Jakarta’s ASEAN Literary Festival Spotlights Regional Realities

In Growth Markets by Guest Contributor

ASEAN Literary Festival

The first ASEAN Literary Festival spotlighted several regional issues, in particular the dearth of literary exchange, among countries in Southeast Asia.

By Claudia Kaiser

Indonesia holds several literature festivals, including the Ubud Litarture Festival on Bali and another in Makassar, amongst others. But earlier this month from, March 21-23, the capital Jakarta played host to the first ASEAN Literary Festival, drawing some 2,000 visitors. With ASEAN economic integration scheduled for 2015 and Indonesia taking the role of Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015, it’s a good time to examine the impact ASEAN will have on literature and culture in the region. One hopes that the organization will be able to facilitate further literary exchange between the member states, something that has been long bemoaned.

The event drew some 2,000 visitors, as well as authors and publishing professionals from several ASEAN countries, including Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand, China, and even ASEAN’s smallest member, Brunei. “We wanted to bring the Indonesian and ASEAN authors into focus, and not only the economic factors,” says Abdul Khalik from the organizing Muara Foundation.

Alas, while evenings were reserved for poetry readings, performances, as well as music, the days were committed with discussions between authors and researchers from ASEAN and western countries — conducted in English, which is notable, primarily because Indonesia is not an English-speaking country.  And though the festival was held at TIM, Taman Ismael Marzuki, a much visited “Cultural Park” that includes movie theatre, convention hall, a planetarium and is the home of the Jakarta Arts Council, it was run on a shoe string budget.

Perhaps the star of of the Festival was “Pete” Lacaba from the Philippines, one of the finest poets, writers and journalists the country has to offer; his screenplays for films like “Jaguar” competed at Cannes, and he received many honors. He offered an opening keynote, concurrent with an endorsement from the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Indonesia. That was followed by a powerful poetry performances by Indonesian poets and actors Sosiaswan Leak and Khairani Barokka, an art form that is extremely popular in Indonesia and gathers huge crowds. The opening evening was also dedicated to the poet Wiji Thukul who received the festival’s ASEAN Literary Award. The poet went missing in the tumultuous period surrounding the overthrow of Suharto, in 1998, as was most probably abducted by Government forces. In a moving ceremony, he family received the award on his behalf.

It was a good start, though, noted “Pete”Jose Maria Flores Lacaba, “it was not really a festival, but more of a conference.”

A video from a workshop preceding the ASEAN Literary Festival.

The second day began with a session focused on Southeast Asian literature, focusing on new trends and the role of the author between commerce and art. But what was revealed was the fact that the ASEAN countries did not know much about each other’s literature, let alone languages, with English almost always serving as an intermediary. Very seldom do residents from neighboring ASEAN countries read each other’s literature, and there is still some reluctance to perceive ASEAN as one community. This fueled a discussion of how exactly can ASEAN members states, particularly literature from Indonesia, across boarders and what can be done to promote a greater degree of exchange. It was agreed that Indonesia’s participation in Frankfurt will be a step in the right direction.

Several more sessions looked at the political realities of the region. Wijaya Herlambang, author of Cultural Violence, and Pete Lacaba discussed how writers have survived under Totalitarian regimes — (Lacaba was active in the demonstrations in the Marcos era and was imprisoned for many years.) And a conversation about “Southeast Asian Literature Under Colonialism” led by Indonesia’s well known literary critic Melanie Budianta, considered the question of what “internal” vs. “external” colonization — for example the legacy of utilizing English in writing — and whether or not a “Southeast Asian literature” exists at all.

A conversation about children’s books with the well-known Indonesian author Clara Ng and Leiden-based researcher and author Andy Fuller, led to a discussion about the appropriateness of certain topics in an Islamic country like Indonesia, rise of “Islamic fiction” vs. “good literature,” and the threat of self-and-external censorship in the light of threats from threats from vociferous religious groups. Finally, a the session on the Role of Literary Translations, featuring John McGlynn from Lontar Foundation and Kate Griffin from the British Centre for Literary Translation, complimented a panel discussion staged by Frankfurt Book Fair and the Goethe Institute in Jakarta, focusing on the preparations of Indonesia as the Guest of Honour at FBF in 2015.

Another fulminant poetry performance ended the day and the festival, with a performance by Arifzal Malna, who is about to start the highly acclaimed DAAD residency in Germany.

This festival was “a beginning of a tradition” says author and program director Okky Madasari.

Reflecting on the festival overall, in the future it would be nice to see the festival rotate among the other member states and Southeast Asian countries. However, for this to happen it requires dedicated organizers and, of course, funding. This year, support was was provided primarily by the international development organization Hivos and the Foreign Ministry of Indonesia; the authors were co-sponsored by their respective countries.

That said, it was a superb opportunity to be exposed to what is happening in Southeast Asia in terms of literature, translations and publishing, and to meet literary talent from the region as well as actors of the respective cultural scenes. And it offered some access to the literary cultures of both Brunei and Myanmar — countries not often represented at literary festivals, book fairs, or elsewhere on the global stage.

Claudia Kaiser is the Vice President for Business Development with the Frankfurt Book Fair.

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.