Manhattan's East Village has a storied literary past, but on a recent Sunday, there was a different sort of bookish chatter in the neighborhood.
A group had gathered to celebrate the literary traditions of Indonesia--specifically the traditions of five of that country's nearly 800 languages. It was the first in a series of events put together by a group called the Endangered Language Alliance to shine light on the literature of disappearing languages – ones that have a shrinking number of native speakers.
Tontemboan is the most endangered of the five languages -- today it's spoken by somewhere around 100,000 people. Like most disappearing languages, it's not being passed along to younger generations.
Rose Monintja, a native speaker, read "The Story of Lumimuut and Toar," which, like a lot of creation myths, is a strange one. It involves a crow and a perspiring stone, a couple handfuls of dirt magically turning into an island, and two main characters that are part Adam-and-Eve and part Oedipus.
"Our parents, they speak Tontemboan, "Monintja says. "But in the school I didn't learn Tontemboan. In the school: Indonesian language."
She says her Tontemboan-speaking parents actually encouraged her to learn Bahasa Indonesia—the country’s national language. Her parents thought it was key to their kids getting a better education than they had.
She and her husband Alfrits both left the thousand-person village they grew up in, moving first to a provincial capital, then to Jakarta. In the mid-90s they moved to Queens, an immigrant-rich borough in New York City. They both still understand Tontemboan, but their speaking is a little rusty.
The stories they’ve been asked to read by the Endangered Language Alliance are actually not known today among native speakers—they’ve been gathering dust in a study put together 100 years ago by a Dutch missionary.
"Many of these missionaries had a real authentic interest in the religious beliefs and the spiritual life of the people they were trying to convert. And, ironically, now our only window into that world is through their work," says Daniel Kaufman, a specialist in Indonesian languages and founder of the Endangered Language Alliance.
The Dutch study collected tons of information about the Tontemboan language, but, since it’s written in Dutch, it’s been inaccessible to Tontemboan speakers. Kaufman thinks it’s high time that linguists start restoring this kind of knowledge to people who still speak these languages.
“Many, many people feel that knowledge, and history, and culture has been taken from them by Western academics and never returned,” he says.
It’s particularly fitting that the Monintjas are performing these stories, since the Dutch missionary originally recorded them in the same small village where Rose and her husband were born.
Reading through the Tontemboan story, and getting ready to perform it on stage, brought back strong memories of that village for Rose.
"When I'm reading this I just feel like so close," she says. "Like I'm there--I'm here but I'm over there, I'm in my village. I just almost cry because I can…oh my gosh…my dad is pass away already three years ago. I just remember him all the time when I hear that. Because in my ear, he's always calling me, 'Oh, Rose, Kumano ko mayo oh.' Tontemboan stuff, I love that."
Rose and her husband get together regularly to speak in Tontemboan with other expats in the area, trying to keep the language and memories alive. And they were pleased to discover that their daughter had managed to pick up some. Rose's parents spent a lot of time with them when their daughter was first born.
A few years later, her daughter noticed Rose's leg bothering her. Out of nowhere, the daughter came up with the Tontemboan phrase for "your leg is in pain" that she remembered hearing her grandmother say. "I say 'What!? Oh my gosh, she knows that!'" Rose remembers, smiling.
Rose said she even bragged on Facebook about performing Tontemboan in New York City. And she got props from her daughter, now 12-years-old, after her performance. Rose thanked her daughter, although she didn’t say it in Tontemboan, she said it in Indonesian, which her daughter understands better.