Ghosts pour off the pages of Eka Kurniawan’s debut novel, Beauty Is a Wound. They rub at the windowpane and even play hands at the card table. Badly buried in the twentieth century, their “damaged bodies” have now arisen, seeking justice. And Kurniawan, in telling their stories, is giving it to them.
Published in English this year and collectively hailed in the US as a masterwork, Beauty Is a Wound first appeared in Indonesia in 2002, four years after the fall of Suharto. The dictator’s thirty-one-year chokehold on Indonesian history was broken, leaving Kurniawan free to rewrite it as one huge song. This book is improbable, covering three full generations of one family—the brood of genius prostitute Dewi Ayu—without letting up. Here opposites unite: terror and good humor, blasphemy and faith, death and life. Kurniawan’s prose is in constant elegant turmoil, influenced by everything from Harlequins to Hegel.
His second novel, Man Tiger, came out this year in English too. A slimmer, more intimate book, it also stars a ghost: the spirit of the white tiger dwelling in young Margio, an inheritance from his grandfather. Another family saga, it’s signature Kurniawan in its serious playfulness. It alternates flash and inner quiet. We feel everything from the tenderness of family meals to the roughness of a torn jugular.
This interview took place over email between Jakarta and New York.
Jesse Ruddock Despite its many horrors, Beauty Is a Wound is a joy. It’s fun to read like the “trashy novels” you’ve said inspired it. Was it fun to write?
Eka Kurniawan Writing is always satisfying and tormenting. I have my objectives and measures to accomplish, and suffer if I fail to achieve them. It can be frustrating. If my writing gets lousy or cliché, I wipe it out furiously.
JR So what does it feel like to sit at your desk each day?
EK I never push myself to write every day. I don’t commit to that kind of discipline. When the act of writing is not at all enjoyable, I don’t write. I do other things. But, there’s a signal to call me back. Then I intuitively know that writing will bring me a measure of happiness.
JR I know you didn’t start with a plan for Beauty Is a Wound, only the first sentence and Dewi Ayu shimmying out of her grave.
EK My plans are always indefinite and loose. If the process itself doesn’t heartily surprise me, how can other people experience the same when they read my story?
JR Do you keep notebooks of images? I ask because your prose is packed with them. One of my favorites is when Dewi Ayu puts the leeches on the cows at the prison camp and they drop off “like ripe apples.”
EK Many incidents, specifically in pictures, are well recorded in my head. My notebook is packed more with my own sketches than with handwriting. Some of my Indonesian book covers have my own illustrations, taken from my notebook. I might forget dates and names, but I remember what happened and how. I write by the command of these images that build stories.
JR In Beauty Is a Wound, you remember Indonesia’s twentieth-century atrocities: Dutch colonial rule, the Japanese occupation, the struggle for Independence, the mass murder of the Communists in 1965–66. Then you describe another massacre, but this one’s invented: the massacre of the dogs. To me, this invention felt like a punch to the heart. It brought new clarity to the insanity of the other slaughters.
EK The first manuscript of this novel was about those dogs. The title was O Anjing (O Dog). In my village, many families own dogs. They are partially savage beasts that roam freely in the neighborhood. They’re bred to hunt the boars. Only vicious dogs are tied and locked up. For a long time, I used to think about those dogs as an allegory of everything. They are the guards that sometimes harm their own masters who feed them, like the National Army that intimidates its own people. In my village, the dogs are fiercely pitted against the boars. I think this can speak for the brutality of Indonesia’s history and temperaments. The dog also displays our people’s absurdity. We nourish and need the dog, but on the other side, as a Muslim community, many people don’t like the dog at all.
JR I think Beauty is redemptive in spirit. In its world, murderers can’t sleep. Ghosts of the wronged dead are everywhere. But this stands in contrast to Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary movie about the murder of the Communists. In The Act of Killing, he shows how forty-years later the killers are pleased to reenact their deeds while smiling for the camera. These people are not properly haunted.
EK Don’t forget Oppenheimer’s second movie, The Look of Silence. It’s about a victim’s son who wishes to meet the man who killed his father—one of the men who appeared in The Act of Killing. This movie reveals how the murderer and the victim’s family do not want to acknowledge each other, and at worst, do not choose to talk about the past. Because history is a phantom.
JR Your original PhD thesis proposal argued for the existence of extraterrestrials. And now you’ve written two novels that are ghost stories. Do you believe in ghosts?
EK That was my undergraduate thesis, actually. Addressing ghosts is so much like speaking about God. I don’t have any final answer. Either you believe or not. I’m captivated by what can’t be validated. For philosophers, it provides space to speculate. For scholars, it grants space to investigate. And for writers, there’s space to write a novel. People hold onto feelings of fear, anxiety, and inquisitiveness toward anything that’s foreign and unknown. A ghost is a perfect phenomenon for humans.
JR Real or imagined, what do ghosts do?
EK They can build fear. Like a wave of reformation or revolution that dreads the conservatives, or a turnaround flow that frightens the bigots.
JR What do they do best?
EK Let us catch a glimpse of the vulnerability, foolishness, and ignorance unseen in our souls.
JR Was studying philosophy at university good writing practice?
EK Philosophy granted me discipline in reasoning, even if to the mildest level. So when I identify a challenging situation, I remember Descartes: Any crucial matter should be shattered into a few small matters—or into much smaller matters, to be resolved one by one. When I analyze how one incident conceives another, I need to recall Hegel. It helps me, this discipline.
JR Your first language is Sundanese. But you write in Indonesian?
EK I learned to speak Sundanese and a bit of Javanese when I was little. I still speak those languages with my family, and occasionally with my childhood friends, but I’m not used to reading or writing with them. I studied Indonesian at school, like the majority of people here. Then I practiced it every day in conversation after I moved to Yogyakarta, where I met students who came from many provinces throughout the country and who spoke different languages, thus we were forced to use Indonesian. Adopting this language, I read books and anything else. So, I use it to write.
JR Indonesian was nationally instituted in 1945. It’s so young.
EK Indonesian is the greatest discovery for this nation, particularly for me. It was a minority language, but has turned into a tool to unify diverse languages and groups. We are now able to let go of our self-worshipping clans and adopt this. I have faith in the Indonesian language, politically and aesthetically.
JR Not writing in one’s mother tongue reminds me of Yoko Towada, whose first language is Japanese but she writes in German, or Abdellah Taïa whose first language is Arabic but he writes in French. Both Towada and Taïa have said that writing in a second language helps them. It makes language more material and easier to work with. Does it help you?
EK At the beginning, there was an issue. I used to suspect that Indonesian didn’t have the same abundance of phrasing and terms that Sundanese and Javanese do. Some people argue that Indonesian is bountiful if we return to her root: the Malay. Unfortunately, I (along with many other Indonesian writers) was not raised with Malay, contemporary or classic. Studying Malay now to enrich my Indonesian would be similar to studying another new foreign language. I think my determination to accept Indonesian as the Indonesian, not returning to Malay, is fruitful. If the language is insufficient, I accept the void and a freedom to fill it. Doing this I discover plenty of appealing possibilities.
JR When you read a passage aloud in Indonesian at one of your New York events, it had a persuasive rhythm—it was almost a song. What music has influenced your prose?
EK Compared to Indonesian, Sundanese and Javanese have more symphonic intonations. Someday, you’ll have to listen to the way we speak in our mother tongue. It’s like a song. Next to my mother tongue’s influence, I certainly enjoy music too. No one in my family is a musician, but I’ve listened to music since I was young. My father (keep in mind, he’s an imam) listened to Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Dolly Parton, The Beatles. My uncle, who lived with us, introduced me to Genesis, Rush, Toto. When I was a teenager, I bought Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam tapes with my pocket money. During that time, I was more familiar with music than literature.
I used to have an ambition to become a musician, but later on I understood I had no musical talent. Of course, I listened to Indonesian songs too. The most popular is Iwan Fals, a ballad singer no one surpasses for fame. He’s our Bob Dylan. Now I listen to different things, from Girls’ Generation [the Korean girl-band] to Taylor Swift.
JR Apparently Dewi Ayu’s character was inspired by your mother and her storytelling. Is that so? In your New York Times autobiographical sketch, “A Slacker of Jakarta,” your mother is portrayed as religious-with-conviction, and Dewi Ayu is anything but.
EK My mother, like my father, is religious. They are faithful and devoted but not rigid. They command me to pray and fast, but at the same time, they also brought me to the movie theatre to watch Hollywood films, and they listened to many Western songs at home. In tiny pockets in my village growing up, there were varying attitudes toward religion. Bound by their loyalty and dedication to their own views, people mocked each other. Perhaps this part of my upbringing helped to shape Dewi Ayu.
JR How do you balance a love of the supernatural with irreverence toward religious belief?
EK I don’t think it’s a serious conflict, because both live next door to each other in my neighborhood. There are some religious conservatives who object to it, and some minority groups of people with local beliefs get distracted by the conservatives’ attitudes. But generally, those who come to Indonesia, including first-timers—to the island of Java, a place that I know very well, better than the rest of Indonesia’s provinces—they can observe how different religions and superstitions, including ghosts and the supernatural, exist side-by-side wondrously. This is not the invention of a writer. It’s established by the society.
JR Not character or fate, but lust makes things happen in Beauty. Open the book to any page, and you’re likely to land on a sex scene, or rape scene.
EK I believe that sexual violence is the worst cruelty that can ruin someone physically, mentally, and socially. Indonesia’s history is dominated by sexual violence. It does display the brutality of our men. My writing is taken from that reality.
JR Even if the ubiquity of the sexual violence wasn’t planned, what do you think now, looking at the book’s twists and turns? On one hand, this novel is a story told as a series of rapes.
EK Honestly, I didn’t think a great deal of my novel after it was printed for the first time. When it was translated and published in English, I drove myself to read it again. Knowing that we are still struggling in the same social and political situation, without foreseeing any end of the road, I think that someone should have written this kind of novel. The barbarous rape and chain of sexual violence in Beauty Is a Wound is no less than the reality. If we feel sick and disgusted, it shows that we are still sane and having a reality check.
JR The city of Halimunda is your invention, but is it based on a place you’ve lived?
EK Yes, it’s a place in West and Central Java, the southern part. I spent my childhood and adolescent years in three neighboring areas: Tasikmalaya, Pangandaran, and Cilacap. In those places, there is one and only seaport, quite big, on the southern coast. It’s identical to the one in Halimunda.
JR One of the most subtle and wrenching scenes in Beauty Is a Wound shows Comrade Kliwon waiting for his newspapers to arrive, which isn’t going to happen. He keeps waiting without realizing that the papers have been rubbed out, and the Communists will soon share the same fate. Where did this idea come from, to have him waiting for the papers?
EK During the time I was a journalist doing research on what happened in 1965, I subscribed to the newspaper, and every morning it was the only thing I looked for at the front door. The radio and newspaper were controlled by the Army. The radio transmitted the same broadcasting repeatedly, every day. Any newspaper affiliated with the Communist Party was confiscated. I, who always rose early to pick up my newspaper, visualized how hideous it would be if one day it just disappeared (which might actually happen for a good reason, like if it’s raining or the paper boy is absent). I dispatched this ridiculous experience to Comrade Kliwon. I think the result is provocative, both psychologically and politically.
JR In a book that seems to have it all, is anything missing?
EK There are plenty of missing aspects if my ambition was to rewrite Indonesia’s history in one novel. Since the start I understood that a novel doesn’t have to endure like that. The writer’s task is to recognize when he or she has to stop, what to abandon, when to depart.
JR Will you ever be so free again as you were writing your first book, with no fame or expectations to reckon with?
EK I always try to liberate myself from many things, including my previous books. This is not easy. The most pragmatic approach is to write a new novel that’s distinctive to the former ones. I attempt to be someone else to initiate a response to my previous novel. Man Tiger was written with that sensibility. This gives me an unrestricted yet delighted starting point to begin my next project.
JR I looked for a figure of the author in Beauty—I looked for you in there—and found Kamino, the jailangkung kid, who conjures up the spirits of the dead. He’s a conduit for them. Is this a fair comparison?
EK Maybe. I’m only thinking about this because you’ve asked. I would say that I always write with an indefinite plan, almost without any system. I might be anticipating some situations ahead of time, such as a few characters’ final moments or the end of the story, but the rest is only a big blurry picture with countless possibilities. I am guided by something “coming by” when I write, and when I rewrite. So it might be similar to jailangkung. We alone can anticipate the arrival of the contacted spirit, but after contact, we don’t know what the spirit will do or where we are going to be led.
JR Your books teem with characters. You play a kind of extreme-sport negative capability, which deviates from at least one trend in American fiction these days, in which authors write mostly about themselves. Would it ever interest you to write a book in which the protagonist is basically you?
EK I don’t think so. All my books, albeit they have different perspectives, are essentially personal. At heart, they’re concerned with many of my obsessions, my prudence, even my political agenda, and perhaps, my ignorance. But fully exposing myself as the protagonist’s character in a novel is not my style. If I would do it, I just need only one book in my life. That book would be very slim and not engaging.
JR People love to compare your storytelling to wayang theatre. What was your experience of wayang growing up?
EK I watched wayang theatre when I was a little boy. I read them as comics and had puppet trading cards. But I haven’t done any of that for the last fifteen years. We don’t have to watch the same thing over and over again for a lifetime. Still, my childhood memories endure and influence my writing.
JR What about it did you most like?
EK In the Javanese shadow-puppet shows, I fancied the dramatic, reflective segments—for example, a war scene and its wisdom. But in the Sundanese puppet shows I found those episodes odd. I favored instead the jokes and digressions by the grotesque characters, things perfectly suited to three-dimensional puppets.
JR Are there contemporary American authors you feel to be in conversation with?
EK The one I like best is Cormac McCarthy. I don’t know if someday I’ll have a chance to talk with him. If I meet him, I don’t know what I’m going to say.
JR In the US press, you’re hailed as the crown prince of Indonesian literature, successor to Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Is the same thing said in Indonesia?
EK No. In Indonesia everyone knows there are other authors that might be even better. If there are Indonesians who tell you differently, believe me, they’re persuaded by American articles. I believe Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s place in Indonesian literature will not be overtaken. And I also believe that everyone would agree with me. By all means, some would think I am a great author, but there are many who think I am an awful one, and for many reasons.
JR Are you haunted by your characters after the books are done? Or do they keep their peace?
EK I am frequently haunted by the characters I haven’t written yet.