The Jakarta Post
Indonesian history is getting more interesting in the hands of writer Iksaka Banu.
Banu's stories feature well-crafted characters plunged into key moments of Indonesia's colonial history, often with surprising results.
In his short-story anthology Semua Untuk Hindia, (All for Hindia, the Dutch name for its Indonesian colony), Banu's characters witness the arrival of the first Dutch sailors in the 16th century, as well the departure of the ship that took Prince Diponegoro into exile after his war against the colonizers, among other moments.
In an introduction to the book, which received the 2014 Kusala Sastra Khatulistiwa literature award, poet Nirwan Dewanto lauded Banu: 'The thirteen short stories in the book deny the common assumption that our history is dusty and boring.'
Born in Yogyakarta in 1964, Banu has written short stories since he was in elementary school. Some of were even published in local papers.
Banu said he was inspired by his father, R.I. Suhartin Tjitrobroto, a teacher and non-fiction writer. ''Write. Publish books ' at least one book in your life. The more the better',' Banu said his father told him.
The young Banu did not initially heed that advice. 'I was more into drawing. I found out about poster paints, which at that time were rare. I got the paints for my birthday and I got so excited.'
Banu's talent for drawing led to work as a junior illustrator for a national magazine before he was a teenager, he said. 'I was paid Rp 3,500 ' and I could do almost anything with such an amount, because I was still in 8th grade. I felt like a millionaire.'
He studied graphic design at the Bandung Institute of Technology and worked in advertising for 16 years before quitting in 2006. 'I realized that I was getting older and there were a lot of new talents with more brilliant ideas.'
As an ad man, Banu buried his writing talents. It was not until 2000, when an unfortunate event struck, that he started to write again. 'I had to take care of my sick mother for 40 days. I had nothing to do, so I wrote.'
He penned a short story that was published by Matra magazine and returned to the world of letters.
While noir originally attracted him, Banu said that he changed tacks after accidentally discovering a catalogue about maestro painter Raden Saleh's work and life. 'I was there with [fellow writer] Kurnia Effendi and we discovered the same book. We thought it was a sign that we had to write something about Raden Saleh together.'
The writers decided to develop a novel inspired by Raden Saleh, who became first Indonesian to studying painting in Europe in the 19th century.
While researching the (unfinished) book, Banu and Kurnia discovered much about Indonesian history that they thought would be interesting for other stories. Banu then started writing short stories based on his findings.
For a man in his fifties, Banu looks very fit. A set of weight lifting equipment can be seen on the floor of his work space, which is filled by rows of bookshelves.
'I thought 'What can we do now in order to survive after the age of 50 except maintain our health?' he said.
Banu, who lives with his wife and 11-year-old son Dyota, divides his time between writing and working as freelancer, consulting with NGOs to pay the bills.
A big bookshelf to the left contains history books for research, other shelves are for his work and his favorite books, which range from novels to comics.
'If someone ask who inspires my narrative style, then I have to honestly answer that I was influenced by Frank Miller,' Banu said, referring to the author of the Dark Knight and Sin City comic series.
'His language is short but very sharp and deep,' he added.
It is also amazing to see Banu's collections of clippings of his first work as a short-story writer and illustrator for a newspaper. He collects the magazines that published his illustrations.
Banu says he is thinking of exploring another genre, as he does not want to be typecast as a period author. However, he's hesitant to take on a new project before his book with Kurnia is published, hopefully, this year.
'I need to pay my debt to [Raden Saleh] first, because he is the one who made it possible for me to publish a book. I cannot leave him behind,' he said.