Introduction - Indonesian Stories

Translated by: 

The literary works by Indonesian authors featured in this edition of the Asia Literary Review are not bound by a particular theme, though if there is one that is dominant in the volume, it is violence – either direct or implied. Violence plays an important role in modern Indonesian history, both in the years around independence in 1945, and in the periods around the repressive regimes that have ruled this country. The birth of the Soeharto government’s ‘New Order’ regime, for instance (1965–1998), was marked by the widespread slaughter of Communist Party members as well as alleged leftist sympathisers. Meanwhile, the end of the regime, which was hastened by the Asian economic crisis, ignited widespread mayhem that peaked with the ‘unrest’ of May 1998. 


After President Soeharto resigned, Indonesia entered a transitional phase which was more democratic in nature, a period that came to be known as reformasi. The writers whose work appears in this edition are among those who emerged in this period or since. 


Unlike the previous generation of Indonesian writers, for whom state-sponsored violence was a common theme, and who often seemed to stress their role more as social commentators than literary craftspeople, these younger authors write about a different sort of violence: the kind often seen in patriarchal societies, in male-controlled households, and in social and religious groups. At the same time, their stories contain humour as well as parody and a richness of local colour. 


Since the beginnings of modern Malay literature in the early twentieth century – which in the Dutch East Indies evolved into ‘Indonesian’ literature as the national movement for independence grew – much of the literary output of this region has been both a direct and an indirect product of the nation’s social conditions of the time. Writers have emphasised realism, nurturing the close link between literary content and its source of inspiration. 


This is the reason that, in the early days of modern Indonesian literature, and especially prior to independence in 1945 when Malay was the dominant language of the Minangkabau people from West Sumatra and urban people of Chinese descent, literary content frequently dealt with forced marriage, assimilation, ancestor worship, cultural orientation and politics. 


After independence, however, as the dominance of the Indonesian lan­guage grew around the country, and as people from more and more ethnic groups began to write in Indonesian, themes grew much more varied and greater emphasis put on literary craftsmanship. In fact, the amount of local colour in Indonesian literature expanded exponentially. Writers from differ­ing regions were now writing in the same language but, as products of different cultures and with different mother tongues, their concerns and thus the themes of their work varied each from the others. 


In the 1950s and 1960s, even as a sense of internationalism gained ground among Indonesian authors, many writers continued to draw on their own local cultures as the basis for their work. Many also advocated a synthesis between locally-inspired content and Western-based notions of modern literature. 


But that was then, and this is now – the twenty-first century – and for the writers in this volume, the question of local versus global is not a primary focus. They write about what they experience and what they see, whether it be in their home town or in a foreign country. They draw on what they are close to, what attracts them, and what they most know: whether it be ‘local’ or ‘global’. They may be writing in Indonesian, but they put little stock in the creation of a national literature, since they are writing not only for their own people but for the world. 


They tirelessly adopt literary forms and styles that have emerged in world literature to rewrite local content – something that would be impossible for them to abandon entirely anyway, and it is this evolution that stands as their most valuable contribution to contemporary Indonesian literature. 

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