Jakarta. Only a handful of Indonesian writers have had their work published internationally in English and fewer still have reaped great reviews from respected critics.
Author Eka Kurniawan has entered this elite circle with this month’s publication of the English translation of his two early novels: “Cantik Itu Luka” or “Beauty Is a Wound” (New Directions), and “Lelaki Harimau” or “Man Tiger” (Verso).
Having been featured in the book section of prestigious magazines and newspapers worldwide, including the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review, both books have been dubbed two of the most anticipated books this fall.
The former work employs satire, humor and hyperbole — in its tale of a prostitute named Dewi Ayu in the fictional Javanese city of Halimunda — to draw an image of Indonesia’s turbulent past, from the Japanese occupation era to the mass killings of the 1960s to the decades under the authoritarian New Order regime. Meanwhile, the slim “Man Tiger” occupies itself with Margio, a supernatural half-man, half-tiger youngster, at the heart of its story.
Known for his masterful blend of magical realism as well as critical take on the darker side of Indonesian history, the 39-year-old writer is now widely perceived as a leading figure who best represents the country’s contemporary literary scene.
Eka recently corresponded with the Jakarta Globe via e-mail from Seattle, where he participated in a talk about his novels at the city’s Asian Art Museum, before making an appearance at the Brooklyn Book Festival 2015 this Sunday.
Q: Your first novel, “Cantik Itu Luka,” was finally published as “Beauty Is a Wound” by New Directions 13 years after its original publication date in Indonesian. Could you tell us about the process it took to get this particular novel published in English?
A: In the beginning, my translator, Annie Tucker, sent me her translation sample of the first chapter of “Cantik Itu Luka.” She later asked if she could translate the whole book. Because I liked her translation, I gave her my permission to continue. It was quite a long process, more than two years. In the midst of her translation process, she received the PEN/Heim Translation Award from PEN American Center [a leading literature association] for her translation sample of that book. Later, some publishers became interested to publish “Cantik Itu Luka,” including New Directions.
Some international book critics have praised “Beauty Is a Wound” as an exemplary work of contemporary Indonesian literature, comparing its magical realism element with the work of Gabriel García Márquez, among others. What is your take on this comparison?
As in several other occasions, I never really think about such comparisons. It normally happens with many other writers. If not with Márquez, people can easily compare me with anyone else — with Pramoedya [Ananta Toer], [Nikolai] Gogol, [Herman] Melville, Salman Rushdie, anyone. It’s not something that I’m proud of, nor is it something that annoys me.
Indonesian history plays a big part in “Beauty Is a Wound,” from the Japanese colonial era to the New Order decades. What made you want to write a historical tale set in the past, rather than one with a more current setting?
I initially intended that novel as a horror story. I like horror novels and I’m a reader of Abdullah Harahap’s work. That novel opens with a scene of a corpse rising from her grave. But when I was writing it, I thought it would be fun if that “horror novel” can develop in a certain time setting that spans several family generations. Indirectly, I then played around with history. Because of its initial nature, I don’t think it’s easy to call my novel as a “historical novel,” as it was never intended to be one in the very first place.
You have written and published novels as well as short stories. What are the differences you experience in your writing process for each form?
The difference between each form makes the process different. Because it can be worked on faster, I tend to experiment with short stories. Many have failed, while some I like. Short stories are akin to a writing laboratory for me.
Meanwhile, when I’m writing a novel, I can already imagine that the process will take years. I more often re-write a novel than a short story because I think, within this long period, there is always a possibility that the tempo, style and even focus become out of sync. So from the very beginning, I always imagine the novel as something that will eventually get finished.
Your books have now been translated into several foreign languages, including Japanese and Italian. Do you think these translations can express the essence of your work well? Are some aspects — perhaps those related to Indonesian culture — inevitably lost in translation?
There will be elements that are lost in translation — it’s inevitable. The best way is to make sure that it is being translated directly from Indonesian by a translator who more or less understands the context of Indonesian culture — and even its politics. So if the translation is not exactly on point, I hope it wouldn’t be off too far.
The second way is by asking the editor to take a look at the other editions. For example, my Italian editor would compare with the English translation. Having your work translated into several languages at the same time is very helpful for this kind of comparison.
You grew up in West Java and then studied philosophy at Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta. What literature works or which writers were influential for you during that early period of your life? How about now?
When I was a teenager, I read “novel picisan” [the term roughly translates to pulp fiction mainly characterized by violence and sex] by the likes of Abdullah Harahap and Asmaraman S. Kho Ping Hoo, and even erotic novels. But when I was in university, I started reading the international literary canon: [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Melville, [Miguel de] Cervantes, and others. Their books have influenced me in a way.
Now, thanks to the Internet and the ease to get any books, I am keen to try reading anything and anyone that pique my interest, including young authors rising to the surface of “world literature.” Of course, I also keep an eye on Indonesian young writers as well as go back reading the classics again every now and then.
Indonesia will be the guest of honor at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, which is the largest of its kind in the world. What is your opinion on the current landscape of Indonesian literature? Is there any contemporary Indonesian writer whose work you admire?
There are many young talented writers who are well-read, such as Andina Dwifatma and Norman Erikson Pasaribu. Poets Mario F. Lawi and Aan Mansyur have also caught my attention with their poetry. And don’t forget those from my own generation: Intan Paramaditha, Ugoran Prasad, Ratih Kumala, Puthut E.A., Gunawan Maryanto, Agus Noor, and some others.
I think the landscape of our literature is very varied. It’s only a matter of time until the world discovers it, I believe.
On the other hand, do you think more Indonesians read and appreciate local literature now?
When it comes to quantity, I can’t tell for sure. Publishers and bookstores perhaps have a better data on whether the number of our readers is increasing or not. Of course, if we are looking at social media — Facebook, Twitter or Goodreads — we might assume that people’s reading enthusiasm is on the rise.
But who knows, maybe those who are enthusiastic about books right now are the same people from the previous years — only now they have a medium to talk about books or literature.
What can we expect from you next?
I’m looking forward to publishing my fourth novel. Other than that, there is a possibility that my third novel, “Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas” [“Like Vengeance, Yearning Must Be Paid Back in Full”] will also be published in foreign languages. That particular novel is closer to my literary vision right now, and that obviously made me more enthusiastic this time.