Whither Asean literature? Still stuck in the colonial days, it seems


  • Books
  • Monday, 13 Nov 2017

The 4th Asean Literary Festival was held in Jakarta’s Old City this year to reach out to people from all walks of life. — Photos: RUMAIZAH ABU BAKAR

Asean writers are not clearly perceived on the world literature scene. They have yet to develop their own common identity or brand as they adapt to post-colonialism.

Writers in this region are still bound by European sources rather than looking to their own: Malaysian writers are influenced by the British, Indonesian by the Dutch, and Cambodian and Vietnamese by the French.

Furthermore, they are swayed by government-level non-interference policies and, hence, hesitate to confront modern-day issues such as refugees, terrorism, and hybrid democracy.

These were some of the issues raised at the 4th Asean Literary Festival, which took place in the Old City in Jakarta earlier this year. Held in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Asean, the festival carried the theme “Beyond Imagi-nation” and drew participants from more than 20 countries.

In his opening ceremony keynote address, Malaysian author Mohd Faizal Musa – better known as Faisal Tehrani – said, “Issues right at the heart of the controversies surrounding Asean development today should be faced, written about, and shared to call attention to them and to work towards solutions.

4th Asean Literary Festival 2017
The 4th Asean Literary Festival was held in Jakarta's popular Old City this year to reach out to people from all walks of life.

“Let’s not allow the crises in our region to fester without being defined or expressed.

“The authors are the masters; others read and listen to us, not the other way round.”

Indonesian Education and Culture Ministry director-general Hilmar Farid said that the post-World War II generation of Indonesian literati share an anxiety about post-colonial modern life. They suffer from a sense of displacement, which he attributed to the multilayered meaning of the Malay word “sunyi”, or silent, with a state of hollowness.

This uncertainty and fear is so deep that writers have to turn to Western philosophical and literary ideas because they think their own understanding of the problem or situation is inferior.

“‘Sunyi’ reflects inferiority, but it is not permanent. In fact, it is a space where change can surface. They should take a moment of ‘sunyi’ from the chaos of social media and listen, to understand diversity better.

“This productive moment will bring out the stories of the marginalised, imprisoned, oppressed and colonised. The best of literary imagination will emerge.”

Hilmar stressed that unity can be confining, and it is better to build connections instead. All concerned parties should listen carefully and bring out the different voices.

Opportunities in the region are huge, most speakers and participants seemed to agree.

Malaysian author and National University of Singapore Malay Studies lecturer Azhar Ibrahim stressed that Asean forms a significant part of the world’s population. It is a zone where the world’s major religions are found and practiced, and its literature, like its culture, is deep and vast.

“We have our own issues and challenges, and they may not fit into existing discourse at the international level. Our intellectual output is rich and credible enough for us to have our own discourse and develop our own mechanisms to feature our works.

“We should not rely on others to tell us what is best for us. Even the voices of the marginalised are heard worldwide now. With our size, there is no reason why our presence cannot be felt.”

A significant challenge hindering the reach of the region’s literature is language. Asean readers do not read the vernacular works of Asean authors due to the lack of a shared language.

Indonesian author Aan Mansyur pointed out that, “Some Indonesian literary works are well accepted in Malaysia.

“Malaysian readers can somewhat read and understand Bahasa Indonesia, but unfortunately, that is not true vice versa (of Bahasa Malaysia).”

Manager of Indonesian publishing house Lontar Publication Wikan Satriati explained that his company had realised by the 1980s that Indonesian literature was not well discussed at universities worldwide, largely due to the unavailability of English translations.

4th Asean Literary Festival 2017
Mobile libraries were set up during the festival this year.

Five authors – four Indonesians and one American – appreciated the importance of bridging this gap and set out to produce high quality translations of renowned literary works.

Lontar publishes such translated works annually, working with translators carefully chosen from backgrounds or experiences similar to those of the authors.

High costs and limited distribution also hinder the spread of Asean lit. Wikan and Indie Book Corner chief executive officer Irwan Bajang have resorted to more innovative means of collaborating and getting overseas partners to print and distribute their publications within their countries to reduce cost and access more channels.

Independent publishers have also progressed to online publishing and pre-ordering to manage the high costs of small print runs.

All publishers expressed the need for a platform on which stakeholders can connect after the festival and keep inter-country collaborations going.

The festival was held in the Old City this year to attract participants from all walks of life. Co-founder and programme director Okky Madasari said the festival aims to raise literacy levels and the love of writing and reading among Asean’s younger generation who are left behind their counterparts in the rest of the world.

The National Literary Jamboree was initiated as part of the fest this year to engage children, students, and teenagers, and expose as many young people as possible to literature and books in a world where gadgets and social media rule. This inaugural fringe event drew 180 teachers and 2,000 students from 54 schools in Jakarta.


Indonesian author and cofounder (with Indonesian journalist Abdul Khalik) of the Asean Literary Festival, Okky Madasari, talks about how literature could bring the nations of Asean closer together here.

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