INDONESIA’s capital Jakarta will again host the fourth annual Asean Literary Festival (ALF) in August 2017 as the regional Southeast Asian bloc celebrates its fiftieth anniversary.
Now in its fourth year, the ALF was established by prominent Indonesian novelist Okky Madasari and former editor of the Jakarta Post, Abdul Khalik, to promote freedom of expression and discuss contentious issues in a region that is increasingly authoritarian.
“Every year, consistently, the festival always presents discussion with the same theme: freedom of expression,” ALF spokesperson Febriana Firdaus told Asian Correspondent.
This year’s event is themed ‘Beyond Imagination’ and will be held at Jakarta’s Kota Tua or old city from August 3 to 6. It will host writers, artists and scholars from more than 30 countries including those from all 10 Asean nations, the United States, Australia and across Asia, Africa and Europe.
Discussion will centre on the persecution of Rohingya in Burma (Myanmar), the rise of Islamic extremism in Southeast Asia, and the deterioration of freedom of expression. Firdaus says in terms of Indonesia, it will be a forum to debate “radicalism, blasphemy law, persecution.”
Several discussions during last year’s event – those regarding LGBT and the 1965 massacre of half a million communists in Indonesia – led hardline Islamic groups to demand it be shut down.
Authorities pressured organisers to suspend the controversial sessions in question, however the festival proceeded after widespread support from the media, public and politicians.
Picking tricky issues to discuss is important “to voice our stance as intellectuals to be part of the solution,” said Okky.
In addition to promoting freedom of speech, the ALF 2017 aims to promote interest in reading and writing amongst the general population.
A 2016 study from Central Connecticut State University ranked Indonesia 60 out of 61 countries for reading interest, right below Thailand and above only Botswana.
“The festival aims to highlight the achievements and work of Asian authors to the world,” Okky told Asian Correspondent. “Through our efforts we hope to increase the love of books and reading among children and young people in Indonesia and the region in this era of social media.”
While ranked poorly for reading interest, Indonesia was ranked 34 for infrastructure to support reading – beating out Germany, New Zealand and South Korea.
Former education minister and Jakarta governor-elect Anies Baswedan said that “the number of libraries, books and mobile libraries does not always indicate a growing interest in reading.”
Firdaus said that Indonesia’s culture of reading is “not so strong,” worsened by the fact that books are not cheap and that schools “teach us to recite more than understand,” so children are not encouraged to enjoy reading.
“Indonesia doesn’t need ambitious dreams of becoming one of the world’s great literary nations,” wrote the founder of Makassar International Writers Festival Lily Yulianti Farid last year.
“What Indonesia does need, however, is to recognise that creativity and innovation are urgently needed to address the reading crisis.”
In addition to the book exhibition at ALF 2017, young people will be encouraged to participate in the new Jambore Nasional Sastra (national literature jamboree), while writers are being offered a Kampoong (village) residency program so as to embed themselves in the subject of their work.
Come on young ASEANers from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. It's your time to break boundaries. Apply now. pic.twitter.com/2qcr9PZ5XU
— ASEAN Literary Fest (@ASEANLitFest) May 13, 2017
Organisers want literature to be accessible and “engage with the people in Kampoong” so that it doesn’t just stay in the ivory tower, added Firdaus.
Importantly, the ALF’s core mission is strengthening extra-governmental links between Asean neighbours, who share thousands of years of culture and history that predate the modern nation-state.
For example, the 2016 festival featured a keynote address from Nobel laureate and East Timorese former revolutionary-cum-president José Ramos-Horta.
“To be a part of the community means that we have to know each other. How else can we know other people well if not for their culture and lifestyle?” said Okky, adding that she hopes future festivals can be held in other Asean countries.
“How else [can] we know the culture if not through books … novels and movies?”