John McGlynn: The Rise of Indonesian Literature: Books



“Books are the lifeblood of the creative sector. Books come from things like apps, movies, and games.”

This was the sentiment shared by Lontar Foundation co-founder John H. McGlynn, an American who has been in Indonesia for 40 years and shares a passion for the Indonesian arts as a whole.

The Lontar Foundation was founded in 1987 by McGlynn, who initially came to Indonesia to study shadow theater in 1977, as well as prominent Indonesian authors such as Goenawan Mohamad, Sapardi Djoko Damono, and Umar Kayam. Initially, the foundation was established as a way to translate Indonesian literature for overseas markets.

But after seeing the lackluster business response, the foundation that mainly focused on being an Indonesian writer and translator now has a more stringent selection process in choosing the literary works it translates.

Although Lontar celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, the foundation still faces the typical issues that artistic foundations tend to struggle with, such as lack of government funding and support.

Read also: The importance of literary translation for global recognition

As McGlynn describes it, this is still a “slow and ascending climb,” even after three decades and the support of many notable Indonesian authors. It is difficult for the arts to be sponsored by government, private companies, or even wealthy investors, as they have to compete with more lucrative fields such as sports, which also benefit individual bureaucrats more than small returns than arts can offer them.

“Businesses, too, tend to prefer sports sponsorship over the arts because I think they can get tax breaks to donate to sports, but not the arts,” McGlynn said in a recent interview.

It was only at events of global significance, such as the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, where Indonesia was the guest of honor, that the government saw slight potential to elevate the Indonesian name. It looked like Lontar’s hard work, which also allowed them to manage the Indonesian festivities, could be funded by the presidency of supposedly arts-savvy Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

“In the run-up to the Frankfurt Book Fair, the government showed interest, but after that they just kept quiet,” McGlynn recalled disappointingly.

He said the role of government support in promoting and helping to fund translation programs was incredibly vital, as it showed a national commitment to the development of the arts and also enabled artists to continue doing what they do.

However, besides presenting Indonesian literature globally at its highest level in recent years, the country’s participation in international events such as the Frankfurt Book Fair could also help boost tourism in Indonesia.

Government bureaucracy has been the most troublesome obstacle for Lontar and can hamper the national development of Indonesian literature. It doesn’t help if the Education Department is under constant reshuffle, which eliminates the possibility of a long-term translation funding program due to changing priorities each time.

The Creative Economy Agency, John said, was a good start to proper government support, but even they were weighed down by the disappointing bureaucratic culture and lack of focus.

Compared to other countries like South Korea, Turkey or even Malaysia, which all have government-funded literary translation programs, Indonesia lags far behind. Apart from having rather minimal social importance in literature, the country also lacks suitable experts to do translation work within the government itself.

This contrasts with developed countries such as the Netherlands, for example, which are able to publish around 100-200 books in Dutch in other languages ​​each year.

“You need the right translation experts to do it. Lontar could have done it for them[…] if they gave us a budget! Huge countries around the world have their own translation funding programs, but they give the money to organizations that can do it. This is one of the reasons why a country’s literature becomes world famous, ”he said.

With one of the world’s lowest per capita reading and book interest rates, there are fears that Indonesian literature is in dire straits. Public schools also don’t tend to push the study of literature as much as they should.

However, McGlynn believes there has been a slight resurgence in public interest in reading over the past year. In a literary sense, McGlynn strongly believes in the idea that an author should be in tune with his roots and be aware of his nation’s social landscape. Even if a budding Indonesian author wrote primarily in English, it would make his works technically non-Indonesian literary.

“If there are writers who can write well in both languages, then so much the better. But this is very rarely possible. I have been here for 40 years and although my Indonesian is good, I have never been able to write anything emotional in Bahasa Indonesian. I understand everything I read, but I can’t get away with it immediately, ”he said.

An exception to this rule, however, is literature written by prominent Indonesians during Dutch times, with R. A Kartini as an example of a local personality who wrote primarily in Dutch, but had the distinctively Indonesian experiences that needed to be told. .

“It’s also a reason why a lot of things Indonesians write in English tend to be flat,” McGlynn added.

He acknowledged the presence of some Indonesian authors who wrote in English and also produced very good works, but Lontar’s co-founder also observed a disturbing tendency and tendency among young Indonesians to write in English simply because they wanted to. internationalize.

McGlynn said based on her experience, foreign publishers tended to be more interested in a foreign author’s roots than their introverted concepts.

“For Indonesian authors, the added value is that they are Indonesians. If you want to compete in English speaking markets, know that less than 3% of books sold are translated books. Commercially, if you write in English, you will be faced with the remaining 97%, ”he said.

“Publishers are not looking for you, they are looking for Indonesia.


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