Love in the Time of Corona

They were both sitting on the sofa. In the background, the clock ticked, a gentle reminder that time was actually moving, and a few cicadas called out as if to prove life still went on without them.

It was day twelve—perhaps already thirteen—of self-isolation, and the initial novelty of cooking and cleaning and pretending to be a veritable housewife had worn off.

Outside, the virus continued to grow into an all-consuming wolf that killed the old and ravaged those with preexisting conditions. Those who could work from home scrolled on, while Gojek drivers outside continued to trace the map like green blood in the veins.

Outside, a food cart went by, the tock-tocking of its owner hopelessly searching for a hungry mouth with a wallet.

Inside, out of sheer unquantifiable apathy, she stuck her finger in his belly button. Soft folds of skin gave way to a crusty outcrop, some forgotten thing like they were. She dug a little harder, relieved for a moment’s activity, and then he exploded. Out of that tiny hole came guts and intestines, Indomie noodles and neatly sliced red pepper. They poured out in a chain, covering the sofa, splattering the ceiling. The floor became a sea, his face a picture of surprise. She could not move for the sight.

As quickly as it began, it was over. A deflated balloon of a body lay next to her. She wanted to run from the house, kidneys precariously dangling from her right ear, but she could not. She had already completed her one trip to the shop and it was another week until she allowed herself out again.

The sky turned from dusky blue to orange, the call-to-prayer cried out to empty streets. Only one more month until the peak, she thought. The sky grew darker, only one more month.

And then, sifting through the gore that was her living room, she found the remote and began scrolling through the channels.

First Published on Flash Fiction Magazine’s blog:

Tales of the Pandemic: The quiet before Ramadan in Yogyakarta

I live on the outskirts of Yogyakarta, Central Java, Indonesia. To the north, travelling through small settlements, food outlets and rice fields, one reaches the now (alarmingly) puffing Mount Merapi.

To the south lies the centre of the city: the tourist attractions of the Tugu statue, Malioboro Street, the palace where the Sultan lives – Indonesia’s last active king. Throughout the city you can find university campuses of various sizes.

As it’s coming up to Ramadan, now is a time to reflect on crowds and quiet, and the ebbs and flows of mobility in the city.

At this time normally there is mudik, where millions of workers from around Indonesia travel home for the long holidays, to celebrate and to fast with loved ones, and all the students who normally fill the cafes and food stalls return to their kampungs around the country.

These two forms of migration, combined with Yogyakarta’s status as Indonesia’s second most popular tourist destination, means the population dynamics change a lot during this time, and even within the space of a day the force and nature of crowds shift.

In the days of fasting the early mornings are a hive of women measuring and selecting in markets and stocking up for the coming evening. During the heat of the day streets are still for people staying indoors, preserving energy and holding off thirst, restaurants are closed save a few with a sheet across the window and tourist destinations lay empty.

Come 6pm, the call-to-prayer and competing sirens to break the fast ricochet around buildings and the streets are full of people buying sweet, multicoloured snacks and rushing home for iftar (the meal to break fast).

Yet now, in this time just before the holiday but in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the streets are perpetually quiet. It feels the government aren’t sure how to act about mudik.

The president, Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, refuses to ban the mass homecomingreasoning that the economic impact would be too damaging if it were to stop altogether – yet appeals to those in Jakarta to stay put.

Meanwhile, in the cities and villages already watching the first waves of returnees, like Yogyakarta and its countryside region of Gunung Kidul, the mutterings and rumours of how many infected and how many having been lost to the virus since workers returned are shared in doorways and across front yards.

It is thought that 600,000 workers from Jakarta have already returned home, with potentially over a million more to make the journey. In my kampung, the village heads have taken to carefully monitoring who is coming in and for how long to try and maintain some control of the situation.

Last week it was my turn to emphatically state that I hadn’t been to the UK for a while due to the high number of cases there.

I’ve been staying in the house now for five weeks. My Masters at Universitas Gadjah Mada moved online long before the government started taking the issue seriously and people on the streets started worrying about what will happen.

A bamboo roadblock outside a mosque in Yogyakarta. Photo: Harriet Crisp

In this time I’ve been oblivious to the sensations and sentiments outside, fortunate to only need to venture out to the supermarket once a week.

Two weeks ago, the feeling on the street started to change – people joked a little nervously about the pandemic, mask and disinfectant sales increased. But it wasn’t until one evening we ventured out to restock on greens and rice that the real shift was visible.

Men from the kampung were outside working together making large banners with light-hearted signs reading ‘Uncles, aunts, sorry! We have to do this to fight Corona’ and ‘The villagers here want to be able to celebrate Ramadan!!”.

Bamboo poles were being lined against the gates to stop outsiders entering. “Where are you going?” one man asked my husband and I, only nodding at our answer. Out on the main road this scene was repeated across the area, each village having its own message and a collective of concerned looking spectators.

There is an increased presence of police cars on the road now, and many of the often-packed food stalls are shut. The streets, normally thick with the exhaust fumes of continuous mopeds for a while resembled the quiet usually seen at 4am. It is a surreal experience to have a forty five-minute drive take twenty.

Instagram accounts with large followings are posting traditional street venders who are suffering the loss of customers on the street, with followers tracking them down and buying their produce even if reluctant to let it in the house

Where everyday activity should be happening – a few ibu queuing for snacks from a popular street vendor, an elderly man waiting for the red light to sell newspapers – there are instead the food delivery Gojek drives, sat in the doorway of a closed shop waiting for an order. Their green jackets are now the most prominent feature of the city, as many people turn to online orders to limit the risk of going out.

In the absence of clear government instruction, and with growing numbers of people in need, kampungs and local organisations are taking lockdown and food distribution upon themselves.

University groups and local communities are organising public kitchens for food sellers and small business owners who are struggling to get by.

Instagram accounts with large followings are posting traditional street venders who are suffering the loss of customers on the street, with followers tracking them down and buying their produce even if reluctant to let it in the house. Even the local graffiti community has put together a series of prints with profits going to making protective suits for hospital workers.

Right now, the atmosphere of the city seems hopeful, but cautious. People are working together and spreading what means they can. Numbers in the hospitals at present are 67 patients positive and over 600 patients under observation, but I feel many who may be ill are not being tested for different reasons.

One of my lecturers having returned from America for a conference has been announced positive, along with one of my classmates who is still in the process of recovering after three weeks of being sick.

We don’t know what will happen, and in our online classes we pray, regardless of religion or belief. There is a sense that all we can do is help who we can and stay at home as much as we can.

Outside the rice paddy has reached its peak, and like always the old ladies continue to meet, picking, backs bowed and working in tandem. The children outside continue to play, although less often now, and each day the number lessens.

There is no way to predict when this will be over, or what will happen when Ramadan officially begins, but I’m hoping this communal practice will continue.

It is through the collective that the most vulnerable will stay afloat, and the fallout from the virus will stop from evolving into a disaster.

First published on the South East Asia Globe here:


My mother, her mother and I were sat in a cafe. Three generations cradling rooibos tea as the rain and the wind ripped through the streets of Brighton outside. We were discussing language, and in particular the language of mothers.

I was explaining how it works in Indonesia with parents of loved ones. The first of the linguistic jumps one has to make when speaking to a parent – or parent of your partner -in Java is speaking using the passive, third person. So, as an example, rather than saying directly to your mum, “would you like a drink?”, or “would you like a drink, mum?”, you would ask, “would mum like a drink?”, “is mum cold?” “what time will mum get here?”. At the beginning of mine and Obi’s relationship, this way of speaking felt particularly unnatural, as if you were speaking to your mother, but focusing on the space next to her. The bodily reaction to not using the direct ‘you’ for me was strangely intense, I felt myself shrinking when using this passive voice.

For Obi the situation was equally awkward as he was thrown into the world of first name terms. My mother was – and continues to be – Deborah, something particularly rude in his mother tongue. “Would you like a drink, Deborah?” wouldn’t quite cut it in Yogyakarta, and, at the beginning, we shared many a whispered conversation about if each of us were doing it right.

Before marriage, you refer to your partner’s parents as om and tante, or uncle and aunt. Once married, the titles change, and they effectively become your second parents – your partner’s mother becomes ibu and their father becomes bapak, literally mother and father. Their family too, becomes your family, with aunts and uncles also being referred to as om and tante.

My mother, grandmother and I discussed the significance of calling another’s mother your own. In Indonesia, marriage is only partially about two people uniting, and much more about two families. The families are involved throughout the whole process: there is the symbolism of the engagement, in which both families meet to discuss the arrangements, and agree or disagree on the union. Education is discussed, whether the partner’s family is suitable enough is discussed, where they will live is a topic of conversation, how big the wedding will be is a family matter. Families will generally only meet the boyfriend/girlfriend if there is the intention that they will marry. Careers are important, and if parents decide ‘no’, then that is usually final. In this sense, you are receiving two new parents.

From a UK perspective, this could seem a little suffocating, depending on your community. While the tradition still somewhat exists for the father of the bride to be asked whether the groom can marry the daughter, this is dying out, and the decision is very much the couple’s own choosing. If parents were to disapprove, I imagine in many cases the marriage would go along anyway. That’s assuming couples choose to marry, as every year the institution of marriage looks a little less necessary for young people. Two years ago it was made legal for heterosexual couples to hold civil partnerships once reserved only for LGBTQ communities. This year saw the first of the hetero civil partnerships – the argument? For most couples going down this route, they want all of the legal and social recognition of their relationship, but none of the outdated and negative associations that come with the institution of marriage. When marriage – or civil partnerships – occur, parents are often involved as a blanket of support, yet they are not fundamental, and that’s the difference. A marriage for many couples in the UK is primarily about two people, not two families.

In our discussion, my grandma, mum and I discussed the feelings of betrayal, perhaps, that comes with calling your partner’s parents your own. As I live on the other side of the world, did that feel like I was moving away from my parents? Was there a fear it’d look like I was replacing my own mum? Did it feel like doing something that takes me away from my own upbringing? Maybe, maybe not. Obi’s family, his mum and dad and aunts and uncles have always supported me, smiling encouragingly every time I’ve slipped up with my Indonesian, gently squeezing my hand to help me feel welcome. We didn’t have any sort of official engagement meeting with parents, and they willingly helped organise our wedding in the way that we wanted it. While linguistically it was difficult to call his parents my parents, has there been an emotional struggle? Perhaps I do feel a tug for my own mum when I call Obi’s mum ‘mum’, but at the heart of this new naming comes emotional expanding rather than switching.

At the same time, we considered ibu and bapak as phrases. The other confusion for me when thinking about what to call Obi’s parents was that all older people in Java are called ibu and bapak. Neighbours, people sitting next to you on the bus, your lecturer at university, your doctor. While it is significant to call your partner’s parents ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, really, this is what you call everyone anyway. So it was weird changing from the specific tante and om when referring to Obi’s parents, which seemed closer almost, and moving to what to me felt a more general ‘bu’ and ‘pak’. Strangers around the same age are called ‘kakak’, ‘mas’, and ‘mbak’ or ‘brother/sister’. In general, society is then reflected as one big family. There are rules within this, and subtleties which I have not yet learned, but the sense of a communal connection is much greater than that I’ve experienced at home.

My grandma, having lived a lot longer than I, and a little longer than my mum, reminded us that this used to be how it was in the UK. You would call your spouse’s parents your own, and everyone would be an aunt or an uncle. My mum considered when she was growing up, and couldn’t pinpoint when the change happened, where this familial language was lost. She would never have called my dad’s mother ‘mum’, but after I was born called her ‘nanny’ for my sake. She remembered the widespread use of ‘auntie’ though. And I did too, growing up all of my mum’s friends were ‘auntie’ to me, although we couldn’t say if this was still common with children today.

We questioned what this decline in familial language meant for the UK, and what the effect is of using familial language. Our combined first reaction was sadness, it is sad that there is growing individualism (is this the right word?) that draws people away from these familial terms for strangers, an awkwardness, a wariness. But then again, with movements like #metoo, fear of stranger danger, everyday sexism, is it something necessary? Are communities actually tighter in Indonesia for this use of language? I think so, but then again there are issues surrounding domestic violence, and difficult family relations with families not liking partners, issues where different religious followers aren’t allowed to be together. There’s also racism towards Papuans, Indonesian Chinese – despite this closer language, it doesn’t always make it so in action.

Yet I can’t help that thinking in a lot of ways, the Indonesian community systems in place have got it right. ‘Social capital’, the way of assessing the ‘wealth’ of the community is high. If someone dies, the whole community will come together – whatever the hour – to comfort the family, and they will continue to be there for the first week, the first month, the first 1000 days after. Recently, after a large storm my favourite soto restaurant’s roof blew off and everyone from the local kampung came together to fix a new one. Next to my house, the ibus of the kampung work in rows planting rice together in a patch of field, sharing irrigation and resources. A small table set to the side with water and biscuits to be consumed in the midday heat. While this does happen in the UK in many cases, one example being the shelter created by students at my university, it is not something that would happen often without thinking, or hesitation. Particularly not in cities like London. The saudara, or siblings, don’t come together in quite the same way.

Whilst we didn’t come to a fixed conclusion, my mother, my grandmother and I, in that moment, in that context we felt the importance of family – those genetic, those prescribed and those chosen, and the importance of connection between mothers, daughters, aunties, sisters, best friends and neighbours. At that time, a few weeks before the Brexit deadline, the UK felt more removed from familial language than ever, rather than aunts and uncles there were brexiters and remainers, traitors and bemoaners, cosmopolitan elites and millenials, foreigners and immigrants. Perhaps its time we all reflect on what we call each other and the language we use for our both local and wider community, remembering that whether we call someone aunt or immigrant, they are human, we have some things in common and some things we don’t. We all have to work harder to build up that social capital, those bonds wherever we find them.


Reflecting on 2019: Indigenous languages and religions

2019 marked the United Nations’ Year of Indigenous Languages, a year designed to “recognize and acknowledge the range, diversity and global value of languages as well as the critical and endangered status of many individual languages around the world, the vast majority of them being indigenous languages”. Language is not solely about vocabulary and grammar structures to convey meaning, but holistically links to world view, identity, memory and understanding.

Unrelated to the UN’s Year for Indigenous Languages but in many ways running parallel in its aims of raising awareness of the threats to indigenous practices and way of life, in the same year CRCS UGM hosted The First International Conference on Indigenous Religions, published a report advocating social inclusion for indigenous religions, as well as releasing Atas Nama Percaya or In the Name of Belief, the first film of the Indonesian Pluralities documentary series in collaboration with Watchdoc and Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. Reflecting back on the year, we look at how language and belief are connected, and how these affect – and are affected by – the environment in which they were borne.

In the stretching arc of Indonesia’s islands, around 706 languages are spoken by communities living across the ranging topographies of forests, mountains and cities. For each community, language has passed down through generations, and vocabulary is shaped by familial relations and connection to specific landscapes. As is becoming increasingly clearer, biodiversity, cultural diversity and linguistic diversity are all intrinsically linked, with higher biodiversity associated with higher rates of languages. Luisa Maffi (2018) calls this interconnectedness ‘biocultural diversity’, and highlights how growing urbanisation, migration, deforestation and enforced loss of indigenous culture around the world has culminated in a loss of all three.


Describing biocultural diversity as a ‘socio-ecological adaptive system’, Maffi along with a body of researchers have attempted to raise awareness of this interconnectedness. We often consider how humans are shaped by the world around them, but increasingly researchers are beginning to understand that the nature, often considered ‘pristine’ and untouched by humans is equally transformed and reliant on the humans living within them. Those living in rainforest ecosystems for example, can increase biodiversity by spreading seeds in different times of the year, or cutting down plants which drain the soil. Controlled burning practices by aborigine communities in Australia can help prevent damaging bushfires and help revitalise nutrient levels.

This humans’ dependency on the land, and the land’s dependency on human interaction, can be classed as ‘traditional ecological knowledge (TEK)’—relational and agricultural accumulative knowledge passed down through indigenous communities. The Ammatoa of South Sulawesi, as one example of a community using TEK, structure their forest use in circles, leaving a central ring untouched to respect the personhood of the forest and to allow undisturbed growth. An outer ring exists in which they can take what they need. This allows the forest to continue growing without depletion and with diversity of plants in the outer ring, while those of the community can still use as much as the community needs to live. These practices reflect the Ammatoa’s belief in the personhood of the forest and ancestor worship, meaning a strong belief in reciprocity and respect. Language develops out of the need to communicate this worldview, and document and categories various species which are important to the clan. As Nations explains, “Native languages crystallize the lessons of centuries of daily trial and error”.

Towards more recognition

With the development of communities into industrialised agricultural societies and cities, the everyday connection with the natural world and the people around becomes weaker, and the relational aspects are lost. State policies championing one dominant group or religion throughout history have also meant that those communities holding onto their local belief system, language or area have been threatened.

These strains to indigenous ways of being, including language, have been felt across the archipelago. For the Bajau community in Sulawesi as one example, the ocean-dependent community has long existed through nomadism and connection with ancestors and spirits.

Although primarily Muslim, traditional Bajau beliefs continue to be central to the community, yet lifestyle changes driven by declining fish populations and state regulations has led to young Bajau people travelling to the main islands for education—primarily based on recognised religion and modern practices—as well as employment. With growing awareness of lifestyle and religion outside the seafaring community, there has been a growing contestation of identity. Young people learn differently to how their parents did, with many learning that their Bajau worldview is not compatible with that of the recognised religions, and their lifestyle and practices outdated, studying more in the national Bahasa Indonesia rather than the Bajau language. The various forces of local culture, nationalism and globalisation all manifest in this struggle of identity.

Loss in this sense becomes compounded: with the loss of indigenous religions and language, there is loss of life. With loss of biological life comes loss of indigenous religions and languages. Perhaps more noticeably in Indonesia than in other parts of the world, indigenous communities, their languages, practices and belief systems are tied up in religion due to the importance of religion constitutionally. Prior to the 2017 Constitutional Court ruling on the inclusion of indigenous religions (kepercayaan) on identity cards (KTP & KK), followers of indigenous religions lacked legal rights surrounding recognition, education, marriage, health care and other civic issues due to the state’s favoritism of world religions, with many forced to convert to the recognised religions, losing their local identity through having to stop or desacralise their traditional practices and rituals. Often if rituals continue to be practiced, these traditions are turned into tourist attractions or ‘cultural events’ with varying degrees of sensitivity.

Since the Constitutional Court ruling, followers of kepercayaan have now been able to apply for the previously blank space on the card to be replaced with the category of Kepercayaan terhadap Tuhan Yang Maha Esa, allowing control of faith matters such as education, spaces of worship and marriage. In a step towards greater inclusivity in Indonesian citizenship, those following an indigenous religion, and not one of the six ‘world’ religions can begin to have a greater voice in the public sphere, allowing communities to shape their own curriculum for schools based on their cosmology, protection for their practices, and hopefully with a growing acceptance of kepercayaan in wider society, buffering the rate of loss which the country has been facing.


Yet that is only one part of the solution to the loss of biocultural diversity and the rights of kepercayaan communities. While the Constitutional Court’s ruling is a step in the right direction for recognition of indigenous believers, it has the potential to alienate those who see themselves as both a follower of a world religion, but also who holds indigenous beliefs (as many people are) and calls into question who can be categorised as officially part of kepercayaan.

At the same time, the law still fails to address the issue of loss of indigenous beliefs and languages through other factors such as general dismissal of indigenous communities, loss of land for mining or deforestation, or migration for employment, with recent statistics saying that by 2045, more than 70% of Indonesia’s population will be living in cities, meaning further homogenisation and separation from natural spaces. This loss of connection is what Maffi describes as a ‘deleterious feedback loop’ with the loss of one accelerating the loss of another in a continuous spiral.

A number of studies have suggested that over 100 of Indonesia’s languages are vulnerable or at risk of dying completely, and many others existing only in the home and not in a formal setting, meaning while language remains, the breadth and variety of language used is greatly reduced. At the same time, biodiversity continues to be lost at an accelerating rate, with the loss of forests at around 450,000 hectares a year and around 1600 species documented as threatened. Once species and environments are lost, the language and rituals associated cease to function in reality.

There needs to be a wider conversation on the importance of language, a discussion on what it means for different communities to speak one language over another, what is lost when language is lost, and whether a focus should be on revitalisation of language or merely recording and archiving, in the hope of preserving at least some of its meaning for future generations. At the same time, across the world there needs to be an examination and redefinition of the relationship between society and nature, shifting common language away from terms such as ‘resource’ and ‘stock’ into a more holistic narrative. This of course, relies on current rates of deforestation and environmental destruction to slow or cease. For certain industries such as agriculture and fishing, looking to indigenous belief systems and their languages can begin to offer alternative, more sympathetic and sustainable practices, allowing for community revitalisation, continued effective agricultural practices, and at the same time protecting the variety of ecosystems found across the archipelago.


The Journey of ‘Ketchup’

What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word ‘ketchup’?

If you’re in the UK or US, it’s most likely ketchup will make your mouth tingle a little with the impression of the sweet and tangy tomato sauce you eat with chips, probably from the iconic Heinz bottle. The red sauce is, according to one study, found in 97% of homes across America and is one of the most recognisable brands across the West. For many, tomato ketchup is synonymous with all that is familiar and comfortable. As a kid it may well be the gentle drug that gets you to eat broccoli and carrots, or the ideal sauce for your plain, plain pasta.

In Indonesia it’s the dark brown sticky sweet sauce that goes on every meal (maybe that’s just Jogja). Kecap, pronounced almost the same as ketchup, is equally as synonymous with Indonesia as the western counterpart is in the west. Nasi goreng? Uses kecap. Got a bowl of soto? Add some kecap. Want to eat some gorengan? There’s sambal kecap on the side. Here it is made from fermented soya beans and has retained that homegrown, local quality that comes with a product that lives in every house and restaurant. A strange mirror from one world to the next.

So how did ketchup come to be the cross-continent, multi-purpose condiment found today?

Related imageThe word ‘ketchup’ familiar as it is in English or Indonesian, actually has its origins in Hokkien, derived from the word ‘kê-tsiap’, meaning preserved fish sauce – a very straight forward description of the ingredients. The sauce is thought to originate between China and Vietnam (where it is called mắm nêm) before spreading out to other areas of southeast Asia through trade routes and migration between communities and islands. Here, ‘kê-tsiap’ became kecap and the sauce transformed from meaning preserved fish sauce to generally fermented sauce, with kecap manis as sweet soy sauce and kecap asin as salty soy sauce.

Through colonial routes in the Malay Archipelago in the late 17-early 1800s, the sauce – originally without any tomatoes – found its way to the UK as ‘catsup’ and was a favourite of wealthy communities who tried to replicate the taste using mushrooms, anchovies, walnuts and occasionally stale beer. catsup was thin and brown in appearance and definitely not one for dipping chips, this was for adding flavour to soups and pie sauces, and by the inclusion of stale beer was already far more British than the Chinese equivalent.

It wasn’t until a number of years later that the sauce found its way to America and tomatoes managed to creep their way into the recipe. With the addition of tomatoes however, nobody could make ketchup last for long periods of time. Henry J. Heinz, a German immigrant saw a gap in the market and an opportunity. After the fall of his original radish sauce, he decided to develop his own brand of ‘catsup’ as it was commonly called, and changed the name to ‘ketchup’. His all-American marketing meant that across the west the original sauce is forgotten to make way for the very Western concept of ‘ketchup’ In a full circle, American/British tomato ketchup has made its way back to Asia where it is used in Chinese-American versions of sweet and sour chicken and sometimes used instead of tamarind in pad-thai in Thailand, as well as being the stereotypical chip dipping sauce.

Yet I think what’s so interesting about ketchup is not how it has transformed from one country to another, but how each transformation is viewed as an original, homegrown staple in each location.

If you think about Vietnamese food for example, fish sauce is central to the depth and tanginess of the flavour. A Vietnamese restaurant will have some on the table, a kitchen cupboard would be empty without it. If you go into any warung in Indonesia, next to the wok is the signature large bottle of kecap manis, complete with a shadow puppet inspired logo. It’s unheard of to go to a restaurant or pub in the UK and there is no ketchup for your chips., and cheap talk involves whether you keep it in the cupboard or the fridge. In each of these places, I’m sure you could ask anyone on the street where ketchup/mắm nêm/ke-tsiap/kecap comes from and they would unhesitantly say their country. Each of variation brings so much comfort, regularity, a sense of knowing where you are – and yet, whilst they are local and developed and personal flavours, they also speak of global markets, history, colonialism, migration and the world’s range of different palettes.

First published on

Indonesia in focus at the London Book Fair 2019

Riding in as the Islands of Imagination, Indonesia takes centre stage at this year’s London Book Fair. Twelve authors from around the archipelago will be at the event showcasing the country’s diverse literature and culture.

Joining the Book Fair will be the Lontar Foundation, the Jakarta based organisation that has translated and documented Indonesian literature and letters for the past thirty years. John McGlynn, one of the Lontar founders, hopes that by being the market focus at this year’s fair, more people will begin to take an interest in the country’s works which are often overlooked both in world literary circles and also within the country itself.

Indonesia, despite having a broad literary history, is a country that has remained almost invisible in global literary circuits. Within the country itself, reading and writing is a seemingly unpopular past time. One study conducted in 2016 found Indonesia to be 60th out of 61 countries rated on literary habits.

One reason often given for a lack of engagement with literature and creative writing is its period referred to as the ‘New Order’. Dating back to the end of the first president Sukarno’s ‘guided democracy’ in the 50s, and culminating in the dictatorship of Suharto until the late 90s, criticism of the government and the status quo was met with intimidation and censorship; writers and artists were often thrown into the infamous Buru Island prison or disappeared without a trace. The era produced some excellent, electric works from authors such as Pramoedya Ananda Toer, Ahmad Tohari, and Goenawan Mohamad, but the period also saw much literature banned and destroyed and the climate of fear led to a generation hesitant to read, write and analyse. Although the Reformasi period after Suharto brought in a wave of new authors and the beginning of a more vocal, more challenging Indonesia, literature continues to suffer from a lack of interest and engagement. Little funding is allocated by the government into literature and promoting reading in general and schools do little to engage students in literacy.

Lontar’s John McGlynn believes the muted interest in Indonesia’s literature scene stems from the early years of the nation. As the country decided and attempted to form its identity as a unified state, made up of 17,000 islands and a vast array of cultures, beliefs, religions and languages; literature from the archipelago tended to focus on the archipelago itself, making it difficult at times to break in for international readers who would need at least a surface background into the intricacies of Indonesian history, mythology and politics. Alongside this, writers in Indonesia face difficulty with translating novels accurately into foreign languages, either from the nationwide Bahasa, or regional languages. But this is no closed door; in recent years there has been a developing interest in literatures from around the world. If Indonesia can capture some of this, as has been seen with authors such as Eka Kurniawan, there is hope that the government will acknowledge the importance of literature and will begin to invest in translation courses and international book events like this month’s London Book Fair.

Across Indonesia too, things are on the up. Across the country, independent libraries are beginning to organise such as Pustaka Bergerak Indonesia bringing literature to less accessible regions. Lakaot.Kujawas is a small community in NTT whose founder, Dicky Senda, formed to help engage local children in the art of writing and storytelling. The community’s after-school creative writing club has since published two books of local stories and the community are hoping other villages in the region will create their own libraries and writing clubs.


With Indonesia as the market focus both in the Frankfurt Book Festival two years ago and in London next week, the interest in literature coming out of the archipelago marks a shift in interest in the region. Attending London Book Fair include the authors Intan Paramaditha, whose collection of stories Apple and Knife has just been published in the UK by Penguin, Leila Chudori one of Indonesia’s most prominent women writers, and Norman Erikson Pasaribu who won a PEN Translates Award in 2018 for his book of poetry Sergius Seeks Bacchus. Here’s hoping with the spotlight on Indonesia’s literary scene, more young people within the country will catch the literary bug with both reading and writing, putting the country’s expansive and rich culture and history to paper for the world to admire.

Indonesia will be the market focus at the London Book Fair 2019 in connection with the British Council and the Indonesia National Book Committee.

Positive News out of Indonesia

Last year was officially the deadliest year in over a decade in Indonesia and the country has had a lot to mull over coming into 2019. Normally keeping itself out of the headlines, this year has seen the archipelago unable to keep out of the news for a whole number of tragedies. Tsunamis, earthquakes, and more human-created tragedies like the church bombing, plane crash, and young girl sentenced for aborting her foetus after being sexually assaulted by her brother, there hasn’t seemingly been much to celebrate this year.

Yet before spiralling into despondency and grief at the situation (both in Indonesia and generally around the world), now, more than ever, we need to hear about some of the good news and glimmers of hope and humanity that can be found. Here is a list of six positive stories that have come out of Indonesia to re-balance the news a little.

Indonesian people are the most generous in the world

According to the Charities Aid Foundation 2018 report, Indonesians are the most giving people in the world – up from number two last year. To calculate generosity, the report took into account the percentage of people who gave money to charity alongside time spent volunteering and helping strangers out.

It highlighted that on the whole, giving both time and money is actually on the rise across the globe with both developing and developed nations giving more than they have since 2016 which saw disappointingly low levels of generosity – a year which also saw Trump take office and the Brexit referendum taking place. The biggest jump in all three of the areas studied this year was in helping strangers, an act which requires spontaneity and a level of trust and compassion on both sides, something that is much needed in this current age of mistrust, alienation and fear in politics.

The Disaster Response by Communities around Indonesia

If there is one thing you can guarantee in the days after a natural disaster in Indonesia, it is the sight of people with buckets at the side of every traffic light collecting for victims of the event. Living in Yogyakarta, Java, you couldn’t feel the tremors of the earthquake or the fear in Palu, but you could feel the waves of generosity as friends collected old clothes and shoes to be delivered in trucks, people posted collection points and charity donation links on Instagram, and university students tirelessly stood at traffic lights and cross junctions with guitars and buckets performing to raise rupiah for the disasters.

Despite the seemingly constant events happening last year, the energy never dwindled. Unnoticed by UK media last January, tropical cyclone Cempaka tore through coastal towns and villages across central Java, ripping away bridges and homes in its path. Thus began this year’s charitable drive with every religious institution, village wives’ community, and motorbike taxi driver raising money to send to the affected communities. This was soon followed by the Lombok earthquake, the Palu earthquake, and so it continues. Over twelve months later, the students are still out there smiling with their guitars and buckets, the drivers are still handing notes through the windows.

Evoware – Creating biodegradable plastic out of seaweed 

As an island nation, Indonesia knows first-hand the threat plastic poses to life both on land and sea. Whilst plastic consumption infiltrates each area of life, with a culture of small sachets for products such as shampoo and washing liquid, as well as a penchant for individually bagging items in the supermarket, there is a growing movement to raise awareness and stop this epidemic. Leading the way in Indonesia is Evoware, a Jakartan based company which creates a biodegradable alternative to plastic packaging and bags from seaweed.

Their aims are twofold, to help Indonesia reduce its dependency on plastic, whilst at the same time helping smallscale seaweed farmers make a profit by removing the middleman and creating a larger market for seaweed, a product often in surplus. Evoware has been steadily growing since 2006 but it is this year that a real sense of plastic awareness has taken hold of Indonesia, with other grassroots movements like #imnotplastic and Bali-based brand Avani also making an impact across chains and coffee shops. It’s nice to see Indonesian industries taking the lead in plastic alternatives in a very Indonesian way.

It’s Wijilan – A community hip-hop project in Jogjakarta

At a time where communities all around the world are feeling the fractures of ‘fake news’ and growing polarity, it is heartwarming to see in the centre of Yogyakarta a community of hip-hop artists coming together with local children for lyric writing and mixing workshops.

Hell House, a production house and hip hop community found in the palace area of Yogyakarta began in 2017 and has developed into one of Indonesia’s best-known music communities. Often using elements of traditional Javanese music and topical, often political lyrics, they are a community who are very proud of their home.

Because of Java’s close-knit communities and the emphasis on working together, Hell House created the project It’s Wijilan, a workshop for local children to learn the basics of mixing and lyric writing, with a number of girls involved in the project. At the end of the program, a stage was put up in the street and locals came together to watch the hard work of the children. A film has been put together about the project, and you can watch the advert below with subtitles.

Minister of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, Susi gives goggles to children by the sea

If you haven’t heard of Susi Pudjiastuti you should. She is Indonesia’s most memorable politician and her unique tactics have proven popular with voters and the fishing community she so strives to look after. A tattooed, smoking, high school drop-out, Susi is everything normal Indonesian politicians aren’t. Described as ‘crazy’ (in a good way) by president Joko Widodo, Susi has become something of a pop culture figure and in 2017 made the BBC’s Top 100 Women list.

Fondly referred to as Susi, Indonesia’s Minister of Fishing first made the headlines when she began her policy of sinking illegal fishing ships in Indonesian waters. She would warn those on the boats of what she was about to do, allow them to escape the vessel on a rubber dingy, then use explosives to sink the ship, thus deterring anyone who may stray into their territories. Since then she has modified her tactics a little, forcing illegal fishers to leave the boat and then giving the ships to Indonesian fishing communities, but her latest strategies have also proved popular too.

Susi, often out at sea on her paddle-board, has been shocked by the degradation of the coastline and oceans through plastic pollution and damaging coastal practices like underwater bombing and the use of cyanide to catch fish. In tourist hotspots, damage to the coral is inevitable with a lack of education from both tourists and locals about how to treat the sensitive ecosystem.

As with most critical ecosystems, pressure is mounted on local communities to take responsibility for their habitat and, seeing the injustice of this, she wanted to make sure local communities could also benefit from the beauty of their landscapes.

“They don’t know how beautiful and good it is underwater. We always say to them, ‘Hey guys, you have to take care of the oceans, you have to take care of the reef, you have to take care of everything that is so beautiful under the water’. They just open their eyes without understanding why we talk like that. They swim every day, but they don’t see anything, because they don’t have the [equipment] to see it clearly and easily.”

Whilst some could argue this adds more needless plastic to the ecosystem, honouring local communities and their ability to enjoy their home in the way tourists normally do highlights exactly why Susi is popular. Her commitment to both Indonesia’s community and the environment is a breath of fresh air in the political landscape.

Lakoat Kujawas 

In the remote region of NTT (Nusa Tenggara Timor) lies the region of Mollo. An area often left behind in Indonesia’s path to development, the community has until recently relied on subsistence farming and transmigration for survival. In 2016 a group of young people from Mollo, headed by Dicky Senda, decided to reignite the cultural and artistic heart of Mollo by starting Lakoat Kujawas, a social enterprise focusing on literacy, art, and local produce to help inspire both the young and the old in the community. The name comes from two fruits found on the island, Lakoat, an indigenous fruit, and Kujawas, guava.

Senda, whose interest began with literature, started a small library for the local community, believing that writing comes for those who can first read. Since then, Lakoat Kujawas runs after-school clubs, organises local produce to be sold across Indonesia via their instagram, residencies for artists and teachers, and has published a book of fairy tales and fables from the island.

What makes Lakoat Kujawas special is its emphasis on local pride. Speaking at a seminar held by CRCS, UGM, Dicky explained how in recent years, local traditions such as weaving, finding particular herbs and spices, and the relationship with local languages and the landscape were either in decline, or just not considered noteworthy. With young people having to move to other islands to find work, or those living very simple lives in the region, Senda realised the importance of local pride and knowledge so far or near, Mollo people have a strong sense of belonging.

Since the program began, traditional weaving practises have started up again and local stories, recipes and philosophy has been documented, sandalwood trees have been planted where they were lost during the colonial period, and art and literature classes are becoming more and more popular with the village’s children. Lakoat Kujawas is now in conversation with villages around the region to start up their own community projects.

The world at the moment is bleak, but with darkness comes bursts of people driven change. People who take the Trumps, the disasters, the rising hate speech, and environmental challenges and try to actually make a difference. These voices need more airing so we can all take some inspiration and, if not start something ourselves, at least know where we can get involved.

Ngayogjazz 2018

Mango fruits hanging over the main stage, ducks wandering through the pathways, grandpas watching as the preparations take place holding babies, thus begins the morning of Ngayogjazz Festival 2018. Each year Ngayogjazz takes place in a small village in the countryside of Jogjakarta, Indonesia. Aiming to pull jazz away from the high-class theatres and bars of the city, the festival moves through the streets and homes of the local community — free for anyone wanting to attend. People’s backyards become the home of Indonesia’s thriving jazz scene for one day, bringing local culture, traditions and jazz music fans all together.

As you walk around the village of Gilangharjo, there are small children practicing traditional dance on the Panggung Lurah stage, ibu-ibu (women of the village) preparing bakso and pecel to sell in carts, and a small boy starts hanging bags of gold fish in a tree for visitors to buy. The backdrop of the village is beautiful, with stages nestled amongst a maze of colourful houses, and clumps of bamboo with hand-woven lanterns guiding the path.

It is expected that around 30,000 people will attend the festival today. Far more than the population of 500 the village normally holds, and the excitement is palpable.

Pak Rido and Bu Indah have travelled to Ngayogjazz from the eastern city of Malang. This was the second time they’ve attended the festival and worth the seven hour drive to Jogja. Unlike other jazz festivals where the focus of the event is a only on the music and the fans who attend, Ngayogjazz is much more. Pak Rido explained how the festival puts the local community at the centre of the event. Catering for the festival comes directly from the villagers, who open up stalls in their front yards and all profits from the day are fed directly back into the community. Long term, the village, having given space to showcase its hospitality and traditions, often sees a rise in tourism or interest in products long after the festival itself has finished. For Pak Rido and Bu Indah, most importantly the festival opens up the genre of jazz to everyone, making music which some may consider inaccessible, accessible to everyone. ‘Jazz music,’ Pak Rido explains gesturing a wide arc with his hands, ‘expands the mind and opens creativity. Something that all people should enjoy.’

The line up this year has included an eclectic mix of local, national and international talent. performances have ranged from the velvety saxophone of Kika Sprangers and fellow international artists Ozma Quintet, to joyous Idang Rasjidi and His Next Generation, newcomers Magnitudo and everything in between.

Edited article from the Ngayogjazz website as part of their blogging team where I was asked to write a short series of posts about my experience of the festival. You can find the original at