True North: how well do we know the stories of Indonesia?

At Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Emily Laidlaw explored the runaway success of Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan and wondered why Australians have little exposure to Indonesian literature. 

Eka Kurniawan at Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Photo: Anggara Mahendra.

The year 2015 has seen Indonesia become the surprise darling of the international literary world. In October, the country was the guest of honour at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair, with 75 authors representing the world’s largest archipelago at the world’s largest book fair. The star attraction was Eka Kurniawan, generating plenty of buzz thanks to the 2015 English-language release of his book Cantik Itu Luka, known to English readers as Beauty Is a Wound. Later in the same month, Kurniawan was a headline artist at Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali. Publishers Weekly has listed Beauty Is a Wound as one their best books of the year, while glowing reviews have also popped up in the New Yorker and O magazine.

Book cover: Beauty is a Wound

Beauty Is a Wound is a wild beast of a novel: a 500-page saga of unbridled passion and violent revenge, both shocking and satirical. Kurniawan, equally a fan of modern Indonesian pulp fiction writers Kho Ping Hoo and Abdullah Harahap and masters like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Miguel de Cervantes, cleverly mashes high and low registers to tell the absorbing story of Dewi Ayu, a formidable ghost who rises from the grave one morning to narrate the sordid adventures of her four daughters. Through his unique, hyperreal style, Kurniawan’s book touches on historical issues that still haunt the Indonesian national psyche today: from Dutch colonialism to Japanese occupation, to the oft-censored subjects of the 1965 Communist purges and the oppressive New Order regime of President Suharto. In this book, nothing is sacred.

At the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Kurniawan acknowledged more than once how strange it felt to be discussing this book, which he’d written so long ago. Cantik Itu Luka was self-published in 2002, before being picked up by a major Indonesian publisher, Gramedia. It was a long time - nine years - before Beauty is a Wound found its way to the Anglophone reading world, thanks in part to American Annie Tucker, who discovered the book while undertaking PhD research in Java in 2011. The book soon came to the attention of Barbara Epler, a publisher at New York-based international literary press, New Directions. Epler, also present at the festival in Ubud, told the audience she knew right away she wanted to publish the translation. Some of Epler’s colleagues were concerned about the ‘zany’ plot, but she remained faithful, betting one colleague she’d pay back half the book’s advance should it fail. Epler’s hunch paid off. Beauty Is a Wound is now in its fourth print run and will be translated into 15 languages.

Why should the publication of Beauty Is a Wound be such a novelty?

A trip to New York City by Penny Hueston, a senior editor at Text Publishing, helped bring the novel to Australia. In an email, Hueston described her introduction to the manuscript: ‘I was … at a party in the offices of New Directions and I asked Barbara Epler what she was reading. She enthusiastically thrust 100 pages of Beauty Is a Wound into my hand. I read those pages the next day and, equally enthusiastic, requested the rest of the manuscript.’

From an Australian perspective, the novel’s success raises some interesting questions. Why should the publication of Beauty Is a Wound be such a novelty? And what does this novelty value suggest about our level of engagement with Indonesia? Bali – popularly associated as a lively holiday destination – receives around one million Australian visitors per year, but a significantly lower number visit Indonesia’s other islands. Indonesia, of course, is mentioned in the Australian media all the time. This year, the dominant narrative has focused on our so-called ‘strained’ relationship – stalemates over the Bali Nine executions, asylum seeker boats, live cattle exports – but very little attention is given to the cultural ties binding Australia and Indonesia. How well do we know the stories of our northern neighbour?

There are complex, historical reasons behind the low number of Indonesian works in Australian bookstores. In a piece for the Conversation ahead of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Manneke Budiman pointed to the lasting legacy of colonsation and lack of support from Dutch publishers. Kurniawan himself noted during his Ubud Festival panel appearance with Epler that the teaching of literature in Indonesian schools is still in his infancy.

Kurniawan’s success seems minor when compared to that of Text stablemate ... Elena Ferrante, and her much-hyped Neapolitan series.

The risk and resources that translation demands are surely also contributing factors in our lack of exposure to Indonesian literature. But perhaps that’s set to change in Australia and abroad. ‘American publishers are afraid to do translation,’ Epler says. ‘However, I believe Eka has opened up a lot of eyes here and that publishers may be casting about for more Indonesian writers.’ Epler explained that only about 3% of all books published in the United States are works in translation, with French, Spanish and German topping the largely Eurocentric list. It’s a fact that makes Kurniawan’s success with New Directions even more noteworthy.

Text Publishing proudly states that 13% of its list is works in translation. Kurniawan’s success seems minor, however, when compared to that of Text stablemate, the Italian Elena Ferrante, and her much-hyped Neapolitan series. It’s proof, perhaps, that more time and investment is needed before there is a regional equivalent which enjoys similar attention. Hueston says she’s thrilled with the positive reaction to Kurniawan’s book and Text Publishing looks forward to publishing more books by him, as well as other Indonesian writers.

‘How does it feel to be “the voice of Indonesia?”’ Epler asked a visibly embarrassed Kurniawan during their panel appearance together. Brushing the comment aside, Kurniawan argued that calling him the voice of Indonesia is as problematic as calling Ernest Hemingway the voice of America. Kurniawan is also being heralded by many as ‘the new Pramoedya Ananta Toer’, author of the 1980s Buru quartet and the last Indonesian author to gain global attention, thanks in large part to a Nobel Prize nomination.

No one voice can represent the more than 17,000 islands that make up one of the most diverse archipelagos in the world. As Epler told the audience, Kurniawan will likely be considered the ‘voice of Indonesia’ until someone new comes along. So, the question remains: how long until we’re uttering the phrase ‘the next Eka Kurniawan?’ And why is there only room for one voice at a time from a country of 250 million people?

Portrait of Emily Laidlaw

Emily Laidlaw is a writer and editor based in Melbourne. Her arts criticism has appeared in the Weekend Australian, Australian Book Review, the Big IssueMetroReadings MonthlyBooks+Publishing, Seizure and Kill Your Darlings

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