It can take months, even years, to learn a new language. Students of the tongue must become accustomed to its unfamiliar accents and the way it is used in practice, gain a feel for the social variations it reflects and build their vocabulary.
That challenge wasn’t insurmountable for Nicholas Mark, a 24-year old Australian who mastered Bahasa Indonesia in a couple of years and has now published a children’s book in the language.
“I’ve always had a lifelong fascination with learning new languages,” Mark said. “I first took Indonesian as my second language when I was still a high school sophomore and from then on I’ve always felt a special connection with it. It was my go-to subject, I always looked forward to all my classes.”
Mark’s heritage is Greek and Croatian. Although he’s mastered Bahasa Indonesia, he is still completing his Indonesian studies degree at the University of Sydney. He also takes classes in Chinese language and law.
“I’m not much of a writer, although I wouldn’t say I’m not imaginative,” he said. “Given all the years I’ve spent with my eyes glued to the television screen, whether it be watching movies or shows or documentaries, I’ve always been a well-informed person.”
His 56-page book is titled “Petualangan Anak Indonesia,” but is also known as “The Indoventurers.” In drawing heavily from local traditions, Nick’s goal was to contribute to a “resurrection” of Indonesian culture, which he argued too many children were forgoing in favor of mass-produced entertainment from the West.
“I’m glad that in some little way I can contribute to a resurrection,” he said.
Mark never meant to write a book. The only reason he produced the first story, the one that started it all, was because he had to for class. It was for an assignment at university in 2007.
“It was a simple task really, and it became a whole lot simpler when I realized I could incorporate my own experiences of Indonesia,” he said. “That way I wouldn’t just be writing in the language, I would also be actively relating to Indonesian culture.”
Mark first visited Bali when he was 10 years old. What he remembered most was the Ubud Monkey Forest.
“I can’t forget how mischievous the monkeys were,” he said. “Jumping about at an erratic pace, grabbing onto any loose item carried by tourists — I thought walking through the forest was pretty intimidating.”
So he wrote about the adventures of Wayan, a boy who dreams of entering the monkey forest but is continually forbidden by his parents because of its dangerous reputation. “I spun a tale of perseverance and adventure, but of course I wanted all of that to fall in line with the culture of Bali, so I had to include mythological elements similar to what already exists.”
His professors loved the story, deeming it quintessentially Indonesian. They liked it so much, in fact, that they said he should get it published.
“[My professor] urged me to get it illustrated and produce a bilingual story format. I was overwhelmed with the entire proposition and began to give it a thought,” Mark said.
In 2010, Mark lived in Yogyakarta for six months as part of a university program supported by the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies. He immersed himself in the culture.
“I had the time of my life in Yogya; it is indeed a beautiful place,” he said. “It was very different from Sydney; everyone was so laidback and at peace with his or her own lives. Everybody had a different sort of smile in Yogya. You could tell it was the genuine kind.”
Mark made a lot of local friends during his stay, and he was able to adapt in a hurry. “Fortunately, the language wasn’t a problem,” Mark joked.
His Indonesian friends made such an impact on him that he borrowed their names for the characters in his stories.
“I had a few Australian colleagues with me during my trip, but at the end it seemed I had grown as comfortable with the native people as I am with my fellow mates,” he said. “We even formed a band together. We proudly called ourselves, the ‘Jogaroos’ — a clever mix of Jogya and, well, kangaroos.”
That easygoing, friendly attitude scored him an interview with Galang Press of Yogyakarta, and renowned local illustrator Bambang Shakuntala.
“Galang Press loved my ‘Wayang and the Curse of the Monkeys of Ubud’ tale. They thought it was very ‘ dongeng -like’ and that the mythical qualities of the story resurface the rapidly diluting Indonesian culture,” he said, using an Indonesian word approximating “fairy tale.”
Mark said he wished children would pay a little less attention to Disney stories.
“It’s disheartening that the children have done away with ‘Bawang Merah dan Bawang Putih’ [‘Red Onion and Garlic’] for some ‘Cinderella’ and her happily-ever-after [ending],” he said. “By incorporating elements that represent the heart of Indonesia, I thought I’d remind young children of the greatness of their country.”
Galang Press told Mark to produce two other stories for a three-part bedtime storybook geared toward children aged 8 to 12. They liked how exciting his first story was, and they urged him to recreate that feeling with the others.
At first Mark thought about getting an Australian illustrator. But he decided against it because he was afraid they wouldn’t understand what Indonesian facial features looked like.
“When I met Bambang, I knew I had hit the jackpot,” Mark said. “He was the most relaxed 50-year-old I had ever met. And his drawings were so traditionally Indonesian that I immediately asked him to join the project.”
It took two and a half years, but Mark and Bambang finally finished the book. The three gripping stories span the island of Bali and the cities of Padang and Yogyakarta.
There’s Wayan and his valiant battle against the evil creatures of the forest, Mutia and the cruel witch of Minangkabau, and Nanda and Dani and their mission to save Yogyakarta from dangerous volcanic eruptions.
When asked about his other aspirations, Mark had no shortage of ideas.
“I’d love to have the books not only readily accessible at local bookstores, but I would be all the more thrilled if they were also used as a part of schools’ Bahasa Indonesia curriculum,” he said.
“And if you’re wondering whether you’ll see more of my stories in the future, you should not really worry. I’ve only covered Java and Sumatra, so that leaves me with approximately 17,506 islands to still write about,” Mark added with an ambitious smile.
It seems the story hasn’t finished yet.