A.A. Navis: To the Contrary
A. A. Navis (1924-2003) was the leading cultural and literary figure in his home province of West Sumatra during his lifetime and widely respected at the national level as well. To the Contrary contains seventeen of the author’s most famous, most provocative, and most engaging stories. These range from a light-hearted comedy of errors between a husband and wife to heavy-hitting critiques of corruption, patrimonialism, bureaucratic morass, and self-righteous pretension. Although the stories are firmly rooted in his native Minangkabau ethnic context, they speak to common problems of the modern era and shine a light on the cultural dilemmas of Indonesia at different points over the author’s fifty-year career.
A.S. Laksana: An Amicable Parting
This book contains 21 short stories by A.S. Laksana, a brilliant voice in Indonesian fiction and essay-writing. Laksana’s short fiction exhibits dense, powerful sentences. To craft this compelling style, Laksana absorbs an array of international influences, ranging from Gabriel García Márquez to Ernest Hemmingway, from Russian dark humor to self-mockery ala Budi Darma. Highly intertextual and filled with allusions as far-reaching as the world itself, Laksana’s short stories mark a new horizon for post-Reformasi Indonesian literature.
Acep Zamzam Noor: A Swatch of Twilight
This historical anthology of poetry by Acep Zamzam Noor contains translations of more than 60 of his poems dating from the second half of the 1970s when he first began to publish up to the present time. Acep is one of Indonesia’s favorite poets whose work is noted for its distillation of human experience in an expressionistic manner. His poetry also contains social criticism packaged in a gauze of wry wit and humor.
Arti Purbani: Widyawati
This 1949 novel by one of Indonesia first and foremost women writers depicts youth resistance among nobility and everyday people in Surakarta, Central Java during the Dutch colonial period. Through her meticulous portrait of Surakarta and its social order – which includes the city’s cuisine and celebration of the Sekaten festival – Arti Purbani presents vibrant and moving realist prose.
Chairil Anwar: Bush Fire: The Poetry of Chairil Anwar
During Chairil Anwar’s short lifetime (1922-1949), he wrote approximately seventy poems—most of which were published posthumously. Often called Indonesia’s “Arthur Rimbaud,” his work is marked by an intensity and joie de vivre that reflected his own radical lifestyle. Through the use of everyday language and new syntax in his poetry, he set an example that was soon picked up by other writers. It is not an exaggeration to say that Anwar positively altered the development of the Indonesian language.
Clara Ng: The Last Dim Sum (Dimsum Terakhir)
This book is not just a story about discrimination against Indonesians of ethnic Chinese descent or the LGBT community. It is also a narrative in which myriad literary approaches are woven together through the author’s skillful prose. The novel tells the story of four twins leading very different lives who all return home because their father suffered a stroke. Little did they know, seeing each other again would change everything. With nuanced style, this novel gives voice to the bravery and strength of each character. It is the foremost work of contemporary Indonesian fiction that speaks to the reality of the ethnic Chinese minority in Indonesia – representation that gives voice to the concerns of so many Indonesian people.
D.I. Loebis: The Secret Document (Document Rahsia)
The Secret Document is an important “Medan Novel,” the term for popular novels that were published in Medan between the 1930s and 1960s. This detective novel—one of Indonesia’s first in that genre—was first published in 1941 and tells the story of a man by the name of Arifin who is contracted by an unknown person to hand carry a document from Singapore to Medan. The tale includes various murder attempts and other nefarious deeds but has in it a love story as well. Written in fluid Malay, the novel’s reflection of topical issues at that time makes it especially interesting—touching on, as it does, the Indonesian nationalist movement and the rise of the Communist Party in Southeast Asia.
Felix K. Nesi: The People of Oetimu (Orang-orang Oetimu)
The People of Oetimu (Orang-orang Oetimu) begins and ends in 1998 with two scenes of a murderous attack on a home in Oetimu, a fictional town on the border between West Timor and East Timor, the former Portuguese colony which, following its occupation by Indonesian forces in 1975, become the conflict-ridden province of East Timor. In this novel, Nesi exposes systemic violence and its social consequences, while his satire mocks institutions at their roots. The People of Oetimu is remarkable not only because of its dark humor, but also in the way it brings myriad narrative threads together across this broad, cyclical temporal space.
George Quinn (editor and translator):She Wanted to be a Beauty Queen: Javanese Short Stories
She Wanted to be a Beauty Queen is the first anthology of modern Javanese fiction ever to be translated into English. The twenty-seven short stories in the anthology bear the reader deep into the villages and small towns of Java, with vividly rendered glimpses of Javanese personalities, and themes of commerce, religious faith, the lives of women, the impact of Indonesia’s national culture, and echoes of the Javanese past. The translator’s afterword sums up the character of modern Javanese literature and contextualizes it in the spectrum of Indonesia’s contemporary literary life.
Gerson Poyk: The Anatomy of Travel
One of the distinctive features of Indonesian literature has always been local color and one author particularly skilled at portraying it is the late Gerson Poyk, who hailed from the province of East Nusa Tenggara. This color is found in the themes of his stories, in the characteristics of the protagonists, the names of the characters, the settings where the stories take place, and the plots of his stories, which are simple and straightforward. The nineteen short stories in this collection can be grouped into several thematic issues: spiritual and social issues of rural society, the difficulties experienced by those living in urban societies, and social intercourse with foreigners.
Hamka: Beneath the Shelter of the Ka’abah (Di bawah Lindungan Ka’abah)
This novella, first published in Indonesian in 1938, has been in print ever since that time. Set in Mecca during the time of the hajj, this tale relates the star-crossed fortunes of a young couple in love who are separated by differences in social status. Like the author himself, the characters come from the Minangkabau area of West Sumatra, a place well known for its religiosity and the strength of its traditions—traits that are very evident in the novella’s text. Written at a time when young nationalists were charting a course for Indonesia’s future, this novella offered an alternative cultural approach, one with an Islamic focus that became widely debated in intellectual circles.
Heru Joni Putra: Will Badrul Mustafa Never Die: Verse from the Front (Badrul Mustafa, Badrul Mustafa, Badrul Mustafa)
This collection of poetry by Heru Joni Putra represents the work of one of Indonesia’s most talented younger authors. Heru’s poetry, while influenced by Minangkabau literary traditions, offers both a fresh and subversive view of those same traditions. His poems are a conversation between the traditional and the modern, between older attitudes and modern points of view. Heru’s sensibility towards language is impressive and in this book, speaking through the controversial character of Badrul Mustafa, Heru displays a sardonic and often humorous view on self-importance and piety.
Ikranagara: Abstract and Political: Plays by Ikranagara (Enam Drama Abstrak dan Politik)
The stage plays of Ikranagara from the period 1975 to 1997 show the enormous changes that were taking place in Indonesian theater during that period. They also provide insight into the role that the arts played in political and social change. At a time when playwrights had to submit their written scripts to the authorities for censorship, what was performed on stage was very different from what was in the submitted scripts. While the live performances protested against the corruption, collusion, and nepotism, the messages were disguised. These six plays are translations of the actual performance scripts, not the ones submitted to censors.
Iwan Simatupang: Kooong
This Iwan Simatupang novel, written for teen readers, tells the story of Pak Sastro who disappears from his village. He is looking for his missing turtle dove which, out of nowhere, had lost the ability to make its cooing sound. What follows is a process of mutual searching between human characters – Pak Sastro, Amat Kalong, Jangkung, Pak Lurah – and the turtledove. As Pak Sastro meets acquaintances along his journey, they urge him to return to his village, but he prefers to wander, just like the turtle dove he so endlessly searches for.
Iwan Simatupang: Red (Merahnya Merah)
When first published in 1968, this novel took Indonesian fiction in a new direction. Particularly striking is the novel’s essayistic style, as well as a focus on the existential and psychological struggles of its characters, who are living in a state of homelessness. The protagonist lives on the street and has no name – he is referred to simply as “Our Character.”. When he joins a circle of intellectuals, he is plunged into a frenetic lifestyle, and experiences a new kind of existence while still living on the streets. The members of the group were previously executioners, aspiring monks and ministers, and military commanders. The novel evokes works by Alain Robbe-Grillet and Albert Camus, gesturing to the French nouveau roman.
Joko Pinurbo: A Study Guide for Sleep
The poetry of Joko Pinurbo is immediately recognizable for its simple language, accessibility, and the recurrent use of a number of specific but unusual motifs. Joko is a completely unpretentious writer. He finds poetry in ordinary everyday situations that often seem to be quite trivial. In his writing, Joko looks for a certain balance, clarity, reminiscence and longing. He then unites all of these qualities around a central, deep image, which is always something concrete and familiar – a mother, the rain, a body or a bathroom, and his words spin in circles around that image, the basic experience expands, and the backgrounds to the image take on multiple layers of meaning.
Mochtar Lubis: A Road with No End (Jalan tak ada Ujung)
Set in Jakarta during the Indonesian revolution, A Road With No End asks the question, “What must we do to free ourselves from fear?” The novel’s two principal characters, Isa and Hazil, are put to the test by the times they are living through. Isa is timid and submissive by temperament; Hazil, on the other hand, appears to harbor no doubts and does not know physical fear. But by the end of the novel, when the two are in the hands of Dutch Security, their personalities and how they react to incarceration produce markedly different responses.
Nano Riantiarno: Cockroach Trilogy (Trilogi Opera Kecoa)
Through their songs, colloquial language, and raunchy humor, the trilogy of plays in this volume illustrate a blending of indigenous folk expression and a Western musical. The mixture is reminiscent of Brecht’s Three Penny Opera but with its graphically literal representation of the dark underside to elite prosperity, subverts rather than affirms middle-class assumptions. All set in a Jakarta slum, the “cockroaches” who live there—prostitutes, transsexuals, and thugs—show themselves to be tough, lively, and down-to-earth. For all their humor and fun, these plays are not mere entertainment, but rather purveyors of a stinging critique of the social injustice found in the real world just outside the theater doors.
Nukila Amal: At the Circus
This book consists of short stories by Nukila Amal, a brilliant Indonesian author writing during the Reformasi era. Amal’s short fiction toggles between the density of verse and the fluidity of prose. Her sentences are measured and poetic. Within her descriptions, we find depictions of nature brimming with metaphor, as well as new uses of idiomatic language that greatly contribute to modern Indonesian literature. Through her agile use of language, Amal details events in North Maluku and urban life in Jakarta, all the while detailing the idiosyncrasies of both contexts and incorporating an array of global allusions into her stories.
Putu Oka Sukanta: Weaving Dignity (Merajut Harkat)
This novel, volume 1 in the author’s “political prisoner trilogy,” has as its backdrop the extrajudicial arrest and murder of members and alleged supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party following a coup attempt in September 1965. The novel’s characters, and principally its protagonist, Mawa, are deprived of their rights without due process. This imaginative reflection is grounded in the real experiences of the author, who was detained as a political prisoner for 10 years at the outset of Suharto’s New Order dictatorship. It is a powerful critique of the discrimination and violent affront to human dignity carried out by the state against citizens who had supported an entirely legal political party – one that would only be seen as deviant and illegitimate after Suharto’s authoritarian regime was established.
Putu Oka Sukanta: Istana Jiwa (Palace of Souls)
This historical novel, volume 2 in the author’s “political prisoner trilogy,” tells the stories of a group of women whose husbands and fathers are imprisoned in the wake of an attempted military coup. Struggling to survive in a hostile environment, these women not only have to supply the material needs of their menfolk but also provide for the immediate needs of their families. As the years pass, they draw on inner reserves of strength and resourcefulness and a growing sense of group solidarity in a struggle that persists long after their men return to a world they no longer recognize.
Putu Oka Sukanta: Spaces (Celah)
Spaces, volume 3 in the author’s “political prisoner trilogy,” is an auto novel that reflects on the author’s life as a former political prisoner in Indonesia during the Soeharto years (1965-1998) and the early “Reform” period after the strongman was gone. It describes the author’s search for “spaces” of self-expression as he pursues a commitment to human rights activism and advocacy on the part of victims of state-sponsored violence and social stigma, but its central concern is the craft of writing and the vocation of the writer. As the final installment in the author’s trilogy of novels haunted by the political violence that swept Indonesia in 1965, it concludes with a powerful challenge to historical memory: “1965: Refuse to Forget.”
Seno Gumira Ajidarma: The Mysterious Marksman (Penembak Misterius)
Between 1983-1985, a series of extrajudicial executions of criminals took place throughout Indonesia in which bodies, many of which had tattoos, were found shot and left in public places. The killings, which became known as petrus, an acronym for penembak misterius (mysterious marksman) and were later admitted to be a government effort to control crime, terrified the unsuspecting public. The stories in this collection are related to this confusing and fearful time. All of the stories deal with despair—sometimes tender, sometimes absurd, sometimes grotesque. Seno Gumira Ajidarma is a master storyteller who can capture a sentiment and turn it into events that unfold as comedy or heartbreaking tragedy, each revealing a desperate struggle to deal with memories and change.
Subagio Sastrowardoyo: Death Grows More Intimate
Subagio Sastrowardoyo (February 1924 – July 1995) was a poet, short-story writer, essayist, and literary critic. During his writing career of more than 45 years, Subagio published a wide range of work but it was his poetry and his essays on poetry that have most served to enrich and expand discourse on modern Indonesian poetry. It was he who first introduced and then consistently produced poetry embedded with intellectualism. It might even be argued that the current trend in intellectual-discursive poetry can be traced to the poet’s pioneer work in the mid-1950s.
Sutardji Calzoum Bachri: Amuck
Sutardji Calzoum Bachri is one of Indonesia’s greatest and most innovative contemporary poets. His poetry plays with form. Words spill across and down the page, carrying strong rhythms and abstract shapes, sometimes look like concrete objects, and sometimes disappear altogether. His poetry plays with language. Sutardji forms chains of common words, repeats them in startling combinations, turns them inside out, allows them “to leap and dance across the page, get drunk, take off their clothes....” His poetry explores the pleasure and pain of the human condition, continually seeking to go beyond language and form in the search of the unnamable power that lives in the human subconscious.