Seno Gumira Ajidarma, Market Focus Author of the Day at the London Book Fair on Wednesday 13 March, discusses his inspirations in the last of six Q&As with Indonesian authors visiting the London Book Fair as part of the Market Focus programme
Seno Gumira Ajidarma is a prolific author of short stories, novels, and columns. He is also known as a journalist, photographer and lecturer. Seno's short stories both document everyday life and criticise contemporary social, cultural and political conditions. He writes about sensitive issues, including military violence in East Timor in the short stories of Eyewitness and in his 1996 novel, Jazz, Parfum dan Insiden (Jazz, Perfume and an Incident). Other subject matter has included the so-called "mysterious killings" in East Java in the early 1980s. He won several literary awards, including the South East Asia (SEA) Write Award (1997), Dinny O'Hearn Prize for Literary Translation for Eyewitness (1997), Literary Award from the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture for the short story collection "Dilarang Menyanyi di Kamar Mandi" ("Don't Sing in the Bathroom", 1997), and the Khatulistiwa Literary Award for his novel Negeri Senja (The Land of Twilight, 2004) and for Kitab Omong Kosong (The Book of Nonsense, 2005). His newest book is Transit (2018), a short story collection, and Obrolan Sukab (Sukab's Conversations, 2018), an essay collection. He is working on Nagabumi, a historical wuxia novel series.
Please tell us about your early life. What inspired you to become a writer, and how did you get started?
I don't know if the word "inspired" is right, because I feel like writing just came naturally through the act of reading or, maybe more precisely, through listening. I listened to what my mother read to me (from Winnie-the-Pooh to Karl May's western adventures), my teachers' stories in my elementary school in Kotabaru, Yogyakarta (they were very good storytellers), and the horror stories told by our childhood nannies, which I still remember now.
I remember my very best teachers, and these are the teachers who are crucially important to a student's development of character and personality. The first was Ibu Tati, whom I memorialise in my short story "Pelajaran Mengarang" ("Composition Class"); it was recently made into a film. But for storytelling, my religion teacher, Ibu Artikiah, was able to bring stories to life. I haven't lived a religious life myself, but I think she taught me how stories should be told. We loved another teacher, Pak Nyoto, so much that we would often collect him from his home on the other side of the Code River. He told martial arts stories with such drama that we never wanted them to end. He taught me how the details tell the story.
Early on, I enjoyed reading the humorous dialogues from the traditional Kabayan stories [folklore from Sunda in West Java]. I copied them on my parents' Smith-Corona typewriter (which I continued to use until the arrival of computers), before starting to write my own jokes. I gave some of these to one of my teachers who was running a bulletin board magazine. This was when I was 9 or 10. I think that was my earliest writing: jokes and comic dialogue.
I think I still have a tendency towards ironic humour, dark humour, or black comedy. The struggle to be happy touched me, because I didn't expect to succeed in it. That's the function of humour for me, to show the irony of life in this world.
The profile of Indonesian literature is on the rise internationally, as shown by this year's Market Focus. What is the most exciting aspect of Indonesian literature today?
I think this is the logical consequence of the much better communication provided by today's new media. The most interesting thing for me is the multiplicity of identities that are being expressed now. But as long as today's writers write in Bahasa Indonesia, I think their Indonesian identity will survive.
Seno is The London Book Fair Author of the Day on Wednesday 13 March and one of 12 authors to participate in the Indonesia Market Focus programme at the London Book Fair 2019. He will be interviewed by the Guardian's Sian Cain at the English PEN Literary Salon on 13th March, 2pm. Click here for additional events and more information on the 12 authors and the cultural programme in conjunction with the British Council. These questions were posed by Indonesian-to-English translator, Dr Laura Noszlopy.