The Jakarta Post
Initially, Andrea Hirata was trying only to reconcile himself with his bitter past when he decided to write about the earliest fragments of his life.
One thing in his mind was to share his manuscripts with childhood friends who had been in the same boat.
Living with a lack of almost everything is traumatic, especially for children, he said recently.
"It's a real struggle to go back in time to growing up in a poor neighborhood (in Belitung), while next to our place was a giant state mining company that had all the luxuries in the world to offer its staff and their families," said Andrea who was born on Oct. 24.
He is very strict about not revealing the year in which he was born, not wanting readers of his semi-autobiographical novel to confuse fact with fiction.
Never mind though, the way in which he tells his story is so frank that, without knowing exactly when it took place, it's not hard to guess.
An economics graduate of the University of Indonesia, Andrea received a scholarship from the European Union, which allowed him to take his master's degree at the Universite de Paris, Sorbonne, and at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK.
"(But) my childhood period lingers within me. My memories of that period of my life are the fondest. I learned then about sincerity, friendship and the many virtues that perhaps today's children cannot learn from their environments the way I did."
Andrea seemed to find his panacea when he decided to write. He could not stop. His debut novel Laskar Pelangi (Rainbow Warriors) was completed in less than six months.
The alive and fluid narrative of the novel, complemented with the vivid details of the old-time setting, as well as the right angle to put the story in a contemporary context, are the sterling outcome of Andrea's struggle to overcome his past bitterness.
"A friend in Bandung read the manuscript and urged me to send it to a publisher," said Andrea who now resides in Bandung and works at the state telecommunications company.
In his preface to The Portrait of a Lady, literary giant Henry James once said that perhaps a better way to approach the question of defining the greatness of great literature would be to ask questions about personal experience and the use made of it.
James said all art is expression, and the thing expressed is personal experience, either external or internal; the congruence between the experience and the expression is also an issue.
"There is, I think, no more nutritive or suggestive truth in this connection than that of the perfect dependence of the *moral' sense of a work of art on the amount of felt life concerned in producing it."
"The question comes back thus, obviously, to the kind and degree of the artist's prime sensibility.
Andrea's case may fit this description.
His riveting novel (or memoir to be precise) has breathed a new air into the Indonesian literary world, which, in recent years, has been dominated by religious hardcore or pop culture-related works as well as teen-lit.
The popularity of the book is evident as millions of copies of Laskar Pelangi have been sold at home. The book is also sought after in neighboring Malaysia. Yogyakarta-based publishing house Bentang said police had recently confiscated a truckload of pirated copies of Laskar Pelangi.
The book is the first in the Laskar Pelangi tetralogy. The three other volumes are Sang Pemimpi (The Dreamer), Edensor and Maryamah Karpov. Edensor was nominated for the country's prestigious Khatulistiwa Literary Award last year.
Only the hit novel Ayat-Ayat Cinta (Verses of Love) by Habiburahman Er Razy outsells Andrea's books.
It is hard to believe that he only recently developed a reading habit.
In fact, in his own words, Andrea said,"I begin to read fiction only after writing Laskar Pelangi."
"I think what matters most in literary work is the context, not the text," he said.
Now that his best-selling novel is about to be adapted for the big screen, Andrea said he was very fortunate because the wide-screen adaptation was being handled by the country's best filmmakers: Riri Riza and Mira Lesmana.