Eka Kurniawan wins inaugural World Readers Award with Beauty Is A Wound

Eka Kurniawan is interested in writing books for children in the future.

Thirteen years after breaking into Indonesia’s literary firmament with his debut Bahasa Indonesia novel, Cantik Itu Luka (Beauty Is A Wound), author Eka Kurniawan makes his way onto the world’s stage: The English language version of the book received the inaugural World Readers Award on Tuesday and his second novel, Lelaki Harimau (Man Tiger) was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Book International Prize a couple of weeks earlier.

The World Readers Award, organised by the Hong Kong and Australia-based Asia Pacific Writers and Translators association, was given out in Hong Kong. According to the award’s website, worldreadersaward.com, Eka, who could not attend the ceremony, said is a delivered statement that he was “happy, humbled and honoured”.

The website notes the judges’ also paid tribute to his translator, Annie Tucker. In a statement published by Pen America, Tucker describes Beauty Is A Wound as “a distinctive West Javanese voice that will feel fresh and new to readers, evoking multiple local influences including the bawdy wit and epic scope of wayang theatre, the folk tales for which the region is famous, and Indonesian horror and martial arts genre fiction.” (Click here for the Star2.com review.)

Opening the novel is an astounding scene about a prostitute named Dewi Ayu, who rises from her grave after being dead for two decades to pay a visit to her fourth – ugly – daughter named Cantik (Beautiful). The novel centres on a family saga that moves alongside the country’s history – from Dutch rule and the Japanese occupation to the 1965 mass killings.

Many in Indonesia’s literary scene have spotted the influence of Salman Rushdie, Gabriel García Márquez, Mark Twain and, most significantly, Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer in Eka’s debut work.

“Some compare me to Pram [Pramoedya] and García Márquez. Some have also mentioned [Nikolai] Gogol and Herman Melville. To be honest, I have been influenced by all of them. I have read their works since I was in college,” he says in an interview.

Renowned Indonesian scholar Benedict Anderson praised Eka in an influential article, saying that, “It is nice that after half a century, Pramoedya Ananta Toer has found a successor.”

Having extensively read Pramoedya’s works, Eka, in a critical view, believes that Cantik Itu Luka serves more as an “antithesis” to the works of the late legendary man of letters (renowned for his novels about Indonesia’s battle for independence against the Dutch, written while imprisoned).

“To suggest that the writer of Cantik Itu Luka is trying to emulate Pram seems quite absurd to me,” says Eka, 40.

“I can say with utmost confidence that Pram would never write about a dead man climbing out of his grave. Were he still alive and able to read my novel, he would have some harsh words to say about it!”

Born in 1975, Eka spent most of his childhood in the coastal area of Pangandaran in West Java before leaving to study at a secondary school in nearby Tasikmalaya. However, struggling in the competitive environment, he left the school in his second semester.

“I decided to go backpacking and travelling for almost three months. My friends, parents and grandmother were all looking for me. By the time I got back, I had been expelled from the school.”

His father then signed Eka up at an unpopular private school, where most of the students had also been expelled from other schools.

“I felt at ease there. There were no rules, no obsession with being the best or the smartest.”

Given the school’s reputation, many in his neighbourhood were surprised upon learning that Eka had been accepted at the respected Gadjah Mada University’s School of Philosophy in Yogyakarta.

In 1999, he finished his studies with a thesis on Pramoedya Ananta Toer dan Sastra Realisme Sosialis (Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Socialist Realist Literature), which was later published as a book, and went to work as a journalist at Pantau magazine for about a year.

He cut his journalistic career short after receiving a grant to complete and publish Cantik Itu Luka from the Yogyakarta Cultural Academy.

The story of Dewi Ayu and her ugly baby came into being when Eka’s mother told him about an expecting mother who had prayed to have a son as handsome as Arjuna, a character from the Hindu creation myth – “When the baby is born, he indeed looks like Arjuna, but Arjuna as a wayang puppet, not handsome but ugly.”

Cantik Itu Luka is a combination of family tragedy, satire, legend, references to Indonesia’s nightmarish past and depictions of physical and sexual violence. Eka interweaves these themes with a delicate and deft narrative.

The critically acclaimed novel landed him a reputation as “the finest writer to emerge since Pramoedya” and “the brightest meteorite” in contemporary Indonesian literature.

The road to getting the book published, though, was long and stony for Eka.

Before receiving the grant to publish the book from the Yogyakarta Cultural Academy, Eka had offered Cantik Itu Luka to four publishers, but to no avail.

“A major publisher included a note [with the rejection letter], saying ‘the novel is too literary’. I have no idea whether that’s a compliment or something else,” he recalls, laughing.

The first review of Cantik Itu Luka called it “a failure”, a jibe Eka clearly remembers all too well. However, positive reviews then began to flood in. “It was luck. I got some positive responses, good sales and a year later Gramedia republished it.” The novel came out in 2002.

Eka’s second novel Lelaki Harimau (2004), meanwhile, opens with a murder in a rural village. A young boar hunter, Margio, comes forward, believing that a ghostly tiger living inside his body is responsible for the murder.

The inspiration behind the story was an incident in Eka’s hometown Pangandaran, where locals mobbed the police station in an effort to reach a murder suspect in custody. Police let the suspect escape through the back door, but the mob caught and killed him.

“I intended to make a narrative journalistic work, but I couldn’t be bothered going back and forth collecting details from the field. So I wrote it as fiction.”

His third novel, published in 2014, Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas (“Love And Vengence’ is the working title of the English translation), is a study of masculinity through protagonist Ajo Kawir, who suffers impotence after witnessing a rape committed by two policemen.

Eka’s latest novel, released this month, is O, and it comes with a one-sentence synopsis tweeted by its publisher: “About a monkey who wants to marry a Dangdut Emperor”!

A fan of children’s books, the husband of writer Ratih Kumala wishes to write a book that can be read by his young daughter, Kidung Kinanti.

“I love The Little Prince simply because it is a good book, and Haroun And The Sea Of Stories. Both children and grown-ups can enjoy them,” he said.

Writing for children is a long-term plan, though. “I reckon writing children’s stories is much harder.” – Jakarta Post/Asia News Network/ worldreadersaward.com

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