Literature

'Almost All of My Novels Talk About Power Structures': A Conversation With Eka Kurniawan

"I think that it's what pushed me to write. I've always had concerns about repression and injustice. I just write about it in a different way."

by Stanley Widianto
25 November 2017, 6:00am

There's a flaccid penis at the center of Eka Kurniawan newly translated novel Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash. It belongs to the book's main character, a man named Ajo Kawir who lost his ability to get an erection after witnessing and being coerced into participating in the fatal rape of a mentally ill woman named Scarlet Blush.

Ajo later falls in love with a woman who was the victim of rape herself, only to learn that he's unable to please her, physically, even though he would try to use his fingers instead of his penis, or his "bird," whenever he could.

"But the Bird thought it was a polar bear hibernating through a long frigid winter," he wrote. "It was dreaming of gently falling snow, which its master had never seen."

It's the kind of surreal, often humorous prose we've come to expect from Eka. He was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize for fiction in 2016 for his book Man Tiger —a story about a man with an invisible tiger inside his body. His stories are unforgettable mixes of magical realism, drama, satire, and folklore. They're the kind of stories where fistfights or races are as common as women rising from the dead or a child being absorbed by an invisible white tiger.

Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash includes tributes to some of Indonesia's best-known literary works, pencak silat, and pulpy crime novels.

VICE's Stanley Widianto sat down with Eka over lunch out in Ciputat, Banten, to talk about his new book and whether Indonesian literature is trapped by the country's own past.

VICE: Some of your books, like Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, deal with some pretty masculine, phallic themes. The main character in that book, Ajo Kawir, struggles with erectile dysfunction that's kept him from satisfying his wife or even himself. Some people have said that parts of the book can seem a bit misogynistic at times.
Eka Kurniawan:
I think, from my perspective, I never intended the book to come across that way. In fact, I was trying to ridicule misogynistic ideas. But when someone reads it, they might thing that's the case. When we're talking about writing a novel from a feminist perspective, people might perceive that it's anti-feminist. There's always that possibility, so what can we do?

You're books have also been called 'rape heavy.'
When we talk about social relations, in general, we can see them in sexual relations. The good and the bad. They can be described in sexual dynamics. As domination or oppression.

So it's you way of criticizing, say, the patriarchy or our culture of domination?
One of the parts, yeah, for sure. If we look at the context of sexuality between men and women, then yeah. In the rape of my character Scarlet Blush, it's not just about a woman being raped by two male cops. There's also a power disparity going on, like what happens between a teacher and his students, like you can see with the book's character Iteung. (She's groped and raped by her teacher) Almost all of my novels talk about power structures.

Why?
I think that it's what pushed me to write. I've always had concerns about repression and injustice. I just write about it in a different way.

I feel like a lot of Indonesian authors have been pigeonholed by a cause, by something that may be familiar to international readers. These things are usually connected to whatever is wrong with Indonesia, whether it be the 1965 massacre of suspected communists, or the 1998 political turmoil. In the reviews of Beauty Is a Wound, there were repeated mentions to the '65 massacre. Do you think Indonesian authors will always be connected to the darker chapters of our history?
I think it's a bit more push-and-pull. We have to admit that not everyone knows what or where Indonesia is. From the outside, when people want to get to know more about the country from its literary works, there are gateway themes that are familiar to them. Take 1965. The Cold War was a global issue. These readers know what communism is, or have a perception of what makes someone a dictator. It makes it easier for them to enter this world.

You're often compared to Columbian magical realist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Do you think Indonesia will ever experience a literary boom like we saw happen in Latin America?
It's hard, I think. I used to hope that such a thing would happen. Back when I was in college, I used to read lots and lots of Latin American books. I would think, how did they experience such a boom? But there are a lot of differences between us and them. Latin America is united by two languages, Spanish and Portuguese and there's a sort of similar fate, the former colonies of Spain and Portugal all earned their independence at roughly the same time. I read about the origins of the Latin American boom: these writers didn't even read each other's works. They came into formation on their own.

Indonesia is different. When you enter it, you can see every writer from Sabang to Merauke (these two cities are at the easternmost and westernmost edges of the nation—making the phrase a common way to say all of Indonesia) It would probably take you a month to round up all the writers. We don't see anything obscure in our books—foreigners who want to understand the literature or the language can understand it just fine by researching a month or two. I think all Indonesian writers know each other, relatively, but you never know what's going to happen in the next 10 or 20 years.

So even though it wasn't your intention to write for the international market, your books still ended up overseas. How did that make you feel?
When I was writing my books, I didn't really think that they would cross over into that market. It was in the early 200s, right, so just to have them out there among even the smallest publishers, that was the ultimate goal. Then I saw my own books in stores overseas and was like 'oh, my books are just like these other ones I read.'

So what was your intention all along?
To write for Indonesians. I write my books for Indonesians. That's always been the priority.

This interview has been edited and condensed for context and clarity.