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Leila s. Chudori : Khatulistiwa Award winner'€™s commitment to the writing process

  • Meghan Downes

    The Jakarta Post

| Mon, January 20, 2014 | 11:35 am
Leila s. Chudori : Khatulistiwa Award winner'€™s commitment to the writing process

As well as the usual challenges of juggling travel, work and motherhood, she also suffered a personal bereavement when her father, veteran journalist Muhammad Chudori, passed away in March last year.

At the other end of the scale was winning the coveted Khatulistiwa Literary Award for her historical novel, Pulang (Homecoming), a novel which shines a light onto the human impacts of the 1965 debacle and its aftermath.

Upon receiving the award, Leila expressed surprise and amazement at taking the prize, for which she was up against other talented authors, such as Dewi Kharisma Michellia, Laksmi Pamuntjak, Okky Madasari and AS Laksana.

Leila said she felt honored and thankful at the recognition.

'€œHowever,'€ she added, '€œas my late father used to remind me, the important thing in creativity is the process: research and writing. It is the process that will teach us to be humble.

'€œWhen we are in the process of digging for the story, we always realize how small we are '€” how little we know. It is usually a humbling experience and my father stressed that. He believed the minute you become arrogant with your knowledge and your gift, you are through with being a writer. And mostly, you are through with being a good human being.'€

The process of digging out a story is something that Leila is committed to, and she brings an almost journalistic approach to researching the background and settings of her fictional stories.

To achieve the rich wealth of historical detail in Pulang, Leila spent six years researching, reading and conducting interviews with Indonesian political exiles living in Paris, such as Oemar Said and Sobron Aidit, owners of Restaurant Indonesia.

One of Leila'€™s big regrets is that Oemar and Sobron both passed away during the writing period, so they never had the chance to read the final version.

'€œAlthough I sent them the synopsis and some chapters from early drafts, it would be nice if they could read the final novel,'€ said Leila.  '€œThey were very sweet, kind and extremely helpful. To me, they were the hidden history that we need to uncover.'€

While Pulang, as a historical novel, is quite different to some of Leila'€™s previous anthologies, such as Malam Terakhir (Last Night, 1989) and 9 dari Nadira (9 from Nadira, 2009), the theme of family runs strongly through all of her work.

'€œIt seems I cannot get away from family stories,'€ she said.

What stands out about Pulang, however, is that the family saga is set against a part of Indonesian history that had long been erased. Reviews from young readers on the popular website Goodreads
illustrate just how much the story has piqued their interest in the hidden complexities of Indonesia'€™s past.

'€œHonestly, reading this novel gave me a much better understanding of the events surrounding 1965 and 1998, especially compared to what we learned in school, and it motivates me to learn more about our history,'€ said one young reviewer.

Another explained that '€œas a child who grew up in the New Order era, terms like '€˜ex-political prisoners'€™, '€˜exiles'€™ and anything remotely '€˜red'€™ felt so removed from our everyday reality ['€¦] This novel lifted grey shadows from the history of our country, not in terms of political and ideological understandings, but more from the point of view of those who were lost, who were separated from their families, figures who longed for a home they couldn'€™t return to.'€

Leila has been touched by these kinds of responses.

'€œI think I just wanted to write a story, that'€™s what writers do. I do not have any pretense to change people'€™s perceptions,'€ explained Leila.

'€œHowever, I have been receiving lots of feedback, especially from the younger generation '€” the ones that had to watch the New Order'€™s version of history through propaganda films '€” that after reading Pulang they felt compelled to search for history books that will explain the '€˜erased section'€™ in our history.

'€œI am glad for this reaction. However, I am mostly happy when they mention how the characters were alive and vivid in their minds. I like creating characters.'€

Pulang is currently being translated into English, Dutch and French, so many more readers internationally will soon be able to enjoy this moving family saga and historical drama.

Leila never remains idle for long, and already has some upcoming projects in the pipeline. The year 2014 marks Leila'€™s 25th year writing for news magazine Tempo, so she plans to publish a collection of her journalistic work from the past two decades.

She has also begun research for the prequel of 9 dari Nadira, entitled Catatan Harian Kemala Suwandi (The Diary of Kemala Suwandi). '€œThis research process will take a while, because I need to go to Holland to visit some historical places where Kemala, Nadira'€™s mother, used to go during her college period in the 1950s.'€

The project she is most excited about, however, is an upcoming collaboration with her daughter Rain Chudori-Soerjoatmojo.

'€œWe have been discussing the plot and the characters for years,'€ Leila explained. '€œI will be writing the first book of a family story and she will be writing the second book. It is a big plan, and we are looking forward to doing it.'€  

A love of writing clearly runs in the Chudori family and, undoubtedly, many of Leila'€™s fans will be excited to see the fruits of this upcoming mother-daughter collaboration.

 The writer is an intern at The Jakarta Post

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