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Raka Ibrahim: An ode to the classics

Marcel Thee

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Mon, April 2, 2018  /  09:37 am
Raka Ibrahim: An ode to the classics

Counterculture journalist Raka Ibrahim’s debut novel, Bagaimana Tuhan Menciptakan Cahaya (How God Created Light), is a collection of short stories inspired by popular Middle Eastern folktale collection One Thousand and One Nights. (Comma Books/File)

Counterculture journalist Raka Ibrahim’s debut novel, Bagaimana Tuhan Menciptakan Cahaya (How God Created Light), is a collection of short stories inspired by popular Middle Eastern folktale collection One Thousand and One Nights. 

In his debut novel, Raka Ibrahim utilizes the premise of two characters sitting in a room together and sharing stories.

On the surface, the book sounds completely different from the kind of detailed reporting and in-depth opinion pieces Raka has written for various publications (including his own music/counterculture website Disorder). 

The stories of Bagaimana Tuhan Menciptakan Cahaya focus on how these two individuals relate their tales to one another, and how the thoughts and fantasies of each affect the other’s stories. There are elements of mythology and fantasy at play, however Raka never lets the focus stray too far beyond relatable human elements.

The book explores themes related to living in cities, families, love, identity, longing, a sense of being lost and the mythology of creation. Still, according to its author, it is essentially a love story between its two main characters, who happen to be inspired by real people, though Raka wants to keep that part of it a mystery.

“I’m not at liberty to say what inspired this grand narrative. Suffice to say, it’s an interesting experiment to see what two people would do when pushed to this extreme, urgent situation. They’ve spent their entire lives running away from themselves, and spent the entire book doing so again.” he explains.

The overarching idea is in exploring the humanity within us, and how we all react in different, yet intrinsically humane ways. 

Raka was homeschooled, and a conversation with him shows just how “older” intellectually his mind is compared to his peers. 

There is an awareness of youth and getting older that permeates the book, even if the fear of mortality should be well away from the 21-year old. There is a strong sense that Raka is very much aware of the “youth’s” contribution — or lack thereof, in his opinion — to society.

In the end [the characters are] forced to confront themselves, and I suppose this is a part of growing older. I’m not optimistic about the power of youth, and this book is my way of celebrating sobriety,” he examines. “It’s entirely possible to move forward without giving in and disappearing in the crowd. It’s possible to respect the failures of the people you care about, without losing your love for them. It’s possible to accept that certain dreams will not come true, without losing the capacity for hope. Perhaps — if anything — that realization is what this book represents for me at the 

The stories relate to each other in a clear narrative because Raka wrote the short stories with the intention of gathering them into one book, instead of picking favorites from his own work.

“The main idea is two lovers meeting for the last time in a hotel room, and before they part, one character takes it upon himself to serve as a pendongeng(storyteller) to narrate who they are, where they are, and why they have arrived at that particular situation through the medium of stories. So, every short story in this collection was constructed with that bigger narrative in mind. It has to fit in with these character’s current situation, their arc, their characterization, and so on.”

For Raka, the characters drove the book’s narrative, yet at the same time, it was born out of some very personal moments. It was also a result of Raka feeling like he was hitting a wall in his non-fiction writing.

“It came out of a very frustrating time for me personally, when I was completely stuck in the medium I mostly wrote in, which was non-fiction. A good friend of mine, [author] Rain Chudori, convinced me to try and experiment with fiction, and I found it liberating. I started to enjoy the possibilities it afforded and it went on from there.”

The experiment worked wonders and Raka felt inspired. Still, he’s not discounting his passion for writing non-fiction, and still sees himself as a layman in the world of fiction. What persuaded him was the way some of his favorite writers incorporated elements and techniques found in fiction writing into their non-fiction pieces.

“Fiction is certainly not my forte. But for a long time, I’ve enjoyed journalism and non-fiction writing that incorporated the narrative techniques of fiction — from Hunter S. Thompson, to Joan Didion and Gay Talese, all the way to the amazing work of people in Pindai and Pantau. 

“I enjoy how they write true stories, but give space for their own observations and understanding of the situation,” Raka explains, elaborating that “Of course it’s no way to consume information in an objective manner, but it’s a great way to understand the nuance of the situation and get a glimpse into what makes that person tick.”

The idea was to “tinker with the reality presented before you”, he says, and to imagine the different variations a non-fiction piece could have more-excitedly gone.

“Of course the basic, cliché things that inspire most fiction writers drive me as well. Personal experiences, family, urban life, Indonesian identity, love and all that. But some of the stories in the novel are inspired by the question: is there a place for myth-making in modern life? It’s a question that’s becoming steadily more relevant in this age where discourse around the so-called post-truth is getting more serious.”

The stories weave in and out of mythological elements. Samudra Kabut (Fog Ocean), contains a long reference to the legend of the “sea of fogs”, and the story of King Sunyata, the sovereign monarch of the richest country on earth who attempted to cross this Great Sea. 

There is also Pendekar Dari Bulan (Warrior from the Moon), which Raka describes as having “all the elements of the kitschy Pendekar soap operas I would gape at as a kid, and it’s a story about the city I came from. An impossible to verify, skewed and unscientific version of the story, but a good story nonetheless”.

“For me, if there’s a common theme, it’s the idea of dongeng, an oral tradition of storytelling that tells you who you are, your origins, your land and your context. Since these stories are told by word-of-mouth, there’s no way of telling one singular version of the story, and anyone can recontextualize the story based on their own needs.”

For Raka, however, the story that hits closest to home is the title story, which finds the two characters having to put the focus onto themselves. The title itself has significance in Raka’s family background.

“I live in an interesting family — my father’s a good Muslim, my mother’s a good Christian. I’m neither. I suppose cahaya is an extended, terrible metaphor for the concept of hope,” he says. 

“I asked a friend of mine what god meant to him, since he became a religious man after years of drug abuse, and he only said, ‘God is the door to hope — pintu harapan’. I thought that was beautiful.”


Bagaimana Tuhan Menciptakan Cahaya

Raka Ibrahim
Publisher: Comma Books and Gramedia, 2018
232 pages

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