Being back in Jakarta felt like a kind of homecoming: I first found a taste for reporting and feature writing four years ago as an intern at The Jakarta Post, one of the city’s English-language newspapers.
Since then, some things have changed – and some haven’t. Indonesia has a new president in Joko Widodo, a former furniture salesman and Metallica fan with no known links to corporations or political figures, who is said to represent a symbolic break from the centralised cronyism and corruption of the Suharto era. But vestiges of the authoritarian old elite remain. The political party of Prabowo Subianto, the defeated presidential candidate and Suharto henchman, continues to be a redoubtable force. His party played a major role in rescinding one of the country’s key democratic reforms, which resulted in the abolition of municipal elections last week.
Upon arriving I forgot how overwhelming Jakarta can be, with its air thick with exhaust fumes and its traffic snaked for kilometres down major thoroughfares. Its nickname, the “Big Durian”, seems especially apt. Much like its prickly and smelly namesake, the city elicits strong reactions: you either love it or you don’t. It’s not particularly pedestrian-friendly, yet travelling by car is also a major hassle. Public transport is an unreliable option. It’s a city both on the cusp of significant economic and cultural changes but beset by challenges of geography, infrastructure and bureaucratic buck-passing.
Yet the city still manages to function even when, by all logic, it shouldn’t. For some, this is part of its charm. Jakarta’s worsening gridlock tends to dispel the notion of peak hours, and Friday at 2pm was no exception. We had arranged to meet Ninda Daianti and Maggie Tiojakin (our Island to Island travelling companions) in Kemang. It was a 10-km trip from our hotel on Jalan Thamrin that took us nearly 1.5 hours.
Maggie and Ninda are both exciting emerging Jakartan writers with a few novels and short story collections under each of their belts. Over beers and burgers, we compared the nature of our respective literary communities: Jakarta’s is disparate, while Melbourne’s is fairly small, and rarely extends beyond a four-kilometre radius. Geography may well explain the lack of a literary community in Jakarta: they said Jakartan writers tended to be scattered all over the place.
We also swapped publishing-world war stories. At an Indonesia publishing house like Gramedia, for instance, one editor can be expected to have overseen up to 150 books. Inspirational and self-help books tend to be bestsellers in Indonesia, while sports biographies tend to rake in the dollars back home. Publishing in both countries is a numbers game, which makes finding shelf space for literary fiction and non-fiction a daunting task.
At Salihara Komunitas, supporting these kinds of artistic endeavours is especially vital. Unlike in Melbourne, where support for emerging artists is robust, the scene in Jakarta seems more nascent. Founded by playwright and publisher Goenawan Mohamad om 2008, Salihara is Jakarta’s first multidisciplinary arts centre, comprising a theatre, gallery, bookshop and an artists’ residency for dancers, musicians, painters and writers. It has a special focus on promoting new and innovative artworks. It holds more than 100 arts events throughout the year, which include performances, public lectures, literary readings and workshops, as well as its flagship literary biennale. The centre also teaches classes for aspiring writers of all ages (some as young as 15), with a small proportion of students going on to publish books of their own through the centre’s publishing arm, Tempo.
Zen Hae, the centre’s publishing manager and editor-in-chief of Indonesian literary journal Kalam, said that Salihara is one of two organisations in Jakarta that provide Indonesian and foreign artists with opportunities to exchange ideas, connect with other emerging and established writers, engage in debate and form a community. Much of Salihara’s funding comes from private donors, which means it is less reliant on the diminished largesse of government organisations like the Jakarta Arts Council. While the Jakarta Writers’ Festival has ceased due to a lack of state funding, other festivals have sprung up in Ubud and Makassar. This year Jakarta also hosted the inaugural ASEAN Literary Festival, which showcased the works of writers from all over South-East Asia.
On our visit to Salihara we saw a contemporary puppet show as part of the centre’s three-week Happy Go Artsy festival, which featured artists from Indonesia, Australia, the Czech Republic, Germany, France, The Netherlands and Georgia. I went in expecting an updated version of wayang (shadow puppetry), but it turned out to be unlike anything I’d ever seen: giant papier-mached bobble heads, which would sometimes be disembodied during the performance, were wheeled onto the stage on trundles. The set design was exquisite: paper boats, containing letters from the living to the deceased, were suspended from the ceiling. The performance itself was a rollercoaster of exaggerated emotion, broad comedy, moments of pathos and genuine tragedy: the show’s co-creator, we were told afterwards, had died during its production. It was an experience both bewildering and fascinating, and it seemed a fitting way to cap off our time in Jakarta.
Island to Island is presented by Asialink Arts and the Emerging Writers’ Festival, supported by Arts Victoria.