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Eka Kurniawan: Writing fearlessly

A. Kurniawan Ulung

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Wed, November 8, 2017  /  08:48 am
Eka Kurniawan: Writing fearlessly

Eka Kurniawan poses with his third novel, Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash. Vengeance the English version of Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas, which was first published in 2014 in Indonesia. (JP/A. Kurniawan Ulung)

From a prostitute returning from the dead, a monkey dreaming of being a human to a man tragically finding himself impotent, award winning author Eka Kurniawan talks about politics, history, crime, sex and philosophy in a witty way.   

For Eka, his books are like his babies, including his third novel, Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash. Vengeance the English version of Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas, which was first published in 2014 in Indonesia.

Eka said Seperti Dendam and his fourth novel, O, a story about a monkey falling in love with a man and hoping to be a woman, were written in the same period. 

Originally, Seperti Dendam was actually one of the chapters of O, but he decided to get rid of that chapter because it did not match the overall story. He printed that chapter and reread it before eventually throwing it in his drawer. 

“One day, when I felt bored, I opened my drawer and accidentally found the draft. I checked it again. I thought that it was not really bad and it could become a different novel.” 

“This book is a baby accidentally born,” he said after the launch of Vengeance in October at Periplus bookstore in Central Jakarta.

Vengeance, which took three-and-a-half years to complete, tells of the plight of Ajo Kawir, a lower class Javanese boy who is excited about sex, but later becomes impotent after being forced by two police officers to watch them brutally raping a mentally ill woman.

“This novel talks about masculinity that is seen through the perspectives of men and women,” he said.

The author of nine books, including four novels, won the 2016 World Readers Award for Beauty is a Wound and was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize for Man Tiger in the same year. The original titles for the two books are Cantik itu Luka ( 2002 ) and Lelaki Harimau ( 2004 ). 

Eka’s success cannot be separated from the role of the late Cornell University professor Benedict Anderson, who translated his short stories, Corat-Coret di Toilet (Graffiti in the Toilet) and Jimat Sero, for Cornell’s journal Indonesia. Anderson also introduced Eka’s works to major publishers, including Verso Books, which later decided to publish Man Tiger.     

American translator Annie Tucker also expressed her interest in translating Cantik itu Luka, and sealed the deal. The novel was later published by New Directions.   

Eka never imagined that international publishers would be interested in his works. The winner of the 2016 Emerging Voices fiction award by The Financial Times recalled that when he offered Cantik itu Luka to local publishers, many of them rejected it. Cantik itu Luka and Lelaki Harimau have been translated into over 33 languages. 

Eka said he takes inspiration from his experiences. 

Vengeance is Mine is also inspired by many things, such as a rendezvous with my cousin who is a truck driver in Pluit [in North Jakarta],” he said.    

The 41-year-old fell in love with books during his childhood in Tasikmalaya and Pangandaran in West Java, where he liked renting books, including those written by Asmaraman S. Kho Ping Ho. Growing up, he began to enjoy books by foreign writers such as Hunger by Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun.  

Eka never formally learned to write, but his wide variety of reading genres, including horror and adult novels, is an element that also influences his works. 

Vengeance will be made into a movie by filmmaker Edwin, the director of Postcards from the Zoo and Posesif (Possessive). Eka teamed up with the director to write the screenplay.