As Indonesia gears up to be the guest of honor country at next year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest and most important trade fair of its kind worldwide, local players of the industry — including writers, publishers and translators — are currently preparing to ensure that the country’s performance will be a successful and memorable one.
This year, the Frankfurt Book Fair will take place from Oct. 8 to 12, and as a foretaste for what is to come next year, there will be a series of Indonesia-related events, culminating in the official handover ceremony, during which this year’s guest of honor country, Finland will pass the torch to Indonesia.
Dewi Lestari, the author of several bestselling books, including “Supernova” and “Perahu Kertas” (“Paper Boats”), is scheduled to travel to Germany in early October to attend the fair as well as the handover ceremony. The 38-year-old spoke with the Jakarta Globe about her role and the importance of the Frankfurt Book Fair, and how she manages to juggle her many different roles as mother, wife, writer, singer and songwriter all at the same time.
Q: What exactly will your role be during the official handover ceremony, and how were you chosen for it?
A: My role, as Indonesia’s representative, is to receive the [guest of honor] scroll from Finland, a symbolic gesture to acknowledge the honor of being the next GoH at the Frankfurt Book Fair. There will be a short conversation between me and Finland’s representative afterward on stage.
I think it was [Indonesian poet] Goenawan Mohamad and the National Committee who chose me for the handover ceremony. Although I’m sure they would know the reasons better than I do, I think I was chosen because of my [previous] experience at international literary events. They would also want someone who can represent Indonesia’s book industry and I’ve been a published writer for 13 years now, so I could add a thing or two about the situation of our industry.
In addition to the handover ceremony, what other Indonesia-related events at the Frankfurt Book Fair will you attend?
I will have a session with [actor, director and screenwriter] Slamet Rahardjo where we will be talking about Indonesian cinema. The session will begin with the screening of “Rectoverso,” which is the movie adapted of my short story collections and has won several awards in Indonesia and Asia.
Besides the Frankfurt Book Fair, what else is on the agenda for your trip to Germany?
I will give a talk in Dussman, Berlin, on Oct. 14. I was told it is a very prestigious venue for writers. I am truly honored.
Looking ahead to next year, how important do you think it is for Indonesia to be the GoH country at the Frankfurt Book Fair?
Basically, all eyes will be on Indonesia. The Frankfurt Book Fair is the biggest book event in the world. I heard many complaints about how unrecognizable Indonesian literature is on an international level, and that only few names were ever heard of, like Pramoedya Ananta Toer and recently Andrea Hirata, and that the situation has been stagnant for a long time. There hasn’t been a real breakthrough in introducing Indonesian literature to the world.
Being GoH of the Frankfurt Book Fair is a golden chance for Indonesia. But I’m worried our government doesn’t realize this. I don’t even think most people are aware of the importance of this event. Our role has to be promoted on a national scale, because not only will the book industry benefit from it, but the creative economy as well. [Indonesia’s role as GoH] should be perceived as a huge cultural event and opportunity. We need to showcase our country and culture as optimally as we can.
What do you think must be done in order to make next year’s fair a successful one?
Our preparation time for the Frankfurt Book Fair is extremely short. The government is also being very slow and rather vague in its support. I heard the terms for receiving translation funding are rather impossible; they give a one-month deadline for finishing the whole translation. Anybody in their right mind knows good translation work can’t be done in only one month, especially with the scarcity of good translators. So it’s a deadlock.
We need to take initiative. Everybody who is involved in the book industry has to promote the Frankfurt Book Fair to the masses. It’s a golden opportunity which should be celebrated by our creative industry. We won’t only display books, but we will also introduce our culinary treasures, our dances, our culture, our music and share those beauties to the world. If the government is holding back their support, for whatever reason, then we must actively work outside of that frame.
Have you found a German publisher that has shown interest in your novels?
It’s a tricky situation. I wrote eight books, but only one book has been translated into English. Some writers with dozens of books under their belts may not even have a single English translation. All this time, we have never really paid attention to the importance of translations. Therefore, being the guest of honor [country] at the Frankfurt Book Fair [can also be seen as ] a slap in the face; it’s either a blessing or a curse.
There won’t be enough time to translate a whole book. So basically we can only translate a synopsis into English or German and try to sell the rights to international publishers. The trade will only start this October, so we’ll see.
Currently, there is a new “challenge” making its rounds in social media circles, where people can nominate their friends to compile a list of books that have inspired them the most. What books would make it to your list?
I think it will be interesting to introduce work like Es Tito’s “Negeri Kelima” (“The Fifth Country”). The book packages Indonesia’s history in a popular, fast-paced tale — something we don’t see so often in the market.
Are you working on a new book at the moment?
Yes. I just finished the fifth installment of my Supernova series, called “Gelombang” (“Wave”). It’ll be out in bookstores on Oct. 17. I will start writing the final book immediately afterward.
Are there any other outlets through which you would like to unleash your creativity, like film, theater or art?
Aside from writing books, I am still involved in the music industry, although mostly as a songwriter and as a stage performer. I am partly involved in movies too. I wrote my first screenplay for “Perahu Kertas” two years ago. But since I want to focus on finishing my Supernova series, I can’t afford to get involved in any other creative projects, at least for another one or two years. I’m seriously planning to write a cook book, though.
You are a mother, a wife, a writer, a singer and a songwriter. Don’t you ever get tired?
Those roles can be overwhelming, indeed. It’s like a juggling game, day in and day out. Every day I learn to set my priorities straight, to work more efficiently and effectively. My office is practically at home, and I still have daily household chores and a family to take care of. So I’m very stingy with my time. I say no to most meetings. I live in the suburbs, in the south of Tangerang, and it’ll cost me a whole day for a one-hour meeting in Jakarta. Regarding my work, I rely on e-mail and phone communications.
To finish my latest book, I need to wake up before everybody else at home, so I still have that silence and uninterrupted moment. For months, I’ve woken up at 4 a.m. and written for two to three hours straight. I’ve declined most talk show and TV invitations for almost a year. At first, I was shaky because I felt like I was missing out on opportunities, but I gradually learned to see what really matters. I can’t stress more how important it is to see the distinction. Sometimes we’re just busy without being truly productive.