Australia-Indonesia literary relationship: those who shaped our critical mind

Australian novels in their original form may be very difficult to find in Jakarta’s stores that sell English-language books ... and it may be even more difficult to find Indonesian books in book stores in  Australia. But Okky Madasari, an Indonesian author and co-founder of the ASEAN Literary Festival, explains how some Australian books have allowed people in Indonesia to start thinking critically and stand firmly in trying to build the nation’s just, free and democratic society. And "it’s time" for Indonesians to repay the favour ...

ASEAN Literary Festival co-founders Okky Madasari (left) and Abdul Khalik with Melbourne-based Director for International Cooperation, Mary Farrow (right)

AS A NOVELIST and also co-founder and program director of the ASEAN Literary Festival, it’s a shame that I know almost nothing about Australian literature. I’ve been to Australia’s literary/writer’s festivals, attended so many Australia-Indonesia events, yet still those experiences have not given me a proper idea of the country's contemporary literary scene, not to mention its literary history.

Not many – perhaps even no Australian novel has ever been translated into Indonesian. Even Australian novels in their original form are very difficult to find in Jakarta’s stores that sell English-language books. And of course, it’s even more difficult to find Indonesian books in book stores in  Australia.

I’ve met Richard Flanagan, the winner of Man Booker Prize 2014, once. He is considered by many to be the finest Australian writer of his generation and one of the greatest Australian writers. I’ve read his award-winning novel The Narrow Road to The Deep North, and it made me realize how close we are – Indonesian and Australian people. We are close not only in a geographical sense, but also in fiction and history.
The Narrow Road to
The Deep North

The Narrow Road to The Deep North undoubtedly is one of the important Australian novels not only because it won the Man Booker Prize but also because it tells a story about people along the line of the region’s history.

The novel is set during the end years of World War II when Japan had already taken over Southeast Asia, including Indonesia. The protagonist is an Australian surgeon who was detained at a Japanese POW camp along the Thai-Burma death railway. He passed through Java during his tour of duty. I can relate well with the story and I feel very close with the situation and the people. Even though the story took place along the line of Thai-Burma territory, similar stories also happened in many places in Indonesia during Japan’s occupation.

Japan’s occupation in the late period of World War II has been a big inspiration for many literary works in Indonesia and Australia. And it’s just one simple example of how we share similarities and proximity in literature.

For a very long time, Indonesia has only been seen by Australia as a security threat within its own backyard without carrying any economical and political benefits for them. Or, all along they have been confused on what to do with its giant neighbor just north of them, with some feeling that it’s just like a geographical curse, and grudgingly accepts it because it’s there in the first place.

For most Australians, the only interesting thing about Indonesia is Bali. It was however understandable.

After gaining its independence in 1945 until the end of Sukarno’s era, Indonesia was a poor country. During the era,  relations between Australia and Indonesia were minimal and suspicious at best with communism gaining ground in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, as the Cold War was peaking. The eradication of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and its supporters in Indonesia, however, did not improve bilateral relations.
This Earth of Mankind
(Buru Quartet)
While openness to international trade and investment, and exploitation of the country’s natural resources, plus the blessing of oil prices’ skyrocketing allowed Soeharto’s totalitarian regime to increase the nation’s economy and strengthen its defense and military power, Australia was getting more and more insecure and suspicious toward Indonesia.  

In the pretext of allegations of human rights abuses and extra judicial killings put forward by the international community against the regime in many areas in Indonesia, Australia kept a distance with its neighbor and the relations continued to stagnant, and in many occasion, tensed. Relations fell to its nadir when Australia became the most active initiator in pushing then East Timor to gain independence from Indonesia.  

Regardless of the relationship between the two governments, so many Australian scholars gave attention to Indonesia’s culture and literary works during this era. They did such important and influential works that showed many Indonesians possible ways to break free from the regime while help shaping the critical minds of Indonesian people.

The world would have probably never heard about and read Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s books, if they were not translated into English by an Australian scholar and diplomat, Max Lane, in the early of 1980s. He worked at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta back then. Translating Pramoedya’s books, which were banned by Soeharto, got him into a lot of  trouble. But he dared to do it anyway. I have to say that what Lane did was a milestone in Indonesia’s literary history and also for Australia and Indonesia’s cultural relationship.

We also know there was David Hill, who opened our eyes on how culture and cultural products had been used by Soeharto’s regime to control people and how it invented narrative to serve the regime’s interests. All of these insights are clearly showed in his research, for example in The Two Leading Institutions: Taman Ismail Marzuki and Horison (1993). 

From his research on Mochtar Lubis’ works and life, Hill has not only helped us to put Lubis’ novels on our literary history map but also provided such important study for everyone who wants to learn and do further research on Indonesian literature and culture.
Indonesia: The Rise of Capital
While Lane and Hill have been helping in culture and literary works, we owe Richard Robison for his hard work to debunk the oligarch of the New Order Era. No one can deny that Robison’s book Indonesia: The Rise of Capital (1986) is one of the most important literatures to understand how corrupt Soeharto’s regime was and how the country was designed economically and politically to give benefits to only several people.

As the New Order regime instilled its own truth in people’s minds through literature and information as well as fiction and academic works, people like Lane, Hill and Robison have provided us with rich and insighful perspectives to understand our own nation, arming us with alternative narratives to challenge the regime’s fabrication of truth. Their works have allowed people in Indonesia to start thinking critically and stand  firmly in trying to build the nation’s just, free and democratic society. We can’t count how many Indonesia’s most capable scholars, activists, authors, journalists, intellectuals, have been shaped and inspired by those works.

All in all, I really believe this is the best form of a cultural relationship. Culture is not only about traditional dance, food, or series of performance events. Above all, culture is the way of thinking. It’s about knowledge and consciousness that shape thoughts and ideas from which we can create art works, literary works, books, films and anything we want.

Unfortunately there is still an imbalance in relations. It seems that Indonesia has been much more influenced by Australians than the other way round. It’s the thing that should be disturbing and challenging for Indonesians like myself.

I think it’s time for Indonesians to start influencing Australians with our ideas.  

Okky Madasari is an Indonesian author and co-founder of the ASEAN Literary Festival. In 2012, at 28 years old, she became the youngest winner of Indonesia’s most celebrated literary  prize,  the  Khatulistiwa  Literary  Award,  for  her  third  novel  ‘Maryam’.  Her  novels were also shortlisted three years in a row for the same award. Ms  Madasari’s  novels  consistently  voice  issues  concerning  human  rights  and  freedom. They aim to portray realistically the current state of Indonesia while also showcasing universal issues, including religious oppression, military violence, and corruption. This article, first published in The Jakarta Post, is an excerpt from her paper for  the Australia-Indonesia Youth Conference (CAUSINDY), September 2016.