Eka Kurniawan in conversation with Deborah Smith
By Sitamsini Cherukumalli, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger
Eka Kurniawan’s star has been rising slowly but steadily over the past few years, and he has been hailed as the successor to literary giant Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel winning author famous for ‘magical realism.’ His novel Man Tiger, was the first book by an Indonesian author to be nominated for the prestigious Man Booker International Prize in 2016. In a candid session, Kurniawan spoke to British translator Deborah Smith about his craft, his influences and the importance of ghosts in his work.
The session began with Kurniawan reading the stunning first chapter of Man Tiger, upon Smith’s request, which led into a discussion about the wide variety of influences that can be traced in his work. The author grew up in a small coastal Indonesian town that had no bookstores. ‘I just read what came into my hands, and when I wanted to become a writer, I just put all these influences into my books,’ he explained, listing influences as diverse as as Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, as well as Indian epics like The Mahabharata and The Ramayana.
Since translation of classic literature is ‘very limited’ in Indonesian languages, the author said that he was grateful for his knowledge of English, which had allowed him to nurture his reading habit. Kurniawan’s career picked up both at home – where his books had been out of print for many years – and internationally, after the release of English translations. This fact seemed to amuse the author: ‘People at home want to read it more now that is been translated into English,’ he observed wryly.
Kurniawan’s works explore Indonesian history on a macro-level as well as from a personal point of view. Of the fantastical elements that are found in his work, he pointed the audience in the direction of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and said that ghosts were a beautiful metaphor to deal with issues of racism and religious differences in his culture. ‘There is a natural beauty about ghosts,’ he added.
The author also spoke about his upcoming projects: two books due to be released this year, as well as a film script that he has been working on. Kurniawan also crafted graphic novels while at university, although he said that he had to stop working on them: ‘It is very hard to sell graphic novels in my country. The literary culture in Indonesia is not ready for it.’
When asked by an audience member about how the literary culture of Indonesia is affected by the resurgence of extremist militant forces in its political sphere, Kurniawan replied that books are a cultural sanctuary in his country. While he agreed that it is difficult to speak in public about one’s opinions and ideologies, he added that this intolerance hadn’t spread to literary circles. ‘There is no censorship in Indonesia because the extremists and the government never read books.’
Kurniawan is currently working on a novel that explores urban Jakarta and notions of masculinity and sexual violence in his nation. Although he says that it is ‘not the writer’s job’ to represent his country, it is clear that he engages with his culture both in emotionally and intellectually. He added that he never wanted to write the same book over and over again, and hoped that he was able to create a varied oeuvre. ‘I don’t want to copy myself,’ Kurniawan said, to huge applause.
Photo Credit: Chetan Singh Gill