Young readers find sense of community as Indonesia’s literary scene expands

Independent bookshops, public libraries, and changing perspectives are contributing to Jakarta’s bookish landscape

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September 12, 2022
Young readers find sense of community as Indonesia’s literary scene expands
POST bookshop has become one of Jakarta's premiere alternative spaces and a hub to nourish literature and local literacy and authors. Photo: Nisya Kunto for Southeast Asia Globe

Tucked away in South Jakarta’s traditional market, a small bookshop is changing Indonesia’s literary scene. Inside the cosy space, readers become lost in their books, while others huddle close together to have deep conversations.

Maesy Ang and Teddy Wijaya Kusuma launched POST Bookshop and Press with the concept of cultivating a space for meaningful discussions and creative growth. The store soon developed a cult following, partly  due to  its signature selection of books, but also because Jarkarta is becoming a literary hotspot in Asia.

“We have always had an idea that the bookshop must be a space for our readers and friends to meet and share,” Wijaya Kusuma said, as he sipped a cup of freshly brewed tea. “It felt like a stroke of luck,” Ang chimed in, recalling  the first time they encountered the space that would evolve into their bookshop.

The couple launched their bookstore back in 2014, but it has recently  become one of the premiere alternative spaces in Jakarta. 

With the growth of independent bookstores and the reopening of the long-anticipated Perpustakaan Jakarta Cikini, a government funded public library in Cikini, Central Jakarta, readers have been flocking to quench their thirsts for a space that allows them to engage, collaborate, and congregate with like minded enthusiasts.

What was once a city with lack of access to public space for readers, Jakarta has transformed into a friendlier city to literary enthusiasts. Local government and independent actors are working to enhance the literary scene, and POST Bookshop is spearheading the way forward.

One of the shop’s frequent visitors, Ega Annisa Rizti, has been frequenting the bookshop since 2018.

“I remember seeing a small store full of books among the many food kiosks, and I just had to go inside,” Rizti said, beaming with excitement. “They have great selections of books and friendly staff that always give me helpful recommendations.”

Aside from pulling in new customers, the couple have been publishing one book a year through their publishing arm, POST Press.

“We want to publish books that are evergreen, and promote our books in such a way that [they] will always be available on our shelves,” said Wijaya Kusuma.

POST bookshop and POST Press owners have kept a pulse on the evolving literacy scene, giving a voice to new local authors who, in the past, may have been suppressed by the government. Photo: Nisya Kunto for Southeast Asia Globe

The couple decided “to go slow,” and to be intentional about the books they wanted to publish. It’s important for them to invest in books that they believe in, and true to their words, eight years later, POST Bookshop still carries the very first book they ever published. 

One of POST Press’ published writers, Mikael Johani, launched his book “We Are Nowhere and It’s Wow” in 2017. As the founder of Paviliun Puisi, a poetry event platform, Johani has been in the literary scene for almost two decades.

“It was all down to knowing that I was going to work with people I can trust and believe in artistically,” Johani said of working with Ang and Wijaya Kusuma

An independent publisher provides the advantages of a more intimate and personal experience, a rarity in the bustle of Indonesia’s capital, Johani noted. He explained that in the past, some books would be suppressed by the government, but that is changing. Indonesian writers, and publishers, and readers have continued to find a way to write, publish, and talk about topics that can be challenging or even controversial. Along with the current generation of literary actors, the scene continues to flourish with a constant stream of publication, featuring titles covering various themes and issues. “People always find a way,” said Johani.

“Currently, the scene is quite healthy in terms of being able to talk about whatever,” he continued. “Queer literature has a place, even major publishers openly publish them. Subversive stuff that is critical towards the government are also still being published. Censorship is a bit stereotypical, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.”  

The recently revitalised public library has increased its visitors in its first month of operation. Accessible by various public transportation modes, the library hosts over 600 visitors on weekdays, and up to 1,500 on weekends. 

“We are currently experiencing an uptick of over 300% daily visitor increase, and are trying our best to manage the flow and experience for our visitors,” said Sulistiorini Fakdilah, an official who works at the public library. 

The library has collaborated with the Australian Embassy for a children’s reading corner and a creative writing masterclass.  The Jakarta government is also pushing for a digital reading program called Titik Baca (Reading Points); they aim to spread 50 Titik Baca across the city. The local government is also planning to continue revitalising other local libraries, starting with the South Jakarta City Library in 2023. 

Visitors look for books during the Big Bad Wolf book exhibition in Jakarta. Photo: Adek Berry/AFP

A modern literary culture

Indonesia consists of thousands of islands and hundreds of different ethnic groups and languages. This creates a diverse literary culture. 

Luki Wijayanti, a library sciences lecturer at Universitas Indonesia, believes that libraries should represent all variations of Indonesia’s population. Wijayanti said that literature is not limited to acquiring information from physical books, he believes knowledge is acquired from digital media, spoken culture, and various activities in which people congregate. 

“Indonesia has its own culture of learning, which is a spoken culture,” Wijayanti said. “It is unfair to use foreign indicators when the local culture is inherently different.”

She advocates  the promotion of digital literacy paired with social welfare.  In order to  improve education , civil society and local volunteers could also work to  raise literacy rates in rural areas.

Back at POST Wijaya Kusuma said the culture of independent bookshops are striving to meet the growth and demand of the literary scene.

“I think small independent bookshops are thriving globally, especially during the pandemic,” he said, pointing out growing demand. 

Ang and Wijaya Kusuma plan to continue nurturing the small space to cater to enthusiastic readers from all walks of lives. 

“The initial idea was so people can talk to other strangers, find books they didn’t know they might like, and feel a little less lonely in this crazy city called Jakarta,” Ang said. 

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