When people set out to “read around the world,” too often they neglect Indonesia, despite it being the fourth most populous nation in the world, with more than 270 million inhabitants. So let’s fix that, shall we?
I’ve done the research and compiled a list of nine wonderful books translated from Indonesian, or bahasa Indonesia, the official, national language of Indonesia.
It’s worth taking a moment to note that while Indonesian is the official language of the nation, spoken by more than 200 million people, the actual picture is much more complicated. A 2010 census showed that only 19.94% of people over the age of 5 spoke primarily Indonesian at home. Most Indonesian people also speak one of more than 700 local languages — including Sundanese and Javanese. And spoken Indonesian varies significantly from the official written Indonesian, influenced by local dialects and slang — for example, Betawi, a creole spoken in the capital of Jakarta.
Many of these novels revolve around the recent history of Indonesia. In 1965, an attempted coup led to a brutal military crackdown on communism that killed half a million people and created an atmosphere of fear, leading to General Suharto taking power that he would hold until the ’90s. Several of these novels revolve around either the terror of the ’60s or the time of the popular protests and economic instability that would finally led to Suharto resigning in 1998.
Others take place in modern Indonesia, giving a window into everyday life and romance, with economic and inequality issues lurking in the background. But all are interesting, exciting novels that are definitely worth the read. Go check them out from your local library!
Please note that while I took great care to list content warnings where I could, things can fall through the cracks. Please do additional research on the recommended titles if needed.
Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan, Translated by Labodalih Sembiring
The novel opens with the shocking news of Anwar Sadat’s murder by young Margio — who killed him by biting into his neck. Margio claims it wasn’t fully him. It was the tigress, passed down through his family’s generations, who did the biting. As the novel turns and dips through time, a narrative of heartbreak, marriage, sex, violence, and generational rage unfolds, building momentum to the final reveal of Margio’s true motive. Kurniawan is Indonesia’s modern literary star. This fantastic, surrealist book is a compelling, fast-moving read and was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.
Content warnings for violence, domestic abuse, child death, terminal illness, sexual assault, substance abuse.
Paper Boats by Dee Lestari, Translated by Tiffany Tsao
Keenan is a sensitive man who wants to be an artist, but his father disapproves. Kugy is a weird girl who wants to write fairytales when she graduates. Their unconventional dreams draw them to each other — but their romance is not going to get an easy start. Kugy is still dating her high school boyfriend, and their friends try to match Keenan up with a rich art collector. This book is a long rom com, a classic full of drama, coincidence, and misunderstandings, that also delves into some deeper issues of education, development, and money.
Content warnings for emotional manipulation.
Saman by Ayu Utami, Translated by Pamela Allen
This 1998 Indonesian bestseller starts off with journalist Laila, a dreamy and perhaps naive girl who has started an affair with a man she met through a story exposing an oil company for causing a deadly accident on a rig. It expands from there, pulling in a web of characters and their stories, including priest-turned-radical Saman, who witnessed the economic corruption and violence against plantation workers in South Sumatra. The book nets several stories together in a tangle of love letters, oppression, violence, and sex, challenging taboos and giving a glimpse into several moments in time in Indonesia.
Content warnings for sexual assault, violence, misogyny, ableism, animal cruelty, torture, mistreatment of the mentally ill.
The Original Dream by Nukila Amal, Translated by Linda Owens
Tune out and let this book just wash over you, and you’ll have a good read with gorgeous prose on your hands. Maya is an Indonesian woman trying to find her place and her role, digging through dreams, breaking mirrors, losing herself in strange turns and twists of imagery. It’s a strange, sensory, slow-paced novel that meanders through a montage of emotional and poetic visions as Maya tries to figure out exactly where she’s meant to land, moving through her family’s past and her own imagined realities.
The Book of Jakarta: A City in Short Fiction, Edited by Maesy Ang and Teddy W. Kusuma
These ten short stories all feature Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital — for now. Climate change is sinking Jakarta so drastically that Indonesia has announced it will be moving its capital. These tales reveal Jakarta in its chaotic glory, as center of Indonesia’s most pivotal moments: site of protest, violence, flooding, anti-Chinese prejudice, and much more. But they’re focused through personal dramas of friendship and family, and many of them have a rich and unmistakable sense of humor — one favorite was a darkly ironic tale about the toll of capitalism on an elderly community.
Content warnings for xenophobia, Sinophobia, sex work, racism, violence, sexual assault, suicide.
This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Translated by Max Lane
This Earth of Mankind is the first book in the Buru quartet, a series that follows a Javanese boy named Minke who struggles in the oppressive web of Dutch colonialism, powered by his love for a girl named Annelies. Toer is a national icon who was censored and jailed several times over the course of his writing career, first by the colonialist and later for decades by Indonesian governments, for challenging set structures and highlighting discrimination and inequality.
Content warnings for racism, xenophobia, death, emotional abuse, rape, misogyny, incest.
Home by Leila S. Chudori, Translated by John H. McGlynn
This historical fiction epic revolves around Dimas Suryo, a man who had to flee Indonesia after the 1965 government crackdown and flood of violence against the specter of Communism. He and his fellow expats have to cope with the alienation and homesickness that comes with being exiled from home. Years later in the late ’90s, his daughter Lintag decides she wants to go to Indonesia to make her thesis film and dig into family history. It’s a great deep dive into the turns and twists of Indonesian history, written by Chudori, a prominent journalist.
Content warnings for torture, misogyny, sexual assault, domestic and emotional abuse.
The Years of the Voiceless by Okky Madasari, Translated by Nurhayat Indriyatno Mohamed
Marni is a stubborn woman working as a money lender and worshipping the spirit in traditional ways that clash with the ideas of her daughter Rahayu, who learns Islam values in school and who doesn’t understand why her mother has to resist change the way she does. This novel is suffused with the distrust and paranoia that came with the military crackdown, torture, and search for communists and sympathizers in the 1960s. It’s a compelling book about a complicated mother-daughter relationship and about the oppressive power structures that subsume them.
Content warnings for misogyny, religious prejudice, violence.
Apple & Knife by Intan Paramaditha, Translated by Stephen J. Epstein
In this collection, Paramaditha writes dark fairytale–inspired tales, strange, dark, gory, featuring the anger, vengeance, scorn of women. A woman remembers a story she was told as a kid of a blood-seeking monster as she wonders if period blood is really that shameful; a man tries to find the mythic Queen of the South Sea, not satisfied with his wife; a man is pulled into the monstrous, manipulative BDSM-like games of a rich woman. These stories are full of men trying and ultimately failing to possess women, of power turning on its head, of women reclaiming flesh, pleasure, and blood.
Content warnings for body horror, sex/period-shaming, self-harm, sexual harassment and assault, and mentions in-passing of fatphobia, suicide, institutionalization.
Looking for more works in translation? Check out these books from Catalonia, Japan, Southeastern Europe, Argentina, Central Africa, Japan, Ukraine, and Germany, and books translated from Arabic, Modern Greek, and French. Or you can check out all of our in-translation content.
If you have recommendations or requests for future lists of books in translation, or if you want me to know about a book I missed, please let me know on Twitter!