Is Indonesia a “Land Without Readers?”

In News by Dennis Abrams

Satellite Image of Indonesia

Indonesia has a 93% literacy rate, but only a nascent book culture and few translations, all of which are slowing preparations for the Frankfurt Book Fair, where the country will be Guest of Honor.

By Dennis Abrams

At Qantara.de, Monica Griebeler writes that while Indonesia will be the Guest of Honor at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, it’s “a remarkable situation, because readers make up only a tiny proportion of the country’s 250 million people.”

While Indonesians love stories and poetry, the tradition is still oral storytelling and poetry readings. “As much as stories are part of everyday life in oral form, Griebeler writes, “They have it very tough in print.”

It’s not a question of literacy, not in a country where 93% of the population can read and write. Publisher John McGlynn told Griebler that, “Literature as it’s known in the West isn’t taught at schools. Children do learn when Jane Austen lived, but they don’t usually read any of her books. So it’s actually astounding that there are outstanding authors here. After all, where could they have learned to write? Certainly not at school.”

A few figures show just how little interest Indonesia has in books. There are 1,400 publishing houses in the country (more or less) which publish an average of around 24,000 titles per year. Germany, with a much smaller population, publishes 12 times as many books per capita.

Indonesia Guest of Honor

“The books with the largest print runs — if we can call them that — are popular novels and those with a religious leaning: a woman finds first God and then a husband,” McGlynn said. “More and more books are being published, but many of them are terribly written.”

Even so, McGlynn says, things are changing. “The literary scenes — of which there are several — are very active,” McGlynn said, adding that it’s interesting that many of these writers share attitudes with the West. “They don’t like fundamentalists, no matter what religion. They don’t like sexists. They don’t like racists. And I like that.”

One problem though, facing readers who want to discover the latest Indonesian literature is that there are few experienced translators. And, as Griebeler points out, the translation program — the heart of the Guest of Honor’s appearance at Frankfurt — is lagging behind. Most of what has been translated are international bestsellers.

She wrote: “Brazil began its translations three years before the book fair, while Finland even gave itself six years. And Indonesia? Only last autumn did the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture set up a one-million-dollar fund for translations.”

And while organizers hope that at least 200 titles will be available at the fair, with 20-30 of those translated into German, Goenawan Mohamad, who is chairman of the national committee for Indonesia as Guest of Honor, has issued words of caution: “We ought to have started at least ten years ago, but Indonesia has never been a country to play for the future. Now that’s one of our biggest obstacles.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.