Seven-year-old Innosanto spends an exciting night with his mom sleeping under the stars in the Jakarta Planetarium. Innosanto's father is a playwright and the boy memorizes lines during the actors' rehearsals, so they invite him to join the performance, which tours the country. The play is about a General, who doesn't treat people very well, "so they decided to do a play about how that was wrong." Fact: Indonesia, aka The Spice Islands, is the place Christopher Columbus was looking for when he crashed in the New World. Fact: Indonesia is made up of 17000 islands where people speak over 750 different languages. Fact: when Inno was a child, speaking out against the government could land you in jail. On the last night of the performace Inno packs a toothbrush ("they figured if you're going to go to jail for a long time, you may as well have your toothbrush with you so you can keep your teeth clean. (true story)."), the curtains go down, and with soldiers on the way, the actors scatter into hiding. On its surface, My Night in the Planetarium is a modern Indonesian children's story about one night in the late '70s that the author Innosanto Nagara got to spend in the Jakarta planetarium. But it's actually much more than that. It's an introduction to the history and culture of Indonesia. It's about colonialism, revolution, how power corrupts, and how through art and solidarity liberation can be won.
Three Cheers is a recurring feature on the Seven Stories Blog, in which authors dish on three books or authors that helped to mold them over the course of their lives. Today we're featuring Innosanto Nagara, author of A is for Activist and many more, all available from Seven Stories.
by Innosanto Nagara
There are of course many many more, and it’s terrible to have to just pick three. But since three is what you ask for, here are my three cheers:
First cheer goes to the Indonesian dissident poet/playwright Ikranagara, who also happens to be my father. First cheer to him because, consciously or unconsciously, my understanding of what writing is, who can write, and why one would write, was first shaped by him. Growing up in a house where my parents and their friends discussed writing and philosophy, and seeing the impact they were having in the country, makes my father my most formative author influence.
Second cheer goes to Khalil Gibran, introduced to me by my mother when I was a child. His “On Children” in The Prophet, is a guiding philosophy for how I approach writing for children. That core idea, that ‘your children are not your children, they are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself” and that ultimately they will “live in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams,” is why I think it’s important to have the conversations I hope to spark with my books.
Third cheer is difficult. I want to credit writers like Keri Hulme (The Bone People) or Jerzy Kosinski (The Painted Bird), whose approaches to writing and style have been a great influence. Or maybe I should make sure everyone knows Ayu Utami, whose book Saman was the first of its kind for an Indonesian writer and blew my mind when I read it in 1998 right before the fall of Suharto. Saman undoubtedly contributed to the fall of Suharto. But since this is a space where I’m wearing my children’s book author hat, and I only have one cheer left, I’m going to make a shout out to Shel Silverstein. Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book is not his most famous children’s book, but it was one of his favorites, and mine. His respect for children’s ability to appreciate complexity and context, in 1961, is always a reminder to me.