Once, Bahasa Indonesia wasn’t foreign to me. Or at the very least, I was more intimate with it than I was with English.
I breathed in those Indonesian chick-lit novels, short story collections, and encyclopedias – English, for me, was constructed with only the thought of I think that sounds right, not through the concrete knowledge of grammar. Indonesian I knew to its very core, subjek-predikat-objek, and it was the only language I operated in – no need for translation in my head, because it was my very being.
Once, my dream of being an Indonesian writer was to be a writer in Indonesian.
On the day before Independence Day, I had a dream.
I was waiting alone in an art gallery, red painted on the wall and glass in front of me. An event was about to start, and there was no sound except for the usual bustle of the muffled traffic outside and an unrecognisable piano tune wafting in the air. There was something playing on the television screen, flickering from one scene to another.
My thoughts and feelings were white noise. I can never seem to grasp a fully fleshed out scene in my dreams – always jumping from moment to moment – so the next thing I knew it was night-time, and a woman walked in with five handmade books, laying them carefully on a pristine white slab.
Suddenly, there was the author Ayu Utami, smiling at me. Without preamble, without even asking her, I began to read her work aloud – the fact that my voice was already wobbling I didn’t question, as all dream logic goes.
In dreams, letters jumble and don’t make sense. But somehow I was reading, crimson ink scrawled on these books, red threads binding the pages together against stark white – and I began to cry. I don’t remember the words now, but my lungs felt like they were being pulled out of my throat, and the writer in front of me blurred into unclear, unimportant features. I don’t even know if it was Ayu at all now.
The last page of the book was blank, beckoning the reader to write and express themself in it.
Once, my dream of being an Indonesian writer was to be a writer in Indonesian.
Aku ngak bisa, my voice cracked, impossible, in both Indonesian and English. I was full on-sobbing by then. We don’t have as many words for everything compared to English – I can never express myself the way I want to in Indonesian.
The woman in front of me was not smiling, or she was – I couldn’t see her face – but either way I knew she understood.
I woke up with tears streaming down my face.
I was born in 2000 to an upper-middle-class family in Jakarta. Cable TV was a staple to contain toddler tantrums, so I grew up watching both Si Unyil and Little Einsteins on the screen without much fuss. It was a fact of life – I was good at Indonesian because I loved reading, and I was good at English because I constantly watched Playhouse Disney.
This is the life that I think most of my generation went through. We became fluent in English mostly through exposure to English media, not through formal learning. It’s common to see Indonesian teenagers ranting on their social media accounts about how they’re better at English than their own teachers are – trading tales of woe about scoring 96 on their English exams but 79 on their Indonesian ones, the botched English grammar on the national examinations, all while laughing about it. Never does the question why arise; never fully alert to what this phenomenon reveals.
And I can’t blame them, not really. How can I, when I’m just the same?
It’s been reported that Indonesia’s literacy is in a dire situation. In local news, this is framed as a problem of ‘kurangnya minat baca’ – a low interest in reading. Yet this headline has been a constant since I was reading physical newspapers back in 2009 – and it remains a decade on.
Like everybody else, I attributed this to some weakness in Indonesian society.
Typical, I’d roll my eyes. More interested in the frivolities of daily life than acquiring new knowledge.
Only as I grew older I realised how dangerously simplistic this viewpoint is.
Reading Indonesian literature made my half-asleep eyes snap awake. George Orwell has once said that all writing is political, and this is especially true of Indonesian literature. Without necessarily setting out to, authors embodied the mood of their era – whether it be through setting, characterisations, or metaphors, it was still there. Through reading Chairil Anwar, N.H. Dini, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, and others – I learned my own history through literature: not necessarily through the books themselves, but through knowing the context in which they were created.
Reading Indonesian literature made my half-asleep eyes snap awake. I learned my own history: not necessarily through the books themselves, but through knowing the context in which they were created.
But this knowledge is not accessible to everybody, particularly those more marginalised than I am. We don’t have Indonesian literature – novels, poetry, anything – embedded in the national curriculum, nothing provided to our youth to jumpstart a love for reading. Books need to be bought with money; my knowledge of Indonesian literature is only there because I made the active choice to seek it out. We scoff at those preferring gadgets over books, when our public libraries are few, underfunded, and painfully unorganised. Teenagers hoping to study humanities, such as literature, are shamed for wanting to do so – you’re not going to get a job with that! our families laugh, as if an engineering degree has ever guaranteed financial stability. As each point is stripped bare, it becomes clear: it is institution that bars us from reading – from knowing – not any characterised Indonesian laziness.
It’s easy to blame this problem on the common folk. It’s scary to think that however hard we try, this won’t ever change without institutional overhaul.
But the people in charge understand that knowledge is power – and they fight to keep the status quo.
My knowledge of Indonesia is fleeting – if it even exists. I know we reached our independence in 1945. I know, sparingly, what happened during the Old and New Regime. I know of the layers of deceit my country has put on its own history to those who have not witnessed it – because I am a byproduct of it, and so is my generation.
Even knowing this, sometimes I stop and think: how can I know so little of this country, the only home I have ever known? As if it is my fault and only mine.
How can I know so little of this country, the only home I have ever known?
We grew up singing Indonesia Raya – this blood-split land of ours – without knowing whose blood it really was that soaked it. We were taught to have pride for white validation of anything Indonesian and rejoice whenever we are spotlighted in the international lens. To anything that isn’t the norm, we say, this is not Indonesia: a hollow nationalism instilled in us every day.
Am I supposed to have pride for the massacre of 1965? For all the Chinese-Indonesians that were killed, exiled, and continue to be discriminated against to this day? To the fact that our writers, artists, and thinkers were cut off from their loved ones just because they dared to criticise the government back in the regime? To those in distress about the idea of Papua separating from Indonesia – yet don’t blink an eye whenever people mock Papuans for their skin colour and culture? So easily we sing dari Sabang sampai Merauke – from Sabang to Merauke – so little of our behaviour shows that unity. The grievances go on, yet there’s no resolution in sight – not by the government, and certainly not by our society.
This is complacency – and I am compliant to this path of least resistance – but it’s the only way we’ve been taught to survive. History is a bloody stain that we are cautioned to not see, to not talk about.
To this moment, I still don’t even know what I have pride for.
Here is a black curtain blowing in the wind, with tatters allowing me to see the harsh piercing light of truth beyond it. The only way I can rip it is to learn – but how am I supposed to start, when I have never been shown how to do so?
It is an unwritten command: never look around and ponder. See the people around you, look at what they do and believe, and follow.
You know what happens to those who defy.
My decision to write in English was both a conscious and unconscious one.
Unconscious, because I only started writing seriously when I was introduced to the writing community on Tumblr when I was fifteen, and so I developed more of my voice in English. I became active in the online literary community – where most places accept only English works, alongside having English-only workshops and competitions. Even my awakening regarding Indonesian literature came later than that. There were no local workshops or events about writing in Bahasa – and so, I took what was available for me.
But it was also conscious.
Here is my shame in all this: that I only have the courage to be angry about my nation in the language of another.
I knew of my limitations – that after all these years, somehow this mother tongue wasn’t even mine to swallow anymore. My vocabulary was embarrassingly tiny compared to English: every line I wrote sounded clunky and childish. I was better off operating in a language I knew worked.
Here is my shame in all this: that I only have the courage to be angry about my nation in the language of another. I have never been given a concrete reason for this pride I’m supposed to feel. I have no excuse: I breathe this language and country, and yet my grasp of it remains intangible. How can you be a diaspora to your country if it’s the only country you’ve known?
Come peer into my nationalism. Look: it’s pitifully shaky, with no foundation for it to stand on.
I’m scared that one day, it’ll collapse – just like that.
But I don’t want to end this on a bleak note – because it is not bleak.
More and more of my generation is shaking out of this reverie, realising that a status quo doesn’t equate to an absolute reality – that this culture of not questioning can change, even if it starts only from them. Picking up Indonesian literary works and history textbooks – when it’s the job of their teachers and parents, not them. Making the spaces of creation and community that they’ve never been given access to. It’s a gradual start, imperceptible in this present – but it has been marked in the grand scheme of history, the mark of a turning point.
One day, I hope I can grasp that red ink in my dream with certainty – the kind that burns within me.
On that day, whatever language my mouth speaks in, it will be fully mine.