An Introduction to: Indonesian Literature

Selamat pagi! So some of you may already know about the fact that I am an Indonesian. If you’re still not very sure where Indonesia is and what it is about, here’s a little summary for you: Indonesia is the fourth most populated country located in Asia, whose main language is Indonesian, or commonly called Bahasa. It has a lot of different cultures in art, music, food, clothing, language, and of course, literature.

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I love the Indonesian language. It is ranked as one of the most difficult language to learn, but it is so beautiful and when used properly, it’s such a lyrical and meaningful language. I’m pretty sure most of you have never read a single Indonesian book in your life. Now in this post, I’d like to introduce you to Indonesian literature, and where to begin. I myself rarely read Indonesian books – and I do feel like I need to do it more. But from my own reading history, I think I have read enough books to create this guide.

Now just like the English literature, Indonesian literature has been going on for centuries. And of course, we have different eras for our fictional work. But because this is a guide for you non-Indonesians to start reading Indonesian books, let me start with the books that are only recently released.

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Laskar Pelangicover1 by Andrea Hirata. This is one of the most popular books in Indonesia in the 21st century. I think this is a great place for you to start. Translated into The Rainbow Troops, this novel is the first in a series that is set in Belitung, a small island in the west of our country. It tells you about a group of poor children struggling to live and study in a small rural school. It’s heartwarming and beautiful, and it teaches a lot about Indonesian culture. Or, if you’re interested to watch the movie, go and search it! You’ll probably find a movie with subtitles in it.

Pulang by Leila S. Chudori. I would highly recommend this book because of its wonderful language and it gives you a great insight into Indonesia’s history. I heard a lot of Leila Chudori’s books are very good, so you should check them all out! But in this novel, pulang means going home. It is a novel about family and discovering yourself, and it is set in the 20th century and depicts a very important national history, about Indonesia’s political tragedy. Haven’t read the translated version of this book, but I heard it’s fantastic.

Sitti Nurbayacover3 by Marah Rusli. One of Indonesia’s most famous classical literature, this is a novel published in the 1960s about a girl living in a forced marriage and her struggles. It is basically the heart of Indonesia’s literature at that time. The language is older than the earlier works I mentioned, but the story has always been very famous in my country.

Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang by RA Kartini. Kartini is considered Indonesia’s greatest women in history. She was one of the first women who promoted feminism and tried to create equality between men and women in Indonesia. On “dress up as a hero” day in primary school, a lot of people would dress up as her. This novel is translated and titled Letters of a Javanese Princess, even though the real translation of the title means “after the dark, there will be light“. It involves a lot of history and feminism and is a great read.

cover4Burung-Burung Manyar by YB Mangunwijaya. This is another old but priceless historical fiction novel. Entitled The Weavebirds (called manyar in Indonesia), it is a story of love and friendship but also about the love for your country. I loved this book, because of its beautiful language and lovely setting. I would highly recommend you reading this one.

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Still want more recommendations, or not interested in the books above? Here are some additional bonus books you can check out.

Dewi Lestari or Dee. Dewi Lestari is one of Indonesia’s most popular and prominent authors and she has been around the industry for quite a while. Her famous novel is probably Perahu Kertas (Paper Boats) and her series called Supernova. I loved Perahu Kertas, it’s a beautiful book that is perfect for you YA lovers, but unfortunately it hasn’t been translated into English yet. But Supernova: The Knight, the Princess and the Falling Star has been translated and it’s quite good. Not amazing, but I would give it a try if I were you.

Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk by Ahmad Tohari. I’ve only read one of Ahmad Tohari’s work but I really enjoyed it. I haven’t read this one: The Dancer in English, but this is his most famous work. Ahmad Tohari is another famous Indonesian writer, who focuses a lot on the economical aspect of Indonesian society. This novel is about a lot of themes: from romance to history with a bit of drama. Or, try out his short-story collections!

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Now of course, even though this is quite a lengthy post, this barely even scratched the surface of the vast and varied Indonesian literature. There are so many beautiful works out there written by amazing people, who just happen to come from my home country. I feel like this is enough, for now. If you are interested in this post, I might create another similar post! I have already a list in my head for Indonesian poetry and excellent Indonesian movies. Not to mention the more recent Indonesian fiction that are more popular and easier to read. I would love to share my culture to you guys and let you be more informed about my country. For more information, check out the Goodreads genre.

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What are your thoughts on Indonsian literature? Have you read any of the books I mentioned above? Which books are you most interested in? Let me know in the comments and we can talk about books together, as always. Sampai jumpa kembali!

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23 comments

  1. Love this post! The only Indonesian writers I’ve read are Eka Kurniawan and Pramoedya Ananta Toer, but have never come across the writers you’ve mentioned, I guess probably because people don’t really talk much about Indonesian lit. And sadly, while I am from Singapore (currently living in the US), it was only in the past few years that I started trying to read more Southeast Asian literature.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree about not many people taking an interest in Southeast Asian literature. My dad loves Indonesian lit so that is why I read a lot of Indonesian books, but my other Indonesian friends aren’t very aware of them either. I really want more people to know about my country’s literature! Hopefully in the future I can read more and recommend more to you guys as well 🙂

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  2. Hello! Fellow Indonesian here tos

    What a lovely idea and post. I wish I thought about making a primer to Indonesian literature but you did such an excellent job that I don’t have to. (Some may protest the exclusion of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, though, heehee. I don’t care either way, but man does Pramoedya have some devout followers).

    Pulang was the first book I read in 2016. I’ve read Chudori’s two short story collections and while I liked them, I didn’t adore them. Yet I persisted in buying Pulang because I believed that Chudori would write something amazing in time. Pulang met my expectations and more 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello! Aw I feel bad for stealing your post, but I’d love to see your post if you ever decide to publish it 😁
      From Chudori I’ve only read Pulang, I read it two years ago after I met her in Bali! It was such a wonderful book, I really regret not reading any of her other works afterwards 😅

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Nah, you did a thorough job already. There’s no need for me to write something redundant. Since I have finished reading all three of Chudori’s books, I plan to write an author’s spotlight on her. Stuff like the unifying themes of her fiction, what her general style is like, where to start if you want to try her fiction, etc etc. If you’re interested, I’ll link it when it is posted.

        Liked by 1 person

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