Exporting Indonesia’s Written Word
Indonesian best-selling author Andrea Hirata is coming home this week after a three-month cultural research program at the University of Iowa.
While Andrea says that he is looking forward to eating his favorite foods once again, he is not leaving the English-speaking world for good. In fact, his international journey has just begun.
Andrea, who hails from the remote Belitung Island off the Sumatran coast, is fast realizing his dream of becoming an international author.
He is one of only a handful of Indonesian authors whose works have successfully reached a wider global audience.
Three of the four books in his best-selling tetralogy — “Laskar Pelangi” (“Rainbow Troops”), “Sang Pemimpi” (“The Dreamer”) and “Edensor” — have already been translated into English.
The fourth one, “Maryamah Karpov,” is pending translation.
During a recent interview with the Jakarta Globe in New York, Andrea talked for the first time about writing his next novel, “Two Trees,” the things he has done in the past and where he is headed.
You’ve spent a couple of weeks in Iowa and you’ve also taken the time to travel for book discussions in many cities, including San Francisco, Missouri, Chicago, Washington, DC, and New York.
How has that experience been?
America has given me an amazing and rich cultural experience as a writer. My experiences here have motivated me to become a cultural novelist in Indonesia, a literary genre that is yet to be developed.
Unlike metropop books, which take pop culture as their main theme, cultural novels take a closer look at traditional culture. America has given me an inspiring benchmark to write cultural novels.
In the course of your studies, did you find yourself inspired by American literature?
Yes. I’ve had a chance to read the original editions of “Einstein’s Dreams” by Alan Lightman and “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen.
I’m continuously fascinated by the cultural aspects contained in these books, especially Alan Lightman’s exploration of the intellectual culture in America.
These readings and my experience in America have shown me the extent with which I know nothing. Although I’ve written six thick literary tomes, there is still so much to learn.
Your novel ‘Edensor’ is partly inspired by the time you spent studying in France. Any chance your experiences in America might one day become a book too?
Yes. I really want to write about my experience here because everything I encounter inspires me — the people in America, the Indonesian students here, everything. I’m especially fascinated by New York, a city that is dynamic beyond my imagination.
In fact, I’ve written two short stories in English about my experiences here. The first, “Dry Season,” has just been selected by the Washington Square Review [literary journal]. My second short story, titled “Iowa,” also talks about my experiences there.
You’ve taken a number of courses on cultural research and I assume that you research and write in English for these courses. How is writing in English different from writing in Indonesian?
My experience has taught me that both languages have their own uniqueness.
When it comes to scientific writing, the English language is more accommodating.
When I want to write about topics related to the research of human DNA, for example, the Indonesian language lacks the vocabulary to accommodate that style of writing.
DNA research has rapidly developed in America and consequently, English is the language that provides all the scientific terminologies.
When it comes to cultural writing or what I call emotional work, however, the Indonesian language is very accommodating.
Many studies have categorized our national language as being significantly underdeveloped. Comparatively speaking, the Indonesian language has significantly less vocabulary than the English language. Do you think this is a problem and can this change?
This can change for sure because language is a cultural tool. As the culture develops, so too will language.
For example, we find new words related to the development of cellular phones in Indonesia.
In fact, many Indonesian cultural languages are actually very rich and expressive.
The Melayu language, for example, from which the official Indonesian language was developed, has 11 different words to describe the act of falling.
The word to describe falling on one’s head is different from the words to describe the other ways of falling.
The Melayu language also contains a variety of words to express sadness. Thus, if we explore the many local Indonesian languages, we will find that many of the dialects are very powerful.
Ironically, these very dialects have begun to disappear. The dialect of Sawang in my village is one example. When I return home from America, I think I might start an audio library for this language.
Your novels have been translated into a number of foreign languages, including English and German. Given the many barriers language poses, has this process been successful?
The success of the sales of “Rainbow Troops” in the international world proves that its translation was fairly successful.
In the famous Prairie Lights bookstore in the Midwest, for example, my novel was sold out. In San Francisco, a few bookstores were also sold out.
There is a high demand for me to sell my work in America. This only goes to show that linguistically at least, the novel was a success. In terms of cultural translation, however, we may need to do more research.
Yet translating must be done with much caution.
Imagine this: When a story is transferred from a writer’s head to paper, it has already undergone a number of interfaces.
The pristine story within the depth of the writer’s soul, heart and mind is distorted the moment it is written because it is affected by the author’s written and lingual abilities, as well as the accommodation of the language and form of writing.
When it is translated, it has to pass through the interface of yet another mind. To minimize layers of distortion, translators must have appropriate knowledge and training for translation, which is often taught at universities.
How many copies of your translated books have been sold in America?
Thousands, I believe, because when I discussed my novel in Washington, DC, many Americans were holding copies of “Rainbow Troops.” They may have bought it through Amazon or through my agent in Arizona.
I believe this development is a milestone for Indonesian literature because it shows that Indonesians can also write books that are acceptable in other countries.
Do you plan to write more books?
Yes, I actually have a new novel, and I’m saying this to the Jakarta Globe for the first time. The book has two titles: “Two Trees” in English and “Ayah” (“Father”) in Indonesian.
I wrote this novel using both languages depending on the chapter. Some chapters were written in English, while others were written in Indonesian.
However, I think the English version will be published first, partly because of my disappointment with the piracy of my books in Indonesia. Imagine, the fake version of my books sell three times more.
“Laskar Pelangi,” which originally sold five million copies, also sold 15 million pirated copies.
The men who sell fake copies even offered me to buy pirated versions of my books, and this happened to me four times in Jakarta. My theory is that two things ought to be fought in Indonesia: God and copyright infringers [laughs].
Your name sounds Japanese. Are you somehow connected to that culture too?
No. My friends from my home village in Belitung find Andrea and Hirata to be unusual names. When I was a child, I was given Muslim names, like Muhammad and Ahmad.
My family changed my name seven times. But I was always sick and felt unworthy to carry such holy names.
My father was tired of choosing a new name for me, so in the end, he asked me to choose a name for myself.
While reading the newspaper, I came across an Italian man named Andrea.
And with my last name, Hirata, my mother gave it to me. If you say Hirata fast, over and over again, you’ll get the word ‘ahirat.’
Muslims must always remember ahirat , to do good deeds. Coincidentally, Hirata in Japanese means a large paddy field.
Indeed, a name that’s suitable for a village boy like myself.