Review: Lontar’s Modern Library of Indonesian Literature

Category: Articles
Published: Sep 28, 2015

Ron Witton

Newspapers, books and journal articles on Indonesia written by commentators, travellers, academics and journalists are the typical means by which many of us learn about Indonesia’s history, society, traditions and politics. An alternate and indeed often more enjoyable route to learning about a country, however, is to read its creative literature. Novels and short stories, even poetry, allow a reader to enter the minds of its ordinary and extraordinary people as they confront life’s challenges, tragedies and opportunities. 

Indonesia has a rich heritage of imaginative literature and is read voraciously by Indonesians in the same way citizens of other countries enjoy the creative endeavours of their own writers.  A common language gives one access to the minds of people of other countries and provides an insight into other ways of life. 

To access the literature of non-English speaking countries, English-speakers are reliant on translations. It has been commonplace for European novels and literature to become available in English, and to some extent this has been the case for countries such as Japan and China. Translations of Indonesian literature in English, however, have been rare and until recently virtually non-existent. Those who studied Indonesia in the 1960’s can still remember when Mochtar Lubis, while under house arrest, wrote his fine novel, Senja di Jakarta (Twilight in Jakarta) which exposed the corruption of Indonesian contemporary politics and society. The book was banned before it could be published. Clare Holt’s highly readable English translation was secreted out of Indonesia and was published in 1963 by Hutchinson & Co. It was the first Indonesian novel ever to be published in English translation. Following the downfall of Sukarno, it was made into a film in 1967 and was only published in Indonesian in 1970. 

Over the years, there have been other Indonesian novels available in translation, but the pickings have been slim. This all began to change in 1987 when the Lontar Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation based in Jakarta, was founded by a cooperative endeavour between four Indonesian writers, Goenawan Mohamad, Sapardi Djoko Damono, Umar Kayam, and Subagio Sastrowardoyo, and the American translator, John H. McGlynn. To find out what inspired John McGlynn to undertake this work, and more information on Lontar, see William Gibson’s An Armchair Traveler’s Pleasure. In the interview, John McGlynn states:

I try to make sure that my selection of authors and subjects covers a wide range from across the country. We’re not choosing commercial titles. It’s not that we don’t want to make a profit, but the kind of books that we’re doing, for example historical works that lay the foundation for teaching Indonesian literature, are simply not going to sell many copies.

Twenty-eight years on Lontar can list an impressive range of Indonesian books now available in English translation, and increasingly these translations are also available in digital form including by way of collaboration with Inside Indonesia

Modern literature in translation

Lontar’s rich offerings present a fascinating opportunity to experience the daily lives of Indonesians through literature. The translations typically provide an introductory chapter or afterword which positions the book in Indonesian society, history or literature and provide fascinating insights about the work under consideration. In her introduction to Leila S Chudori’s The Longest Kiss, a collection of short stories, Pamela Allen provides a particularly apt observation that is relevant to virtually all the books translated by Lontar: 

They are stories of Indonesia without necessarily being explicitly stories about Indonesia. Indonesia is, however, present on every page.

There are books whose themes touch on the universal dilemmas of being human. Chudori’s The Longest Kiss covers a diverse range of topics: love; marriage; divorce; suicide of a mother; sibling love–hate rivalry; childhood sexuality; religion; infidelity; sexual impotency and loneliness. In each case the issues are explored in a particular Indonesian context. Some are also firmly grounded in particular events in Indonesian society and history, such as the Bali bombings or repression in the Suharto era.

Lily Yulianti Farid’s Family Room is one example of writing that allows an outsider to enter an Indonesian world. As Melani Budianta says in her introduction to the book:

Through these stylistic strategies and the crystal clear voice of a little girl as the call of conscience, Lily Yulianti Farid’s short stories voice feminist resistance to patriarchy and power-hungry masculine politics. There are still many undiscovered mines in Family Room. So brace yourself for surprise as you enter the book. 

The reader is engaged with a range of universal topics faced by individuals in any country but played out in Indonesia. Like Chudori, Farid is able to do this whilst also bringing the reader face-to-face with a wide range of Indonesia-specific problems and issues, including the Bali bombings, sectarian (Christian/Muslim) conflict in Ambon, anti-Chinese riots, and outer island and rural resentment of Jakarta.

Other books in the Lontar library similarly cover a diverse range of topics, both universally relevant to the human condition, and others that are specific to Indonesia. Interestingly, S. Rukiah’s The Fall and the Heart even briefly refers to the political experience of communists in Australia and its relevance to how Indonesian communists considered their own situation.

For those foreigners who have come to know Indonesia through travel to Bali, a world beyond Kuta Beach is revealed in Oka Rusmini’s Earth Dance. Within the fictional world Rusmini creates, universal themes are explored in the Balinese context, including the discovery of one’s sexuality, patriarchy, restrictions faced as one passes from childhood to adulthood, and inheritance. At the same time the specifics of Balinese society are also confronted and examined head-on, including how caste determines a person’s life chances and opportunities and the situation of women.

In many of the books translated by Lontar, the issue of sexuality is often treated in an explicit manner that may come as a surprise to western readers with pre-conceived notions about Indonesian society. For example, one of the main characters in Earth Dance, Luh Kenten, is a lesbian while Telaga’s sister-in-law, Luh Kendran, is an independent, wealthy city prostitute which, as Pamela Allen observes, does not fit with traditional Orientalist pre-conceptions.

Another of the books translated by Lontar, Dewi Lestari’s Supernova, has just been made into an Indonesian blockbuster movie. The novel does not shy away from sexual issues and deals explicitly with extra-marital relationships in the context of the lives of young urban Indonesian professionals, including the two main characters who are in a homosexual relationship.

Other novels deal with more public issues, such as Iwan Simatupang’s The Pilgrim which discusses public good versus individual rights, authority versus authoritarianism, civil servants and public responsibility, and artistic creativity. Again, these universal issues are explored both generally and within the context of Indonesian society.



Of particular interest is the way race is examined and dealt with in these novels. Nh Dini’s Departures examines the life of an ‘Indo’ in the 1950s, a young mixed-race Indonesian-Dutch woman whose family has chosen to return to Holland. The novel explores the way racism and sexism combine to circumscribe the main character’s desire for self-expression and fulfillment. The fact that the author is one of Indonesia’s foremost feminists ensures that the characters explored in the novel provide a range of life options in those troubled times. While all the translators provide sensitive and highly readable translations, I found Toni Pollard’s translation of this novel particularly pleasing.

The Lontar library includes books that provide historical context to contemporary Indonesia, and in this regard one might particularly mention Ismail Marahimin’s And the War Is Over, set during the Japanese occupation. Marahimin looks at love in a time of war and the plight of prisoners of war in Indonesia, and offers insight into the experience of the occupation for both the Dutch and Indonesians. 

Some of the novels are set both in Indonesia and abroad and in this regard Umar Kayam’s Fireflies in Manhattan is a good example. Fireflies is a collection of interwoven short stories, a number of them dealing with the trauma of the overthrow of Sukarno in 1965 and the repression associated with the establishment of Suharto’s New Order. How this affected Indonesians, such as the author, who had tasted western freedom abroad is explored through the stories in the book. 

Suffice to say that Lontar has provided those already interested in Indonesia with a treasure house of hours of enjoyable reading that will refresh memories, whet the desire to re-visit Indonesia, and provide new inter-cultural perspectives on life’s joys and dilemmas. 

More importantly, perhaps, it is also hoped that the increasing availability of Indonesia’s literary heritage for English-speakers made possible through the Lontar library will bring a new readership. In this regard, it is highly significant that this year the organisers of the Frankfurt International Book Fair, the largest book fair in the world, made Indonesia the guest of honour. Lontar has a unique opportunity to showcase Indonesia’s writers to an audience of over 300,000 attendees and  international media. Through its wonderful work, Lontar is helping the world become acquainted with the realities of Indonesia’s diverse and ever-evolving life and culture.

Ron Witton (rwitton@uow.edu.au) gained a BA and MA in Indonesian and Malayan Studies from Sydney University and then a Ph.D from Cornell University. He taught in Australian and Indonesian universities and now works as an Indonesian and Malaysian translator and interpreter.

Inside Indonesia 121: Jul-Sep 2015