The Jakarta Post
Winning writer: Eka Kurniawan talks about his writing at Amsterdam’s Compagnie Theater in the Netherlands. Eka was among winners of the prestigious Prince Claus prize this year. (Courtesy of Maarten van Haaff/-)
Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan was awarded the prestigious Prince Claus prize for his writing at a ceremony presented by the Dutch royal family in Amsterdam.
In Amsterdam’s grand Royal Palace, where visiting kings and heads of state are received, prince Constantijn handed over the 2018 Prince Claus award to Eka on Thursday.
In his speech, Constantijn, the younger brother of King Willem Alexander, praised Eka, “whose literature mercilessly but with humor raises issues that Indonesia has long kept buried”.
The Prince Claus Fund, named in honor of the king’s late father, has been handing out annual awards since 1997 to “honor outstanding achievements in the field of culture and development”.
The awards are mainly given to groups or individuals from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Other award recipients this year were from Uganda, South Africa, the Philippines, Brazil and Syria, in fields such as dance, photography and architecture.
Past Indonesian award winners include dancer and cineaste Sardono Kusumo, the Institute for Islamic and Social Studies LKiS, writer Ayu Utami and artist FX Harsono.
Eka broke onto the international literary scene in 2015 when his first bookCantik itu Luka (Beauty is a Wound) appeared on major “best books” lists.
The year after that he became the first Indonesian author to have a book — his second novel Lelaki Harimau (Man Tiger) —longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. His work has been translated into 34 languages, including Dutch.
Eka — a man of few words when not writing — said he had “no idea” that he was considered for the award until the Prince Claus Fund contacted him two months ago to inform him that he was one of this year’s prize winners. This, he noted, was the first award he had received that was not only given to writers.
“It was great to meet and exchange thoughts with the other winners, like Dada Masilo from South Africa. She’s not just an impressive dancer, but also a choreographer and manager of her dance group,” the 43-year-old says.
Asked what made Eka stand out from the other writers considered for the award this year, selection committee member Tejumola Olaniyan, a professor of English, African languages, and literature at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the United States, said, “What really made Eka stand out as a writer was his remarkable skill at using humor and satire to deal with very serious topics, and to do it in a way that engages readers to think about — and finally to acknowledge and discuss — historical realities that have long been repressed in Indonesia”.
It struck Olaniyan, when he first met Eka in person, that he was “a surprisingly shy and modest man. He doesn’t immediately strike you as someone who writes such powerful novels!”
On the eve of the ceremony Eka forsook his usual attire of T-shirt-and-jeans and was dressed in a dark blue suit as he chatted with members of the Oranjes, the Dutch royal family, before and after the official ceremony.
“Queen Máxima asked in which city I lived, and noted that Go-Jek helps navigate the busy streets of Jakarta,” he says.
The queen had visited Indonesia earlier this year in her capacity as the United Nations secretary-general’s special advocate for inclusive finance for development.
Eka also spoke with princess Beatrix, who was queen of the Netherlands for 33 years before handing over her responsibilities to her son Willem Alexander in 2013.
“She admitted she had not had the opportunity to read my book, but kindly promised she would do that as she had heard that it also included our countries’ shared history.”
Cantik itu Luka is an epic story that travels through crucial decades of Indonesia’s history, from the Dutch colonial era until the 1990s, seen through the lives of Dutch-Sundanese prostitute Dewi Ayu and her family in the fictional village of Halimunda.
One day prior to the awards ceremony, the six award recipients spoke about their work in front of an audience of about 250 people at Amsterdam’s Compagnie Theater.
Also present to cheer Eka at the Royal Palace were Maya Sutedja Liem, who translated Eka’s book into Dutch, and Indonesian ambassador I Gusti Agung Wesaka Puja, who said he was “very proud” of Eka’s achievement.
Eka, meanwhile, remained his sober self when asked what the award meant to him: “It is always nice to be appreciated for one’s work,” he said, drily adding that “it never hurts when more people become familiar with my writing”.