Making his mark globally

INDONESIAN Eka Kurniawan, 41, is an internationally-acclaimed author whose novels have been translated into more than 20 languages.

In 2015, his Beauty is a Wound (translated from his first novel, Cinta Itu Luka) was included in the list of 100 notable books by The New York Times.

Last year, Eka became the first Indonesian author to be nominated for a Man Booker International Prize for his second novel, Man Tiger.

His third novel, Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas will be translated into English soon. It is expected to create waves as well.

The novelist was in Kuala Lumpur recently to talk about his writing journey with Malaysian fans.

In this exclusive interview, Eka shared with theSun his feelings about his art.

Has your life changed after receiving the nomination for The Man Booker International Prize?
“A lot of journalists wanted to interview me then and I received a lot of invitations to talk at literary events. The literary world [also] treated me differently.
“Personally, I’m still the same person. I’m still driving my daughter (six-year-old Kidung Kinanti Kurniawan) to school and fetching her back. I am still reading a lot of books.”

Do you think there is a higher expectation to produce another award-winning novel?
“It is a good thing that people have expectations of me.
“Even without that, I [always] put a certain pressure on myself. I’m always pushing the bar higher each time I write a new novel.”

Do Eastern readers react to your books differently compared to Indonesian readers?
“Western readers talked more about the political landscape of Indonesia and the supernatural elements [in my books] while Indonesian readers focus more on the relationship and sexual elements.
“But it is their right to interpret my books in any way they want.”

Some said your novels contain a lot of sexually explicit scenes.
“Some have stopped reading my books because of the sexual elements. But if I were to tone down on the explicit sex scenes, other readers will be disappointed.
“I have learnt that I cannot please everyone and that I should write the novel the way it should be written.
“The sex scenes in my novels are necessary in the story I am writing. For example, in Cinta Itu Luka, my main character is a comfort woman so it will be illogical if I did not have any sex scenes.
“In my latest and fourth novel titled O, [there are no] sex scenes. It is just a fable about a monkey who wants to be a man.”

Your novels featured supernatural elements. Do you believe in the supernatural?
“I do not want to believe in the supernatural but sometimes, I can’t help myself.
“Recently, there was a demonstration in Jakarta where I lived. A distant relative sent me coconut water to drink. He said if I drink the coconut water, I will be safe from any harm (from the demonstration). I did not believe him.
“But in the end, I drank it. I would like to believe that I drank the coconut water because it was a hot day and it tasted sweet.” (laughs)

When did you realise you wanted to take writing seriously as a career?
“I was reading Hunger (by Knut Hamsun) and it was about a starving writer. In the end, the starving writer gave up writing and went to look for a proper job.
“That novel inspired me to be a writer. I wanted to prove that the character in the novel was wrong for not pursuing his dream to be a writer.” (laughs)

What’s your view on the Malaysian literary scene?
“I do not know much about the Malaysian literary scene. I only read a small number of Malaysian novels.
“It is sad that we have the same language, but there is barrier between us. We do not know each other’s books and each other’s writers.
“I hope in the future, more Indonesians will read Malaysian literature and more Malaysians will read Indonesian literature. There should be more interaction between Malaysian and Indonesian writers.”

Your wife, Ratih Kumala, is also an award-winning writer. Do both of you discuss literature?
“Sometimes, I recommend some good books for her to read and she does the same. She read all my works before they get published. She does some minor corrections and offered some suggestions.
“[But] we talk more about household things and our daughter than literature.”