HAMSAD RANGKUTI: JP/Ary Hermawan
There was no library in Kisaran, North Sumatra, where Hamsad Rangkuti, the recipient of the Southeast Asian Writers Award 2008, lived as a child.
As he could not afford to buy newspapers, and so visited the local administration's office to read the Sunday editions of local newspapers that were put on the wall.
There he read the works of journalists and authors, including great Russian and American authors like Anton Chekov, Maxim Gorky, Ernest Hemingway and O. Henry, who incited his interest in becoming a writer.
Born in 1943, he was 16 when he wrote his first short story, Sebuah Nyanyian di Rambung Tua (A Song in an Old Rubber Tree).
Hamsad said was an acute daydreamer. He used to make up stories in his mind long before he knew anything about literature. He could sit for hours in a tree and fantasize about everything he liked.
"I enjoyed it. It felt like being in another world, the world of imagination," he wrote in the introductory chapter of his short stories collection, Bibir Dalam Pispot (Lips on the Chamber Pot), which won him the S.E.A. Award 2008.
Having learned the art of story telling from his father, Hamsad used to tell stories to his friends, who called him a liar for he often mixed reality with fantasy.
"In order for people to like your story, you must add a lie in it. This is not a crime. It is beauty. A beautiful lie. Many writers hate this term for it makes literature sound like a crime, and therefore they prefer calling it 'imagination'," Hamsad told The Jakarta Post at his home in Depok, West Java.
Nevertheless, Hamsad said he was a realist in that his works were a reflection of real events. He just bent the narratives, fictionalizing them by adding some dramatic elements.
When he moved to Medan and published his second short story, Mesjid (Mosque), he was immediately recognized by the city's prominent authors, who lent him magazines and more on Indonesian literature.
A renowned writer in Medan, Sori Siregar, then suggested that Hamsad rewrite his short story Panggilan Rasul (The Calling of the Apostle) and send it to Sastra magazine in Jakarta to test his talent as a writer.
He followed the suggestion and a month later he was notified that his short story would be published by the prestigious magazine. He recalled he was extremely excited to tell his fellow writers about the news.
Together with other writers from North Sumatra, he was invited to attend the Indonesian Authors Conference in Jakarta in 1964.
Ironically, the story was never published by Sastra magazine as the publication was closed down due to its support for the Cultural Manifesto, which was banned by Soekarno.
Popularly known as Manifes Kebudayaan, the manifesto attacked the artistic restriction imposed by Soekarno who then favored leftist intellectuals in Lekra (The Institute of People's Culture), which was affiliated with the Indonesian Communist Party.
HB Jassin, an icon in Indonesian literature, sent the story to Horison magazine; it was published in the magazine's fourth edition, and Hamsad decided to stay in Jakarta.
In his early years in the capital, he slept on a piece of paper on the floor of the Balai Budaya cultural center in Menteng. During those years, he said, he found it hard to write, producing only seven short stories in nine years.
However, it was also the time when he delved into the darker side of Jakarta, where poverty lingered among posh buildings. He interacted with people on the streets, talking with the destitutes and prostitutes.
One of his best short stories, Ketika Lampu Berwarna Merah (When the Light Turns Red), depicts the life of beggars and prostitutes found along the railroad near the Ciliwung River.
The idea to write Pispot (The Chamber Pot) came to him while he was in a public minivan. He happened to listen to a woman who told the passengers about a robbery that just happened.
In Pispot, Hamsad tells the story of the alleged robber who was arrested by the police. He was believed to have swallowed a stolen necklace and was forced to take laxatives.
He relieved himself three times, but the police could not find any evidence in the chamber pot. The narrator who had accused him felt bad because his accusation had been proven baseless.
He then apologized to the alleged robber and took him to his home, but on the way the man confessed to him that he had taken the necklace because his child was seriously ill.
The jewelry was not found in the chamber pot because every time it came out, the man swallow it again.
"I think the reason why the stories in Bibir dalam Pispot outlast their times is that they tell of the suffering of the poor, which is still a fact of life in Jakarta," Hamsad told the Post.
Though published in Kompas Publisher in 2003, most of the stories in the anthology were written in the 1980s when he was at the height of his career as a writer. He became chief editor of Horison magazine in 1986 and left the position in 2002.
The S.E.A Award 2008 is the second award for the anthology. In the year of its release, it was awarded the Khatulistiwa Literary Award for Indonesia's Best Fiction 2002/2003.
"I was surprised. I really did not expect it," he said.
Hamsad said he would be traveling to Bangkok on Sept. 25 to receive the award from Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. He said a friend was kind enough to pay the ticket for his wife, Nurwindasari, to accompany him to Bangkok.
"We'll be there until Idul Fitri," he said.
Hamsad said he had written a two-minute story to be recited at the award ceremony. The story, Mayat Seorang Wanita Tua (Dead Body of an Old Lady), tells how vagrants stole the dead body of an old lady.
"I still want to write stories that are lasting. I don't want to write cliche stories. Young writers should know this as well. You've got to have a story to write, you can't just play with words," he said.
Hamsad said he was currently involved in a program run by the Ministry of Education's Language Center to teach and offer support to young authors.