A Bali-based bookseller’s quest to achieve gender balance on our bookshelves by highlighting female authors

Left: Sekar Wulandari Yogaster, owner of There But for the Books, posing for a photo for Coconuts Bali. Photo: Coconuts Media. Right: A pile of books that were put up for sale on TBFTB’s Instagram recently. Photo: There But For the Books
Left: Sekar Wulandari Yogaster, owner of There But for the Books, posing for a photo for Coconuts Bali. Photo: Coconuts Media. Right: A pile of books that were put up for sale on TBFTB’s Instagram recently. Photo: There But For the Books

If you were to take a good hard look at your bookshelf, there’s a pretty good chance y0u will start noticing how most of the titles you’ve read have been written by men. Scour the internet for a little bit, and it’s not that hard to find people admitting that their reading pile also lacks works by female authors. 

Earlier this year, data collated by Wordery, an online bookshop based in the United Kingdom, showed that of the 100 most popular fiction books, only 18 were written by women. This, however, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, considering how one look at the literary canon would also show you a pretty obvious gender imbalance. 

For Sekar Wulandari Yogaster, also known as Ndari, it wasn’t until last year that she started noticing how the books she’s read and liked in the past were mostly written by men. 

“Once I started reading more books written by women, I realized that these books are the ones that really resonated with me,” Ndari told Coconuts Bali in a recent interview. 

Ndari’s desire to read more women writers began while she was bedridden in the hospital. In February 2018, Ndari was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), more commonly known simply as lupus. 

“When I was sick, I was depressed, and a lot of things were going on at the same time, but I couldn’t really process it, [and] I couldn’t really ask my friends or family, because they weren’t sick, they were healthy – and I was the only one that was sick,” Ndari said. 

It was then that she began to read memoirs written by people who had the same autoimmune disease, many of whom happen to be women, and found that it helped her get through that challenging period of her life.  Afterward, Ndari started to dedicate herself to reading books, both fiction and non-fiction, that were written by women. 

“I started realizing how these books possess such rich narratives. Women writers know what we go through as women, the complexity of our problems and how we also have different perspectives than men,” Ndari added. 

There But For The Books 

That experience eventually led Ndari to launch an online bookshop on Instagram, There But For the Books (TBFTB), which is dedicated to selling the works of women. 

Ndari, who curates and manages TBFTB all by herself, carefully selects the works that she puts up and highlighted that many of the books she sells are based on her personal recommendations.

While Indonesia certainly doesn’t lack in bookstores, with Gramedia being the largest chain in the country and can be found in most shopping malls, such a massive operation also means that these stores sell pretty much anything (some of the larger Gramedia stores, for example, have huge sections just for stationery). You could enter any one of them and find plenty of bestselling titles, but the experience lacks nuance. 

Through TBFTB, Ndari aims to provide alternatives; a wide, curated array of options for readers who may be looking to diversify the contents of their bookshelves. She also wanted to lend a personal touch to the book-buying experience, she says, which is why she chose to sell through Instagram instead of joining one of Indonesia’s booming e-commerce sites. 

“I don’t want people to feel like they were dealing with an admin, I want people to know who they are talking to and that’s me – Ndari. I feel like that’s the way to create conversations, too,” Ndari said, adding that sometimes she chats with her customers after they’ve finished reading the books they bought. 

Ndari also gives out free bookmarks, which she designs herself, to her customers. Photo: Coconuts Media
TBFTB’s customers also get these free bookmarks, designed by Ndari herself, along with their book purchases. Photo: Coconuts Media

She usually only carries a single copy of the titles she sells, and people rush to book them once they are uploaded to the TBFTB Instagram account every Monday. Ndari’s been working with a number of distributors and publishers to get her book supplies and noted that being in Bali has actually been a plus for her business. 

That’s because many tourists visiting Bali leave behind their books when they return to their home country. These are often collected by hotel and airport staff, who then sell them on the cheap to vendors, whom Ndari also collaborates with. This allows her to offer titles 

Ndari sells the books for a relatively cheap price, too, ranging from IDR 80,000 (USD 5.7)  to IDR 250,000 (USD 17.85). It’s one of the reasons why her books are gaining popularity through social media. Since it was launched in May of this year, Ndari told Coconuts Bali she’s sold 300 out of the 336 books she put up on Instagram. 

Though TBFTB is still ultimately a business, Ndari also considers it to be a passion project. In the future, she said it might even evolve into more of a platform, where people can discuss women writers and their works.

Often times, people stereotypically lump women writers under the chick-lit genre, ignoring the fact that women writers have contributed to various genres. For example, the classic “Frankenstein”, written by English woman Mary Shelley in 1818, was one of the pioneering works in gothic horror literature.

A screenshot of the Instagram bookshop. Ndari uploads new titles every Monday. Photo: There But for the Books / Instagram
A screenshot of the Instagram bookshop. Ndari uploads new titles every Monday. Photo: There But for the Books / Instagram

Samuel Dimas Suryono, a 23-year-old from Surabaya who’s purchased five titles from TBFTB, said the online bookshop has helped him realize the range of good books written by women. 

“The curation of books by women writers helped me overturn that assumption that only men can write well,” Samuel said. 

Before TBFTB was launched, Ndari feared that she might be labeled as sexist, as someone who thought that only women authors are good. 

“But no, that’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m simply trying to present a form of equality, that women authors also deserve to be considered great, just like men,” she said. 

As for the unique name, which is somehow very catchy, Ndari said it’s based on a 2011 novel, “There But For The,” written by one of her favorite writers, Scottish author Ali Smith.

Indonesian women writers

For the time being, Ndari explained that TBFTB is only selling English books, but says she’s still considering including books written in Indonesian in the future. Other plans also include working with communities in Bali, as Ndari hopes to expand the conversation on reading more books by women in her home island as well. 

She’s hoping that TBFTB might also open up more seats for women writers in the long run, as people start to become more aware of the issue. 

According to Ndari, who also works as a book cover designer with her husband under the brand Sukutangan, her experience with the publishing world in Indonesia has showed her that opportunities for male and female authors are not yet equal. 

“I can say that many Indonesian publishers today only really give women opportunities to write certain topics, which is again fueling the stereotype that women can only write ‘easy’ topics,” said Ndari, who counts Isyana Artharini and Gratiagusti Chananya Rompas among her favorite Indonesian female writers.  

Reading in Indonesia 

After only a couple of months, Ndari’s experience curating and managing TBFTB has only strengthened her belief that Indonesians are actually avid readers, despite the widely held perception that Indonesians are barely interested in the activity. 

In fact, a study on reading interests across the globe from Central Connecticut State University in the United States published in 2016 ranked Indonesia 60th out of 61 countries. 

But Ndari, for her part, does not believe that’s really the case. While people have been quick to blame technology, and social media in particular, as reasons for the country’s low interest in reading, she’s trying to switch up the narrative by utilizing social media to attract people to read more. 

“I don’t think technology is a barrier, I think it’s actually a tool that could help us to read more. The internet, social media, and Instagram – they are helping us learn so much more about books, giving us more references, and pushing us to be more creative in attracting more people to read,” Ndari said. 

The sentiment was shared by Olin Monteiro, a feminist filmmaker, book publisher and veteran activist, who said that online bookshops like TBFTB provides a welcomed alternative.

“I think it’s great that there are many online bookshops nowadays. It gives an alternative, especially to read international women writers … It also gives the reading community a chance to diversify their book collections,” Olin said. 

Furthermore, Ndari is of the opinion that curated and alternative bookshops are able to help people to find books that cater to their unique preferences. She’s hopeful that the rise of independent bookstores in Indonesia will help prove that Indonesians do love to read. 

“I don’t believe that Indonesians don’t read. Everyone is not yet a reader simply because they have not found the right books,” she said. 

You can find There But For The Books on Instagram.

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