Gus tf Sakai: Leaving his
own story up to the imagination

GUS TF SAKAI: (JP/Syofiardi Bachyul Jb)
GUS TF SAKAI: (JP/Syofiardi Bachyul Jb)

"The concentration of publicity exposing the author but not his output means that many people draw back from literary works; they know a lot about the author or scholar, but they never read his works."

This is the answer given by Gus tf Sakai when asked to explain his reluctance to be interviewed, adding he has refused requests for interviews from some journalists.

"But you are my friend, so how can I refuse?" said Gus when The Jakarta Post visited him last week at the home of his parents-in-law in Payakumbuh City, West Sumatra.

"I don't feel relaxed with other journalists, which is why I have refused interviews."

Press reports about authors, said Gus, did not persuade people to read literary works.

"Writers become artists, and as artists they become famous for what they do outside their work among people who never read their work. The result is literature that is isolated from society," he said.

The mass media in Indonesia, Gus added, tended to steer away from reports that focus on literary work.

Journalists, he said, tended to concentrate on questions that were not relevant to the quality of the work of literature and its context.

"For example, questions like 'what will you do with the money you won from the Khatulistiwa Literary Award', and 'how do you feel about accepting it?'," he said.

Last January, a collection of short stories by Gus tf Sakai titled Perantau (Wandering), which was published by Gramedia in 2007, was awarded the 2007 Khatulistiwa Literary Award in the prose category.

When he accepted the award money (Rp 100 million, or US$11,000), Gus said it was a prize that had a high value in Payakumbuh, the place where he lived, and that he could buy many square meters of agricultural land.

Gus deliberately failed to attend an event that announced the nominees, which was held at the Atrium Plaza, in Senayan, South Jakarta.

Gus had been an unsuccessful nominee many times in the past, so he didn't hold out much hope that he might win.

When the winner of the short story collection was announced, defeating four other nominees in the prose category, Gus' friend, Zen Hae, who was a nominee in the poetry category, was entrusted to read out a short speech.

In the speech, Gus suggested two reasons for his win. First, that the scores calculated by the jury were wrong. And second, that he was just lucky.

"I've been pessimistic that I could win with the jury system," Gus said.

As per Khatulistiwa award tradition, the jury consisted of many people with different backgrounds.

"The reality in Indonesia is that 'many people' are not readers of literary works. This judgment system means that a work of little merit can be chosen as the winner, and that literary works that are good escape the attention of the jury."

He gave the example of the novel Edensor by Andrea Hirata, who was also chosen as a nominee.

The story, which is set in 1970 in Bogor, illogically mentions the cost of public transportation as Rp 5,000 (US 50 cents), which is not correct for the time.

The literary measurement of "many people" in Indonesia, said Gus, meant that the author was famous, not his/her literary work.

Only by selecting a jury consisting of literary critics or scholars of literature, was it possible for an author's work to be recognized, rather than the author him/herself.

Gus said a friend who was an expert and critic read literary work only when he was sent literature by the author. Others noted literary works from book sales, references, and advertisements and more often from notices about an author's work that had been published in newspapers.

"I'm defeated by the jury system which involves many people, but with juries like this it's clear that the possibility of literature which is good can escape their notice," he said.

Although Gus was concerned about the jury mechanism, he welcomed winning the Khatulistiwa Literary Award.

"Of course for me personally Khatulistiwa made me happy because the prize was big. I think the Indonesian literary world has to thank Richard Oh, who still runs this literary prize; he's done so seven times and seems not to be bored yet," he said.

Gus tf Sakai was born in Payakumbuh, on Aug. 13, 1965, and chose a profession as an author and poet.

Although he had a talent for words in elementary school, he only began writing in 1985 when he was 20 years old. At the time he was studying in the agricultural faculty at Andalas University, in Padang.

Gus has other literary awards under his belt, including; the Sih Award from the journal Poetry for his poem Susi, 2000 M in 2002; a literary grant from Andalas University's faculty of letters in 2002; and an arts grant from the Padang Literary Community and the West Sumatra Artists' Council in 2004.

Gus is now the editor of the quarterly journal Poetry, which has been published by Sapardi Djoko Damono since 2002.

His name might be known but not his works. Only 3,000 copies of his book have been published and even these took a long time to sell out.

Many people know that Gus complains it is wrong to mention his book without even mentioning his name.

He also complains about the way books are labeled and the trend which forces literary works into genres like sex books, "fragrant writing" (literature by young women) history and Islamic writing.

"Even with me, the publisher never tells me what's happening. But many authors follow that trend because the publisher says that it's the way to go, and if an author wants their book to be published and become a best seller, then he/she must adjust to the publisher's wishes," said Gus.

Gus isn't bitter or anxious about his life choice and his 32-year writing career.

He is careful with his work and never complains; he believes that life is all about exercising choice, even when selecting a word or sentence for his work.

"Now I feel I have much more much time for relaxing. Besides writing I can help my children with their homework, I go for a bicycle ride almost everyday and I read," he said.

"... a writer spends much time sitting down to write so he needs exercise in order to have a balanced life."

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