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  • Indonesian Notebook: A Sourcebook on Richard Wright and the Bandung Conference ed. by Brian Russell Roberts and Keith Foulcher
  • Leslie James
Indonesian Notebook: A Sourcebook on Richard Wright and the Bandung Conference, edited by Brian Russell Roberts and Keith Foulcher. Durham & London, Duke University Press, 2016. xxiv, 288 pp. $89.50 US (cloth), $24.95 US (paper).

Bandung. For historians of the twentieth century, postcolonial theorists, anti-colonial and anti-racism activists, political scientists and international relations advisers, Bandung has become more than a city. It is shorthand for a number of convergent events, ideas, and movements. In many circles Bandung does not even need the qualifier of conference in order to be understood as a reference to either the first Asian-African Conference held in Indonesia from 18–24 April 1955, or an Afro-Asian movement more generally, or indeed twentieth century anti-colonialism, Cold War non-alignment, and racial solidarity. The ethereal and spiritual qualities attributed to Bandung are encapsulated in the evocation of a "Bandung Spirit" and a "Bandung Moment." Bandung has attained "an explanatory power in relation to postcoloniality" that has given it mythic status (2). [End Page 577]

For those curious about the Bandung conference, Richard Wright's 1956 account of the event has long served as a primary source. The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (Cleveland, 1956) is an accessible, evocative first-hand account, which students enjoy reading. Because of Wright's position as a Paris-based African American writer commenting on an Asian-African conference, his work seems to open up precisely the kinds of transnational connections that Bandung and its aftermath embodied. For all of the above reasons, a new source that contextualizes and deepens our understanding of Wright's work will find a ready audience of scholars and students across disciplines who are interested not just in Richard Wright, but in the history of the twentieth century.

Indonesian Notebook does just that. While the editors, Brian Russell Roberts and Keith Foulcher, agree that Wright's Indonesian travels and travelogue should be a significant historical source, they note that Wright's telling of the event has become an "ur" narrative for an array of disciplinary arenas (4). Taking a cue from Christopher Lee's edited volume, Making a World after Empire (Athens, 2010), Roberts and Foulcher have translated Indonesian- and Dutch-language sources previously disregarded by Anglo-phone audiences. They aim to foreground the historical archive that surrounds Wright's travels as a means of forestalling the veneration of The Color Curtain "as documentary evidence for historical claims that it cannot verify" (5). In other words, this volume aims to historicize Wright's journey, his destination, and his conclusions.

I am not trying to be facile when I state that the book is aptly titled. While it takes its name from Wright's preliminary article for a UK-based magazine, Indonesian Notebook is, indeed, a sourcebook with the Indonesian perspective front and centre. By focusing the content on Indonesian perspectives of their country, the conference, and Wright, the editors go beyond even their own claim to "reframe" the Bandung conference (8). This is less a reframing and more a reversal of the lens, offering not a narrowing or widening of perspective but an entirely alternate canvas.

In addition to new written primary sources, the book contains images of original documents, newspaper clippings, and photographs of social events taken by Wright. Each document is preceded by a substantial introduction. Part One is comprised of Indonesian documents about the people and the intellectual, political, and cultural climate of Indonesia written during the early 1950s in the lead up to the conference. Part Two covers the period of Wright's visit to Indonesia, including a previously unpublished lecture titled "The Artist and His Problems." Newspaper clippings demonstrate, for example, the ambivalence many Indonesians felt about Japanese participation at the conference just a decade after a brutal Japanese occupation during World War II (78; 81). These offer a different perspective for readers who might only have engaged with Wright's narrative of [End Page 578] Asian solidarity presented in The Color Curtain. Part Three offers a range of Indonesian responses to...


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