As the world flits by faster than bumblebee wings, the written word present within the pages of a book is something tangible. Words we can touch and share with loved ones as a gift. “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” wrote Kafka. The best of books open a world unknown to us while still tapping into our deepest fears and desires. The best of authors speaks to our hearts, makes us feel understood, less alone and opens another door to ourselves that we did not know before.
It is writers such as these that the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival bring into our fold this year featuring critically acclaimed local authors whose works have affected and touched the nation. One that left an impression on me is Saur Marlina Manurung, or Butet as she is fondly called.
Reading our newspapers, our emails, our novels, we take for granted the fact we are literate and that education was available and at hand. We forget that many Indonesians do not share the same fate. In her novel, Sokola Rimba, Butet carries her personal struggle to provide every forest dwelling child in Jambi with the ability to read with her alternative education method of teaching through play.
The novel offers a slice of her life, depicting the challenges she faced as a teacher and the culture of the Kubu (Rimba) tribe of the Bukit Dua Belas region of Jambi. A tribe often negatively stereotyped as uncivilized, primitive, and ignorant. Penned with a straightforwardness and utter lack of sentimentalism, it provides powerful voice and a fresh perspective for the reader. A glimpse into undiscovered customs, traditions, and way of life. For although we are all part of this archipelago, we reside in our own individual bubbles, rarely seeking or aware of the people and events outside what is familiar.
In her memoir, Butet takes us into unmapped territories and dares us to embrace the unknown. To question our differences, our beliefs, and the meaning of civilization through her experience living with the Kubu tribe. Dubbed the modern day Kartini, her efforts were acknowledged by TIME Asia magazine, which named her one of Asia’s Heroes and she was awarded “Woman of the Year” by ANTEVE. Following her book, she established the Yayasan Sokola in 2003 to provide alternative education for those communities living in remote regions throughout the country.
Indonesia, with her immensely rich cultural heritage, is a nation steeped in history and brimming with tales longing to be told. Of tribes victimized by city dwellers, of solemn sugarcane farmers, of ancient village mystics, of fragmented childhoods. Dyah Merta and Andrea Hirata join Butet in this year’s Ubud’s festival that include a noteworthy Indonesian writer’s programme.
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