Rattling minds

by Bissme S., The Sun

EKA KURNIAWAN is acknowledged as one of the most exciting fiction writers in Indonesia.

His debut novel, Cantik Itu Luka, published in 2002, received critical reviews and won him fans throughout.

Since then, the 39-year-old has written three novels and three collections of short stories.

Born in Tasikmalaya in West Java, in 1975, Eka was in Malaysia recently for a book event and to promote his new book, Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas.

He sat down with theSun to share his thoughts on his work and motivation, the literary scene in Indonesia and his new book.

You have been compared to (the late) Pramoedya Ananta Toer, one of Indonesia’s finest writers. Some believe you are the most exciting writer that Indonesia has produced since. Any comment?

“I believe the comparison is not fair. Pramoedya and I came from two different generations and two different eras. So, we tend to look at Indonesia very differently.

“When two people look at something differently, naturally the stories we tell will be different. I really believe you cannot make a comparison between the two.

“Each writer has his own style and his own perspective. Pram is one of the finest writers in my country. But he should not be made into a God.”

Some readers love your latest novel Seperti Dendam … but others were not comfortable with the vulgar language.

“My characters in the novel are from the lower class and I was capturing the language these characters tend to use when it comes to sex.

“I also looked at some of the graffiti writings on sex that you normally find behind the trucks (In Indonesia, graffiti is often found on trucks). I have used some of these graffiti writings as an inspiration.

“Personally, I take these comments as compliments. It is like some people who do not like seafood but when a chef cooks up a good seafood dish, they enjoy the flavours. They forget the dish they are eating is seafood.”

Your novels deal with sexual themes. Some may feel good literature should discuss the mind rather than desires of the body. What is your comment?

“I don’t agree. We should be discussing anything that is relevant to human life – mind and body, happiness and sadness, virtue and sin.

“Our society and our history are always dealing with the pain and joy of our bodies and our minds as well.”

What motivates you as a writer?

“I started writing at the age of 11. I was not a clever student nor was I keen on sports. I wanted to win the attention of my classmates, especially the opposite sex.

“So I started writing poetry. But over the years, I became serious about making writing my profession.”

What is the misconception that people have about you?

“After reading my work, some people have this impression that I am a serious old man. But when they meet me, they are surprised that I am nothing like that (he looks boyish and jovial and loves to laugh).

“To me, an ideal literature is telling a serious story with a touch of humour. I know people who read my work and have a good laugh. But in the end, they regard my work as serious literature.”

Do you think every story should have a message?

“Consciously or unconsciously, writers [leave] messages in [their] stories. [But] readers may not see things the same way the writer wants them to see. The writer simply has no control over how readers interpret his stories.

“I really believe a story should not become a sermon. Once a story becomes a sermon, the story is no longer interesting. I write mainly to disturb the mind of my readers (laughs).”

Why do you want to rattle the mind of your readers?

“Literature is one of the ways to discuss our existence in this life, to share our ideas and to react to other people’s ideas. What is the best way to get people into a discussion? Perhaps by disturbing their mind … am I right?”

How do you take criticism?

“A well-known critic of a newspaper gave my first novel (Cantik Itu Luka) a bad review. “He said that my novel had no direction – it was not realistic nor was it surrealistic. I did not mind his review. But my friends and my fans were not happy.

“They felt the critic was unfair and that he did not appreciate a young writer’s view of the world. They critiqued him for giving me a bad review.

“The reviewer jokingly told me that my friends and my fans were very garang (fierce)!”