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January 9, 2015

From the outside looking in

After reading the inside story of Indonesia as told by a British outsider, Connor reflects on the simultaneous pitfalls and value of objectivity.

  • Words: Connor Tomas O'Brien

“One of the subtler beauties of travel”, writes Pico Iyer in Why we travel, a classic Salon piece, “is that it enables you to bring new eyes to the people you encounter. You can teach them what they have to celebrate as much as you celebrate what they have to teach.”

It’s been a little over 14 years since Iyer wrote those words, and it’s worth stopping to consider whether they still hold true. Over the past decade, the travel industry has so thoroughly coagulated, and the old tourist cowpaths have been so comprehensively paved over, that the idea a local could learn anything whatsoever from a traveler seems truly fanciful. 

Elizabeth Pisani’s Indonesia Etc. is, in many ways, a book that trades heavily on Iyer’s assumption that informed outsiders have access to a level of objectivity about place that locals can’t hope to achieve. Neither strictly a twee island -hopping travelogue nor a searing, high-level analysis of Indonesia’s last decade of political decentralisation, Indonesia Etc. tries to have it both ways, as a substantial set of travel anecdotes are used to trace out the shape of modern Indonesia in its improbable entirety. 

Pisani moves from one remote island to another, finding herself waylaid by involvement in marriage ceremonies and whaling expeditions while seeking out stories of soft corruption and exploring the politicking of Indonesia’s ‘Big Men’. By the very end, Pisani appears confident enough in her work that she seems to (as modestly as possible) suggest that it should be read as a definitive account of contemporary Indonesia.

This is all very ambitious! It’s one thing, after all, to “bring new eyes to the people you encounter”, but another thing entirely to tell those you encounter that you, alone, can claim to truly understand their land and politics and customs. Pisani isn’t exactly an outsider, of course, having spent decades in Indonesia as a foreign correspondent and as an epidemiologist, but her appearance enables her to assume the role of the bule (foreigner), which she then uses to her advantage in building relationships with locals on Indonesia’s remote islands.


Connor Tomas O’Brien is a writer, designer and creative type based in Melbourne. He is the director of the Digital Writers’ Festival, designer of Voiceworks magazine, and co-founder of ebookstore platform Tomely.

I was in Bali when I finished Indonesia Etc., and saw Pisani at a session at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. The interviewer, foreign correspondent Step Vaessen, made a claim about the nature of Indonesian society, using a bunch of accumulated anecdotes to support her point. Pisani parried, noting that she had never spoken to any Indonesians like the ones Vaessen was referring to. For a while, a slightly ridiculous stalemate ensued, in which neither woman was able to concede that the other’s version of Indonesia existed at all. ‘That’s the problem with mistaking the part for the whole’, I thought. At the same time, though, ‘who really has access to the whole?’ After the panel, I sat with an Indonesian writer who had just finished the book. “It was good!” she admitted, “but it’s frustrating that we have 240 million people here and it’s a bule that ends up being the one chosen to tell our story.”

Indonesia Etc. is good. In fact, it’s exceptional. What seemed particularly frustrating to my writer friend wasn’t necessarily that an outsider was representing Indonesia to other foreigners, but that an outsider was representing Indonesia to Indonesians: in Jakarta,
Indonesia Etc. was one of the most popular books sold at English-language bookstores, with much demand for a version translated into Bahasa. Indonesians appeared to be excited to see how they were seen, through the new eyes of a (sorta-kinda) foreigner – and were perhaps learning to see themselves this way, too.

It’s worth considering what might happen were an outsider to attempt to unpack contemporary Australia. What could an outsider tell us about ourselves, and would we be interested in taking their account as definitive? Would it, like Indonesia Etc., end on a note of celebratory ambivalence, and how ‘improbable’ would our nation seem?

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