The Citibank-Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2010 in Bali (October 6-10) provided an unparalleled opportunity for Australian and European attendees to delve into the exciting - and largely unheralded - world of Indonesian literature.

With more than 100 writers on the program - one third from Indonesia and the rest from more than 20 other countries - the festival was keen to promote the jewels of the Indonesian literary crown and give a platform to emerging young Indonesian writers.

Many of these authors are little known, not just in their own country, where there are low rates of literacy and reading, but also abroad, where works translated in English are very few and difficult to come by.

Reading a nation's novelists, poets and playwrights is one of the most powerful ways of understanding its culture, and with its population of some 238 million people living in one of the most culturally vibrant countries on the planet, there is good reason to know far more about our nearest neighbour.

Yet very few of the festival attendees - the majority Australian and most of those from WA - are likely to have ever come across a piece of Indonesian literature in their local bookshop or have more than a passing understanding of the national Indonesian language, Bahasa.

Who among us is familiar with the works of Indonesia's greats - Pramaoedya Ananta Toer, Sitor Situmorang, or Chairil Anwar?

Once the staple of Indonesian language and literary courses in Australia, these members of the Indonesian literary canon have been progressively dropped over the years, seen perhaps as too difficult. The offering today in language courses is much lighter fare than 30 years ago when studying Indonesian was more popular and widespread.

Try to imagine the impact on the western literary canon if writers and intellectuals had had no access to Russian works in translation. No Dostoevsky, no Tolstoy, no Chekhov.

A number of Australian academics have been working hard to address the declining rates of Indonesian language teaching in this country and the availability of Indonesian works in translation.

For Tasmanian academic and translator, Pam Allen, Indonesia has been her second home for 30 years.

Associate Dean of Teaching and Learning in the School of Asian Languages and Studies at the University of Tasmania, she "fell into" Indonesian language and literary studies after leaving school - thus beginning a love affair with the country and its literature which has never waned.

She has played a vital role in bringing the works of important Indonesian writers to universities and schools throughout Australia - and indeed the world - through her work as a translator for the Jakarta-based Lontar Foundation.

"Translation is the real issue - very little has actually been translated into English," she explained during a break from a moderating session at the Ubud festival.

"The decline of the teaching of the Indonesian language is also a massive hurdle in Australia for teachers," she said. "However, there is currently an important project being undertaken by David Hill, Professor of South-East Asian Studies at Murdoch University, to quantify and address this issue and we are hoping great things will come from the findings and recommendations."

Pam Allen said that the links between Australia and Indonesia were strong. However, the next step - learning the language - was a barrier which had to be overcome.

She introduced festival-goers to popular young West-Javan author, former pop signer and song writer Dewi Lestari, whose self-published novel SuperNova 1, exploring themes of quantum physics and spirituality, was a runaway success in 2001. A second edition was printed after the initial run of 3,000, selling a further 12,000 copies within 35 days, and going on to sell 75,000.

"She is a very special person," Pam Allen said. "She wrote it just after her mother had died and it is about Dewi trying to understand her place in the world. It has just been translated into English. Her latest work, a fusion of songs and short stories, titled Recto Verso has not been translated as yet - it's a highly literary and complex work."

Allen says there is a lot of promising new writing about, naming Balinese writer Iwan Darmawan's historical novel set in Bali in 1965 about a post-Sukharno massacre of suspected Communists, and another by Hermawan Aksan) of West Java, which critically explores the glory days of the Majapahit Kingdom.

Lontar Foundation's Chair, John McGlynn, launched a collection of five newly translated works, titled Modern Indonesia Series, the first of many to come. He translated three of the works, which cover subjects from revolution, to individual fate, family, post colonial issues and the struggle of individuals to reconcile Eastern and Western values. One of the works, Never the Twain, by Abdoel Moeis was first published in 1928 and is still in print, and Shackles, by Armijn Pane was first published in 1940.

Mr McGlynn explained that the Lontar Foundation, established in 1978, was the only publisher in the world to have as its primary goal "the promotion of knowledge about Indonesia through Indonesian literature in translation."

Since its founding, Lontar has concentrated its efforts on creating a market for Indonesian literature abroad through the steady publication of Indonesian literary titles in English and through public events - educational programs, conferences, and activities such as the Ubud Writers' Festival - which lay the groundwork for the wide-scale acceptance of Indonesian literature abroad.

The foundation views the placement of Indonesian literary translations in the world's bookstores as the first stage in gaining recognition of Indonesia as a strategic and multi-faceted culture in the international public's mind.

"Indonesian writers are under-appreciated in world literature and it is a long process to get their work out there," he said. "Events such as the Ubud Writers' Festival do help.

"It has been virtually impossible to make many sales abroad due to book and distribution costs and royalties which leave about five per cent profit for the foundation if we're lucky. So, not surprisingly, we have not really achieved overseas penetration in the past.

"However with changes in print media technology, we can now print on demand, which suits a niche market like ours."

Within three years, the Lontar Foundation expects to have 50 titles available, including a three-volume history of Indonesian drama with 35 plays in translation, 400 short stories, and poetry from 200-250 poets. Primarily for universities and schools worldwide, the collections will be available in late 2011 or 2012.

Lontar is also looking at electronic rights so it can offer the work on e-book readers such as Kindle and iPad.

Sarah Tooth, co-director of the Citibank-Ubud Writers' and Readers' Festival, agrees that Indonesia still struggles to find sufficient exposure and interest in the international community.

"There is no popular empathy with Indonesia and this is an important subtext of the festival," she said. "It is seen by many Europeans as a dark and complex place with a history of disaster.

"However we see a vibrancy in the writing and the contemporary arts scene here which is exciting and we think this festival performs a very important role in presenting this to the international community.

"There is a struggle in Bali between English and the Indonesian language," she said. "It is a work in progress but it is developing, and English and Indonesian readers and writers are comfortably integrated with one another here in Ubud."

She said translations of Indonesian works gave additional geographical reach for the writers' festival, which was established as an international, not just a regional festival.

"Having writers from around the world gives our local Indonesian writers an extraordinary opportunity to meet and exchange views, and that in itself is very valuable," she said.

The West Australian

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