Report Ade Mardiyati
The name Abdullah Harahap may not ring a bell among young Indonesians, but ask anyone who was in their teens in the 1970s or ’80s, and chances are they can remember feeling terrified after reading one of the 67-year-old’s best-selling horror-mystery novels.
Since 1969, Abdullah has released around 130 books (even he is not sure of the exact number), making him one of the most prolific authors in history.
He got his break while in high school in Medan, when a local magazine published one of his short stories.
After spending time attending law school and working as a journalist (experiences that would later filter down into his books), Abdullah decided to switch full-time to fiction.
And while he’s best known for horror, his first efforts were, surprisingly enough, in the romance genre. He estimates that since 1969 he’s written about 60 romance novels.
A haunting run-in with a rape victim during his college years inspired him to start writing horror in the early ’70s. His books quickly began flying off the shelves, and publishers started fighting furiously for the publication rights.
Popularity comes at a price, however, and Abdullah has spent much of his career defending himself against piracy, plagiarism and charges of pornography.
In the ’70s, he went to court to defend one of his stories that the Suharto-led government deemed pornographic. He was acquitted thanks largely to the help of prominent literary scholar HB Jassin.
But Indonesia’s literati have not always been so supportive, often labeling Abdullah’s writing as “cheesy.”
These days, Abdullah writes mainly for sinetrons, but is planning a new novel inspired by the greed and incompetence he sees in the House of Representatives.
The Jakarta Globe had the opportunity to sit with the legendary author at his peaceful home in Bandung to talk more about the stories he wrote, his glory days as a best-selling writer and his thoughts on the critics.
What inspired you to start writing horror-mystery stories?
There was this mentally disturbed woman who used to walk around in the neighborhood where I studied law. One day I found out that she was pregnant.
People said that a group of men raped her. I just couldn’t understand how they could have the heart to do such a thing to her.
Based on that I used my imagination: what if she took revenge on those who had hurt her. I developed it into a story titled “Dikejar Dosa” (“Chased by the Sin”).
Did people like the story?
Yes. [Famous] film director Wim Umboh even contacted me and made a film.
Why are your stories called ‘cheesy?’
Honestly, I really don’t know. But I was often referred to as the Indonesian version of French writer Emile Zola. I read his books and found something in common between us: our writing uses the language and style that is easy to digest by the readers.
And in one publication, I found out that his writing was often labeled as “cheesy.” So I assumed that it is because our stories are not difficult to read and tend to avoid jargon.
I notice that the harder and more complex a [piece of] writing is to read, people will label it literature. On the other hand, the easier and simpler the story is to read, people will label it cheesy.
Did the label make you angry?
Well, yes, because I felt that [literary critics] only judged it from one side. They did not see other angles of my writing. I inserted a lot of social issues, human interactions and other moral values into my stories.
But then I thought, why should I care about the label? I wrote for people to enjoy my books and to be aware of what happened around them, not to make their life difficult, trying hard to understand every sentence I wrote.
Now tell me, what is literature and what’s the limit to it?
What happened in the early ’70s when you were accused of writing a pornographic story?
Mayapada magazine serialized my story titled “Budak dan Budak” (“A Slave and a Slave”) over several editions.
In one installment, I was describing one character, a man, who was being cared for by a woman who financed his life, such as his college fees and stuff.
At the same time, the man felt as if he was the woman’s slave, including in sex. And that was when the story was considered porn.
The Ministry of Information at that time was very strict. Anything related to sex and actions considered to be against the government quickly invited reactions from them.
How did you beat the charge?
Thanks to HB Jassin, who became the [expert witness] in court. He said that such a thing could not be considered porn, and that what I described was required in the story.
And if it were not there, it wouldn’t have made a story. And then they released me.
You were the darling of many publishers for many years. Why was that?
Every horror-mystery book I wrote that they published sold out immediately in the market and needed to be reprinted in just a few months.
They approached me to have me submit my scripts and then they would publish them.
You said two people adopted pen names that were suspiciously similar to yours to get readers to buy their books. How did that happen?
When I had a stroke in 1991, I couldn’t move my left hand and had to stop writing for three years. During my absence, there were no new books from me.
The publishers needed to keep the business going. And what they did was to have other people write similar themes and copy my style.
What was more terrible, they changed their names to sound like Abdullah Harahap.
One guy, a Sundanese who worked as a math teacher, bore the name Nasrullah Harahap, while another guy, a Betawinese, became Abdullah Siregar. Each managed to publish five and three books, respectively.
What was your reaction?
I found out about it and looked for them, although I was still sick. They apologized to me. For me, it wouldn’t be a problem if they used their own names, but this was terrible.
What were some of the other downsides of your fame?
A group of publishers known as Grup Pasar Inpres managed to lure me to leave my previous publishing group. They said, “We are also from North Sumatra and of the same religion.” Turned out they destroyed my books.
What do you mean by destroyed?
They printed them on bad quality paper, reduced the stories and printed a lot more copies than what we had agreed. We had a deal to print 8,000 but behind my back they printed up to 30,000.
I found out about it when, even after a year, there was no request to reprint. It was very unusual.
However, what really made me furious was they added sex parts to what I had written. The stories became seriously vulgar.
I threatened that I would bring the case to court if they did not pull all the books from the market. That was unbelievable.
A close friend also cheated me. He printed up to 20 titles of my books and sold them in Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore without asking my permission.
They changed my name as the author and also changed the language into Malay. But the stories, from A to Z, were exactly the same.
What was your reaction?
I was speechless. However, I never wanted to be dealing with the law, so I never reported all these crimes against me.
You have written a great number of horror-mystery stories. Are you a brave person yourself, in the sense that you are not afraid of ghosts?
I am afraid of ghosts [laughs]! I have never seen them but because of what I wrote I get scared. Very often when I wrote, I got really scared of the character I was describing. When that happened, I stopped writing and took a break.
What were you scared of?
I felt that something or someone was watching and ready to attack me. Once I jumped out of my seat while I was in the middle of describing something scary and the lights went out.
I called my wife and lit three candles and did not let her leave me.
What are your hopes?
Every time I pray, I ask God to grant me health and strength. Not only physical and strength in my faith, but also the strength to be able to use my imagination [to write] like what has been granted to me all this time.
Report Ade Mardiyati