Around the world in books: Five books from Indonesian authors

The month of May is often an opportunity to celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander people and their heritage. In America the month is called Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and in Canada it’s called Asian Heritage Month. For this month, I’ll be sharing books by Asian authors.

Have you ever wanted to visit Indonesia? Here’s your chance to visit Indonesia through reading!

Indonesia is incredibly diverse. The nation includes over 17,000 islands and is the world largest archipelagic state. It’s also the 14th largest country in the world (by area), fourth largest by population, and the world’s third largest democracy.

The people and languages are reflect this diversity and are made up of 1,340 recognized ethnic groups in Indonesia. The national language of Indonesia is Bahasa Indonesia, however most Indonesians also speak one of the 700 local languages.

Despite this diversity, Indonesian literature is rarely included in recommended translated literature lists, and most publishers don’t express an interest in Indonesian literature.

Personally, it seems like we are all missing out on an incredible literary opportunity with a huge country being so underrepresented. There are so many unique perspectives and literary talent that the English reading world is unaware of and unable to experience.

To help remedy this missed opportunity, here are a handful of books written by Indonesian authors. Hopefully you find new book that you want to read from this list.

Photo by Tusik Only on Unsplash

Five books from Indonesian authors

Here’s a list of five books with authors from Indonesia and translated from Bahasa Indonesia.

  1. Saman by Ayu Utami (1998)
  2. Kill the Radio by Dorothea Rosa Herliany (2001)
  3. Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan (2002)
  4. Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan (2004)
  5. Apple & Knife by Intan Paramaditha (2018)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve listed in order of when they were first published.

Saman (1998)

by Ayu Utami, translated by Pamela Allen

  • Year Published: 1998, English version released in 2005
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, emotional, reflective, slow-paced
  • This book sparked a new literary movement in Indonesia known as sastra wangi (originally used pejoratively, literally means “fragrant literature”), creating room for an influx of sexually-themed literary works by young Indonesian women.


Saman is a story filtered through the lives of its feisty female protagonists and the enigmatic “hero” Saman. It is at o­nce an exposé of the oppression of plantation workers in South Sumatra, a lyrical quest to understand the place of religion and spirituality in contemporary lives, a playful exploration of female sexuality and a story about love in all its guises, while touching o­n all of Indonesia’s taboos: extramarital sex, political repression and the relationship between Christians and Muslims.

Saman has taken the Indonesian literary world by storm and sold over 100,000 copies in the Indonesian language, and is now available for the first time in English.


Kill the Radio (2001)

by Dorothea Rosa Herliany, translated by Harry Aveling

  • Year Published: 2001


Dorothea Rosa Herliany is one of the most important contemporary poets writing in Indonesia. This volume presents a selection of her recent verse in the original Bahasa Indonesian and in English translation.

Herliany is typical of the second generation of Indonesian writers which emerged after the mid-1980s during the New Order of President Suharto. This newer generation knew little of the colonial Dutch civilization and were a generation removed from the revolutionary ardour of the foundation of the nation: to be ‘Indonesian’ was their natural right. They were born and educated in the regions outside of Jakarta and have chosen to remain there. They were educated in the Indonesian language (usually to tertiary level) and the literature on which they were raised was also written in Indonesian.

Kill the Radio contains a range of poems, many of them personal, with a decidedly feminist edge to them, Others grow form Herliany’s experience of, and concern for, an Indonesia undergoing rapid social and political change during the last five years of the 1990s.

Herliany’s writing reveals a struggle to understand human experience in all its reality not as an ideal but as a fact that displays profound suffering and hurt, without, apparently, any hope of redemption…


Beauty is a Wound (2002)

by Eka Kurniawan, translated by Annie Tucker

  • Year Published: 2002, English version in 2015
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, magical realism, dark, emotional, mysterious, slow-paced
  • Long listed for the International Booker Prize, and won the Best Translated Book Award in 2016


The epic novel Beauty Is a Wound combines history, satire, family tragedy, legend, humor, and romance in a sweeping polyphony. The beautiful Indo prostitute Dewi Ayu and her four daughters are beset by incest, murder, bestiality, rape, insanity, monstrosity, and the often vengeful undead. Kurniawan’s gleefully grotesque hyperbole functions as a scathing critique of his young nation’s troubled past: the rapacious offhand greed of colonialism; the chaotic struggle for independence; the 1965 mass murders of perhaps a million “Communists,” followed by three decades of Suharto’s despotic rule.

Beauty Is a Wound astonishes from its opening line: “One afternoon on a weekend in May, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years…” Drawing on local sources—folk tales and the all-night shadow puppet plays, with their bawdy wit and epic scope—and inspired by Melville and Gogol, Kurniawan’s distinctive voice brings something luscious yet astringent to contemporary literature.


Man Tiger (2004)

by Eka Kurniawan, translated by Labodalih Sembiring

  • Year Published: 2004, English version in 2015
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, contemporary, magical realism, mysterious, reflective, slow-paced
  • Importance: long listed for the International Booker Prize


A wry, affecting tale set in a small town on the Indonesian coast, Man Tiger tells the story of two interlinked and tormented families and of Margio, a young man ordinary in all particulars except that he conceals within himself a supernatural female white tiger. The inequities and betrayals of family life coalesce around and torment this magical being. An explosive act of violence follows, and its mysterious cause is unraveled as events progress toward a heartbreaking revelation.

Lyrical and bawdy, experimental and political, this extraordinary novel announces the arrival of a powerful new voice on the global literary stage.


Apple & Knife (2018)

by Intan Paramaditha, translated by Stephen J. Epstein

  • Year Published: 2018
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, horror, short stories, dark, medium-paced
  • Language: Bahasa Indonesia
  • You may want to check content warnings before reading


Inspired by horror fiction, myths and fairy tales, Apple and Knife is an unsettling ride that swerves into the supernatural to explore the dangers and power of occupying a female body in today’s world.

These short fictions set in the Indonesian everyday—in corporate boardrooms, in shanty towns, on dangdut stages—reveal a soupy otherworld stewing just beneath the surface. Sometimes wacky and always engrossing, this is subversive feminist horror at its best, where men and women alike are arbiters of fear, and where revenge is sometimes sweetest when delivered from the grave.

Mara finds herself brainstorming an ad campaign for Free Maxi Pads, with a little help from the menstruation-eating hag of her childhood. Jamal falls in love with the rich and powerful Bambang, but it is the era of the smiling general and, if he’s not careful, he may find himself recruited to Bambang’s brutal cause. Solihin would give anything to make dangdut singer Salimah his wife – anything at all.

In the globally connected and fast-developing Indonesia of Apple and Knife, taboos, inversions, sex and death all come together in a heady, intoxicating mix full of pointed critiques and bloody mutilations. Women carve a place for themselves in this world, finding ways to subvert norms or enacting brutalities on themselves and each other.


Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of books written by Indonesian authors.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of books to read. If you have a favourite book written by an Indonesian author, please feel free to share it in a comment below!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of the book?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

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