List: More books by writers of Indonesian heritage

By Teta

I made a list back in 2018 of the books available in English that I had read so far from writers of Indonesian heritage. I wanted to keep updating that list, but I forgot. So, instead, I decided to make a new list, and here we are.

This list is absolutely not exhaustive and only includes work that I’ve finished reading. If you want a more comprehensive resource, I recommend idwriters.com.

This particular list has a strong emphasis on poetry. I feel like I’m still a poetry novice, so my reviews are mostly based on vibes. I’ll include links to more serious, insightful reviews if they’re available. I’ll also note when a work has been translated from Indonesian to English.

I haven’t done as much reading as I’d like to this year, so I’m hoping that I’ll get inspired after putting this list together. I hope you find something here that interests you. Happy reading!

My partial poetry collection.

POETRY

Sergius Seeks Bacchus” by Norman Erikson Pasaribu

Translated from Indonesian to English by Tiffany Tsao

Check out excerpts here. Read a review from Singapore Review of Books.

Have you ever seen the past, present, and future all at once? Have you also floated through life without a mirror and then suddenly, after reading this collection, felt so seen, so affirmed? Now you have a reflection, and it turns out, you weren’t grotesque at all and you never needed to hide. The world’s discomfort with you was never your problem. 10/10 must-read.

Translating Feminisms: Deviant Disciples” edited by Intan Paramaditha

Poetry by Toeti Heraty, Dorothea Rosa Herliany, Zubaidah Djohar, Shinta Febriany, and Hanna Fransisca

Translations from Indonesian to English by Tiffany Tsao, Norman Erikson Pasaribu, and Eliza Vitri Handayani

This chapbook from U.K.-based publisher Tilted Axis Press is a valuable collection of translated works from Indonesian women poets. The poems stick to your bones. It was also my introduction to the works of the recently passed Toeti Heraty. My picks include “Marriage of the Knife” by Dorothea Rosa Herliany, “Nightmare from the State” by Shinta Febriany, and “May Poem” by Hanna Fransisca.

Ultimatum Orangutan” by Khairani Barokka

Listen to “Horizon” here. Read this Poetry School review.

Piercing, clear-eyed, and sinewy. I feel like I can punch through concrete.

Cut Woman” by Dena Igusti

Read this Vagabond City review.

Full disclosure: I did provide a blurb for this collection. In my blurb, I wrote: “Speechless. Euphoric. Cathartic. Cut Woman is a vibrant prayer for our living and a loving salve for our ghosts. With a deft, devoted hand, Dena Igusti weaves alienation, grief, desire, and defiance into an indelible tapestry of survival and celebration. They show us that mortality is not a deadline but a continuum. We will die, but we will also cry, and shout, and love, and dance, and live on. Sunset is just the beginning, and Igusti will guide us into the next morning.”

This blurb still stands 1000%. Dena is an extraordinary artist, and their art has affirmed parts of me that I never thought would see the light of day, that I felt I had to fold up and tuck away into the darkest corner of myself.

Voyages” by Jessica Jemalem Ginting

A vibrant collection that transports you through multidimensional travel.

Medusae” by Theodora Sarah Abigail

Nadiyah Rizki Suyatna‘s accompanying illustrations are gorgeous. This book is a warmly textured collection that weaves its own fairytales, with all the cracks, anxieties, heartbreak, and discoveries of growing up shining through. I felt like my heart was cocooned and gently unwrapped in a moonlit meadow. Stunning.

Fire Is Not a Country” by Cynthia Dewi Oka

Read this Poetry Foundation review.

This collection is musical, it’s cinematic, it feels alive and breathing and warm-blooded. I cried, I smiled, I screamed, and I also grew wings and soared into the stars.

Salvage” by Cynthia Dewi Oka

I read this in 2018, so as a true poetry novice back then, it was difficult to get through because it felt like Poetry™ that I had yet to experience. But there were moments of devastation, beauty, and heartbreak that fell in place. I had to sit with it for months.

Kink” by Ray Shabir

A museum of desire, shame, pain, and pleasure. An expansive interior world adorned with velvet and spikes, with a Hall of Mirrors to luxuriate in.

Obits.” by T. Liem

Read this Driftless Area review.

I don’t remember how I first learned about Liem’s work, but now I don’t want to live in a world without their words. Liem’s 2018 debut collection, “Obits.,” was a personal high point of 2020 when I finally got my hands on it. It helped give shape and space to an ever-present grief that came in waves from the start of that year. One poem that I revisit often is “Thian Hoei from Temanggung” (pg. 48) and these ending lines in particular:

Speak of an heirloom
as if you were holding it.

How do you unearth
what was never buried?


SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS

“Happy Stories, Mostly” by Norman Erikson Pasaribu

Translated from Indonesian to English by Tiffany Tsao

I wrote a full review here. Also, here’s a taste: Norman’s writing, as conveyed through Tiffany’s translation, has a kinetic creativity that draws me in as a reader, holding me through some of the tougher stories handling suicide such as “So What’s Your Name, Sandra?” and “The True Story of the Story of the Giant.” Longer, swirling sentences, like the ones in “Enkidu Comes Knocking on New Year’s Eve,” ebb and flow against shorter, punchier moments that gleam across the surface like a dragonfly’s wings. And my shortlist of favorites are the post-Jakarta-as-the-capital future “Metaxu: Jakarta, 2038,” the bleak heavenly bureaucracy of “Welcome to the Department of Unanswered Prayers,” and the trials of a (forcibly) retired nun in “Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.” So if you like the depth, textures and music of “Happy Together” (1997) but are eager to stretch your imagination more, run to “Happy Stories, Mostly” and find care and possibility with each page.

The Book of Jakarta” edited by Maesy Ang and Teddy W. Kusuma

Featuring stories by utiuts utiuts, Sabda Armandio, Hanna Fransisca, Cyntha Hariadi, Afrizal Malna, Dewi Kharisma Michellia, Ratri Ninditya, Yusi Avianto Pareanom, Ben Sohib, and Ziggy Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie

Translations from Indonesian to English by Mikael Johani, Zoe McLaughlin, Shaffira Gayatri, Khairani Barokka, Daniel Owen, Paul Agusta, Eliza Vitri Handayani, Syarafina Vidyadhana, Rara Rizal, and Annie Tucker

I am a sucker for this city in short fiction series from U.K.-based Comma Press. This book is not a map of a city but rather a limited, brief collection of thoughts, feelings, histories, relationships, interior worlds that shape spaces and communities. My favorite stories were the ones that played with reality, where details shifted perspective and language shimmered.

Kitchen Curse: Stories” by Eka Kurniawan

Translations from Indonesian to English by Annie Tucker, Tiffany Tsao, Maggie Tiojakin, and Benedict Anderson

If you read my previous book list, you know about my plight reading Eka Kurniawan’s books. However, I actually enjoyed this short story collection the most out of all his English-translated works. I’m still thinking about “Caronang,” and “Easing into a Long Sleep” felt particularly vulnerable and tender.

The Book of Forbidden Feelings” by Lala Bohang

When I read this in 2018, I thought the drawings were great, but the prose was lacking. It said things without deeper reflection.


My partial novel collection.

NOVELS

The Majesties” by Tiffany Tsao

I finished this at the beginning of 2020 and I remember feeling like, where do I even start? My jaw was on the floor. The opening scene was so striking and engulfing — I couldn’t put the book down after that. The multilevel storytelling felt so familiar to me, like how my family would tell stories. Like, sure, we’re going to tell you about how we grew up, but you also gotta know about your grandparents and great-grandparents, and what’s happening in Indonesia at large. I loved all of that. The publisher described it as “Crazy Rich Asians” but more “Gone Girl”-esque thriller, but that doesn’t quite capture it. At the time, I thought it shared elements with Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” (2019). The way Tsao wrote on race and class in an Indonesian context had me craving for more. It’s a thriller because it was thrilling for me to read in so many ways.

Durga/Umayi” by Y.B. Mangunwijaya

Translated from Indonesian to English by Ward Keeler

I finally finished this in late 2018. It was a wild ride. Y.B. Mangunwijaya writes in circular, long sentences, and it’s a novel-in-the-style-of-a-wayang-performance. There’s a lot to chew on, and it’s interesting (refreshing?) to read a woman character that’s not merely a vessel for nationhood in post-colonial Indonesian literature. (Certainly, this isn’t the only novel to do so, but since the timeline of this novel supposedly follows the Buru Quartet, it’s interesting to contrast the two.)

Dial A for Aunties” by Jesse Q. Sutanto

Admittedly, when I first started reading this last year, I was not having a good time, mainly due to the writing style and over-exposition. But the ending got me. I’ve never been more wrong, and I was pleasantly surprised at how things turned out. I ended up highly entertained. The characters grew on me, and it was a quick read with well-paced action. It’s so over-the-top and ridiculous, but if you embrace it, you’ll be thoroughly entertained. I did feel that sometimes the book veered into over-explaining the protagonist’s Chinese-Indonesian heritage, but somehow also simultaneously flattening aspects of her experience. The flippant “that’s just Asian parenting for you!” felt really unnecessary, like who is that description for? So, while I did have a hard time with the prose, I still found it to be an entertaining read. Apparently, there are plans for a Netflix adaptation, so buckle up for a wild ride.

The Question of Red” by Laksmi Pamuntjak

Translated from Indonesian to English by the author

“No journey is ever about one person alone.” — (from Amba, pg. 420)

After some years of this book sitting on my shelf, I finally got through all 445 pages of it in 2020. It was…hmm. You know, I love multilayered, time-jumping storytelling steeped in Indonesian history. I truly enjoyed the historical aspects of the book, and I learned a lot. For example, when Maluku exiles who had fought for the Dutch in the 1940s landed in the Netherlands, they were housed in former Nazi concentration camps and thus experienced double exile: of being forced out of newly independent Indonesia and then spurned by the Dutch in Holland. There’s also a recounting of Buru Island imprisonment, based on real accounts. Unfortunately, the Mahabharata-inspired romance didn’t work for me. Amba and Bhisma were exhausting. Please…I don’t ever want to read a character described as a “Eurasian prince” ever again! Spare me! And the ending? I’m sorry, WHAT?? Wild. For all its romantic melodrama, I did learn a lot. It transported me, and I forgot what year it was.