LONTAR is a literary journal of Southeast Asian speculative fiction in English, published and distributed by Math Paper Press in Singapore.
“Lontar” is the Bahasa Indonesia word for a bound palm-leaf manuscript. Palm-leaf manuscripts are among the oldest forms of written media, dating as far back as the fifth century BCE and possibly earlier. They were used to record Buddhist sutras, law texts, epic mythic narratives, and treatises on a host of subjects such as astronomy, astrology, architecture, law, medicine, and music. The palm leaves were bleached of their chlorophyll, dried, trimmed, flattened, and polished smooth. Characters or images were scratched on the surface with a sharp metallic stylus and filled in with a dark pigment to enhance the contrast and legibility of the script. In order to construct the leaves into a book, holes were drilled in both sides, and the stack was bound together with cord or string.
This ancient form of writing is the perfect inspiration for the collation and curation of Southeast Asian speculative fiction. It is an early technology that revolutionized the dissemination of knowledge (it no longer had to be handed down exclusively in oral form), and it was used predominantly in India, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia. In addition, lontar were used as a vehicle for both epic and more mundane narratives, as well as an early form of graphic literature (classifications for the different types of lontar can be found at Wonderful Bali).
Why Southeast Asian SF?
Southeast Asia is a region that has thus far been under-represented in the more traditionally Western field of speculative fiction. Part of the reason for this in the past has been the language barrier, but this is no longer the case; with English as the lingua franca the world over, more and more people in Southeast Asia know the language fluently. And while publications such as The Apex Book of World SF and Expanded Horizons have created friendly venues for SEA writers in English, the support is largely not there for speculative writing in their own countries, because it may be deemed “frivolous” or “not pragmatic enough.”
It is true that Western writers such as Paolo Bacigalupi and Geoff Ryman have shone a speculative light on SEA countries such as Thailand (The Windup Girl) and Cambodia (The King’s Last Song), but we can go even further to promote the genre and the region. LONTAR is engaged with publishing speculative fiction, non-fiction articles, poetry, and sequential art from both SEA and non-SEA writers, in order to spread awareness of this literature to readers who might not normally be exposed to it, and to celebrate its existence and diversity within the region.