7 essential non-fiction books to better understand Indonesia


A lifetime is not enough to fully understand the vast archipelago that is Indonesia, home to more than 270 million people. It is a country of incalculable diversity, with deep historical roots and idiosyncrasies worthy of the world’s fourth most populous nation.

So how do you begin to understand Indonesia? The answer may simply lie in the country’s written accounts spanning its rich — and sometimes violent — history as well as those that attempt to make sense of the present and look to the future.

If you’re an Indonesian who really wants to bleed red and white, or a foreigner who’s curious about this wonderful nation, here are 7 essential non-fiction books in English that will send you down the path of Indo-enlightenment.

A history of modern Indonesia — Adrian Vickers, 2005

Adrian Vickers is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Sydney. His 2005 book, A history of modern Indonesiaserves as the perfect crash course in contemporary Indonesia, covering pre-1945 Dutch colonial rule, anti-Communist massacres, Soeharto’s New Order regime and its downfall.

Soeharto: My Thoughts, My Words and My Deeds: An Autobiography – G. Dwipayana, Ramadhan KH, 1989

Soeharto held the country under his dictatorial thumb for 32 years. While few remember his reign fondly, his autobiography, which has been translated into English, offers an intimate and deeply personal insight into Indonesia’s longest-serving president at the height of his powers – long before the end of the century. New Order era with democratic reforms in 1998.

The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anti-Communist Crusade and Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World —Vincent Bevins, 2020

Soeharto played a key role in eliminating the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), then the largest communist party outside of China. In The Jakarta methodjournalist Vincent Bevins combed through declassified documents and eyewitness accounts to establish how the US government quietly helped the Indonesian military kill an estimated one million civilians in the 1965 anti-communist massacre.

The Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia —Ben Bland, 2020

Arguably, President Joko Widodo, a political elite outsider with a reputation as a man of the people, is the manifestation of Indonesian democratic ideals. Former journalist Ben Bland argues in his engaging book that there is more to it than meets the eye with Jokowi – a man, much like the country he leads, who is caught in the middle and navigates great opposing forces in the quest for progress.

Julia’s Jihad: Stories of Politically, Sexually and Religiously Incorrect People: Living in the Chaos of the Largest Muslim Democracy —Julia Suryakusuma, 2013

Julia’s Jihad is a collection of essays by journalist Julia Suryakusuma published over an eight-year period in Jakarta Post and Tempothe English edition. The book tackles serious feminist, religious and human rights issues in a delightfully digestible way thanks to the author’s wonderful wit.

Indonesia, etc : Explore the unlikely nation —Elizabeth Pisani, 2014

This one is for those of us who are Java-centric and want to learn more about the diversity of this vast nation. Journalist Elizabeth Pisani takes us on a 26,000 mile journey across the country on roads less traveled than your ordinary travelogue. In Indonesia, etcPisani masterfully weaves through historical and socio-political contexts in search of ties that unite a disparate nation.

Indonesian slang: Colloquial Indonesian at work — Christopher Torchia, Lely Djuhari, 2011

Language — and certainly slang — will never stop evolving, but Indonesian slang 2011 is still a great launch pad for getting to grips with informal Indonesian expressions and why we’re so obsessed with acronyms and random suitcases. They say language is a window into a country’s identity and culture, after all.


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