How the West discovered a great new Indonesian voice: The story of Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan

The best book that I read last year was a New Directions title, the novel “Beauty Is a Wound,” by the Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan. Despite its warm reception in Indonesia, getting the book to American readers was a difficult undertaking. Its author had no M.F.A., no New York agent, no stories in quarterlies or journals—no “proof of concept,” as they say in business circles.

Kurniawan came to Epler’s attention via Annie Tucker, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology, who went to Indonesia in 2011 to do dissertation research on the interpretation and treatment of autism in Java. Several friends, knowing of her interest in the country’s literature, recommended that she read his first novel, a blistering critique of Indonesia’s bloody past, lightly and variously veiled as a horror story, a farce, a romance, and a B-movie sex romp—but shot through, too, with a strangely touching, lighthearted compassion. (Gillian Terzis wrote about it in Page-Turner last October.) “I read it and I was, like, ‘Holy shit, this is crazy,’ ” Tucker told me. “This book has everything. It has history, it has the supernatural edge … I basically fell in love with it.”

An expat friend of Tucker’s who knew Kurniawan arranged for the two to meet at a book event, where the author agreed to read her translation of his first chapter. “He looked at it and he said, ‘Sure. Go for it, you have my blessing, but the one thing is, you have to finish it.’ So I said, ‘O.K. I’ll do it.’ ”

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