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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 September, 2003, 00:30 GMT 01:30 UK
Chick-lit becomes hip lit in Indonesia
By Becky Lipscombe
BBC, Jakarta

In the West it's known as chick-lit; here, it's "sastra wangi", or "fragrant literature".

Don't be fooled by the flowery description though. Chick-lit Indonesian style is urban, contemporary, and quite capable of raising a few eyebrows. And it's hot property right now.

Writers like Ayu Utami, Dewi Lestari, and Nova Riyanti Yusuf have tapped into a young and sophisticated market eager to read tales that echo their own lives and aspirations.

Poster of novelist Nukila Amal
The publicity makes the most of the authors' youth and good looks
Over the past few years a steady stream of young writers have been charting the changes in Indonesian society.

It all got going in 1998, the same year as the downfall of former President Suharto. In that turbulent social and political climate, Ayu Utami's challenge to tradition in the best-seller Saman proved that young women had something to say, and that there were plenty of people who wanted to listen.

Nova Riyanti Yusuf, the 26-year-old author of Mahadewa Mahadewi (God, Goddess), was clear about the appeal.

"My generation is totally different from the previous one," she said. "What I write about, and most other young women too, is my response to modern life."

"The one similarity everyone points out is that we talk about sex in a liberal way," Nova said.

"But obviously we have reasons for including sex in our stories, and they're not just commercial ones," she said.

Happening things

Mahadewa Mahadewi, Nova's first novel, concerns a psychiatric patient who falls in love with his doctor. It also features a gay relationship, with one of the characters struggling to come to terms with her best friend's sexual orientation.

Novelist Nova Riyanti Yusuf
Novelist Nova Riyanti Yusuf says her novels tap into the zeitgeist
Certain elements of Indonesia's fairly conservative society may not approve, but Nurzain Hae, a literary critic, said it was the willingness of the "sastra wangi" writers to tackle such themes that has won them their fans.

"They're talking about things that are actually happening," he said. "Things the older generations think it's taboo to write about, they write it anyway."

But Nurzain had mixed feelings about the grouping of young female writers together under the "sastra wangi" label.

"It's a cynical ploy," he said, "it's just that they're all beautiful and hang out in cafes."

And there's no doubt "sastra wangi" is a marketing man's fantasy made real. Dreamy black and white photos of these writers adorn the walls of bookshops, projecting an image of cool sophistication.

It may help sell the books, but it does little to reveal their literary merits. And that's a problem for 32-year-old first time novelist Nukila Amal, who's resisting the "sastra wangi" tag.

"That label is really negative," she said. "Writers should be categorised in genre or style and spirit, not on their physical appearance."

For that reason Nukila decided against using her photo on her novel Cala Ibi (Hummingbird).

"All I want to do is just write, because there's something that has to be told," she said. "Then it's up to the readers to decide."

Flourishing sales

Nova Riyanti Yusuf agreed the "sastra wangi" umbrella might diminish recognition of the writers as individuals with individual styles.

"It kind of makes us look like idiots," she said.

Livia, at QB bookstore in Jakarta
They're much closer to our lives. We don't really connect with the old books any more
Livia, Jakarta

But she acknowledged that the publicity was useful. "And as long as we create something that is meaningful, and people benefit from reading our books, they can call us anything!" she said.

Whatever the merits of the "sastra wangi" label, book sales are flourishing.

At Jakarta's QB bookshops, novels by young Indonesian women currently occupy five places on the store's top 10 bestseller list, a list that includes JK Rowling's latest Harry Potter epic at number one.

The books may not be classics, according to literary critic Nurzain Hae, but they serve an important role.

"The way they write actually needs more editing," he said, "because they're still learning their writing techniques. But the good thing about 'sastra wangi' is that it makes people want to read again. Interest in reading is racing right now.".

And for fans like Livia, at the QB bookshop in Jakarta, these books are just what they had been waiting for.

"These new writers are different to the old-timers," she said. "They're much closer to our lives. We don't really connect with the old books any more."

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