Interview: Innosanto Nagara

Birthplace: Jakarta, Indonesia

Grew up in: Jakarta, Indonesia; college in California, U.S.A.

Currently lives in: Oakland, California, U.S.A.

Age: 47

Find him: Website | Twitter | Instagram | Design Action Collective

Quick things: Inno is a graphic designer and author of several children’s books, including “A is for Activist,” “Counting on Community,” “My Night in the Planetarium,” and “The Wedding Portrait.” Find the full list of his work here


Q: Have people of Indonesian heritage approached you about your books?

I’d actually say not a lot. “A is for Activist” is popular but not specifically among Indonesians.

“Night in the Planetarium,” I was hoping that would be more of a particular point around it, but for the most part, people who are reading that book are reading because of more of the parallels that you can draw from it, colonialism and art and social change, sort of anywhere, so there’s not really a debate about it in terms of the Indonesian history in particular. The one place it did come up was from an academic circle; it won an award from an Asian literature publication or organization, and it got picked up as reading material for a class in Columbia University [the Freeman Award from the National Consortium for Teaching about Asia, the Committee on Teaching about Asia of the Association for Asian Studies, and Asia for Educators at Columbia University], so then I did a lot of Q&A stuff with people in that class who were interested in Indonesia, beyond the topic.

But beyond that, I don’t know if it’s because it’s kind of ancient history for some people or whether it’s just because, aside from the fact that it’s set in Indonesia — I don’t know, I don’t get a lot of correspondence about it or I don’t notice it being talked about that much in Indonesian circles.

“A is for Activist” by Innosanto Nagara (Photo credit: Teta Alim)

Q: Your father was a dissident; your mother was involved in anti-war, civil rights movement of the ‘60s. Did they share any particular lessons with you?

My parents were not trying to indoctrinate me into becoming an activist or anything like that. But it’s part of our family history and culture. It was something my mom was proud of, that she had participated in the civil rights movement in the United States and also the anti-Vietnam War movement. She was arrested in 1964 and 1968. My father was a dissident playwright and poet; at the time, he was mostly known for being a playwright. He was a director of a theater troupe; he was part of a cohort of theater directors, actors, poets, people like him who were all relatively well-known ‘70s political, cultural people, so I grew up around all those people. They were all my family’s friends. They weren’t saying I had to do this or that but, in one of my dad’s plays, around 1976-1977, during the first wave of the student protests against the Suharto regime, people had to be very careful back then about what you said. My dad toured this play with his troupe; I got to have an acting part in it as a 7-year-old, so that was kind of the world we lived in.

In the family and friends scene that we were in, it was all these young artists types and everybody had political views. Nobody was doing it for money, nobody was getting rich, and there were a number of times where people had to go into hiding and that kind of thing. So it was pretty serious stuff, and I was definitely aware of that as a child.

Q: How did you come into your own political consciousness?

I was in the pencinta alam scene, which is outdoors adventure type stuff here, but it was also tied in, to some degree, with environmentalism. Although we weren’t activist, environmentalist, as much as we spent a lot of time outside and as such, sort of identified with that later. People who came out of the outdoor adventures, the pencinta alam circles, later on becoming kind of the core of what became the opposition to the Suharto regime in the ‘90s. Because these were a mix of city kids and more rural kids who had spent a lot of time outside, a lot of time in the more rural areas and so, I think for me, that was formative.

Being friends with people who were involved there who later became more active politically, but at the time, at 17 and 18, it was right at the time when you couldn’t say a lot, so we were mostly personally dissident without actually doing anything much about it. But then, when a lot of my generation went to college, that’s kind of the generation that became the core of the Reformasi movement.

For myself, I moved to the U.S., went to college at UC Davis, the Gulf War started — the build up to the first Gulf War under Bush Senior — and I’d always been involved in environmental activism or supporting some of the people on campus who were of the Third World forum, writing and photography, that kind of thing. But with the Gulf War, it was when I essentially dropped out of school and got into full-time anti-war activism. I mean, I was still in school and still finished, but school became secondary to activism. And then from there, we got involved in fights against fee hikes, fights against the subsequent war, so it kind of snowballed from there.

“A is for Activist” by Innosanto Nagara (Photo credit: Teta Alim)

Q: When you first came here, were you aware about identifying as Asian-American or the community that surrounds that? 

When I first moved here, I wasn’t planning to stay here. I was just coming for college; I was gonna go back home, I identified as Indonesian. For me, Asian-Americans here were people who had grown up here or had been born here. I thought of those AAPI organizations as really being about, and it was more so Chinese and Japanese, the more limiting idea of what Asian was. For Indonesians, it’s like, of course we’re Asian, but most of the Indonesians here came through a couple different avenues.

There were whole generations of Indonesians who had been here for a long time, who had escaped the persecution of the ‘60s, a lot of them more of Chinese-Indonesian descent, so it was sort of seen a little bit different from the sons and daughters of the rich, military-connected people who came here because they had the money to. So, it was kind of like a couple different communities that were connected on some level but on some level, was also really different.

But for myself, I guess I saw myself more as Indonesian visiting America rather than Asian-American in the broader sense. I didn’t in any particular way connect with the Asian-American community here. In fact, I didn’t really connect a lot with the Indonesian community here partially because of that question. Most of my friends growing up were more street kids and I figured, you know, just because someone’s Indonesian doesn’t mean I have to be their best friend. So, I figured I could be friends with anybody. My community was built more around climbers and other activists, things that I was interested in. A lot of the PERMIAS [Persatuan Mahasiswa Indonesia di Amerika Serikat, an organization for Indonesian students in the U.S.] kids were often from more upper-class families, so I didn’t make a particular effort to get to know a lot of them.

And that’s one of the things that I sort of regret now that I ended up staying here. I now have a son and I want him to have more connections to the Indonesian community here, and I feel like in some ways, if I had made more of an effort from when I first moved here to connect more with Indonesians here, that would’ve been good.

My grandparents on my mother’s side who live here, they were the reason why my mother ended up in Indonesia, because my grandfather’s an economist and had gone to Indonesia in the ‘50s and spent a lot of time in Indonesia. And so, they actually had a lot more Indonesian-American friends here, people who had come to the U.S. and stayed through academia. So, there’s some connections that way, but for myself, I didn’t really carry that Asian-American identity in the same way that a lot of people who actually grew up here did.

Inno with his book “My Night in the Planetarium” at the Jakarta Planetarium. (Photo courtesy of Innosanto Nagara)

Q: How often are family stories shared with you that involve colonialism, Sukarno- or Suharto-era experiences? What gets passed on?

It’s interesting…my grandfather was part of the resistance against the Dutch and then later against the Japanese, and when I was growing up, these stories were not hidden. People were proud of that.

I think it’s going to be different for a lot of people depending on what their family history is. I think particularly for people who are here who were part of the broader Chinese-Indonesian community or anybody who came here because of persecution in the ‘60s, there’s a lot of things that become more complicated. My family is Muslim, my grandfather was very proud of his opposition to the colonial government and now, my family…a lot has changed with the fall of Suharto. It’s a broader, more complicated thing.

Q: Do you have specific stories to share as a child?

Growing up, colonialism was always the enemy. There’s a lot of celebration of the revolution and Indonesian unity and pancasila [very basically, the five principles of Indonesian state ideology], you know, were all these things that ended up being used against people who were trying to oppose the current government at the time. So, if you criticize the government, it’s seen as being against persatuan, against unity, against pancasila. Even though some of the ideas of a united, diverse nation being able to work together was appealing, it was also used as club on anybody complaining. So, for myself, stories from the colonial era — there was no shortage of it.

There’s a famous movie my dad actually ended up getting involved in called, there were a lot of these big movies, like “Janur Kuning” that was all about celebrating the Indonesian resistance to the Dutch and those kind of stories were used to prop up the Indonesian revolution and essentially the Indonesian military; it was all very patriotic stuff that we all had to watch and we had to say we learned that Suharto and all the generals who were in power at the time were there because they were there for the fight against the Dutch and also against communism. There was also another movie, “G30S,” that was the communist, how they were these evil people who tried to kill these generals, and that was another propaganda film for the Suharto regime. And then they later tried to put on one together called “Jakarta 66,” which was supposed to be a propaganda movement about the student movement rising up against the Sukarno regime, and that film ended up being banned because they couldn’t really tell that story without showing some criticism.

So, from an Indonesian perspective, opposition to colonialism, penjajah, the Dutch and the Japanese, was always part of our school curriculum basically. The more critical question for me is kind of like how much of that was purely propaganda.

My books are still — I still talk about the evils of colonialism and the way in which colonialism was a source of a lot of problems we have today. But, we also have to own the way in which our own generals and how power does corrupt, and take responsibility for the things that we’ve done.

Q: Tell me more about your background and if your family has shared about their particular suku, or ethnic group. 

My mom is American and my dad is Indonesian. My family is interesting; my grandfather’s actually from Makassar originally and my grandmother also, technically, but her family actually had moved to Kalimantan. Then, they met and moved to Madura in the early years. So, my grandfather actually identifies as Madurese, even though he’s from Makassar.

But then, they moved to Bali and there’s a Muslim enclave in Bali called Loloan, right outside of Negara, so my father was born in Negara and he identifies as Balinese. He speaks Balinese, all his friends growing up were Balinese, even though culturally he’s Makassarese via Madura.

But then, when I was growing up, my family had all moved to Jember, which is in East Java, and I was born in Jakarta. So, when we’d pulang kampung [return to one’s hometown], it would be to East Java, to Jember. So I always thought of my family as Javanese, and they all speak Javanese, except I don’t. My father speaks Javanese and Balinese, but my generation, I just grew up speaking Indonesian and some Betawi and a little bit of Sundanese, because we spent a lot of time in Bandung.

The quick answer is not really that quick unfortunately, because if you ask my dad, he’ll say he’s Balinese, but he’s actually not Balinese. And if you ask my family, they’ll say they’re Javanese, so it’s complicated.

I think most people, when I was growing up, had a — because most people were not from Jakarta, although a lot of my best friends growing up were Betawi because that was the street kids. But everybody else who was not Betawi, which was a lot of people, they would say they were from this, that, or another place. But I’d get confused because my dad said he was Balinese and that was part of his artist identity. And he had changed his name…which was unheard of at the time.

Q: You have a young son; how do you share your Indonesian heritage with him?

That’s always been the fun part for me is being able to have an excuse to reconnect on a lot of stuff. We do go back to Indonesia, and I waited until he was old enough to really remember these trips. He’s now 7, he’ll be 8 this year. We go to Indonesia about once a year lately; we’ve been lucky enough to do. We visit family; they moved to Jogja, which is not where I grew up. I don’t speak Javanese, so it’s a little different; it feels more like I’m visiting. But at the same time, when I’m home, I’m home.

But for my son, it’s been great. We live in an area where there’s a lot of opportunities for him to connect with his own sense of Indonesian heritage. He takes silat, Balinese dancing, and we do go to cultural events here [in the U.S.].

When we were in Indonesia, I was surprised, because we went to Prambanan [a Hindu temple complex in the Jogjakarta area that is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site], to a performance, and I thought — at the time, he was 6 years old — I thought, “Eh, he’s gonna be bored by this,” because I remember being bored when I was a kid. But he actually loved it. He actually got into the story. So, I think there’re a lot of ways that he knows he has that as part of his history. But, he’s also a white kid growing up in America, and he goes to a dual-immersion Spanish-language school, so he speaks Spanish, he’s growing up in California, and I think that’s going to be more of the culture he’s growing up in.

Q: What does having Indonesian heritage mean to you? 

For me, it’s who I am. I’ve been here [in the U.S.] now longer than I was in Indonesia, but for me, that’s an odd thing, because my life philosophy is not “typically” Indonesian at this point, having lived here for many years. But at the same time, there are plenty of my friends in Indonesia who share similar political views and similar outlooks — there’s Indonesians of all kinds, 260 million people. It depends on who you’re talking about, and there’s plenty of radical activists doing the same kind of work in Indonesia as I do here. But they understand the political environment in Indonesia in a way that I never will from America. How things play out, what you say that is useful, and what you can say that will end up playing against you is very different from what it is here. It’s not just about being right; the politics of social change movements in Indonesia is very different. But there’s plenty of people like us who are way ahead, doing amazing work on all fronts across Indonesia.

But for myself, I now live here — Americans don’t really know anything about Indonesia. They have not heard of Indonesia, so it’s not an identity that particularly says anything. Maybe people know something about Bali, but it’s not like, “Oh, you’re from Indonesia.” People here don’t really know what that means.

Around social justice work and even around the children’s book work, I do the broader categories, perspectives, and work that’s being done by people of color, so I end up being lumped in with various broader groupings like that. But it’s very rarely — I don’t think it ever has been anything specifically Indonesian, if you know what I mean. When it’s specifically Indonesian, that usually means traditional, like an Indonesian cultural day or traditional dancing or art, which I have nothing against. But it’s not what I do; I’m not a classically trained Indonesian dancer.

“A is for Activist” by Innosanto Nagara (Photo credit: Teta Alim)

Q: Can you share what you’re working on at the moment?

The book that I’m working on is “M is for Movement” a.k.a. Why Humans Can’t Eat Golf Balls, and it’s a chapter book for kids who are second, third grade and up. It’s going to be about the trials and tribulations and choices that kids make in their lives, so it’s not a textbook. But it’s also going to be set in Indonesia, similar to the “Planetarium” book. It starts in the ‘70s but it goes through Reformasi and the overthrow of the government…I use Indonesia as my home base for telling stories around colonialism and social change work and how you overthrow the government.

Q: Your book formats have grown kind of with how your son has grown. Does that mean eventually, we’ll see a novel from you?

Every time I’m writing a book, it feels like it’s the last book I’m ever going to write, because I’m pouring everything into it and if I have any ideas, it’s going to go into that book right now. So, that’s my answer right now. But in the past, I’ve said that and someone’s convinced me to write another book, so, we’ll see.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

The one thing, if there’s some place to add, the one thing Indonesia-related that’s not really political is my brother and I and my friend who lives in New York put together this CD of Indonesian children’s song, songs from when we were kids. I’d been singing these songs to my kid and I was trying to find somebody who had a CD version of it that I could just buy, but all the recordings of it at the time were all kind of heavily synthesizer, kind of Barney-fied versions of it, which I didn’t like, and I really wanted something that was the way I remembered these songs, which is more acoustic arrangements, because they are very pretty songs. So we’d been talking about this for some years and finally did it a couple years ago. It’s a small-scale, homegrown project; it’s called “Adikku Sayang.” I did a booklet with it, but the most important thing is the songs themselves.

Inno at an event at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Innosanto Nagara)

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

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