It was a mixed mob that gathered at Madura’s Trunojoyo University. Mainly young, overwhelmingly female, many frustrated, a few triumphant, all infected. If they didn’t itch they wouldn’t have driven across Indonesia’s longest bridge, the cable-stayed Suramadu, to get from Surabaya to this isolated campus set among paddy and little else on a humid Sunday for a book discussion.
They called themselves Citizen Reporters but would be better classified as academics and students hooked on storytelling. One of the more successful tried to shrink by dubbing herself “Mrs RT (rumah tangga) – a housewife who gets her money from her husband.” In the West such faux diffidence would have prompted protest, but rural Indonesia has yet to feel outraged by expressions of gender inequality. Helene Jeane Koloway is multilingual, lives in France, is well-travelled and much published, including in National Geographic. “Mrs RT” indeed.
She says that at 50 she’s reached her peak but has started making video packages for TV stations, writing scripts, delivering the commentary and shooting the vision. In Europe she writes to promote her homeland. Her titles include Memburu Fatamorgana (Chasing the Mirage) Love Journey and Love Journey 2. But in Madura she deferred to the 26 writers who’d joined her at the launch of Ini Baru Cipo (this is the new Cipo) anthology. Elsewhere Cipo is a nasty gut disorder but here it’s a clumsy acronym for CItizen rePOrter.
The 120 Cipos turned the event into a talent show. Participants punctuated questions which morphed into statements by waving their books like Bible-thrusting evangelicals: Behold! I’ve made it into print!
Organised by Tri Hatmaningsih, editor of the Surabaya-based Surya daily, the novitiates were seeking the grail of writing that gets read. Or read by more than the veteran journalist gatekeeper, tough grammar enforcer and shredder of sloppy copy.
Hatmaningsih deleted suggestions that Cipo was using young writers to fill white space while not putting something into their wallets. Surya is owned by the nation’s biggest media conglomerate Kompas Gramedia.
“We do give an honorarium to some contributors and pay those we commission to write,” she said. “Cipo offers young people the chance to see their work in print and that can encourage them to continue.”
Mainstream media using so-called citizen journalists is a contentious issue around the world. Professionals fear they’ll be displaced but recognise that some diggers through social media have exhumed stories they’ve missed. The danger is that ethical practices and respect for facts aren’t always present; nor is the wall maintained between balanced reportage and opinion.
Rintahani Johan Pradana has avoided such hassles by concentrating on history where reader interest is being nurtured by rising nationalism. His Rumah Guru Bangsa (home of the nation’s teacher) tells of trade unionist Oemar Said Tjokroaminoto’s philosophies; one of the boarders at the activist’s Surabaya house was Soekarno.
If cynicism is a useful quality, then teacher and keyboard warrior Priyandono has it in spades. “I started writing critically about the education system, students having to wear uniforms and corruption,” he said.
“When I discussed teachers producing text books that students had to buy I got complaints. Suddenly I was able to meet so many teachers that I’d never encountered before.”
His book Ringan Tapi Berisi (Light but with Contents) explores social habits, school routines, tourism and cooking. His message to the audience: Observe. There are stories everywhere, even in the most mundane events.
The upside for Indonesia’s upcoming Hemingways is that most paperbacks retail below Rp50,000 (US$3.50). Sure, they’re on grey paper and the spines soon crack, but good for a few reads.
DIASPORA OF THE DREADED
The Madurese get a bad press outside their arid zone where the main exports are lurid tales of vengeful knifemen – and people. Around 3.6 million remain on their whale-like island, its baleen nudging the nation’s second biggest city Surabaya; double that number are spread around the archipelago.
Determined to alter the image is Imron Wakhid Harits; another multilingual, he earned a PhD at Palacky University in the Czech Republic with a thesis on children’s literature. He now lectures at Trunojoyo, but has found a wider market by mining local lore. So far, he’s collected more than 300 stories.
“The government pays me to teach which gives me security,” he said. “I write because I want to and I’m hoping to sell overseas. I want the world to know more of the rich culture of Madura.
“This year I’ll have a book published on folk tales and their religious and moral values. Indonesian writers have difficulties getting local readers. Our authors are better accepted in Malaysia. We are not appreciated in our homeland.”
Koloway agreed: “Indonesians don’t like literature. Students turn away from a book if it’s too complicated. They prefer translations of Agatha Christie’s mysteries.
“There’s a lack of literary criticism. Indonesians are not great overseas travellers so don’t get to see other cultures and understand different viewpoints.”
NOT A BOOKISH NATION
More than 95 percent of Indonesian adults are literate and close to 100 percent for the new generation, according to UNESCO. But that doesn’t mean they turn to books once they’ve left school.
The country ranks 60 out of 61 in reading interest according to research by the Central Connecticut State University in the US.
The World’s Most Literate Nation report (http://www.ccsu.edu/wmln/) puts Indonesia below its neighbours and just above Botswana in Southern Africa.
According to research by the National Library in Jakarta, most children prefer TV to books. It reported that in developed countries between 20 and 30 books a year are read by the average citizen.
In Indonesia it’s three. Maybe four or more once Cipo gets underway.