List: Books by writers of Indonesian heritage

By Teta 

Quick things: Huge shout out to the website for being a major resource for finding Indonesian writers. In March, it announced that it would no longer be operating, though the website will still be up for an unknown amount of time. Before it shuts down for good, you should definitely take a look at it and find your next favorite Indonesian author there! 

Two years ago, I decided that I was going to start reading books written by Indonesian authors because I realized I didn’t know any. Somehow, through my various phases — Kurt Vonnegut, Jane Austen, “The Clique,” E.M. Forster’s “Maurice” — I’d totally skipped over works from Indonesian writers.

I’d realized this during my last semester of college while browsing the “Indonesian language” section at my school’s library, which I’d only just discovered. There was a collection of Indonesian poetry and short stories translated into English, and books by Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Eka Kurniawan.

For whatever reason, I decided to save the Toer books for a later date and checked out “Beauty Is A Wound” by Eka Kurniawan. That was the beginning of what I hope will become habit rather than just a phase.

Admittedly, I can’t read Bahasa Indonesia very well, so all the books I’ve read are in English. Through every reading, I’ve also learned that there are heavy themes of violence, sexual violence, exploitation, and trauma that run through almost all of the books — most of these books are not light reads, so discretion is advised.

With that, here’s a list of books I’ve read by Indonesian authors that I’ll keep updating as I finish a book:

1. “Indigenous Species” by Khairani Barokka

Wow. Just, wow.

This poem in book form is truly a force of nature, a combination of monumental words and arresting visuals. It’s kind of hard to distill it because I’m still working through it myself. But basically, a girl is kidnapped and the poem follows her journey through a destroyed, exploited landscape. The poem touches on so, so much, and I will never do it justice, so read a much better analysis of it here: “Intoxicated Feminisms and the Politics of the Visible: Khairani Barokka’s Indigenous Species.

I have the sighted version, which has “braille” written in braille with every verse of the book. As Barokka explains in the introduction, “Thus Indigenous Species attempts to make the absence of braille visible and felt in its sighted-reader version, just as sight-impaired or blind readers feel its absence in every two-dimensional book.” A braille version is in the works through Tilted Axis Press. Learn more about Barokka’s work here.

(Photo credit: Teta)

2. Buru Quartet: “This Earth of Mankind” by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Talk about a book series that is still relevant in many ways today. As a kid, I loved reading historical fiction, and it was nice to see that I hadn’t outgrown that with this book. Set around the turn of the 20th century in Indonesia, the series follows the national awakening of the colonized archipelago and of a young Javanese aristocrat, Minke.

In this first book, Minke is about to graduate a Dutch high school in Surabaya as the only Native Indonesian student. He starts off as an earnest, precocious young man, and then, when he meets the Mellema family — and falls in love with their Indo-European daughter, Annelies — it changes the course of his life.

Now, if you don’t know anything about Indonesian history, this book is about to give you a crash course. Minke lives during Dutch colonial rule of Indonesia, which means he operates within the system of Dutch racial hierarchy that places Dutch/Europeans at the top. That Minke is Native (pribumi) and Annelies is Indo (mixed Indonesian-European heritage) is central to the struggles they encounter. Annelies’ mom, Nyai Ontosoroh, a Native Indonesian woman who was essentially sold to be the mistress and second wife of a Dutch businessman, becomes an important figure in Minke’s life and a powerful character throughout the series.

3. Buru Quartet: “The Child of All Nations” by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

In the second book, Minke’s world view is expanded further as he and Nyai Ontosoroh deal with separation, death, and heartbreak. He realizes, as part of the Javanese nobility, he has been neglecting working-class Javanese folks and Chinese immigrants. He also learns more about the issues Native women face, how their own families can sacrifice them to Dutch men in power. During this part, he develops more as a young journalist and uncovers the myriad injustices under colonial rule.

4. Buru Quartet: “Footsteps” by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

By the third book, Minke has lost a lot of his naiveté and becomes fully entrenched in the national awakening under colonial rule. But he learns how complicated that can be with the layers of ethnic, religious, and class diversity that make up the archipelago. This book is the climax, essentially, of Minke’s story, but it’s only the beginning for Indonesia as a whole.

5. Buru Quartet: “House of Glass” by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

The final book in the saga is told from the perspective of Pangemanann, the Native detective linked to Minke, who offers a complex narrative of Natives who become engulfed in the colonial system. Pangemanann, who was raised by a Frenchman and educated in Europe, rises through the ranks of the colonial government, but no matter what, he is reminded time and time again that he is still a brown-skinned Native.

6. “Apple and Knife” by Intan Paramaditha

Writer Intan Paramaditha takes some of the most well-known Indonesian ghost stories and other famous tales and douses them with subtle, spine-tingling horror. The collection of short stories includes a gory twist on Cinderella and her step-sisters, blood lust and religious zeal around women dangdut singers, and Nyi Roro Kidul, the Queen of the South Sea, in modern times. I only have the ebook version, but if you live in Australia, you can get the physical copy.

7. “Spinner of Darkness & Other Tales” by Intan Paramaditha

This is an earlier collection of short stories with Indonesian, English, and German versions. Two of the short stories, “Apple and Knife” and “A Single Firefly, a Thousand Rats,” appear in the later collection “Apple and Knife.” The other two stories, “Spinner of Darkness” and “Snow Red,” weave loss, grief, and belonging together to create haunting visions of existence.

8. “Saman” by Ayu Utami

Though the book itself is pretty thin — the version I have is a cool 193 pages — there’s A LOT going on. The timeline is all over the place, there are stories within stories, there are supernatural elements, there’s political dissidence, there’s asylum seeking, there are multiple affairs. If you want a book that has EVERYTHING, this is the book for you. Content warning for sexual violence, physical violence, and torture.

9. “Home” by Leila S. Chudori

Dimas Suryo is an Indonesian political exile living in Paris. He falls in love with Frenchwoman and fellow bibliophile Vivienne Deveraux, starts a family with her, opens an Indonesian restaurant in Paris with his three best friends, and continues to foster his love of Indonesian cooking. But, Dimas’s arrival to France was not out of choice — he and his friends were forced to stay out of Indonesia as Suharto seized power and the 1965-1966 communist massacre gripped the country, affecting many of their friends, family, and journalist colleagues. Even as Dimas continues his life in France, and has a bright daughter named Lintang, he longs to return to Indonesia. When Lintang grows up, she gets a chance to visit the homeland her father could never return to, but in a similarly charged time in 1998.

I loved the storytelling in this 2012 novel from Leila S. Chudori. The original title in Bahasa Indonesia, “Pulang,” really evokes that feeling of “returning.” It was really such a joy to see these stories that felt so familiar to me — these characters felt like my own family members, like Dimas was really Om Dimas and Lintang was Kak Lintang — play out between the pages of a book read by so many others.

I will say, though, that one thing I’ve noticed in Indonesian novels is this fetishization of mixed heritage, particularly of Indonesian and white European heritage. That happens in this book in certain moments, because Lintang has (white) French and Indonesian heritage. But, perhaps, that is another discussion to be had all together.

(Photo credit: Teta)

10. “Cigarette Girl” by Ratih Kumala

Jeng Yah. That’s the name muttered by the patriarch of the Djagad Raja clove cigarette dynasty on his death bed. But, it isn’t the name of his wife, which causes an uproar in the family. His three sons decide to find this mysterious Jeng Yah in order to bring peace to their father, and they end up traveling to the ends of Java to find her. As one family drama unfolds, another one unravels decades earlier, starting from the end of Dutch colonization into Japanese occupation, setting the stage for Jeng Yah’s story.

Kumala is an adept storyteller, but the prose was stilted, which felt more of an issue with the English translation rather than Kumala’s writing. Still, it wasn’t too distracting, and the book is a fairly quick read and gives insight into the Indonesian clove cigarette industry.

11. “Monsoon Tiger and Other Stories” by Rain Chudori

This short stories collection was…OK? I’m happy to be supporting a promising young writer, but the stories felt empty, poetically aimless. It was all love without people. If you’re looking to read about space, shape, and feelings without any concrete characters or locations, this is the work for you. It was a charming read at some points, but I was left wanting something that I felt wasn’t provided in the works. These are an earlier collection, so I’m sure she’s grown more as a writer.

12. “The Years of the Voiceless” by Okky Madasari

This story follows two generations of women, a mother and daughter, during Indonesia’s turbulent post-independence years and the following Suharto dictatorship. Marni, the mother, grew up poor in a Javanese village, but with her entrepreneurial spirit — and her reverence toward the ancestors — she managed to accumulate a substantial amount of wealth, which draws the suspicion and distrust of her fellow villagers. Her daughter, Rahayu, however, becomes a devout Muslim and shuns Marni’s beliefs. As mother and daughter clash, so, too, does the country under Suharto’s regime. Content warning for sexual violence and torture.

13. “Beauty Is A Wound” by Eka Kurniawan

This was the first (ever?) book I read by an Indonesia author. Just at the first sentence, I was immediately hooked: a woman rises from the grave after over 20 years of death. That woman is Dewi Ayu, whose family history and drama are central to the plot, spanning from Dutch colonial times to post-World War II and independence. The supernatural elements and generational trauma reminded me heavily of Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” but there’s a certain mark of humor that’s Kurniawan’s own.

But as exquisite as the storytelling is, it’s rife with sexual violence, and at times, gratuitously so. Listen, (male) authors: There’s never a need to describe in graphic detail a scene of sexual violence. At times, Kurniawan’s depictions of sexual violence were sadistic, and while the “reveal” at the end perhaps points to why such violence happened, I finished the book with a confused, complicated feeling.

14. “Man Tiger” by Eka Kurniawan

After “Beauty,” I decided that I would read all of Kurniawan’s available books to see if there was a discernible pattern of violence against women. The premise of “Man Tiger” was extremely appealing to me: a supernatural white tigress inhabits the body of a young man, an entity that has been passed down in his family. The book opens with a brutal murder that the young man, Margio, has committed, but as the story unravels to his childhood, his village, his family, Kurniawan again uses the brutalization of women to move the men in his books forward.

15. “Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash” by Eka Kurniawan

At this point, you’re probably wondering, Teta, did you really need to read THREE books to know that the women in Kurniawan’s books face a gratuitous amount of violence? Unfortunately, it seems as if I did, like I naively hoped that things would surely change by Kurniawan’s third book. “Vengeance” has a very cinematic feel to it, with jumping narratives and timelines and lots of pulp-y, action movie-like fighting, even a truck-chasing scene. But the main premise of the book is rooted in sexual violence: the protagonist, Ajo Kawir, becomes impotent after witnessing a horrific act of sexual violence. Ajo Kawir is probably the most sympathetic of Kurniawan’s characters, but it’s kind of a low bar. And sure, when witnessing sexual violence, he’s rightfully horrified, but the choices that Kurniawan makes to (1) depict in detail the acts of sexual violence and (2) inflict unending trauma onto the women in his stories make it difficult to read his works.

And after reading three of Kurniawan’s books, it seems to me that his use of sexual violence is done with the gaze of a voyeur and for the advancement of a male character. There’s no care for the women, no sympathy, and the graphic depictions are truly painful. Kurniawan’s accolades have led me to realize that male authors who are brilliant storytellers can get away with gross violence against women in their books if they can just envelop it in imaginative phrasings and moving character back stories.

16. “The Rainbow Troops” by Andrea Hirata

Also known as “Laskar Pelangi,” this wildly popular book got an equally popular movie adaptation (that I still haven’t seen, even though it came out in 2008). The story, based on the author’s own life, follows a group of children who attend the poorest village school on Belitong, a small Indonesian island that sits somewhere between Sumatra and Kalimantan. The island is rich with natural resources, such as tin, yet the majority of the island’s indigenous inhabitants are not benefiting from that mining wealth. That exploitation is the thread that runs through all the children’s stories. (Yes, I cried and screamed angrily multiple times.)

If you haven’t watched the “Laskar Pelangi” film adaptation yet, here’s the trailer with English subtitles

(Photo credit: Teta)

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