Indonesia’s struggle to create a culture of reading
On a bright spring day in April 2016, the massive Kensington Olympia exhibition centre was buzzing with publishers, editors and writers from around the world. As an anthropologist, writer and editor who has translated and edited many Indonesian books and books about Indonesia, I was hired to come along and talk with several key members of Indonesia’s new National Book Committee, including several members of the Indonesian Publishers Association (IKAPI), who were attending the London Book Fair.
Last year was the first outing for Indonesia at the fair and the committee members were pleased to report that the Indonesian literature stand was much bigger this year with plentiful and well-stocked shelves displaying more than 200 Indonesian titles. It also featured busy seating areas for meetings and was prominently and strategically positioned, adjacent to English PEN (Association of writers working on Human Rights and Freedom of Expression) and the British Centre for Literary Translation. The Indonesian team arrived in London via a children’s book fair in Bologna, showing a fresh confidence that is still palpable following last year’s spot as guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Building a reading culture
The committee is chaired by Laura Prinsloo, a young Jakartan woman with a background in international banking and corporate management as well as publishing (she is also managing director of PT Kesaint Blanc Indah Publishing). Literary figurehead, poet and cultural commentator Goenawan Mohamad led the Indonesian group, which has been representing Indonesian publishing at a series of international events since headlining Frankfurt last year.
Under the rather vague banner ‘17,000 Islands of Imagination’, Prinsloo and her colleagues talked of a promising upwards trend in Indonesia’s publishing industry, with several ‘literary celebrities’ enjoying international attention, as well as unprecedented popularity at home. She is conscious of her dual role in the committee: promoting both Indonesia’s writers and publishing industry to the rest of the world and trying to revitalize a culture of reading at home. She says that the committee is ‘concerned with the whole ecosystem: not just promoting the literature that we have, but also trying to develop our writers and publishers and promoting a culture of reading. This is a long process and while we don’t see immediate results we do see improvements and there are programs that have received funding and are going ahead'.
Prinsloo and others on the committee say that the key problem lies in the absence of habitual reading; there’s no established culture of simply sitting down and opening a book for pleasure. From my own experience, I have also noticed that it’s unusual to see an Indonesian, either adult or child, relaxing with a novel. There are relatively few bookstores and libraries in Indonesia, and people rarely buy books, even when they’re available. This is in part due to the cost of books, the perception that Indonesian writing is of poor quality, and also due to lack of investment in the translation funding program. More support for translating would potentially both produce well-crafted English language versions of Indonesian literature and well-crafted translations of foreign language works. Prinsloo also notes that the industry is still developing and there is a lack of skilled professionals in the field. There are very few literary agents, for example. One exception is Nung Atasana and his Borobodur Literary Agency. He says he is in demand to run workshops and seminars across ASEAN on international rights, copyright and literary marketing.
Recent global success
Following the international success of Eka Kurniawan, Laksmi Pamuntjak, Leila Chudori and Dewi Lestari, Indonesian authors are just starting to make strategic use of agents and learning how essential it is to have high-quality translations and a prominent public presence if they want to secure international sales. John McGlynn, founder and member of the Lontar Foundation who plays a key role in the work of the National Book Committee, has often spoken out about the need to fund and train skilled writers and translators if Indonesian literature is to have a place on international bookshelves. Despite the rush to push as many titles as possible into translation for Frankfurt 2015, McGlynn maintains his focus on producing quality over quantity. The committee is lobbying hard for the government to support an international-standard professional translation funding program.
Publishing infrastructure, however, is in the formative stages, with regulation still required to deal with issues like copyright and piracy, and the committee is also concerned about the high taxes levied on books, which naturally deter potential readers from purchasing them, particularly while household incomes remain low for the majority of Indonesians. The problem is multifaceted.
Books for the people
While e-literacy is reasonably high and Indonesians are keen users of social media, which naturally requires a degree of literacy, the national relationship with books is ambivalent at best. According to 2014 data from in-house research by Gramedia, 51 per cent of their bookstore customers are young (between 14 and 24 years old) and, of these, the majority are female (68 per cent). In 2014, 53 per cent of purchases were non-book items (stores also sell stationary, games, music, gifts and other paraphernalia), and this lack of interest in books is manifest in the declining number of bookshelves in bookstores and indeed of bookstores themselves.
As Siti Gretiani (Greti), general manager of Indonesia’s largest publisher PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama, pointed out in London, the Gramedia group has made it a point of principle to have a bookstore in every provincial capital in the archipelago. However, the costs associated with transporting stock, let alone promoting literature, lend this business the aura of an idealistic ‘labour of love’. These are not thriving markets and, even in Jakarta, where the vast majority of bookstores are located, it’s a precarious situation and retailers are having to focus on what they can sell besides books.
The issue is not so much about literacy and the ability to read as it is about people’s relationship with books. UNESCO survey data (UIS) from 2015 reveals that 99.09 per cent of young Indonesians (under the age of 24 years) are literate, and that literacy has increased steadily over the past decades. A 2016 study of 61 countries led by Professor John Miller of Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, however, found that Indonesia ranked dismally low for ‘literate behaviour characteristics’. These include the availability and use of libraries and newspapers, general schooling levels and access to computers. The study sets out data drawn from sources ranging from UNESCO to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Indonesia came in sixtieth place, after Thailand and before Botswana.
A failure in education
Alarmingly, as Elizabeth Pisani noted in an article in Inside Indonesia in 2013 on failures in the Indonesian education system, the standards for maths and science among school students are even worse, coming in sixty-fourth position among the 65 countries surveyed in the PISA tests. She points out that ‘three quarters of those Indonesians who are still in school at age 15 don’t have the basic maths skills that they need to function in society. Two thirds don’t have enough science to get by effectively in the modern world, and one in five can’t read well enough to perform basic tasks in the workplace’. Pisani criticises the corrupt and bureaucratic nature of the educational system and points to teachers who are not committed or incentivised enough to teach well, or indeed at all in some cases. This is clearly a system in crisis, a crisis that has far-reaching repercussions for the country’s future.
Indonesia needs critical thinkers and problem solvers and this can only be achieved through a cultural shift, both in formal education and in access to ideas. Of course, many of the best ideas are written in books, a statement that seems self-evident. Reading brings a deeper and wider awareness of life’s possibilities and literature inspires creative minds. Indonesia needs highly skilled writers and publishers to engage readers, young and old, but without a culture of reading it is a real struggle to write and produce quality literature. However, as John McGlynn, who has been instrumental in bringing Indonesian literature in translation to the wider world, points out: ‘Given that language, writing and literature are not commonly taught in schools, it’s surprising that Indonesia has as many good writers as it does’.
Even as Indonesian writers gain momentum, there is work to be done on the publishing side as well. Greti pointed out to me that the idealistic passion for literature needs to be subsidised by the production and sale of more mainstream items, like children’s books (which have 22 per cent of sales in the Indonesian market), household cookery books and stationary. Thankfully, the Gramedia group is willing to keep supporting new literary talent and is large enough to enable this. Sari Meutia, CEO of Mizan Publishing, who was also at the book fair, was equally optimistic about the future of Indonesian publishing and book sales.
As such, the National Book Committee takes a three-pronged approach to developing Indonesia’s relationship with books, with divisions dedicated to 1) Production of literature (supporting and funding translations and publications), 2) Development of literature (supporting the industry through workshops and events), and 3) Promotion of literature (supporting participation at book fairs, literacy festivals and so on).
A minister on a mission
Culture and Education Minister Anies Baswedan claims that literacy in Indonesia has in fact increased, though he recognises that the country still lacks a healthy reading culture. Figures released by Baswedan’s ministry claim that the percentage of illiterate people in Indonesia has decreased from 10.5 per cent in 2005 to 3.7 per cent in 2015. He nonetheless acknowledges that there is a serious problem with Indonesians’ relationships with books.
Basweden is supporting an initiative to remedy this situation, starting with school children. The children are soon to join the School Literacy Movement, outlined in Ministerial Regulation No. 23/2015. This is a mandatory scheme that promotes reading (of any type of non-textbook) for 15 minutes before the start of the day’s lessons. The ministry already provides 1331 free e-textbooks to schools, which had been downloaded over 7 million times as of September 2015, but these are not generally the kinds of books that children and young people are likely to read for pleasure. The real question, according to Laura Prinsloo, is whether the schools have enough non-textbooks available for them to implement the scheme; the ministry is still grappling with the funding and logistics of the scheme.
Assuming this hurdle can be overcome, the emphasis of the scheme is on reading books for pleasure. In theory at least, the children will be free to choose what they read, as long as it isn’t a school textbook. And teachers will need to break the habit of quizzing their students on the contents of their books. This 15 minutes of reading is designed to ‘teach’ reading for pleasure. She points out that teachers need to read to their classes, without questions or pressure: ‘We need to equip the schools and the teachers with the knowledge and skills to make this work. The last thing we want is for the kids to feel pressured into reading and then they’ll be turned off all over again’. And the responsibility must be shared with parents too. As John McGlynn points out, ‘reading must begin at home, with parents, before children enter school. As it is, with most middle-class couples now both working, Indonesians are leaving much of the upbringing of their children to servants, most of whom have never read a book in their life’. It is hoped that the scheme, which should be available to young readers from all walks of life, will help to inspire a love of reading, as well as future generations of skilled and enthusiastic readers and writers.
The National Book Committee is attempting to address the problem from both ends: supporting and boosting the production of high-quality books from Indonesian authors and publishers, while at the same time seeking new ways to inspire a reading culture among young citizens, 15 minutes at a time.
Laura Noszlopy (email@example.com) is honorary research associate at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is also a freelance writer, editor and translator, who has regularly worked with the Lontar Foundation.