Readers and Writers Making Waves: Reasons to be Optimistic About Indonesia’s Literacy Culture
Although some global statistics show that Indonesia is still behind in terms of literacy culture, all is not lost. We have in actuality made so much progress in this area and there are many other ways we can still improve this situation and it all depends on creating quality engagement between people through reading.
Does reading make you pessimistic: Maybe? But do we need to be pessimistic about Indonesia's literary future? ACI-author Sebastian Partogi says: Nope, we're good!
Essay – final article of a three-part series
Despite statistics from UNESCO telling us only one of 1,000 Indonesians like to read, or the survey from the Central Connecticut State University, placing us near the arse end of list of countries surveyed in terms of reading habits (we ranked 60th out of 61 surveyed), we still have reasons to be optimistic regarding the future of Indonesia’s literacy culture.
Many bibliophiles are actually making waves by initiating highly engaging reading clubs in various parts of Indonesia, including Jakarta and Bali. Sadly, few people seem to pay attention to their activities, as they tend to get drowned by various doom-and-gloom or outrageous stories out there, partly due to the human negativity bias.
First of all, we see lots of book clubs popping up. At least I can speak from my own experience in Jakarta. In Jakarta, there is Baca Rasa Dengar, which during the first few months of the pandemic, held weekly online book club meetings, without fail. Then there is the Buibu Baca Buku (Moms Who Read) book club. The Baca Bareng silent book club invites people to join their silent reading sessions in different public parks. One of their silent reading sessions was joined by hundreds of people. Whew!
Beside communities and book clubs for avid and curious readers, Jakarta is also home to several regular book fairs and literature festivals. Among them are the Jakarta International Literature Festival, which takes place at Taman Ismail Marzuki. The Literature and Ideas Festival, hosted by Komunitas Salihara, welcomes its audience biannually to its premises in Pasar Minggu, South Jakarta. The Jakarta Book Fair is an annual meeting point for independent publishers and more alternative ways of literary productions, such as zines.
In Bali, meanwhile, we have the Ubud Book Club, hosted by the passionate bibliophile Bagus Ari Saputra. In order not to be too Jakarta- or Bali-centric, I’d also like to mention this book club in Makassar, South Sulawesi. The city is home of the Makassar International Writers Festival.
Baca juga | Avontur ACI ke Banggai, Sulwesi Tengah: Festival sastra di kota tanpa toko buku
Some of these book club members are very active promoting the books they read and their activities on Instagram. Some Indonesian authors like Reda Gaudiamo also have a strong presence in TikTok, using the platform to post educational content.
In a country where reading is considered uncool and some readers are being bullied because we are considered losers, that reading clubs could attract thousands of followers is pretty significant I guess. I remember volunteering for the ASEAN Literary Jamboree in 2017 targeting elementary, middle and senior school students. In one of the sessions with senior school students, I asked them: “what’s your impression when you see someone sitting alone reading a book?” Most of them replied: “that person must be very asocial”.
I remember many years ago, my classmates used to shame me for sharing posts about books on Facebook. Now that so many other Instagrammers have unabashedly revealed their nerdy identities on social media, suddenly, reading has become cool among some people! Whether this is just a temporary fad or a long lasting trend, I have no way of telling because I don’t have any crystal balls. Yet, it’s still interesting to find out: how come reading has become quite popular among some Indonesians?
The Nation Which Simply Doesn't Read - A Trilogy by Sebastian Partogi
As always, the issue is way more complicated than we’d like to think. We have a long political and socioeconomic history which has turned us into a nation which famously – or rather, infamously, doesn’t read.
Many people like to say reading is important, but they rarely explain why. It might turn out to be such a useless activity after all.
What makes people like reading certain books? I noticed from my experience with Baca Rasa Dengar that the reason why we always liked one book or another always was because the book resonated with us. This is why our discussions were always peppered with personal stories, involving genuine emotions. I think also has to do with our shared personality style: all of us are very interested in self-development, but also at the same time we also dedicate ourselves to creating a more inclusive and compassionate atmosphere in our society, through our respective professions (our members comprise corporate workers, journalists, activists, politicians, and many more).
So naturally, when it was suggested to us that we read Terence Ward’s 2018 nonfiction book The Wahhabi Code: How the Saudis Spread Extremism Globally it resulted in a very lively and engaging discussion, because at that time we were very concerned about the growing religious intolerance in Indonesia. Almost all of the book club members had personal stories about how their families had become torn apart due to the highly divisive 2016 Jakarta gubernatorial election.
A poster attached to the walls of a temporary and improvised house in Kampung Akuarium, North Jakarta in 2017, after the original neighborhood was demolished at the request of former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, colloquially called Ahok. | Photo: Marten S. / Art Calls Indonesia
On a more personal level, in adulthood I often struggle with friendships and have had so many “friendship breakups” and have constantly blamed myself for each failed friendship. This is why when I stumbled upon Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2021 novel Klara and the Sun, I was instantly hooked. The book helped me understand why friendship was so difficult, by presenting a mirror image to my own personal experiences through relatable examples on how selfishness often stands in the way.
The book in particular forced me to confront my own selfishness, and helped me realize that the people around me are also highly vulnerable when it comes to relating to other people and sometimes, they fail in their attempt. I find people or books rarely talk about friendship breakups as people tend to focus more on romantic relationships so I have always treasured Klara and the lessons it has taught me.
The biggest satisfaction from reading, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, comes from being able to see our own personal experiences and struggles being reflected back to us, or helping us make sense of an experience we couldn’t quite understand, or to help us understand our experience in a bigger context. Yes there are some “hustle readers” out there who like reading books to enhance their professional skills or personal knowledge, but I think this emotional resonance aspect has the strongest pull among readers.
Books are one way of personal introspection. Japanese art practitioner Atushi Watanabe chose an other way, commonly known as the Japanese phenomena Hikikomori. A seflie of Watanabe is infixed onto a piece of ceramics, arranged in the traditional Japanese artisan technique 'Kintsugi' | Photo Credits: by the artist
Emotional resonance might be the reason why some recent books written by Indonesian authors sell really well. Henry Manampiring, who is better known as an advertising and marketing communications professional, in 2019 published a book on Stoicism. In that book, he tells a story of his own experience dealing with clinical depression and how some principles from the ancient Greek-Roman philosophy of Stoicism has helped him cope with his illness.
Titled Filosofi Teras: Filsafat Yunani-Romawi Kuno untuk Mental Tangguh Masa Kini (The Terrace Philosophy: Ancient Greek-Roman Philosophy for Mental Strength in Modern Times), the book has been reprinted 50 times. The book introduced the core teaching of Stoic philosophy which encouraged individuals to accept reality “as it is” and truly delve into their emotions, especially difficult ones, as it is the only way they can get through tough times, instead of distracting themselves or running into denial. According to this philosophy, emotional control is one of the most essential aspects toward self-mastery and wisdom.
During a recent press conference promoting the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Jakarta, he attributed the book’s success to so many readers finding the book really helpful for them on a personal level. Many people are not taught how to process their emotions at home or at school, so Henry’s book has helped some of its readers navigate life’s difficulties and complexity.
I think the reason why some people like going to book clubs is because these book clubs can help us bond with other readers over our reading experience and what it means to us. I think this is what we’ve always done in Baca Rasa Dengar anyway. We use books as jumping-off points to discuss some stuff which we had initially found really difficult to articulate. For instance, in one of our meetings we discussed Johann Hari’s Lost Connections, a nonfiction book on why mental health crises have become more prevalent in this day and age and we suddenly became aware of how come all of us could sometimes feel lonely and unfulfilled despite having led fantastic careers in Jakarta. When that aha moment happened, discussing your enhanced self-awareness through your discussions with your fellow readers could be quite exhilarating.
Sometimes it can be hard to find new friends as adults and the best way to connect with other people is through hobby clubs. Reading is a hobby which helps you relate with other people in a deeper way while simultaneously getting in touch with yourself. I reckon this is why reading clubs are popular.
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“In order to entice young people to read books, we have to make them realize that reading books is actually not a ‘heavy’ activity, but something that can help them make sense of their own life experience. So first we have to find out the issues that they’re interested about and we can start introducing the books which also address these issues,” said Laksmi DeNeefe Suardana, Puteri Indonesia 2022 who tries to increase the reading habits of young Indonesians, during the same press conference.
I think I agree with her, and reflecting upon my experiences, I also went to books which topics resonated with my own life experience (for example, I like reading books by Djenar Maesa Ayu as a teenager, because her short stories about children from abusive families and the aftermath of traumatic childhood experiences eerily resembled my own situation).
Yes, her books were entry points for me to start reading literature, and slowly, I have also expanded my reading interest to reading literary works about trauma on a bigger scale, like trauma caused by racism, or colonialism (such as Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things). Ultimately, this led me to start reading nonfiction books about political violence.
Also read | Political violence in Thailand: Apakah generasi muda di Indonesia insaf akan demokrasi seperti penduduk muda Thailand?
This is how one’s curiosity grows: first you start exploring works of literature which align with your tiny little personal universe, but inevitably, from there you will start exploring further and further on your intellectual journey, following your ever-expanding sense of curiosity. Gathering with your fellow readers in a reading circle can also be a great way of stimulating your curiosity while expanding your reading repertoire along the way.
Indonesian bookstores can also engage more readers by creating book events which tap into the issues that the book underscores which they can relate to. For instance, instead of labeling a book talk event as simply a Historical or Political Novel discussion, perhaps they can highlight some personal issues that surface on the novel, like identity crises or coming-of-age stories, to make these talk show events more attractive.
Writer Leila S. Chudori said at the same Jakarta literary conference that in-store events were essential to the survival of bookstores. “When you go abroad, bookstores are always brimming with various book talks and other sorts of events. If all the local bookstores are doing is just selling books, then they will not survive,” she said.
“Look at POST Santa,” she continued. “It’s a small bookshop and yet it’s highly popular and has survived, do you know why? It’s because they always engage readers with various events.” Yes, reading can be a pretty lonely activity and readers can be a bunch of lonely people too, thereby events inside bookstores can be pretty attractive for readers to find their tribe while discovering new literary horizons. As a context, many big Jakarta bookstores like Kinokuniya Plaza Senayan and Aksara Kemang did not survive the pandemic. Legendary bookstore Toko Gunung Agung also recently announced that they would close all their outlets nationwide at the end of 2023. It turned out, they have closed their outlets one by one since 2020, when the pandemic hit.
Bye-bye Gunung Agung, as the iconic Gunung Agung book stores gradually disappear, book sellers shift to the realms of e-commerce to attract potential readers.
This is why, I’d like to quibble with the book snobs who look down on Wattpad, popular fiction or young adult fiction books. I do believe that these “trashy” books are also entry points for people to start developing their reading interest. I myself used to be such a book snob, until a friend of mine called me out: “you should not look down on these books, Ogi, thanks to them, people are still going to [physical] bookstores.”
Well, I should thank that friend of mine for reminding me how I started my reading journey: I didn’t go straight to Djenar and Arundhati Roy of course. As a teenager, I really liked reading books by Danielle Steel and Mary Higgins Clark before eventually my hunger for a deeper, richer and more nuanced literary experience led me to ‘more serious and complicated’ literary fiction and nonfiction books. There is, however, one thing we should be concerned about regarding this pop fiction trend, which I’ll elaborate in the next subsection of this article.
Wait, what about the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) factor?
Speaking of popular fiction, thanks to digital platforms such as Wattpad, nowadays everybody can be an author. There is also a recent trend of major, established publishers such as PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama acquiring books which sell well on Wattpad. These “lucky writers” will then start boosting their persona on social media, having fulfilled their dream of becoming a published author.
There is, of course, a downside to this trend. I am concerned about many young people who want to become writers but they do not like to read. They want to become writers not because they genuinely love the art of letters or the pursuit of intellectual creativity, but simply because they kind of think being a writer is kind of glamorous and because they grew up in the advent of social media platforms, some of these youngsters seem to put so much premium on online validation.
Various authors have also expressed concern on how excessive use of social media has led to a degradation of Indonesian language, Ayu Utami being one of them. "Year after year, I've more frequently come across people whose writings have become significantly worse. The grammar is poor, the sentences have logic, and they can't compose a systematic piece of writing," she said as quoted by Kompas.
You can only imagine the quality of writings of these aspiring writers who rarely read books themselves but are very active on social media. I think this might lead to a quality decline of fiction. Even popular fiction writers of the old days (such as Mira W and Marga T) paid attention to believability and language. Thanks to platforms such as Wattpad, everyone seems to be able to be writers these days, yet, because they are not readers, the quality of their writing seems questionable.
Most of these stories feature off-planet fantasy romance, with characters which seem to be so far removed from our lived reality (for instance, a common cliché usually involves a totally helpless, insipid female character being rescued by a mighty male knight on a high horse). However, despite the negative excesses caused by social media platforms on the quality of authorship such as mentioned above, many senior writers approach social media use in a very pragmatic way.
Leila is one of them. She actively uses her Instagram account to promote her books and repost Instagram stories from her readers. The paperback edition of her 2017 book Laut Bercerita has been reprinted 65 times and (the hardcover version: five times) by Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia. By the way, the English translation of that book by John McGlynn titled The Sea Speaks His Name (Penguin Random House SEA, 2020), won the 2020 Southeast Asia Writes awards.
She acknowledged that social media also played a role in the book’s success. “Many young people said they wanted to read this book because they saw from social media that their friends had already read it,” she said during the event. For her, there is nothing wrong in using Instagram posts as a book recommendations reference point. She herself always looks online to check on literary prize winners, such as the Booker Prize, and add the winners’ books on her wishlist.
During the heyday of print media, the previous generations used to rely only on book reviews. Nowadays, when mainstream media is on the decline, we tend to count more on our fellow readers who post about the books they read on Instagram, trusting their judgment. My favorite bookstagrammer is Devina Yo; I often got some quirky, non-mainstream title recommendations from her account; the latest one I bought from Periplus thanks to her recommendation was I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jeanette McCurdy.
Apart from people who formally consider themselves “bookstagrammers”, so many casual readers have also posted photos or videos of themselves reading, or their books. If this can influence their followers to read more books and gain some positive insights from it, why not?
Reading as a slow lifestyle
During the Jakarta event, Laksmi said that promoting reading as a “slow lifestyle” activity which is less anxiety-inducing than going down the social media rabbit hole could also be a good idea to entice young readers. Various research studies have found that reading could actually improve one’s mental health. American psychologist Jean Twenge, known for her generational cohort studies, wrote in her book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood that one of the reasons the number of depressed and anxious youngsters in the United States had skyrocketed was excessive social media use.
Social media use can be considered as a “fast lifestyle” activity, with the infinite amount of content provided real-time to its consumers, therefore is positively correlated with anxiety and depression. Twenge cited another research study which found that reading, in contrast, was negatively correlated with depression and anxiety and thus is better for your mental and physical well-being.
Laksmi said that as a slower lifestyle, reading could provide modern humans some refuge from their fast-paced, highly stressful and demanding day-to-day existence. Inversely, she said she believed that social media could further exacerbate this stress and pressure, as social media often caused its users to compare themselves with other people and, as a result, always felt like they fell short.
The critical mass: small yet powerful
Yes, as a nation we should be concerned about our low literacy culture. However, in order to avoid this seemingly insurmountable societal problem from creating learned helplessness among us, perhaps instead of focusing too much on changing our country in terms of its educational or infrastructure systems to support literacy habits, perhaps we can start making small changes by taking small steps.
For instance, we can take this small step by posting about the book we’re reading on Instagram. Or by inviting someone we know to a book club. Or by organizing small book talks. We can never tell how the consequences of these seemingly small acts turn out to be.
The late writer and film director Richard Oh once told me this to help me overcome my pessimism regarding Indonesians’ reading habits, especially among the young. “Let’s say this person has never read a single book his whole life. Let’s say he has to leave his hometown to study in a strange city. Then he suddenly finds himself alone and lonely in his tiny boarding house room. Then he discovers a book which helps him through this very difficult situation in his life…”
All genres of art, including more solitary ones such as reading can be understood as a collective activity. Several young people at a creative get-together at Piccolo Art Fest, an independent creative event in Bangkok, Thailand, February 2023 | Photo: Art Calls Southeast Asia / Art Calls Indonesia
Life works in mysterious ways. Who knows what will happen if a person, especially those who are going through a major life crisis, suddenly discovers the new world of literature because he comes across a social media post about a particular book he could relate to or stumble upon a book club meeting announcement? (I myself bought Djenar’s books because I randomly came across a review of her book in a premium women’s magazine Dewi that my aunt subscribed to. The book sounded so bizarre I couldn’t help but want to buy it. It’s amazing how many doors open from my encounter with that book).
I’d like to conclude by saying that after all, maybe just having a handful of readers in this country is enough. As long as they engage deeply in the texts they are reading, their reading experience can end up changing them for the better. Maybe it starts with this awareness of their own issues, followed by a commitment not to take out their shit on other people. Maybe it starts through an awareness that being discriminated against is no fun, thus making them commit not to treat people they consider “the Other” inhumanely anymore.
These silent, internal revolutions can be as powerful as systemic changes on a societal level. Although the way our world is being run has not changed after the COVID-19 pandemic, I have also witnessed some people who have become so much more fulfilled in life because the pandemic somehow forced them to confront their inner demons and strip themselves down of false selfhood.
I think reading can also help people achieve this by helping them confront their own selves. And who knows, when the critical mass who have changed their ways for the better thanks to their reading experience, even if it’s just two people, commune and connect with each other, what positive ripples can we see from the consequences of their actions on a larger scale?
(Sebastian Partogi, 21.09.2023, Art Calls Indonesia)
Sebastian Partogi is an Indonesian writer, journalist, interpreter and translator based in Ubud, Bali. As a literary translator, he has translated the works of Indonesian writers like Ratih Kumala, Djenar Maesa Ayu, Feby Indirani, Angelina Enny and Sindhunata into English. His literary translations have been published in prestigious publications such as Australia's Portside Review and the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival's annual bilingual antology of Indonesian writings. He also handles simultaneous and consecutive interpreters for various events held by local NGOs, most notably the Pratisara Bumi Foundation.
Background: Indonesia's extremly low enthusiam for reading
Teamwork at ACI:
Text by: Sebastian Partogi | Arrangend by: Marten Schmidt | Photos: Art Calls Southeast Asia / Art Calls Indonesia
THE NATION WHICH SIMPLY DOESN’T READ - an essay-series by Sebastian Partogi: