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Letters and Fists

Notes of an Indonesian writer
Art for Letters and Fists.
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Eka Kurniawan, hailed by the BBC as “Indonesia’s most exciting author,” writes novels, short stories, essays, and screenplays. His books include Beauty is a Wound (2015), a New York Times Notable Book; Man Tiger (2015), a finalist for the Booker Prize; and Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (2017), which was adapted into a film that won a Locarno Leopard Prize.

What follows are excerpts from essays that were originally published on Kurniawan’s blog—brief reflections on reading, writing, and Indonesian society. The weekly posts have recently been collected in two anthologies, A Louder Silence and Attempts at a Reading Genealogy (both 2019), published by Yogyakarta-based Circa Press.

—Annie Tucker


Pangandaran

I spent New Year’s 2013 in Pangandaran. I’ve always loved this little city, which smells of the sea. Born in Tasikmalaya, I moved here at ten and stayed through high school.[1] My mother still lives here, and I often visit her. Sometimes I stay inside the house and don’t even touch my feet to the beach sand—inhaling the aroma from my window is enough, and I can bake in the sun just by walking to the mini-market. But on occasion, I recall my adolescence: how, after coming home from school, I would go to the beach with a novel or comic and sit there reading under a Pandan tree.

Pangandaran might be a modest city, but writers have not ignored it. The warrior in Bastian Tito’s serial Wiro Sableng[2] fought here in Uproar in Pangandaran and Doomsday in Pangandaran—I don’t know whether this city even existed in the era of roving bandits, but does it really matter? Pangandaran also makes an appearance in Abdullah Harahap’s Coffin Mystery. In his work all towns along the southern coast of West Java are associated with mysticism, the practice of witchcraft, and black magic. And songs: I’ve always liked Doel Sumbang’s “Pangandaran,” about a couple who makes love on the city’s beaches. The lyrics are in Sundanese, which makes them sound all the more intoxicating.

I myself have mentioned Pangandaran a few times in short stories, always lovingly. It is to me what I imagine Blanes was to Roberto Bolaño or Dublin was to James Joyce. That might be going a bit overboard, but it’s true. The only issue is that there are no bookstores here, nor are there any libraries. Whatever else the city has or doesn’t have, the absence of books is just depressing.

And yet it came to pass that someone from Pangandaran once lived and dreamed of becoming a writer. Only God knows what kind of devil possessed him. My reading was so limited then. Martial arts serials, trashy novels, horror—that and short stories in teen magazines were all I could get, aside from maybe a few tales of the prophets and holy men. Oh, and two books from Australia, an anthology of short stories, and a children’s book, all of which my father brought me. I don’t know where he got them—he never went abroad—but there are only two possibilities. Either he bought them at a used bookstore (at that time he often traveled to big cities like Jakarta or Bandung) or a pen pal sent them as part of their correspondence. This second is more likely since he often received postcards from faraway places. My father was the kind of man who would have gladly bought us all the books in the world if he could afford to. Unfortunately, he couldn’t, so he only ever bought us a few.

Back when I was younger, I would often return here, shut myself in the back room where my father kept the shirts and screen-printing ink for his small souvenir T-shirt business, and write longhand in a lined composition book. There in that room, with no disturbances and only the warmth coming off the beach for company, I wrote a number of stories. Now I rarely write here; instead, I read. When I’m preparing for a visit, I fill any extra space in my bag with books.

A friend once asked me in jest: If Indonesia split apart like Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, which nationality would I choose? Having thought about it, I’m now sure I would choose to be a citizen of the “Pangandaran Republic,” even though it has been said the only passport befitting a writer is their best work and their only homeland is the language they use.

—January 3, 2013


Indonesian Literary Gems

Someone once asked me why I never talk about Indonesian literature—was it because I hadn’t read any of it? As the saying goes, there’s no good answer to a bad question. I’ve discussed Indonesian literature and literary works on multiple occasions and in respected forums. My first book was in fact a study of Pramoedya Ananta Toer.[3] I’m a fan of Asrul Sani’s short stories. In my youth, I would read anything by Kris Mas—although this is already a bit broad since he is not Indonesian but Malaysian. I have never hidden my admiration for two significant writers, Asmaraman S. Kho Ping Hoo and Abdullah Harahap; the warriors, brawlers, and ghosts in my novels are of course an inheritance from both. I’ve read and reread S.H. Mintardja’s Nagasasra and the Diamond Belt, an epic novel in the silat genre. [4] Also Tiger Man by S.B. Chandra, which blends folk legends about a tiger-man, a figure similar to the werewolf in the Western tradition. That title, and Seven Tiger Men by Motinggo Busye, inspired me to write Man Tiger.

Some might not consider these two writers as literary. And maybe that’s the real issue: the works considered part of the Indonesian canon—which I’m not sure even really exists—are not always those that interest me.

If a writer’s work is never far from what they read, I can with full assurance point to these gems: they are my literary history.

If I lived in Europe, I would buy dime-store novels. If I lived in America, I would seek out pulp fiction. If I lived in China, I would devour wu xia. I read books that interest me, not those deemed valuable. To borrow a concept from Borges, I am a hedonist reader. My Indonesian “literary” gems (I’m using quotation marks because maybe many wouldn’t consider them literary) are hard to find both in big bookstores and in places like the H.B. Jassin Literary Documentation Center[5]. They are rather in minor novels rarely considered by critics, academics, or even other writers. I seek them out in used bookstores or from secondhand booksellers online.

A friend living in America recently sent me an email just to ask, “Have you read the novel Six Balax?” After searching for months, I found it, amazingly, at a dirt-cheap price, from an online used bookseller. Printed in 1977, two years after I was born, it was by a writer from Tegal named Hino Minggo, a professed O. Henry fan who calls his main character the “Native Super Spy.” Just the titles of different episodes had me laughing out loud: “The Man with the Golden Machete,” “Dirty Marni Crazy Larso,” “The Revenge of Afkiran’s Disciples.” James Bond and Nick Carter feel tame in comparison.

As a teenager dreaming of myself as a writer, those were the kinds of novels I wanted to write. Of course, with only fair-to-middling ability and education, I never succeeded. But when I finally published my first novel, these desires and tastes were still evident on the page. If a writer’s work is never far from what they read, I can with full assurance point to these gems: they are my literary history. The history of Indonesian literature in my work.

—January 28, 2013

Enggar Rhomadioni, courtesy Circa Press

Night Fair

Sometimes I bring my daughter Kidung Kinanti to night fairs. It doesn’t take much convincing to get her to ride the Ferris wheel and the merry-go-round—she enjoys the rides, though she sits there perfectly still, tense, eyes wide. Who knows what goes on in a two-year-old’s mind? Her father prefers to watch the crowd, especially the workers and merchants—selling games, clothing, food, even pirated CDs and DVDs—that are a part of any fair troupe.

The last fair we visited was in Independence Square, right in front of my mother’s house in Pangandaran. According to my younger sister, who runs a laundry-by-the-kilo business, the ride operators and merchants comprise a band that moves from one square to another, one city to another. “The gypsies wash their clothes here,” she says. I don’t know where she got the idea to call them that, but maybe she’s right, if in fact they’ve chosen a nomadic lifestyle.

I imagine the head of this night fair troupe is an old man like Melquíades in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. They don’t display ice or magnets that can pull pots and pans down the road but, from what I’ve heard, they display Merapi mummies—maybe a lamb or bird or some other wild animal smothered to death by the billowing smoke of its volcanic eruption. Of course, the most popular attraction is the haunted house, where people pay to be terrified. Bloodcurdling sounds and shrill cackles possibly lifted from Suzzanna films[6] play through a loudspeaker. While most of us aren’t frightened by a male voice, we piss our pants at a woman’s high-pitched laughter: subconscious gender discrimination in action.

William Faulkner once said the best place for a writer is the whorehouse: you’re surrounded by friends, you can talk and drink all night—and of course, there’s the sex—but it’s barren as a desert in the daytime, good for reading, writing, and daydreaming. I think it’s the same with a circus troupe or a night fair. Besides, traveling to different places would be a plus.

As a child, I would imagine running away from home and joining the Holiday Circus with its night market gang whenever it come to Pangandaran, but I didn’t have the guts. And suddenly I am reminded of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s It’s Not An All Night Fair, one of his best novels, and one of the finest works of Indonesian literature. The novel talks about the relationship between fathers and sons, between life and death. Unlike a night fair, he says, we come into this world one by one and we leave one by one.

But why a night fair? To me, beyond the question of arrival and departure, life in fact quite resembles a night fair. People come to have a good time, to be entertained by something they know is an illusion, hoping to return home with a full stomach and a smile on their face. Doesn’t God say in the Quran, that, like a night fair, “Life in this world is nothing but an amusement and play?”

—January 7, 2013


Toys

Flipping through the television channels one day, I happened on a special program about literature. That’s unusual, I thought, and watched for a bit. After some rather airy remarks from a moderator, who discussed arts, culture, and literature in the same breath, the camera cut to a university campus for an interview with a literature professor. Asked the usual question—What is literature?—the professor embarked on a long-winded answer, which included such claims as “literature is human thought and feeling captured and expressed through language” and “it’s the spirit of a people.” Turning the television off in boredom, I busied myself with the light work I do from time to time: picking up my daughter’s toys that are strewn all over the floor.

Like children delighted with their toys, us readers and writers will keep reading and writing, whether or not it seems useful to you.

Having a two-year-old, I’m always prepared to see the house in chaos. Dolls scattered here and there, some filthy, others stripped naked, others still missing eyes or ears; candles shaped into little statues stuck on the wall; a coloring book filled with scribbles; Legos piled next to little plastic fruits; and other random things that my child has taken a liking to for some reason. On weekends, her aunt sometimes brings her a toy. At least once a month, after receiving her paycheck, her mother does the same. I myself make sure to buy something for her every time I go out, even if I don’t bring anything home for anyone else. I often see her talking to her dolls. Sometimes she passes on advice others have given her: “Don’t be naughty; if you are, Bapak Galon[7] will come get you!” She sleeps with them. Lately, before going to bed she makes sure that a little paperweight turtle that I bought at a bookstore is by her side.

What would a child’s life be without toys? I’m sure there is a significant difference between children who play and those who don’t. And is it even true that little kids have a monopoly on toys? As teens we might play around with balls, with electric guitars, with surfboards. As adults, we play with cars or sex toys. And yet some people claim that toys are distractions.

People like this, I’m sure, look at literature in the same way. Why read a novel or poem, let alone write one? Like toys for children (and grown-ups), literature has no practical purpose for humankind. It’s not an umbrella that can protect your family from the heat or the rain. Nor is it a vehicle that can get you from one place to another. But, again, imagine a child who has never touched a toy: that’s what people are like without literature and the arts. So the next time you see a teenager reading Pramoedya Ananta Toer at the bus stop, remember your child stacking Legos. And if someone—let’s say, Joko Pinurbo[8]—is introduced to you as a poet, think of a little kid beating a plastic toy drum in a joyful, wild rhythm.

Of course, you may choose to ignore them and turn to things that are much more useful. But, like children delighted with their toys, us readers and writers will keep reading and writing, whether or not it seems useful to you. And literature professors will keep making their pretentious boasts about “the soul of a nation” that is the “processing of human thought and feeling through language.”

—April 8, 2013

Enggar Rhomadioni, courtesy Circa Press

Moral Message

At a middle school event at which I was a guest speaker, a teacher asked me why so much literature (and I’m sure he was including the two novels I had published at the time) “didn’t teach anything?” My answer was blunt, and somewhat adolescent: “I’m not a teacher, so why do I have to teach?”

Years later, I’m still annoyed by that question. Many teachers and parents think that novels should educate and communicate a moral. And it is not that I disagree. The hitch is that I (perhaps like most writers) have my own idea about what “teaching” is and my own way of determining “moral value.” Attempts to generalize such things only lead to censorship—or worse, tyranny.

In fact, it’s not just parents and teachers who think like that. Secretly, many writers and intellectuals do as well. Just look at literary awards—I’m loath to name which, people would accuse me of sour grapes, and besides, I don’t like to bad-mouth other writers because what’s the point? Work that’s bad is not worth commenting on; it’s better just not to read it at all. Let me just note how often a work wins an award because it purportedly talks about an issue. To me, evaluating the content of a literary work based on a particular context is just as terrible as demanding a moral from it. This work wins because it teaches us how children should act toward their parents. Phooey! This work wins because it sides with the oppressed. Phooey! I’m not saying all that isn’t important. A writer has to have a perspective—even has to have, I believe, a political opinion, an ideology, an aesthetic, and the like. But making one writer’s choice better than another’s is bullshit.

If a novel or a literary work is nothing but a vehicle for a certain message, it becomes no better than a form of public transportation. Chasing cargo. If the most important thing is that the message is delivered to the readers then our literary universe will be filled with writers who are as reckless as Jakarta minibus drivers. And they’ll be proud of it! Proud to have become writers with a cause, not caring that the way they write about it is depressing. Maybe it’s like Lenin said (and I’m quoting loosely here): “The sickness of the left is childishness.” Proud to have crammed a moral into their novel but having forgotten how to write one properly—let alone have any fun.

But, ah, why am I so irritable? I’m not a teacher who has to instruct others on how they should behave, nor do I have to instruct writers and intellectuals—they’re already clever enough to see their own foolishness. Maybe I should see a psychiatrist to relieve my aesthetic tension, my unnecessary agitations. Maybe a few milligrams of a mood stabilizer would be good for me, help me stay calm in the face of the disturbing goings-on in the literary world. As Bolaño said, us writers—good writers, and I hope I can be considered one of them, and even if I’m a bad writer, I’ll still follow his advice—don’t need anyone to sing and clap over our work. Why? Because we will and already have done so ourselves, we sing and clap for our own work. And I must remind myself: the only standards you need to consider are the once you have set for yourself.

If you want to write a moralizing tale, write it. If you want to write an amoral book, write it. What will make me read your novel, first and above all, is how it is written. Is it engaging or not? Exciting or not? If all you want to say is that “babies should breastfeed exclusively before the age of six months,” well, that only takes one line, not an entire novel.

—August 25, 2013


Achievement

1
Imagine you are a sprinter who can run one hundred meters in nine seconds—in other words, you aren’t just a world champion, you’ve broken the world record. Now imagine that you live in a small village in the middle of the jungle and have never been anywhere else. In your village, most people can run one hundred meters in fifteen seconds, others only in twenty. You will always beat them in races, but something else can also be assured: you’ll never actually run that nine seconds! Fourteen seconds will already feel quite remarkable. Why? It’s simple: no one would be pushing you to test your limits. There’d be no pressure to run one hundred meters in nine seconds. To me, this also applies to the literary world. If you surround yourself with mediocre writers, your fate will be sealed.

2
If we’re not given clear parameters about achievement, about good literature, we tend to create our own.

Imagine if there were no awards for good literature. Or imagine if there was an award for good literature, but the writers themselves—even those who had won it—were unsure of its legitimacy. Imagine one literary world which was filled with critics who could only praise (because after all, every work has its strengths) and another with critics confused about the nature of their own task, as if always one hundred and twenty steps behind.

A situation like that would be a kind of anarchy: everyone would determine their own parameters, and everyone would appear accomplished. We’d be like kindergarteners: whatever we did would earn a star. I imagine, at least for myself: I would give my novel to an astronaut and send it to the moon, have a picture taken of it under the American flag. I would say, “I’m a great writer, my novel has been to the moon. Look at the photo, here’s the proof.” Not convincing? I would make sure that jinns in the realm of demons discussed my work, and then I would proudly say, “My novel has been discussed by jinns in the realm of demons!” That’s clearly prestigious, I’m the only one who can say it! Still not convincing? I would have my novel translated into ant language, and my biography would read, “His work has been translated into ant language, stone language, and body language.” Even writing a five-hundred-page novel in Rugos[9] could become an achievement to be proud of, like writing poetry on the surface of the water in duck sperm.

3
To write means to give voice to something. There are many writers and so there are many voices. The world has become a clamorous place. But because most people want to be heard, it’s no longer enough to have a voice. We scream. Whoever screams the loudest of course feels like the winner. Or if we can’t scream loud enough, we try to stifle others.

4
In the opening of Hans Jaladara’s comic Banner of Skulls, it reads: “In the world of letters, there is no number one. In the world of fists, there is no number two . . . because number two is already dead.” When it comes to literature, I think Hans Jaladara was wrong. In the world of literature, everyone is number one. Because if writers are not number one, they’re all terribly ticked off (although, unlike fighters, they probably won’t die). Given this, I’m not sure which is more anarchist: the literary world or the world of martial arts.

—August 8, 2015


[1] Both Pangandaran and Tasikmalaya are in West Java.

[2]Wiro Sableng is a popular character from the martial arts serial Wiro Sableng Pendekar Kapak Maut Naga Geni 212, which was first published in 1967 and ran through the 1990s, totaling 185 titles.

[3] Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925–2006) is one of Indonesia’s most esteemed writers. Imprisoned by the Dutch during Indonesia’s war for independence from 1947–1949, and again by the Suharto regime, from 1969-1979, his Buru Quartet of novels was famously composed orally with the support of fellow political prisoners.

[4] Pencak silat, or silat for short, is an indigenous style of martial arts found throughout what is today the Indonesian archipelago.

[5] H.B. Jassin (1917–2000), called “The Pope of Indonesian Literature,” was a literary critic and professor. He founded the H.B. Jassin Literary Documentation Center, housed in Jakarta’s Taman Ismail Marzuki, in 1976, with his personal book collection.

[6] Suzzanna Martha Frederika van Osch (1942–2008), known as “the horror queen of Indonesian cinema,” starred in dozens of films. She was famous for her portrayals of spirits, witches, and other supernatural beings.

[7]“Bapak Galon” can be directly translated to “Mr. Gallon” or “Father Gallon.” This is a term used for the man who delivers large coolers of drinking water to Indonesian households. The warning is typically said by adults to admonish children or remind them to be cautious around strangers.

[8]Joko Pinurbo (b. 1962) is an award-winning Indonesian poet known for his witticism.

[9]Rugos is a brand of letterpress product similar to a stencil.

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