The Book of Jakarta – ed. Maesy Ang and Teddy W. Kusuma

Comma Press’ ‘Reading the City’ series is now a long established part of the publisher’s catalogue, covering a range of cities both in the UK and abroad. I’ve featured the general collection in my piece about independently published book collections, which you can read here. The Book of Jakarta is the latest addition to the series, published at the end of last year. I want to thank Comma Press for the free copy sent to me for review (and the PDF version when the physical copy was lost in the post!)

Like the other books in this vast series, The Book of Jakarta is a collection of ten translated short stories in a very digestible 100 or so pages that give insight into the different perspectives of the city. The authors are from a range of backgrounds and it certainly shows in the diversity of the stories. This collection emphasises how people, not those in power but those who are affected by it, survive and thrive in a multicultural city. There are political stories, social commentaries, some funny stories and even a couple that try to picture the future of Jakarta.

Ultimately I learnt a whole heap from these stories, which was what I was really hoping for in this book. I quite shamefully don’t really know anything about Jakarta or Indonesia apart from it’s previous occupation by the West. The history of Indonesia is woven into this collection and I found it was a great way to digest some of the country’s prominent historic events. This includes President Suharto’s dictatorship and the student riots that lead to it’s downfall in 1998, race relations between Indonesians and Chinese Indonesians, and Jakarta’s unsustainable rate of growth. The book also looks to the future of Jakarta in two of the stories as it continues to sink at an alarming rate.

I devoured most of the collection in a really short space of time and found myself totally absorbed especially during the first half of the book. I loved The Aroma of Shrimp Paste by Hanna Fransisca and translated by Khairani Barokka for its humorous yet astute take on getting a passport and The Sun Sets in the North by Cyntha Hariadi and translated by Eliza Vitri Handayani, which emphasised class divisions in a story of two school girls separated by the political riots.

The only story that didn’t resonate well with me was Grown-Up Kids and, to be honest, this one really stopped me in my tracks. It’s essentially about a group of pensioners who form a suicide pact. I wasn’t expecting something like this and while I do feel it probably has a message about the attitudes of and towards the elderly, I was left feeling a little cold and uncomfortable with no warning.

In all, I thought that this was a super incisive set of stories and I learnt a lot from it. While not every story was for me, I felt like on the whole it definitely taught me a lot about Jakarta. I can’t wait to dive into other books in the series to see what they hold!

The Book of Jakarta (£9.99) edited by Maesy Ang and Teddy W. Kusuma is published by Comma Press and available in paperback now. Visit Comma Press for more.

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