, Wars Within, by Steele, which I’ve mentioned in RRA, and The Invisible Palace, by Tesoro.

  26. timdog says:

    Brother – I’d not heard of “The Flame Tree”, but it sounds horrific…

    Ross – go for it, but my concept for the Senjakala Saga is for just that, remember – a four-book saga…

    BB – you are right, of course. Back to my India-Indonesia thing again – when compared to the Subcontinent Indonesia has got the literacy, but it hasn’t got the literary…
    While India is still home to huge swathes of people who can’t read at all, at the other end of the scale it is one of the most literature obsessed countries in the world, and produces writers who bestride the globe. It does help that most of them work in English of course, but that doesn’t count for everything…
    Indonesia meanwhile, has almost total literacy, but its meagre output of highbrow literature is miniscule, and the product of a tiny, cliqueish bubble…

    But there are still tens of thousands of English-reading – and potentially writing – foreigners closely involved with the country. So where is their input?

    You could read Pram, if you must, but only to be able to tell people that you have, and to know what other people are talking about. For Indonesian literature available in English Mochtar Lubis is much, much better.

  27. Ross says:

    timdog! Four book saga? Is this a cunning left-lib strategy to divert me from my blog? Kasihan Oigal, he is addicted to it.

    BTW am impressed and intrigued to know you find Pram as turgidly boring as I do!

  28. Oigal says:

    🙂 What can I say..I do enjoy an amusing piece of fiction

  29. timdog says:

    Ross – I suspect you’ll be even more impressed and intrigued to know that I think one of the key problems for anyone reading Pram in English is the monumental moonbat who translated him…

  30. Andrew Beatty says:

    Timdog: you don’t need to convince me about William Dalrymple, a terrific author. He is also, by the way, a great force for tolerance and keeps up a steady flow of rational, effective journalism. Gets my vote.

    BB: On the intellectual dearth: Indonesia in the early Sixties must have been one of the most exciting places in the world. Great things could have emerged – and I don’t mean a PKI government. But Suharto performed a national lobotomy. You can’t rebuild in a couple of years. It might take another decade or two before it makes up the lost ground.

    On Indonesia’s invisibility in the West: file under national disasters. The only time I’ve seen Indonesia as lead item on the BBC News (and it was Nias!) was the earthquake that followed the tsunami. But the little things that pass notice are ultimately more interesting.

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