We first met Seumpama Books at the 2015 Christmas Bazaar at 1/15 Coffee and thought they were completely mad. They have to be, why else would someone start a book studio in Jakarta when the space for books in bookstores across the city is shrinking, replaced by more shelves stationery and knick-knacks?
Since we are always drawn to the mad ones, we started cooking up a collaboration idea when we met again at Suar Art Space, which then turned into a three-week long Pojok Buku event at 1/15 Coffee in February. We have gotten to know Rassi Narika (Rassi) and Referika Rahmi (Ninit) better in the process and think that anyone who loves reading and books should get to know them too.
Hello, Rassi and Ninit, tell us the story behind Seumpama Books.
Ninit: We refer to Seumpama as a book studio. A studio is a room where artists sculpt or paint, music and films are made, performers practices; and it is exactly how we’ve been working with books at Seumpama. We curate titles, study and practice our skill in story making, learn the market, and stay connected to the book audiences. The bookstore and publisher role that we have is our translation of the studio to make it relevant to the society.
The story of how it came together is a story of how time put things into places. Rassi and I have been best friend for ten years. At the end of 2014, Rassi just got back from her study in London and I had been a mother for over a year. We were really close but then we hadn’t met for almost 1.5 years and were in completely different places in life.
I learnt French literature as an undergraduate and being a mother put me back in touch with written works through the materials I was reading for my daughter. There was a big gap in the selection of children books, especially the Indonesian ones. Something was missing, so I thought I should write something to fill the gap. I knew Rassi had been writing creatively and that she had been illustrating in her leisure time. So I thought it was worth to mention this idea to her. Apparently it was also something she already had in mind, so things roll pretty consistently from there.
Rassi: For me it was an obvious choice. I love reading books and had always dreamt of having a bookstore of some sort. But doesn’t every book lover dream of that too? I took the idea seriously after coming back from my study. I wanted to start my own thing and a couple of friends had been mentioning that children’s book is something that I should do. I liked the idea but wasn’t quite sure how to follow it up, so I had a couple of back-up ideas in my mind. When Ninit mentioned her agony with finding children’s books, I was ecstatic and concerned. It felt so right, but I’ve heard too many discouraging story of friendship-based co-ops and I didn’t want to ruin our friendship. Yet Ninit’s idea was relevant for me, and the timing seemed right. The next thing we did was quite pragmatic, we made a small research about the market and the industry just to see how viable this is. We had never wanted this to be a one-off thing.
Congratulations on the publication of your first book, Terbang, especially for Rassi who is also the author and illustrator of the book. What kind of books are you planning to publish in the future?
Rassi: Thank you! Although Seumpama is not made specifically for children, I personally will still be working on children illustrated books. Right now I’m working on a couple of title for another children’s book already. I think we have often overlooked the wisdom in children’s words and perspective, so I’m still quite intrigued to play around in this segment.
Other than writing books for children, Seumpama also ran storytelling sessions for children during the Pojok Buku collaboration with POST and 1/15 Coffee. Can you tell us more about how you ran these sessions?
Ninit: It was really fun. We tried some new methods that we have never used before. The two main activities were storytelling and story making. Storytelling is quite common, but story making was new for us. We did some research and decided that we needed to make age groupings to make the activities more effective. We had two age groups, the 2-3 years old and 4-6 years old.
In both groups we made a storyboard and prepared props that enable the children to participate in the storytelling. For the story making we put some tools that they can work with, the younger audiences get a pack of cut out flannel fabric that they can stick on a piece of paper with their parents, while the older ones get to draw and make their own storybook that they can keep. It was really fun to see how the children responded to the activities.
Seumpama’s collection mostly consists of vintage books from the U.K. Why do you choose to carry books from that era, and which two books you would you strongly recommend to readers?
Rassi: We grew up reading classics, and Penguin took a significant part of our reading materials. We love its consistent looks and friendly feel; taking a Penguin never feels intimidating. The titles that we have mainly come from the early days of Penguin, we notice that the written works on this period of time celebrate the essence of fiction and the need to distribute ideas. We think authors of that time had the best foundation in writing. They didn’t have as many distractions as we do today, which makes their work – and words – feel so thorough and focused.
Finally, vintage books capture the birth, growth, and evolution of ideas. A lot of books have scribbles, note to love ones, or highlighted quotes dating back to the 1940s. It feels like holding a time travel machine.
We would recommend Margery Allingham’s books. She writes in the genre of crime and mystery. One may compare her to Agatha Christie, but we find that her stories have a strong depiction of the society and the social issues. You can check her books Sweet Danger and Hide My Eyes. Virginibus Puerisque by Robert Louis Stevenson is also another that you might want to check from our line-ups. This book compiles his essays on mundane topics like marriage, youth, illness, and the mesmerizing gas lamps. But remember, he wrote Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde too, so the seemingly mundane topic is actually quite intriguing.
Seumpama’s interaction with the public so far have taken place during pop-up events, such as the Christmas Market and Pojok Buku at 1/15 Coffee as well as Kenduri Kata at Suar Art Space. What are your most interesting insights about readers in Jakarta from these events?
Ninit: We are really humbled with people’s responses. It was really pleasant to meet people with the same – if not more – passion in books and narratives. We had our doubts on whether or not books – especially physical ones – would remain relevant. But our experience had shown that people would always be hungry for stories that could captivate them. Moreover, the publication of Terbang had also confirmed that books and narratives are still essentials for the next generation. It pushes us to look for more stories that could fill in the realm of storytelling, not only for children but also for a wider audience.
In another note, though, we do feel that some still perceive books as exclusive and different, a more ‘expensive’ activity. We’ve expected this to happen. We need to make book fun, less intimidating, more inclusive, but remain enlightening.
What can we expect to see from Seumpama Books in the near future? What do you have up your sleeves?
Rassi: The closest exciting thing is our website. We’ve been working on it in the past couple of months and hopefully it’ll be up sometime in April. When that happens, readers can browse through our complete list of books conveniently and make their purchase from there.
After that, we are going to launch a new original story. I’ve already started in some new titles and Ninit is writing a new material of her own.
Later in the year, we are looking to include works from other writers, illustrators, and story-makers in our publication. We are still preparing the details for this initiative, but we’re really excited about it.
How do we get in touch with you?
We are active on Instagram as @seumpamabooks and on Facebook as Seumpama. You can catch our latest update there. If you’re looking for a more extended response, you can always reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Whatsapp at 0815 1418 1964.
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww’!” – Jack Kerouac. There are many kinds of madness, but our favorite is the kind where it drives someone to purse their creative passion and embrace others to join them in being mad together. The Mad Ones is our periodic column, in which we interview people who inspire us through their madness.
*Other than the photo of Terbang, all photos are courtesy of Seumpama Books.