Over the past semester, I’ve been working on solidifying a project for my thesis. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to focus on something having to do with storytelling, either printed literature or more oral- or even dance-based forms, but I wasn’t sure how to make this into a viable thesis project. After a lot of back and forth, I can now say that I will be focusing on the novel Kau, Aku, dan Sepucuk Angpau Merah (You, Me, and a Red Packet) by Tere Liye.
This novel tells the story of Borno, a young man living in Pontianak, West Kalimantan. Throughout the story Borno seeks to find a job and a name for himself. At the same time, he has various run-ins with Mei, who is Chinese Indonesian. Though Borno is immediately smitten with Mei, her feelings remain opaque. He spends much of the novel puzzling over her.
I chose this novel for two reasons: first of all, the love interest is Chinese Indonesian, an identity that has been contentious at various points throughout the history of the Indonesian archipelago; and secondly because the novel is actually quite well-written. Indonesian novels are not necessarily well-written. The greats such as Pramoedya Ananta Toer stand out, especially because they have been translated into English, but much of the work published in Indonesian and actually consumed is not well-written.
Further, the reading public in Indonesia is also quite small. From what I can tell, it seems that Indonesians prefer oral performances to written stories, attending poetry readings and recitations in large numbers but spending less time reading books alone. This trend has even trickled into English education—I’ve judged storytelling competitions, in which participants recite a story along with showy narration and sometimes different voices for the characters. It’s easy to say that this affinity for oral performance stems from wayang, which could perhaps be true, though I’m sure it’s more complex than that.
At any rate, Kau, Aku, dan Sepucuk Angpau Merah stands out for me because it is not a book that would be classed along with Pramoedya Ananta Teor’s or Leila Chudori’s. Instead, it’s a popular novel telling a simple love story and relying on drama to keep it going. However, it’s also well-written, funny, and filled with interesting observations about people. When explaining it to people, I often compare it to the Princess Diaries series by Meg Cabot, a comparison that then usually falls flat because most people haven’t read or don’t want to admit to reading meaningless books such as those, never mind that I also find them fairly well-written and quite funny.
It’s true that Kau, Aku, dan Sepucuk Angpau Merah is not the next great Indonesian novel and it’s true that it will never be placed in the same category as Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s work. Nevertheless, I think it is equally as important because it is the kind of book that Indonesians actually read.
I don’t yet know on what my thesis will specifically focus. I know it will be something to do with ethnicity, but in what way remains to be seen. For now, I’m re-reading the book and taking copious notes with the idea that something will eventually emerge from the page. Luckily, I picked a book that I don’t mind re-reading.
For more on the state of Indonesian literature, see this article.