Goenawan Mohammad: This is a once-in-a-lifetime project

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  • Goenawan Mohammad, Chairman og the Indonesian national Committee for the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015. TEMPO/Amston Probel.

    Goenawan Mohammad, Chairman og the Indonesian national Committee for the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015. TEMPO/Amston Probel.

    TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - The 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair ended in mid-October. As the guest of honor at the world's largest book fair, Indonesia chose the slogan '17,000 Islands of Imagination' to lead its presentation.

    It was a huge success, although the team only had two years to prepare for the event, compared to the five to six years other countries had. 

    Literary figure and artist Goenawan Mohamad was appointed chair of the Indonesian National Committee at the beginning of this year. The brief preparation period as well as rigid bureaucracy were the committee's main challenge. Fortunately, Goenawan had a highly dependable team. "We had a wonderful team. They worked full time. We were at work 24/7," Goenawan told Tempo reporters Ali Nur Yasin, Iqbal Muhtarom and Anisatul in Yogyakarta two weeks ago.

    Despite the limited time, the committee managed to translate more than 200 books into English and German. In addition to Leila S. Chudori's Home and Laksmi Pamuntjak's The Question of Red, there were works of fiction by Ahmad Tohari, Ahmad Fuadi as well as books by a number of other writers, including children's books, culinary and travel books displayed at the Frankfurt Fair along with around 8,000 other books from around the world. Excerpts of the interview:

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    You were initially opposed to Indonesia's status as guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

    Because we had very limited time to prepare. No official from the education and culture ministry came to our meetings. Several publishers were also doubtful because we're so used to buying copyrights, instead of selling them. So I said: give the (guest of honor status) to Malaysia.

    What's the story behind your appointment as chair of the national committee?

    In 2013, I was asked by Boediono, who was then Vice President, to join the National Committee formation meetings. An MOU had been signed just that year, with the director of the Frankfurt Book Fair. We only had two years to prepare. Agus Maryono was chair of the committee at the time. I said I had no interest in chairing the committee. I was also not interested in chairing the book committee. Because I'm a writer, people would surely think I would put myself first. I only asked that no other ministers be involved in the committee. This team was formed to assist the education and culture ministry, so this was their project.

    So, you were appointed as Agus Maryono's replacement? 

    In 2015, Mas Agus resigned from his position as committee chair and asked me to replace him. It was Education Minister Anies Baswedan who signed off on it because there was a new cabinet in place. At the time, we were working without a special budget, so we relied on the ministry's routine budget.

    How did your team start the preparations?

    There was a road map that we named 'Road to Frankfurt'. First, Indonesia had to appear in Leipzig, the second largest book fair in Germany. We featured Ahmad Tohari then. At the time, Laksmi Pamuntjak's book (The Question of Red) was already in circulation. Then there were performances, a culinary event and an exhibition. Later, we participated in a children's book exhibition. We did everything in a very short time period. Finally, we began preparing for Frankfurt.

    You were once upset because the budget was not forthcoming.

    It was because the government had no available funding between January and February this year. For translators, the government only allocated Rp150,000 per page when the international rate was Rp480,000 per page. Of course no one wanted to do it. Many translators from Germany resigned. It's like buying a Mercedes for the price of a Kijang.

    When Anies Baswedan became the minister, was he able to help? 

    He was just settling into his job. The program was already running so there was nothing to do. The budget was already set during Minister Muhammad Nuh's time. Government regulations and bureaucracy (regarding budget flow) were still very rigid. For example, we hired a public relations team. They were not paid for months, until they began make threats though we never got served with a legal notice. Fortunately, we were able to negotiate a way out with them.

    What was the total budget?

    The budget, of around Rp147 billion, was decided in 2014 by the government. We didn't propose the amount. We adjusted our programs to this budget.

    What did the budget cover?

    The Rp147 billion perhaps in practice not all of it was used covered not only the book fairs in Leipzig, Bologna and London between March and April of this year, as well as the Museumsfest in Frankfurt in August, where Indonesia became the principal guest. The amount also covered the architecture fair at the German Architecture Museum in August; the fine arts exhibition at a gallery run by the Arts Association in Frankfurt in September; a seminar on ancient Indonesian scripts at the Berlin State Library in October; the Pasar Hamburg (Hamburg Bazaar) Festival, in October; the Indonesian Film Parade at the Deutsches Filmmuseum in October, as well as 28 international seminars on Indonesia at Cologne, Berlin and Frankfurt beginning in September.

    What about the translators' fees? 

    That amount also included the translation fees of Indonesian works, which came very close to reaching our target of 300 titles, and of bringing in 70-plus authors and 20 publishers (to the Fair). We also flew in architects, people from the fine arts, photographers, philology experts and speakers from, among others, Australia, the United States, Italy, the Netherlands and Malaysia for an international seminar series. The budget was also used to build the Indonesian Pavilion which became an icon of Indonesia's presence there as well as stands for panels and business meetings for publishers. We must also not leave out the project of promoting Indonesia, not just domestically, but in Germany as well.

    How was Indonesia promoted in Germany? 

    Advertisements were placed in leading media, such as Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Die Zeit, and in public spaces: at public transportation stops, and even on trains and in corners of the bustling Frankfurt Central Station. We paid for the travel arrangements of as many as 17 cultural reporters from a number of German media to cover the literary and fine arts scene here. We hired a German PR company to handle the promotion.

    Did you look for sponsors? 

    I wanted to look for sponsors, but I was told not to. We didn't actually need sponsors if only there were no issues with payments. I had to pitch in. I also asked some friends to pitch in. But this was a once-in-a-lifetime project. It's as if we were preparing for the Olympics. I'm grateful to have been part of this historical event.

    Those who followed the event pointed out that most of the books featured were about the 1965 Incident. 

    (The Frankfurt Book Fair) chose which books to translate from the ones that we offered. Of the 200 books that were chosen, not all of them were about 1965. Actually, people seemed to be more interested not in 1965, but in Islam in Indonesia. Well, at the time, there were preparations for the 1965 International People's Tribunal Hearing. News of the hearing obviously reached Frankfurt.

    Why did the Indonesian Pavilion feature also arts events when the event was billed as book fair?

    The Frankfurt Book Fair was also an event for publishers. It wasn't a literary or an authors' festival. It's stupid to think of the fair as an authors' festival. The authors there were simply complementary. It was the books that were featured. If the author of a book happened to be there, great. If not, well, no matter.

    So the arts events were simply complementary?

    There was a huge program in Frankfurt called the Indonesia Lab. So they invited, for example, six Indonesian composers that collaborated with a famous European ensemble. Apart from that, there was a culinary event. We flew in 11 chefs. We built a beautiful pavilion so that people would admire it. It was all remarkable work. So far, Indonesia has only been able to buy. We've been trying to sell since 2014, and it's working.

    Indonesia was said to be the best guest of honor in the Fair's history. Is this true? 

    I thought that people would soon tire of coming to our pavilion only to see meters and meters of displayed books. This was why we had a lounge at the pavilion, and food. (I thought) Iceland's was the best because they created a reading room. So we combined this concept with a variety of events. People were (also) able to just sit and read.

    You are better known as a thinker, but you had to deal with technical matters as the chief of the National Committee.

    To me, this is easy work. I know what it's like to be hounded with deadlines every week from my experience in leading Tempo. The tough part was the bureaucracy surrounding the budget flow. We had a great team. They worked full time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

    Have you met with Minister Anies since the closing of the Frankfurt Book Fair?

    First, we need to write a report. In conclusion, to my opinion, Indonesia was a success [at the book fair]. Anies Baswedan has also agreed to the translation project, but he clearly has a lot on his plate.

    Has anyone been accused of corruption in the Frankfurt Book Fair project?

    I never handled the budget directly. There was someone from the education ministry (doing it) . We withheld nothing. I also kept an eye out for that type of maneuvering. (*)