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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Eka Kurniawan

By Aminah Sheikh

eka

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

First of all, it is because I love reading. When I was still a kid, we had a lack of books, so I thought about writing my own stories. More than this, we as humans tend to record everything because our memories are limited. We write our experiences, our knowledge, our ideas, our stories, etc. I am just part of it.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

My latest book Beauty Is a Wound (Annie Tucker) was published last year ( and in India by Speaking Tiger). As I’ve already published four novels, I think it’s time for me to take a break for a while. I don’t want my act of writing to be kind of mechanical. I want to recreate my appetite, to be hungry again. So, nowadays I only read books, meet people, travel here and there, and maybe do something that has no relation with literature at all like gardening.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Since I love a lot of genre novels (horror, martial art, crime fiction, sci-fi), my writings usually are full of these elements. I believe that literature should open as wide as it can be to all possibilities and perspectives.

Who are your favorite authors?

Indonesian writers, I can mention Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Asmaraman S. Kho Ping Hoo and Abdullah Harahap. International writers, some of them are Knut Hamsun, Cervantes, Merman Melville, William Faulkner, Kawabata, Garcia Marquez, Gunter Grass. The list will be longer than this.

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

Writing a movie script. The writing itself is just a bridge between our idea (writer’s, director’s) and the movie. I provide raw material to be interpreted by the director, actors, photographers, etc. In the end, we watch the movie, not read the script.

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Excerpts: Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan

beauty is a wound[ 6 ]

Shodancho was meditating, buried in the hot sand with only his head poking out, when one of his men approached him. The soldier, Tino Sidiq, didn’t dare disturb him—in fact he wasn’t even sure if he could disturb him. Although Shodancho’s eyes were as wide open as those of a decapitated head, his soul was wander- ing in a realm of light, or at least that was how Shodancho often described his ecstatic experiences. “Meditation saves me from hav- ing to look at this rotten world,” he’d say and then continue, “or at least from having to look at your ugly face.”

After a while his eyes blinked and his body slowly began to move, which Tino Sidiq knew signalled the end of his meditation. Shodancho emerged from the sand in one elegant gesture, scat- tering some grains of sand before coming to sit next to the soldier like a bird alighting. His naked body was skinny due to his strict regimen of alternate-day Daud fasting, even though everyone knew he was not a religious person.

“Here are your clothes,” said Tino Sidiq, giving him his dark green uniform.

“Every outfit gives you a new clown role to play,” said Shodancho, putting on his uniform. “Now I am Shodancho, the pig hunter.”

Tino Sidiq knew that Shodancho didn’t like this role, but at the same time he had agreed to play it. A number of days before they had received a direct order from Major Sadrah, the military com- mander of the City of Halimunda, to emerge from the jungle and help the people exterminate pigs. Shodancho hated getting orders from That Idiot Sadrah, as he always called him. This message was filled with respect and praise: Sadrah said that only Shodancho knew Halimunda like the palm of his own hand, and therefore he was the only one the people trusted to help them hunt pigs.

“This is what happens when the world is without war, soldiers are reduced to hunting pigs,” Shodancho continued. “Sadrah is so stupid, he wouldn’t even recognize his own asshole.”

He was on the same jungle beach where so many years ago the Princess Rengganis had sought refuge after running away, a wide cape that was shaped like an elephant’s ear, surrounded by more shell-strewn beaches and steep ravines, with only a few sandy stretches. The area was almost completely unspoiled by humans, because ever since the colonial era it had been maintained as a for- est preserve, with leopards and ajak. This was where Shodancho had been living for more than ten years, in a small hut just like the one he’d built during his guerrilla years. He had thirty-two soldiers under his command, and civilians sometimes came to help them, and all the men took turns riding into the city on a truck    to take care of their needs, but not Shodancho. His longest jour- ney in those ten years had only been as far as the caves, where he meditated, and he only returned to the hut to go fishing and cook for his soldiers and take care of the ajak he had domesticated. This peaceful life had been disturbed by Sadrah’s message. In the jungle there were no pigs, the animals only lived in the hills to the north of Halimunda, and so he would have to go down to the city. For him, to obey that order was to betray his devotion to solitude.

“This pitiful country,” he said. “Not even its soldiers know how to hunt pigs.”

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Book Review: Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan

beauty-is-a-wound

Prize-winning Indonesian novelist Eka Kurniawan isn’t for the squeamish. Freighted with semen, menstrual blood, excrement and urine, his tour-de-force, “Beauty is a Wound” (originally published as “Cinta itu Luka”) isn’t “la-di-da” chic-lit, a “adultery-in-bourgeois-Hampstead” novella or Euro-crime noir.

Instead, Kurniawan hurls his readers deep into the heart of Java, reminding us along the way that the world’s most densely-populated island (one hundred and fifty million souls on an area the size of England and still counting…) is far more rambunctious than the “sopan santun”, carefully-calibrated demeanour and unblinking passivity of its courtly elite with their slow-moving palace dances and often indecipherable double-speak.

The novel is like story-telling on acid.

Densely-plotted and overflowing with characters and incidents, “Beauty is a Wound” is also studded with pithy one-liners, witness the gangster Memen Gedeng’s frank assessment of mankind: “Every human is a mammal, just like a dog and walks on two legs like a chicken.” Read more


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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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