Finally, after certain delays – which were nothing to do with me, I swear! – A Geek in Indonesia is out everywhere.
This is, to be clear, nothing like my previous books. It’s part of a series which began with A Geek in Japan in 2011, and which now also covers Thailand, Korea and China. When Tuttle Publishing first told me that they were looking for someone to add an Indonesia edition to the series, and asked if I’d be interested, I have to admit to a certain scepticism. “I’m a serious narrative history writer,” I muttered. And then, “Geek? Who are you calling geek???”
In truth, though, I don’t really get to spend all my days digging around in archives and academic libraries, then forging non-fiction narratives from the raw historical ore. I actually spend a lot of my time working on travel guidebooks. It’s not quite so rarefied a role, but I actually take a good deal of pleasure in penning a pithy summation of a destination, arranging the customary travel journalism clichés in as artful a pattern as possible, and cramming a portrait of a particular temple or museum into a fifty-word entry.
In an effort to convince me, Tuttle sent me copies of the Japan and Korea Geek books to peruse. I quickly realised that in fact, writing my own version would be something like doing all the fun stuff for a guidebook – the chapters on history, food and culture from an Insight Guide, say – but without at the end of the gig having to knuckle down to the brain-melting misery of adding the hotel and restaurant listings. Better still, the Geek concept encouraged first-person address, idiosyncratic personal opinion and anecdote – and there was no requirement to comply with some grating corporate house style. What was more, I’d be more or less free to cover whatever I liked. If Hector Garcia could devote many pages of the Japan book to manga and anime, well, then surely I’d be allowed to talk about Indonesian punk rock… and dangdut… and sinetron…
All those pressing questions I hadn’t been able to address in A Brief History of Indonesia, or Raffles and the British Invasion of Java – like “Is bule a racist word?” or why do bules keep saying, “You speak Bahasa, man? I heard it’s the easiest language in the world, right?” I could finally discuss them here. Also – and this is my semi-serious justification for the project – it was a great way to provide an entertaining corrective to traditional guidebooks which like to infer that the “real Indonesia” is exclusively a thing of picturesque villagers in traditional dress and, like, wayang kulit, or something. As far as I’m concerned, Marjinal and The Cloves and the Tobacco are as much “the real Indonesia” as any of that stuff.
I also got to rope in some folks I like, who are much better qualified than I to comment on particular topics, to do interviews for the book. So there’s the mighty Devi Asmarani of Magdalene talking about women’s issues and feminism, Diana Rikasari on the Indonesian blogosphere, the awesome Mumun and Vira of Indohoy on Indonesia’s backpacking scene, Antony Sutton on the crazy world of Indonesian soccer, and a quick word on mountain climbing from Dan Quinn of Gunung Bagging. There’s one sad footnote here too – I also had a chat about Indonesian jazz music with Terry Collins, whose unexpected death was very recently announced. I’m really very sad that he didn’t have chance to see his bit of the book.
So, all told, A Geek in Indonesia turned out to be a whole lot of fun to write. Don’t read it expecting another historical narrative (though it does include An Even Briefer History of Indonesia). And don’t come expecting a comprehensive practical travel guide (seriously, look up your own hotels). But if you want an idiosyncratic introduction to the country, that’s not really like any other book, then maybe take a look. It’s got some pretty pictures too…
© Tim Hannigan 2018