The Jakarta Post
When officials from local television station SCTV announced they would make the bestselling novel Laskar Pelangi (Rainbow Warriors) into a mini-series, people immediately questioned whether the TV station secured permission from the author, Andrea Hirata.
Surprisingly, it did.
Andrea admitted that he used to say that he would not allow Laskar Pelangi to be adopted into a sinetron (local soap opera), but he recently announced his approval of the project.
“It was a difficult decision for me. I told my readers for years that I am not going to allow the novel to be adapted into a sinetron,” he said during a press conference recently.
He said that he did not mean to undermine sinetron, but implied that he feared his novel would only become one of many low quality programs that currently flood the screen.
Andrea said he gave the nod to the TV station after learning that the novel would be adapted into a 15-episode series.
“I see a commitment to present a quality work to the audience. I told them the TV series should either go big or go home,” he said.
Laskar Pelangi the novel instantly became a nationwide hit after it was published in 2005. Three years later, producer Mira Lesmana and director Riri Riza brought the novel to the big screen, reaping further success.
The two recently teamed up again to make the novel into a musical, staged twice at Taman Ismail Marzuki in Jakarta and at The Esplanade in Singapore earlier this month.
The impact of the book and film has been magnificent. Belitung Island, which was previously best known for tin mining, has suddenly been put on the tourism map. Laskar Pelangi novel has been translated into 26 foreign languages to date.
Director of production and programming at SCTV, Harsiwi Ahmad, immediately saw the potential of the book to become a TV series. Approaching Andrea, she said, was not easy. It took a long time to assure him that the station would make a distinctive soap opera.
“I have read the novel and have watched the film. During our internal programming meetings, we all agreed that the novel was worth making a TV series because the film was limited to a short duration,” she said.
She promises to give the audience a TV series with film quality. The series, she said, is expected to be screened during the school holiday by the end of this year.
Salman Aristo, the scriptwriter of the films Laskar Pelangi and Lima Elang (Five Eagles), will write the series, while Guntur Soeharjanto will sit on the director chair.
Andrea said he was excited to see the involvement of five young talents from his village, Gantong, in Belitung. He said Malay children are generally shy, but have a good sense of art and are quick to learn.
“Malay children usually stand out and are confident. That is in their culture,” he said.
Malay people and their culture, he said, were his biggest inspiration in writing his novels. He believes children in his village have their own unique stories because they live in a mining area and have a hard life.
“Each child has an amazing story. If people ask why I can write such a story, it’s because we are already unique geographically. We know nothing about farming and live as laborers,” he told The Jakarta Post.
Since 2007, Andrea has written seven novels – Laskar Pelangi, Sang Pemimpi (The Dreamer), Edensor, Maryamah Karpov, Padang Bulan, Cinta di Dalam Gelas and 11 Patriot. He said the seven novels are inspired by true events, but they are still novels.
The man, who never mentions his age, is currently putting his latest novel on hold to take care of his parents at home. The novel, he said, has been in the hands of the publisher and only needs a finishing touch, but he has told the publisher to hold on to it until the right time. Andrea said the novel, which will be titled Ayah (Father), will be slightly different from his seven previous novels.
“The seven novels talk about myself or Ikal, but there will be a change in Ayah. It will still have an interesting artistic side as a novel,” he said, refusing to reveal whether the father figure in the novel represents his own father.
Andrea said his priority now is to take care of his 91-year old father and 86-year old mother. Their health started to deteriorate this year. He said he would stay in Belitung for quite a long time after attending a musical performance of Laskar Pelangi in Singapore and the recently finished Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali.
He said prioritizing his parents and putting his activities on hold were something he would not regret although he admits that his idle status sometimes leaves him in misery.
“I am a working person. I always work, study or do research for my novel. I even work on Sunday. Nowadays I try to stay still and I find it very difficult. I think I am addicted to work,” he said.
His father’s health has declined since August this year, so Andrea said he spends his time bathing his father, taking him for a walk in his wheelchair and having conversation with him.
“Many friends told me they regretted that they did not take care of their parents well when they were still alive. I don’t want to have such a regret. My novels can wait,” he said.
Andrea said he now has a time that he calls as “stupid time”, in which he does nothing at home. He said he used to work for telecommunication company PT Telkom while writing at the same time. After quitting his job and focusing on his new job as a writer, he spent his time doing research for his novels. The research, he said, was done through observation and survey, which could involve hundreds of participants.
“I am a writer who has a policy to allocate 90 percent of my time for research and the remaining 10 percent to write,” he said.
He said the cultural research for his novel Padang Bulan, for example, took four years and involved 600 respondents and a self-financed trip to Holland. He said he would spend hours in a coffee shop in Gantong just to observe the movement and habits of the people. His penchant for survey, he said, came from his studies of economics.
The soft-spoken man is an alumni of the University of Indonesia who secured scholarships from the European Union to pursue his master’s degree at the Sorbonne in Paris and then at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom.
His hard work attitude, he said, often made it difficult for him to focus on having a relationship with a woman. Andrea said he did not mean to close his heart and was always looking for the possibility to make a relationship, but he just cannot resist the fun parts of the art of writing and researching.
“I am the only one who is not married among my siblings. My mother is tired of asking me to get married, so she just stops asking now,” he said.
Andrea’s novels may sell well on the market, but as a writer, he faces the bitter reality of rampant piracy. He said he has started to write in English and publish abroad. His first short story, titled Dry Season, was published by Washington Square Review magazine.
“I still find difficulty because English is not my mother language, but this is a new challenge for me,” he said.
He said in February he signed a contract with New York-based Kathleen Anderson Literary Management, which oversees the publishing of his novels outside Indonesia.
“This commitment has a broad implication. The decision to adapt my novels in the form of films of musical plays abroad will not only become my own decision, but also the agent’s,” he said.
Andrea said after writing his first three books, he has passed the nervous phase as a writer. He has learned that he has secured a place in the heart of the literary world in the country and starts having a freedom in writing.
“I was still nervous when I wrote Edensor. I was wondering whether people would like it, whether it would sell well and whether it will reap critics,” he said.
He firmly said royalties are not his main concern anymore because he lived a humble village boy life and only needed money for the medical treatment of his parents. His only concern now was whether he could leave a decent legacy as a writer.
“I want to write books that can truly become a legacy and bring benefits to people,” he said.