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A tale of two Sulawesi writers: Talent vs hard work

Andi Hajramurni
Andi Hajramurni

The Jakarta Post

Makassar | Mon, June 5, 2017 | 10:07 am
A tale of two Sulawesi writers: Talent vs hard work

Faisal Oddang and Erni Aladjai: One was born with talent. Another had to work his way up. (JP/Andi Hajramurni)

Faisal Oddang, 23, remembers how he loathed writing assignments at school. But at some stage in his early youth, he decided he liked writing. Since then, he has worked his way up to become an accomplished writer.

Erni Aladjai, 32, by contrast, has been writing and sending entries to writing competitions since her early childhood days. The poor village she was born into and grew up in motivated her to become a writer. She was born to write.

Their paths to national fame could not have been more different. But one thing that links them is the Makassar International Writers Festival, an annual event on the national literary calendar that seeks to give writers from eastern Indonesia the chance to break into the nation’s publishing world, which is still dominated by writers from Sumatra, Java and Bali.

Faisal and Erni, both authors of several novels, returned to the festival in the South Sulawesi capital in May, to help inspire other young people to take up writing and follow their path.

Faisal, who has penned four novels and hundreds of short stories and poems, says he developed his writing skills by learning from other writers and by reading.

He came to the Makassar festival in 2012 as a final year high school kid. He talked to many writers present then, and convinced some of them to help mentor him.

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“That’s when I started to learn to write. Not all writers are born with talent. But writing is a skill you can learn,” says Faisal, the eldest son of a farming family from Wajo, South Sulawesi.

Before then, he had never penned any story or article except for school assignments.

However, he had already developed a passion for listening to stories since childhood, recalling that his father would often tell him bed time stories.

Faisal got his break in the literary world when his first short story was published by Makassar’s Fajar daily in 2012. He has never looked back and has strived to learn and develop his writing skills ever since.

Faisal is never short of story ideas, drawing from his own life experience, research, ancestral traditions and from his own imagination, winning awards along the way.

In 2015, Di Tubuh Tarra dalam Rahim Pohon (In Tarra’s Body inside the Tree’s Womb) was selected as the best short story by the national daily Kompas. His first submission to Kompas beat entries from accomplished writers like Sapardi Djoko Damono dan Djenar Maesa Ayu.

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In 2014 he received the ASEAN Young Writers Award from Thailand for his short story Jangan Tanyakan Mereka Yang Memotong Lidah (Don’t Ask Those Who Cut Tongues). The award earned him an invitation to speak at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali.

His second novel Puya ke Puya (Puya to Puya), about a person’s voyage to death using Toraja Land and its culture as background, received fourth prize from the Jakarta Arts Institute in 2015. He spent two years researching the Toraja culture before writing the novel.

He has published two other novels, Rain and Tears in 2014 and Pertanyaan Kepada Kenangan (A Question For Memory) in 2016.

He is currently finishing his fourth novel, Tiba Sebelum Berangkat (Arriving Before Departing) about the local wisdom of South Sulawesi people in the 1960s, while struggling to finish his disseration for his undergraduate study at Hasanuddin University in Makassar.

Faisal says he spent considerable time researching for all his novels. But he has managed to write short stories and poems, hundreds of them by now, in between novels.

He says he finds new story ideas almost every day. Some end up in short stories, which he could write in three hours; others in poems, which could be a matter of a few minutes.

He has attended the Makassar festival every year since 2012, and in 2015 was selected among the “emerging writers” along with a bunch of other up-and-comming writers from eastern Indonesia. The award gave him a one-month residency program in the Netherlands in 2016.

In contrast to Faisal’s story, for Erni, writing has come so naturally it is as if she was born with the talent. She has been writing since primary school and sending entires to writing competition.

She recalls her writing skills developed because of the books she was reading.

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But it was growing up in a backward small hamlet in Banggai Laut, Central Sulawesi, and her restlesness in the face of the conditions around her that prompted her to turn to writing.

Her writing skills further developed after she graduated from the Hasanuddin University, where she studied French literature, in 2003, by joining the college newspaper Identitas. She was not only writing news then, but also tried her hand at fiction writing. Her first novel Pesan Cinta dari Hujan (Love’s Message from the Rain) was published in 2010.

She was among the first batch of “emerging writers” from the inaugural Makassar writers festival in 2011, along with five other writers who were given the chance to develop their skills learning from accomplished writers.

It took another four years before she published her second novel Kei: Kutemukan Cinta di Tengah Perang (Kei: Finding Love Amidst War), about a love story amidst a conflict in Kei, one of the islands in Maluku, in 1998. The book, which received the favorite award in the novel competition held by the Jakarta Arts Institute, has been translated to English.

Her third novel, Dari Kirara Untuk Seekor Gagak (From Kirara for a Crow) came in 2015.

In between novels, she has written dozens of short stories that have been published in various local and national publications. Some of these were later compiled in a book titled Ning di Bawah Gerhana (Ning, Underneath the Eclipse) published in 2013.

Winning writing competitions comes naturally for someone who has written from a young age. Sampo Soie Soe, Si Juru Masak (Sampo Soie Soe, the Chef) won third prize at the Jakarta International Literary Festival in 2012. Two works, Rumah Perahu (The Boat House) and Sebelum Hujan di Seasea (Before it rains in Seasea) won writing contests held by Femina women’s magazine.

Almost all her stories reflect life in her village, the environment, the tales, the traditions, the diversity and also the challenges it faces.

“All my stories come from the reality I find in my travels, and almost all of them I can find in my village,” Erni says.

Once she got her break into the publishing world at the MIWF, she gave up journalism, completed her college study, and dedicated her life to the literary profession for her home village.

“I want the people in my village to love literature and to have easier access to books,” she says, recalling that in the past, it used to take a three-hour boat ride, to the nearest library.

Not anymore. She has launched a “mobile library” in her village, whereby volunteers go around to public places like the quay and community centers to loan books to the public.

Her father has also converted their house to a public reading room, replete with books.

“Now kids come to the house and stay until late. Women come to check out recipes,” Erni says.

She hopes her efforts not only increase the passion for reading among villagers, but that some, like her, take up writing as a profession.

Talent or no talent, writing starts with passion.