Eka Kurniawan : No One Can Yet Replace Pram and Chairil

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15 March 2016 16:56 WIB

Eka Kurniawan. TEMPO/Dhemas Reviyanto

TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - Eka Kurniawan, 41, represents fresh blood in Indonesia's literary world. Last week, he was recently announced as one of 13 nominees of the prestigious 2016 Man Booker International Prize for Literature. He is the first Indonesian to be nominated, a confirmation that Eka has begun to receive international recognition as a literary figure.

The Man Booker International Prize is a prestigious award for literary works in English. Previously, the award was given every two years but starting this year, it will be handed out annually. Eka stands alongside such luminary writers as Han Kang (South Korea), Yan Lianke (China), Kenzaburo Oe (Japan), Marie Ndiaye (France), Elena Ferrante (Italy) and Orhan Pamuk (Turkey). The winner will be announced on April 14.

In the world of prose, Man Booker is described as being on a level just below the Nobel Prize for Literature. The awards initiated by the Booker Prize Foundation has in the past been won by Ismael Kadare (Albania), Chinua Achebe (Nigeria), Alice Munro (Canada), Philip Roth (USA), Lydia Davis (USA) and Laszlo Krasznahorkai (Hungary).

Eka's novel that received the nomination for this year's Booker Prize Award is Lelaki Harimau or Man Tiger. It was actually published in 2004 but was recently translated into English in 2015. "I never thought of having my novel translated (into another language)," said Eka, who is married with one child.

It was the late Benedict Anderson, professor at Cornell University in the United States, who pushed Eka into having his novel translated. Ben even sent writer and journalist Tariq Ali to pressure Eka into translating his works. The upshot is that his novels Man Tiger and Beauty Is A Wound have been translated into five and 24 languages, respectively. 

Tempo reporters Iwan Kurniawan, Tito Sianipar and Moyang Kasih recently interviewed Eka, during which he recounted how his Man Tiger took off in the international literary world.

You are among the nominees for this year's Man Booker International Prize. How did you feel when you first heard the news?

I got the news, for the first time, from my friend Ronny Agustinus of Margin Kiri (publishing company). Then again this morning by someone who sent me a short message.

How do you think Man Tiger made the Man Booker Prize nomination list?

To be honest, I don't know. It's true that the prize has a new system this year. The Nobel Prize is usually awarded to a person. Starting this year, the Booker Prize acquired the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize from the Independent newspaper in the UK, and the prize is specifically given to a book.

Man Tiger tells a story about moral ambiguity. Is that the message you want to impart in the book?

(Laughing) Maybe, but the novel was inspired by a small incident in the past. When I was still at university, I once came home to Pangandaran after a murder had just taken place. I thought of writing about it in a literary journalistic style. But halfway through, I got lazy about finding out the details and about the person. I lacked the stamina of a reporter.

Then I merged it with another incident, which happened in a boarding house in Yogyakarta. I was sitting at the front of the place when I heard the heavy sound of thuds from a room that my friend from Tasikmalaya rented. I approached the door and asked what was going on. He came out and explained to me, "It's crazy. My uncle sent me a tiger and I tripped." (Laughs). We ended up talking about people in the villages who still believe in a white tiger that can be sent down when there's imminent danger. It became the basis of a draft, which I later put together with my previous work.

I merged the neglected draft with the mythology of a man tiger. When I was small, I was crazy about the Manusia Harimau (Tiger People) series by S.B. Chandra and Tujuh Manusia Harimau (Seven Tiger People), a novel by Motinggo Busye.

Is it true Ben Anderson pressured you into having Man Tiger translated?

All of it is because of Ben Anderson. It began in 2008. Ben came to Indonesia, saying he wanted to meet me. At that time, he said that the book must be read in the English language. I agreed with him but did nothing. I also didn't know how to proceed, I knew no translator or any foreign publisher. I thought it was just casual talk with Ben, but whenever he came back to Indonesia, we would always meet. And at every meeting, he would ask the same question, "So, have you found a translator yet?" And I would reply, "Not yet."

What happened after that?

Finally at the end of 2011, Ben's friend, Tariq Ali, came to Indonesia. Tariq actually came to attend the Ubud Writers Festival in Bali, but he came to Jakarta and called to meet me. I vaguely remembered his name. Tariq Ali was a novelist, an activist and also an editor. We met at a hotel in Kemang and chatted over lunch. Tariq said he was asked by Ben to meet me. He also persuaded me to publish my book in English.

Had you ever had any contact with him?

Never. He also admitted he'd never read my work and did not understand Indonesian. Basically, he trusted Ben when he said my work was good. Tariq asked me to seek out a translator and a publisher. But unlike Ben, after that meeting, Tariq continued to communicate with me through email. He was kind of pushy. I then made a list of translators and told them there was a publisher named Verso, which was willing to publish the book. We decided first to translate the book Man Tiger because it was shortest and in line with the budget. We then asked the translators to submit a two-page sample of their work. I sent the result to Ben to select the best one. Ben liked the translation work of Dalih (Labodalih Sembiring). I happened to have worked with Dalih, so in the end we chose him.

When did your friendship with Ben begin?

In 2008. The person who made the meeting possible was Ben Abel. He said, "Your professor wants to meet you." He finally came and we met. After 1999, he came often to Indonesia and would stop over in Yogyakarta and he was familiar with Indonesian students and often asked who Indonesia's good writers were. Those kids gave him my book and he took with him Beauty Is A Wound, Man Tiger and Graffitti in the Toilet. He hadn't yet read my book on Pramoedya (the book Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Social Realist Literature, based on his thesis and published in 1999.)

How long did it take to translate Man Tiger into English?

At first, we targeted it for six months. The book is short, with only five chapters. One chapter took about one month. But it took longer, about a year and a half. It was quite difficult. Whenever one chapter was done, I would send it to Ben, who corrected it. (*)

Read the full interview in this week's edition of Tempo English Magazine



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