In the beginning, Indonesia was little more than a name on a map for German writer Martin Jankowski. This changed radically in 2001 when he met Indonesian poet Agus Sarjono during the International Literature Festival in Berlin, for which he has worked as a curator ever since.
“We became good friends,” Jankowski said. “Through Agus Sarjono, I had the chance to meet the legendary Indonesian poet WS Rendra, who then invited me to take part in the very first international poetry festival in Indonesia, in 2002.”
The poetry festival brought Jankowski to four cities — Makassar, Solo, Bandung and Jakarta — and he found himself instantly fascinated by the country’s beauty and, most of all, its people.
He returned in 2003, and even served as a guest lecturer in German literature at the University of Indonesia in Depok for a couple of weeks.
He wrote several essays and articles about this defining time in his life, and also published a collection of poems about his experience in Indonesia. The bilingual book, “Detik-detik Indonesia,” was published in 2005.
“Because of the positive reactions in both Germany and Indonesia, I came to Indonesia again, in 2006 and 2008, to do extensive reading tours throughout the archipelago,” Jankowski said.
But beyond just writing about Indonesian people and their culture, Jankowski has dedicated much of his time to bringing Indonesia closer to the people in his home country, and he is currently working to foster a lasting cross-cultural exchange between the two countries.
As the chairman of a Berlin-based literary group, he organizes readings with Indonesian authors in the German capital. The most recent one took place in late April, when Indonesian writer Azhari, from Banda Aceh, read from his collection of short stories, “Nutmeg Woman,” which was translated into English last year.
“We are going to translate three of the stories into German as well, and they will be published later this year in a magazine,” Jankowski said.
He acknowledged that it was no easy task to bring Indonesian literature closer to a German audience as relatively few people would attend the events — most of them already familiar with the country — but said he was trying to change that.
“For the future, I am planning to organize events that are also interesting for people who don’t have any knowledge about Indonesia yet,” he said. “At the same time, I don’t want to drift into touristic cliches. I want to introduce the new, contemporary cultural scene of Indonesia, where tradition and modernity are combined, and I am sure that the German people will be fascinated by it as well, just like myself,” he said.
Azhari, who is currently a guest lecturer at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said that he gladly accepted Jankowski’s invitation to Berlin.
“I thought that I wouldn’t only have the chance to share my knowledge about literature, but also on issues related to Aceh as well,” he said.
Azhari lost his entire family during the tsunami in 2004, but tries to avoid questions related to his personal experience.
“I am not going to write about the tsunami,” he said. “I don’t want to manipulate my grief.”
Together with Jankowski, Azhari held two readings in Berlin with different outcomes: the audience for the first reading knew relatively little about Indonesia, let alone Aceh.
“It was a little bit difficult to present the context and background of a region they are not familiar with, except for the tsunami,” Azhari said, adding that he was luckier for the second session.
“Perhaps Indonesian literature is known in Germany mainly through the novels of Pramoedya [Ananta Toer],” Azhari said, referring to the late novelist and historical writer whose works span the colonial era on up through the fall of the Suharto regime. “My presentation of three short stories hopefully demonstrated that Indonesia’s literature covers a very broad scope.”
Jankowski himself started to write poems and songs as a teenager. Born in 1965 in Greifswald, in the former East Germany, the political nature of his works drew the focus of the Stasi secret police when he was only 17 years old, and he was forced to become an underground artist.
“During that time, I performed illegally in all of Eastern Europe as a singer and wrote literary texts for underground magazines,” he said. “After the German reunification, I was finally able to work as a freelance author, but of course, my experiences [in East Germany] shaped me as an artist.”
He later wrote a novel about this turbulent time in his life, and the book is set to be published in the Indonesian language later this year.
In addition to his literary pursuits, Jankowski is currently working on two ambitious projects that go beyond his love for writing but still lead him back to Indonesia.
The first one is called U(DYS)TOPIA, and will bring together Indonesian and German artists through the months of May and June.
“The myths and fairy tales of Germany and Indonesia are, despite their existentially different cultures and traditions, interlinked in numerous ways. Sometimes extremely complementary visions of utopia and dystopia occur,” the project’s official Web site (www.udystopia.com) says.
Jankowski said the Indonesian and German artists would work together in teams of two, and would create joint artworks based on myths and legends.
“I am very excited to see what results this project will bring forth,” he said. “This artistic collaboration will hopefully lead to fruitful discussions and dialogues between both sides — which happens to be exactly our goal.”
The results will be shown in three German cities — Dresden, Berlin and Cologne — and, if he is able to find sponsors, Jankowski would also like to present the exhibit in Indonesia.
Still further away in Jankowski’s busy schedule is another project that he hopes will foster the cultural exchange between Indonesia and Germany by highlighting a little-known fact: that Berlin and Jakarta have been sister cities since 1993. But so far, the activities have mainly been limited to exchanges of advice concerning traffic and urban planning.
“I thought that it is a pity that the inhabitants of both cities don’t know anything about being sister cities,” Jankowski said.
“That’s why I proposed to Jakarta’s governor, Fauzi Bowo, and Berlin’s governing mayor [Klaus Wowereit] to organize a cultural festival.”
“Jakarta and Berlin both have such a vibrant and diverse cultural scene that it will be a pleasure to discover each other,” he added.
With the help of a German foundation offering financial support for the project, Jankowski plans to hold the first Jakarta-Berlin art festival in Germany next year, and in return, to hold the same event in Jakarta afterward.
“I am very confident that the cultural exchange between our countries will be intensified in the future,” he said.
> Continued on C2
> Continued from C1