In Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan’s debut novel Beauty is a Wound, the protagonist Dewi Ayu rises after being dead for 21 years. Other ghosts abound in the novel, which spans centuries of Indonesian history. In his second novel, Man Tiger – a slim crime novel, whereas Beauty is a Wound is a sprawling saga – the young man Margio contains within him a white tigress.
Both novels, which have been translated into English, have established Kurniawan’s reputation as one of the most exciting young novelists working today. Benedict Anderson called him “...Indonesia’s most original living writer of novels and short stories, and its most unexpected meteorite.” In person, Kurniawan is self-effacing, warm, and thoughtful. Excerpts from an interview:
The speculative elements of both your novels are fascinating. In your own reading, what has been most important to you?
I think I was lucky because when I was a teenager the only books available for me to read were pulp fiction and horror. I didn’t know anything about “high” literature because I grew up in a small town, so I just borrowed books from the small library at school. I read popular novels, pulp novels and martial art novels. When I was thinking of becoming a writer, what came to my mind is that I want to write what interests me.
At the same time, when I was in university, I studied philosophy, but sometimes philosophy was so boring for me to read, that I just went to the library and found Dostoevsky, Garcia Marquez, Tolstoy. I read all of them.
So when I wrote my first novel I was influenced by all of these different elements. I didn’t worry about whether it was literature, I wanted to tell an entertaining story with historical elements. I think first of all the job of the writer is to ensure that the reader can read from the very first sentence to the end. No matter how serious your theme, the work should be entertaining.
Which Indonesian writers have been the most important to you?
I always mention three. First, of course, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the famous novelist. Then there is horror writer Abdullah Harahap, and Javanese-Chinese writer Kho Ping Hoo, who usually wrote martial art novels. These are the people I’ve been reading since I was in my early teenage years, and they have influenced me more than any other writers.
Since the Man Booker Interntional Prize nomination, your work has received a flood of international attention. Part of this involves travelling and being expected, in some senses, to represent Indonesia. Do you experience this as a burden, and how does it come into play with your own position as a writer within Indonesia?
I’ve been writing for over fifteen years. In Indonesia itself I used to be not very famous, and my books were only reprinted twice, maybe, and nobody talked about me. But after two of my books were published in English and the Booker nomination, people started to read my books and in only one year the books were reprinted ten times. It’s something new for me and it’s surprising me. I used to never meet other writers, just a small circle of friends.
So when sometimes I go abroad people and expect me to represent Indonesia, I always say it’s not easy to represent Indonesia because I’m only one writer and only wrote two books – Indonesia is a very huge and too complex to be represented by me. All my novels so far are basically set in Java. I’m not as familiar with the other islands – I travel here and there, but Java is more familiar to me.
Sometimes I say my books never represent even myself.
I read somewhere that you only write when you want to. How does this work for you? I ask as I’ve often heard writers talk about the writing (and editing) as quite painful.
I read every day but I don’t write every day, but when I want to. Writing is painful because you have your own expectations, you want to achieve something. Because I know it is painful, I try to make it as fun as possible for myself. If the writing is not joyful for me, I think it won’t be joyful for the readers either.
You’re also a graphic designer. Have you ever written a graphic novel?
A long time ago, before I wrote my first novel, I wrote and illustrated a book. My first obsession was to become a graphic novelist because I read a lot of comic books and manga. It’s not easy to publish a graphic novel because there’s a small number of readers and very few publishers who want to publish anything like this. So I switched to writing novels, but at the same time I continued to do a lot of graphic design projects. I hope I will be able to write one in the future.
In an interview with BOMB Magazine, you spoke of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentaries about the 1965 mass killings in Indonesia. You said at the time that “history is a phantom”. Is that why you literally awakened the dead in your novel Beauty is a Wound – to jolt people into confronting a history they did not want to face?
In Indonesia, especially in the Suharto era (the book was written just two years after Suharto), it’s terrible to speak out about the tragedy of ‘65, about Communism and everything that happened. For us it’s like a ghost. We know the situation but we don’t want to talk about it.
So when I wrote the novel where the woman (the protagonist Dewi Ayu) comes back to life it was a way for me to talk about this deeply buried history. I just wanted to talk about everything in Indonesian history, not only about ‘65 actually, but about sexual violence against women, about colonialism, and the Japanese occupation.
It’s interesting that your protagonist in Beauty is a Wound is a sex worker, because sex workers are some of the most insensitively represented people in books (including fiction and nonfiction).
I wanted the historical perspective to be seen from very deep down because she’s a victim of the world but at the same time she’s a ghost, so she’s actually extraordinary. She doesn’t think about her outer body so much, she plays with the men she sleeps with like they are toys. She does things on her own terms. The same body which is so badly represented – she uses as a weapon.
Will you continue to explore themes of gender and sexuality in your work?
I explored this culture of violence from a different perspective in my third novel, which will be out in English later this year. In my first novel, I dealt with history. If you visit Indonesian history, and it will be the same with other parts of the world, you will find that every hero is a man, every fighter is a man, and stories are centered around men. I asked myself – where are the women?
The stories I read about women were about them being raped with Japanese soldiers, being abandoned by their families, struggling…For my second novel, I dealt with family. For the third, I wanted to examine masculinity, of which men are sometimes themselves victims.
What are you working on now?
Now I’m working on a movie script based on my third novel, Love and Vengeance.