Discussing Ethnicity, Religion, and Literature at ASEAN Literary Festival

Yesterday, I went to ASEAN Literary Festival, an event held in Taman Ismail Marzuki, Jakarta, from March 21-23, 2014. To me, this event is such a heaven because I could meet A LOT of literary critics, book communities, cultural discussions, inspiring authors, publisher stands, and definitely, friends with the same interest.

Weeks ago, I have registered myself to attend a seminar titled “Ethnicity, Religion, and Literature” because I found it very interesting. Unfortunately, I was an hour late and I only heard the sharing and Q&A session. However, I could still get the point from the discussion. The audience themselves were very active; they expressed their comments and opinions regarding how ethnicity and religion are portrayed in literature.

ASEAN Literary Festival

The speakers of the seminar were Andy Fuller from Australia and Na Ye from China. The session was moderated by Laura Schuurmans, who IMHO, led a very nice and engaging discussion. So I see the problems here that, religion is still a sensitive issue to be discussed in literature. Especially novels that still use black-and-white logic and depiction can be very insulting and, in the end, lead to misunderstanding.

For example, when an author writes a book about Islam, when s/he is exaggerating in defending his/her religion, it could possibly offend other religions, far from delivering a mutual understanding. Literature is supposed to be the bridge between two different religious and cultural views, not offending each other. Writing books about religions and cultures also needs two-sided understanding so the gap between the two parties could be reduced. Because, literary works about ethnicity and religion are the media to voice the stories of those whose voice cannot be heard.

On the other hand, it is such as an irony when the literary works portray a situation/conflict between religious or cultural views could be accessed easily by us, on the other hand, people who live within the conflicting area itself couldn’t have the same opportunity. For example, Afghanistan. For decades, this country has been shattered by conflicts and wars, but the literary works which talk about the conflicts happened in this country are mostly written by authors who live, or, come from outside this culture. Worse, the works are widely disseminated outside that area. Yes, according to the discussion, we could give the same opportunity for them, but it is not something that could be built overnight.

During the Q&A session, I got a very important insight. When ethnicity and religion are being discussed, it always leads to Islam and its gap with the “Western” world. I remember there was one comment from the audience; when she went abroad, she was called “Osama bin Laden” just because she wore hijab. It is just too easy to judge and racial profile people into groups according to their physical appearances.

IDK but it reminded me of The Clash of Civilization theory by Samuel P. Huntington. He said that the postcolonial civilization in this world would be divided into 9 civilizations; Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, and possibly African civilization. And, if I’m not wrong, he said that later there will be a clash between Islam versus the West. This theory was widely criticized by many scholars because it neglected the harmony among cultures. Edward Said said this is a myth rather than a scientific theory.

So, after observing what is really happening out there, what do you think? Which one do you agree?

Anyways, here are my favorite books about ethnicity and religion that could be on your next reading list:



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