Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 22, 2015

Family Room, by Lily Yulianti Farid, Translated by John H. McGlynn

Family RoomFamily Room is a dynamic collection of short stories by Indonesian author Lily Yulianti Farid, with whom I will be ‘in conversation’ at the forthcoming Bendigo Writing Festival.  (If you haven’t got your tickets yet, here’s the link: you can buy a session ticket, or a festival pass which gets you into multiple events).  I’m looking forward to it because – as I said in a review of a different collection, Lily is wrestling with the remarkable social and political changes of the post-Suharto era while also interrogating feminist issues in a patriarchal society.  And it’s not often that we in Australia get the opportunity to hear authors from Indonesia, sharing their distinctive view of the world.

What makes this collection so different to any collection of Australian short stories is the political and social context in which they were first published in 2008-9.  Until the resignation of the military dictator Suharto (1967-1998), dissent was very firmly suppressed in Indonesia and publications which offended those in power were very promptly shut down.  Stories which satirise corruption would never have seen the light of day during Suharto’s 31-year grip on power…

The first story in the collection is called Makkunrai and it features the confrontation between a girl and her grandfather, a powerful patriarch who expects to have total control over his family.   This includes arranging the marriages of his granddaughters to useful cronies whether they like it or not.  No one may dare openly challenge his authority, not even his son, as easily crushed as a fragile peanut cracker:

This is what my father told me: ‘It’s not good to be insolent to your grandfather.’
‘But someone has to fight back!’
‘Who would ever dare?’
‘All of us!  Why not!’
‘Who would contradict your grandfather?’
‘All of us!’
‘You’re not afraid of disobeying your elders’ wishes?’ (p. 3)

When the corruption becomes too great to bear, this tame father thinks that the only possible solution is for his rebellious daughter to leave, and it’s the old man’s young third wife who surreptitiously encourages the girl to flee before it is too late.  Too often, a hasty departure is the only solution for dissenters in repressive regimes…

(I did wonder if this was a veiled attack on Suharto as ‘father of the nation’ but the President’s children, also known as Suharto Inc don’t at this distance seem to have rebelled against his rule, on ethical or any other grounds.)

There’s an international flavour to the collection, reflecting Lily’s experience as a journalist.  Many of the characters represent Indonesia’s growing middle-class who travel freely or work as expats around the globe; some are refugees.  Stories which feature characters far from home exude a sense of grief and loss, obsession with unresolved family trauma, or a nostalgia for small-scale commerce and farming which is being lost under globalisation and development.  In ‘Fire’ a daughter in Singapore realises too late that she should have listened to her mother’s stories: the family fled Jakarta after her Chinese father’s electrical store was burnt down in the 1998 anti-Chinese riots fomented by Suharto when he was courting the Islamic vote.   In ‘Day and Moon’ while their servants luxuriate in the abandoned home, a loving couple are separated when they cannot decide whether a husband should follow a wife, or a wife her husband, in pursuit of their ambitions in Japan and the Pacific Islands.  In ‘Lake’ an environmental scientist who studies lakes knows that international travel is not as dangerous as her activist sister Fayza naïvely believed it to be…

While Fayza went to the street to clench her fists and unfurl banners, Zara flew to Montana to join an expedition team.  For years, she immersed herself in research, travelling thousands of miles in the process of visiting lakes in the northern hemisphere that froze in the winter and sparkled in the summer.
‘Be careful, Fayza.’
‘You’re the one that should be careful, living in a foreign country.‘ (p.89)

It is Fayza, believing herself safe at home in Indonesia, who is in peril…

Lily sets her stories in a variety of homes housing families that rarely conform to the traditional stereotype.  It is an adopted son who sacrifices his ambitions to care for an ageing parent when the biological daughter doesn’t care; grandmothers and servants raise fatherless children or the unwanted.  And homes are not safe at all when sectarian violence flares, as it did in Ambon – identifiable in the heartbreaking story ‘Your Father is the Moon, You are the Sun’ by the presence of proselytising Dutch nuns.  They offer the only education available to a child who can never celebrate her birthday because it’s the day her father disappeared fighting the enemy.  His unknown fate inspires mythmaking, but all three versions show him taking risks in order to get home to see his newborn daughter.

In the title story ‘Family Room’ the mother brags to the magazine ‘Homes Today’ that their house has been designed around a central family room to foster intimacy – but it’s a sham.  It’s a tense, miserable home, where the narrator is on tranquilisers and her parents’ relationship has broken down in the face of her father’s token gaol sentence for tax fraud and her mother’s career in environmental politics.  All three siblings have embarrassing secrets that must be hushed up to meet the middle-class norm of respectability.  And there’s a sad and lonely child called Raf whose pleas for mother love are dismissed as whining…

kue lapisThe translation by John H. McGlynn is seamless, though there are a couple of untranslatable words where a knowledge of Indonesian adds to enjoyment.  The story Kue Lapis is translated as layer cake, but you have to have seen it (and tasted it!) to appreciate the complexity of the layers of deceit and moral ambiguities that the cake symbolises in the family depicted in the story!

This is a thought-provoking collection so it’s a pity it’s hard to come by in Australia.  One of our largest online stores is selling it for a whopping $47, and according to Booko Fishpond isn’t much better – though they had a second-hand copy on the day I looked so it’s worth checking there.   Readings, however, who are not listed at Booko for this title, and who didn’t have it in stock on the day I viewed it, will order it in for $16.95 and if you spend more than $19.95 delivery is free.

Author: Lily Yulianti Farid
Title: Family Room
Translated by John H. McGlynn
Publisher: Modern Library of Indonesia, Lontar, 2010
Review copy courtesy of Lily Yulianti Farid and the Bendigo Writers’ Festival



  1. It is due to the publisher not allowing discount to any bookseller.
    The bookseller buy it at retail price

    Dennis Jones
    Dennis Jones & Associates Pty Ltd
    The Australian Distributor for Independent Publishers
    Gardners Sales Agent Australia & New Zealand
    1/10 Melrich Road, Bayswater, Victoria, 3153 – Australia
    T +61 3 9762 9100
    Port Campbell Press
    Digital Publishing & Distribution Solutions – Regionally & Globally


    • Ah, thanks for this info, Dennis, I did not know that. It seems counter-productive, but I suppose they have their reasons.
      PS Readings might not thank me for advertising their price, they’d make a loss, wouldn’t they?


  2. I haven’t been reading many short stories in the past but I’ve yet to read anything by an Indonesian author so this is going on my list to look further into


    • Hi, thanks for dropping by:)
      This has certainly whetted my appetite for Indonesian authors. You can expect to see more of them available because they are going to be featured at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and so their government has apparently stirred its stumps in the matter of supporting translation. After I finished this one I ventured onto the Amazon site and bought three more titles from The Modern Indonesian Library, so I’ll review those in due course too.


  3. […] in Indonesia, and to explore further some of the themes in her short story collection, Family Room (which I reviewed a little while ago, and recommend to both readers and writers of short story as examples of fiction being used as a […]


  4. […] short novel of 192 pages came to my attention because I had read the short stories of Lily Yulianti Farid and discovered the Lontar Foundation, which seeks to enhance the profile of Indonesian writing by […]


  5. Is it embarassing that although I have a relationship with Lontar, I have yet to read this? I’m glad you enjoyed it, and your review certainly raised it several notches on my “Must Read Soon” list.

    If I could make a recommendation (and if you have time for it), I recommend The Dancer by Ahmad Tohari. It’s my favorite Indonesian novel ever and it’s a trilogy that offers a view of the 1965 Communist Coup from the point of view of a small hamlet in Java. It’s sometimes advertised as a love story but it is so much bigger in scope and storytelling. It’s also available from Lontar. Although this is just a suggestion and of course, only if you have time for it as it is LONG. Probably Lontar’s longest book.


    • Hello, and thank you for dropping by:)
      What’s really good about Lontar is that I can get their books for my Kindle. I don’t generally like reading on a Kindle, but it certainly makes these titles affordable: I’ve just bought The Dancer and it only cost me $10.42 AUD.
      Could I make a friendly suggestion about your blog? By scrolling down your home page I found your thoughtful review of Lies, Loss and Longing, and I found it helpful: this title goes on the ‘one day, maybe’ list!
      But as a reader looking for Indonesian books translated into English I might not have found this review using your menu options (by cover, by geography etc). If you set up three categories, or alternatively tag your posts as e.g. Books in English/ Indonesian books Translated into English/ Indonesian Books in Bahasa and then add the categories or Tag widgets to your menu, then readers like me could go straight to the tag or the category ‘Indonesian books Translated into English’ when looking for reviews of books worth reading. (I wish my Indonesian was as good as your English is, then I could read books in the original language!)


      • Hey, thanks so much for dropping by my blog. Thanks also for your suggestion. The format of my review page is still a work-in-progress as I have yet to find the perfect way to organize it. Your idea would make my pages much simpler.

        I’m so glad you got The Dancer, I just reread it a few months ago and I still love it (I did read it in Bahasa). It is exquisitely written and I do hope you enjoy it.

        I will be lurking around your blog now, as I just realized that I haven’t read much Australian or New Zealand literature and I’d love some recommendations!


        • LOL I’m having a bit of a love affair with Indonesian writing (in English) at the moment, and now I have three on the TBR #LuckyMe!
          It will be interesting to see how the Frankfurt Book Fair impacts on interest in translated Indonesian books – do you do translations yourself?


          • Mind if I ask which books you have on your TBR at the moment?

            Unfortunately, I don’t do translations –not qualified for it yet. I do sort of work in Indonesian publishing and I can tell you our publishers are scrambling to make the best of this opportunity. Bureaucracy makes things difficult and sluggish at times, but such is life in Indonesia.


            • I have Drought and now, thanks to you, The Dancer, and I also have a new one called Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan, original title Cantik itu Luka. It’s published by Text here in Australia.


  6. […] like a more in-depth (and far better informed) reading of the collection, have a look at Lisa’s review (her background in Indonesian studies makes her a far better judge of what’s going on […]


    • *blush* Thanks for your generous mention, Tony. The Frankfurt Book Fair has made it a good year for Indonesian translations, let’s hope it’s the start of a new momentum…


  7. […] of a scene in Yulianti Farid’s story ‘Fire’ in her short story collection Family Room, Yasodhara’s mother discovers an humanitarian streak that she didn’t know she had, in […]


  8. […] of Indonesia’s patriarchal society and we had a good time talking about her collection The Family Room.  Lily has worked as a journalist all over the world and she speaks English fluently but her […]


  9. […] Indonesia.  I did a session with Lily at the Bendigo Writers Festival a couple of years ago, and I reviewed her short story collection Family Room.  She has terrific insights into cross-cultural […]


  10. […] at the Bendigo Writers Festival where we talked about her short story collection Family Room, (see my review). It was translated polished up by John McGlynn since Lily speaks perfectly good English but wanted […]


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