Indonesian author Richard Oh is a lover, not a fighter. His love of literature has taken him around the world, brought him national acclaim, led him down a few dead ends, but always onward through life. Even his latest venture, the paperback-packed Reading Room cafe in Kemang, South Jakarta, is a labor of his love for the written word.
“It’s the kind of place that very softly seduces you into reading,” he says with a smile that implies his own love affair with books is far from over.
Seated by a rain-smudged window on the second floor of his new coffee shop, 52-year-old Oh is quick to lose himself in conversation. Every so often, he cuts himself off mid-sentence to leap up and find a title to recommend.
Soon the table is cluttered with books, but Oh’s mind plows through, exploring his thoughts on writing, filmmaking and the state of Indonesian publishing.
A Man of Letters
Since he started writing in 1998, Oh has completed three novels and two films. He also cofounded the Khatulistiwa Literary Award, established in 2001 in collaboration with Takeshi Ichiki of Plaza Senayan, and even founded his own chain of bookstores, QB World Books.
Oh knows that it takes a lot of dedication and hard work to publish a book. After studying English literature and creative writing at the University of Wisconsin in the United States, it took at least 15 years for him to work up the courage to complete his first novel.
Until then, Oh had been working as an advertising copywriter in Jakarta. But when his own words finally started to flow from his pen, there was no stopping him.
“You never question about writing when you’re driven to write,” he says. “It’s in your blood. It’s like if you don’t write, something in you is going to die soon.”
It was the riots in Jakarta in May 1998 that finally kicked Oh into gear with his writing. Propelled forward by the country’s transformations at that time, Oh completed his first book, “Pathfinders of Love” in only nine months.
His second book, “Heart of the Night,” came just as quickly. Both told the stories of artists in the Chinese community and their place in a changing Indonesia.
His third book, “The Rainmaker’s Daughter,” took four years to write, and “from that time to now, I think I’ve written about 20 pages,” he laughs. “But I have produced two films, so that’s not bad.”
From Book to Film
After the success of Oh’s feature-length film “Koper” (“The Lost Suitcase”) in 2006, he decided to again try his hand at visual storytelling with “Description Without Place,” due for release later this year.
The film is based on a poem by American poet Stevens, and tells the story of three women in Bali whose lives cross paths, though they never meet.
For Oh, the fun of filmmaking is not in making one picture worth a thousand words, but in using pictures to enrich words and vice versa. Pictures need words, he says, to bring out their “unsaid” elements.
“The visual is so open that it’s in fact limiting, you see,” he says. “When you look at something visually, there is an overwhelming amount of possibilities. So my interest is in how to collide the two — the limitations of the visual and the limitations of narration — to create something new.”
With the film completed, Oh moved back to Jakarta from Bali again dedicated himself to the world of books.
The Business of Books
There was a time when Oh’s QB World bookstores could be found all over the capital — “too many of them, that’s why I had to close them down one by one,” he says.
But despite its business mistakes, QB World was a worthwhile venture, as it paved the way for the quality bookstores found in Jakarta today.
In 2003, Oh and QB were among the first to launch the works of esteemed national author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, whose writings were banned under Suharto’s New Order. But while Pram’s books can still be found in full collections in most bookstores here, other Indonesian authors have not been so lucky.
Oh says that it is not just a problem of international exposure, but also internal problems in the country’s publishing industry that are holding many Indonesian authors back.
“Publishers are more interested in new books than worrying about the backlist,” he says. “Which to me is a kind of stupid because the true value of an author is the backlist, not the new books.”
Relics of QB’s glory days can be found among the spines at Oh’s new Reading Room. Instead of joining the race for profits in the book business, Oh has allowed his favorite titles to retire in dignity among the shelves of the library-inspired lounge and cafe.
Some of the books are for sale, while the rest are simply there to inspire readers to take them down from the shelf and lose themselves among the pages for an afternoon.
Being surrounded by books again has even got Oh contemplating his next literary work.
“The American author [Robert] Olen Butler once confessed that it was only after writing five novels that he began to understand how to write a novel,” Oh says. “So I guess I need to write two more novels to even understand how to begin.”