Eka Kurniawan on Indonesia and Magical Realism

Eka Kurniawan’s debut novel Beauty is a Wound (New Directions, 2015) begins with Dewi Ayu, a stunning Dutch-Indonesian brothel madam, walking out of her grave twenty-one years after her demise. The novel proceeds with a series of “and thens” and macabre twists that rival those concocted by Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights. Up to the book’s very end, where Dewi Ayu’s dysfunctional descendants tie up the family’s saga, Kurniawan dazzles with his looping plots, biting humor, and skewering take on Indonesia’s history.

A literary force at home, Kurniawan’s American debut came with Annie Tucker’s translation, which holds intact the song of Kurniawan’s prose, as well as that of the Indonesian language. His reception in the U.S. included, amongst other praise, a spot of the New York Times Notable Books of 2015 list. Man Tiger (Verso) was also published in English in 2015 and his third novel will be published by New Directions in 2017.

In our interview, Kurniawan discusses epic creation, the nature of the“magical realism” label, and his next novel, O, out in Indonesia this year.

J.R. Ramakrishnan: Beauty is a Wound was originally published in 2002 and translated into English in 2015. When did you begin writing it? Would you talk a little bit about how you conceived the idea and its epic scope? How, for example, did Dewi Ayu emerge in your mind?

Eka Kurniawan: I had been thinking of writing a novel since 1999 after I took my degree in philosophy from Gajah Mada University. Previously, I struggled to write a novel and all attempts repeatedly ended in failure. Thus, I tested myself by writing a short(er) fiction. It was a key solution for my problem. For a long time, I desired to learn the art of writing; to find the pulse, flow, and architecture of story.

Those short stories were published in the Sunday papers and magazines. Later they were compiled and printed in my first collection, Corat-coret di Toilet (Graffiti in the Toilet). The publication granted me the confidence to write the novel’s first sentence in 2000.

Beauty Is a Wound exists as plenty of short stories that attach to each other, constructing an epic novel. Dewi Ayu is only one part of the hefty picture. Even in the beginning, she did not appear. When I needed a linkage to unite those stories, Dewi Ayu and her way of life would then emerge.

JRR: The narrative of Beauty is a Wound is intensely tangential. You move us around many plots — past, present, future, and some grounded in the flesh and others in supernatural. Would you say that this is a result of oral storytelling influences in Indonesia? Tell me a little bit about your choice of using multiple plots in Beauty. It seems that your second novel, Man Tiger, is more linear in this respect.

EK: On one measure, it’s a part of oral tradition. I enjoy watching puppet shows and listening to fairytales (narrated by a storyteller from my village and on the radio). On other measure, like I said before, I embarked on writing a massive novel from many stories that connected to each other. It is different with Man Tiger. That novel was completed with one single purpose — to form an intact story. Yet, I still adopted my previous writing style. All forms of stories are inevitably an influential and vigorous mix of content.

JRR: Readers feel the need to place new and foreign work in the context of what they are familiar with in terms of literature. In the case of Beauty is a Wound, the supernatural draws parallels to and is evidence of the influence of Gabriel García Márquez and William Faulkner. But “magical realism” is very much part of Indonesian folklore, and maybe everyday life too. What do you think of this concept of “magical realism” as a description of your work, and as a literary concept in general?

Classifying it as “magic realism” would be easier for people to figure it out.

EK: I don’t mind that people associate my writing with Márquez’ or Faulkner’s. Undoubtedly, they are my favorite writers. I read their books (not just theirs, but Gogol’s, Melville’s, and Cervantes’), and I would able to look around, to have a bit of perception that people I know and history I am familiar with could be narrated in different ways. The society tends to simplify it as “magical realism,” just because of how it shows up, both fantastically and realistically. We rarely identify Kafka as a magical realist writer, despite the fact there are many fantastic elements in his works. And why are the comic characters from DC and Marvel not called magical realism, even though they have plenty of fantastic elements? The magic aspects in my novel are influenced by horror and silat (Indonesian martial art) novels of the 1970s. Beauty Is a Wound is quite tricky, as it’s difficult to put it in one genre. Classifying it as “magic realism” would be easier for people to figure it out.

JRR: In your New York Times “Lives” essay “A Slacker of Jakarta”, you write that your father was an imam. Would you reflect on how different literary, cultural and religious influences have come into your work?

I read The Prophet’s stories but I also read Famous Five, even porn.

EK: Like most people, I am an enigmatic person. I was raised in a religious family, but at the same time, my parents sent me to government schools, which have a quite secular curriculum. They introduced me to pop culture. I read The Prophet’s stories but I also read Famous Five, even porn. My parents asked me to go to mosque, but they took me to movies to watch Hollywood films, too. At home, my father was discussing theology (he self-taught Arabic) to me while I studied Western philosophy in university. This ambiguity would ease me to mock myself. To ridicule my morals. To insult my free thinking.

JRR: What does your family think of your work and your books?

EK: I don’t know. My father passed away many years ago but after Beauty Is a Wound and Man Tiger were published in Indonesia. I think he didn’t read it, albeit the books were at home. His health was declining. He never spoke about it, nor asked. But he was happy I became a writer and delighted when my books were published. Knowing well that a writer’s life was not an easy one, he used to call and ask, “Do you have some money?” The question was not to ask, but to give. If I didn’t have any, he would send some. He encouraged me to live my own path. He gave me support all the time. Even when I was a teen, he borrowed books from the library, bought them when he was out of town, and presented me with a typewriter so I would learn how to write. My mother does not read novels, but Al-Quran. Like my father was, she is fond of me being a writer, although she is not interested in reading my work.

JRR: In America, people are always obsessed with the idea of the “Great American Novel.” Beauty is a Wound seems to be very much a novel of Indonesia. What was the reception to this novel in Indonesia, particularly the critical and satirical elements, when it was published?

EK: Here the feedback is mainly divided between two big groups. The first tends to see it as an unfavorable novel. They take it as a failed literary piece because of its accuracy in history and genre. The other group appreciate and acknowledge it highly. The novel’s form and structure would sustain Indonesian history to be better understood by its people.

JRR: From your blog, it seems that you read an immense amount of global contemporary literature. Do you read these works in English or in translation? What are you reading right now?

EK: Yes, in English translation. I have an urge to learn one or two new languages in the future, and to read books in those languages. I would like to see if I could challenge myself. Like other writers, I read again and found a treasure in old works of Nikolai Leskov, Isaac Babel, Dostoyevsky. I love them, those Russians. Well, some American too. I just finished reading Charles Bukowski. I like to read new and interesting books by emerging writers too. I enjoy reading highly, and can’t help but continue reading as my gratifying pleasure.

JRR: Have you read Man Tiger and Beauty is a Wound in English? If so, what has that experience been like as a reader, as well as the person who wrote them in the another language?

There are parts of us that are disturbing in there. I prefer to leave my book alone.

EK: Certainly, but not as a writer, but an editor. I read the draft to check if the translation is correct and accurate to its original meaning. My translator and I discussed several technical issues. After it was done and published, I didn’t read it again. It is too strenuous to return back to my novel and I think this circumstance is relevant to all the writers. The writer wouldn’t be able to turn themselves into the readers of their own book. There are parts of us that are disturbing in there. I prefer to leave my book alone.

JRR: You have the best titles. Will you translate for the enjoyment of readers who don’t read Indonesian, the name of your short story collection, Perempuan Patah Hati yang Kembali Menemukan Cinta Melalui Mimpi, and also your novel, Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas? Do you think they have same depth of meaning in English?

EK: My short story collection’s title could be translated literally as: “A Heartbroken Woman Who Found Love Again Through A Dream.” If you are familiar with Arabian Nights, particularly the Richard Burton translation, you will notice that the title is a tribute to this story: A Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through A Dream (Borges rewrote this piece as “The Tale of Two Dreamers”). My third novel is a bit unsettling in translation, as a result of slight differences in the words’ meaning and grammar. But, its sketchy interpretation is “Like A Vengeance, Desire Has to be Fulfilled.” It will be published in English in 2017 by New Directions, but I haven’t settled on the official title yet.

JRR: Why so many toilets? One of the pivotal scenes of the latter part of Beauty is a Wound happens in a school toilet. I grew up in Malaysia and I remember this terrible fear of ghosts and demons in particular toilets at school, for example. So this stuck with me. You reference the toilet in the your first collection’s title. I don’t know the origin of why toilets in Asia are so scary and I am curious to hear your thoughts on this and why they feature in your work.

EK: Well, actually I always feel the toilet is a scary place. Here in Indonesia (maybe in Malaysia too), the toilet usually is in the back part of the house, sometimes separated from the main building. If we want to go to the toilet, we say “ke belakang” (literally: “to the back part”). I think it is the location that makes the toilet so spooky.

JRR: You have a new novel out in 2016, O, will you give us a preview of what it’s about?

EK: Largely, it’s a fable, like Animal Farm, or The Wind in the Willows. It’s a fable in a very traditional way: the talking animals. But indeed, it’s not entirely about that.

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