This is an essay by Novita Poerwanto.
Reading is not a habit, let alone a tradition in my country. The oral approach is still perceived as more popular and convenient. Tales have been passed on for generations, orally over bed time and during leisure. Books are considered a luxury. There are theories this is the offspring of colonization and imperialism. We were alienated from education at our very roots. Written thoughts were considered a serious threat. They challenged the imperialists. The safe way to convey a message was to imply it in orally told tales. These stories were passed from one generation to another. So you can understand, let me start by telling you a story…
Every weekend, my dad used to take my little brother and me to book stores. That was in the 1980s. Back then, in Indonesia, not many parents did that. We would spend time reading and got to choose one book to go with us. We took the weekend trip to the bookstore seriously. I was always the one who looked forward to Saturday. My dad would leave the car at home and together we would take public transportation to the bookstore. It was an adventure. We took different routes and stopped to grab lunch and ice cream.
My dad was a book advocate. I wish I had a chance to hear more stories from him. He passed away when I was just seven. Even after he passed, though, I kept hearing stories. I would hear how big a dreamer he had been, and how determined he was to pursue his dreams. Growing up in a poor family in a small town in East Java, my dad was not left with much time for himself.
He was the eldest of six. Even before the sun rose in the morning, and long after it set in the evening, he was always preoccupied with endless tasks. For example, he helped around the house, ran errands, helped my grandma sell traditional snacks, and much more.
He loved going to school, because he got to read books and nurture his dreams. There were times when he had to let my grandpa punish him with a rod, just because he spent too much time in the library reading.
He excelled in classes, went through the best state university in East Java, graduated with honors, was awarded a scholarship from his office to study in the States and taught economics at the University level.
What my father taught me, without him telling me in person, was that reading will get you to your dreams, not only take you places. It was a reminder that hope does exist, even in the worst condition. Reading is dreaming. Seeing it before living it. It takes guts to dream and even more to live it.
My mom was never much of a reader, but she loved to tell stories. She didn’t tell classic tales, though, she loved to tell stories of her own. She made up characters from anything around us, like a light bulb, water jar and anything else she saw. When she gets really sleepy, she forgot the details. That’s when my brother and I start protesting the discrepancies. About that time she suggests, “Ok, let’s just start over.” What I remember most about her tales growing up, they were not “judgmental” nor “directive.” When I ask her now whether she did it on purpose or because she kept forgetting the details, all I got was her wittiest grin, “isn’t it supposed to be open to interpretation?”
For the love of reading I took literature at the university. It was the best four years of my life. I spent time with Hurston, Walker, and Amy Tan. I admire their distinguished voice on roots and identity. They complimented the oral tradition of their origin. They were proud of it, but they shared the same dream of birthing history for their people. Their books are their printed dreams, and preserved voice.
During my university years, more students took linguistics instead of literature, simply because they can’t stand reading books. So instead of citing why they wanted to take linguistics, they simply state they would rather not take literature.
Today, I see more quality and imported books in our bookstores. They are not as expensive as they once were. Some people are still spoiled by the perceived ease of the oral tradition. They would rather have others spoil their excitement by asking, “how does the story end?”
More people read now, though, which leads them to want to write. People want to go beyond dreaming. We owe technology a flood of thank you notes. Missionary approaches in reading have not had as big an impact as social media. The need to express one’s self, share one’s voice, and pass on dreams is big. Suddenly, it is as though we have too many reading materials instead of not enough. Technology, to us, is like keeping a journal, but instead of keeping it private, you get to publish it for free and relate to others. Reading is now popular and writing even more so. Everybody is suddenly a reader and a writer with instant access to quotes, lines from famous poems, and links to literary reviews.
Perhaps the country that my father and mother have always seen in their dreams will become reality. From the moment they decided to introduce reading and storytelling to my brother and I they have been doing their part to make it so. This country can do better, though.
As I read to my four year old boy, I am confident that this country will write and rewrite their own history. Indonesia will take pride in their broadcasted voice and printed dreams. It is because I see this, exactly this, I write and read all the more.
Novita Poerwanto is a Creative Consultant entrepreneur, fashion designer. She published a collection of flash fictions and short movies with four of her @fiksimini friends in March 2011 and is now finishing the final draft of her first novel. She is a proud mom of a four year old wizard. She lives in Surabaya, Indonesia