How To Break Into America As A Writer

Okky Madasari talks about writing six books and how they helped her achieve her dreams of writing abroad.

by Stanley Widianto
31 August 2017, 9:06am

Photo by Okky Madasari.

It has been a busy year for writer Okky Madasari. In May during the heat of Jakarta's tumultuous election, she stood on top of a car during ex-goveroner's Basuki Tjahaja Purnama's blasphemy sentencing, reading her poem Seorang Cina Yang Ingin Menjadi Gubernur (The Chinese Who Wanted to be Governor).

A month later, she published her sixth book Yang Bertahan dan Binasa Perlahan (Those Who Sruvived and Those Who Went Extinct). The 32-year-old writer from East Java is best known for her third novel Maryam (2012), for which she won the prestigious Khalistiwa Literary Award. Now has a residency at the largest multinational writing program in the world, The International Writing Program in Iowa. Her next goal? Finally being published in the United States.

VICE caught up with Okky to chat about her residency, her work, and what it means to be a published Indonesian writer in the US.

VICE: What was the selection process for the residency like?
Okky Madasari: I was contacted by the US Embassy in Jakarta and they said that they wanted to nominate me for this program. The embassy was only able to nominate me; the final decision was still in the hands of the International Writing Program committee. Of course, only the embassy could explain why they'd pick me. But I think it has to do with the entire body of work of a writer. I went to Iowa after publishing five novels and one short story collection.

I heard that there's a visa regulation that prohibited your two-year-old child from going with you?
Yes, it's a little sad talking about this. From the start, the writing program was only intended for writers, without giving any consideration that those writers might have kids. The visa regulation for the participants doesn't make it possible to bring your children with you. I'm a little surprised and disappointed. Because throughout my career, I've always brought my kid with me, whether at literary festivals or conferences, research in remote areas, and when I write everyday.

I believe that whatever situation that obligates a woman to choose between her children and her work is a form of discrimination. I still went without my kid, all the while hoping that I can change that in the future.

It seems like the next big step for you is publish your books internationally. Why do you think that's important?
It's not about popularity or money. But I think there's something endearing for an author to be read by many people, especially when they can influence the ways of thinking of their readers. I've been published in Germany and Malaysia. Rights buyers have flocked to me, the most recent of which were from Egypt.

There aren't many opportunities to expand on writers outside of Indonesia. That's why I need an international agent. I want capitalize on every opportunity that I get to earn relations with agents. But of course my main goal now is still to write.

Is it important for an Indonesian writer to be published in the United States?
Yes and no. Yes, if we're talking about overseas market. But of course it becomes irrelevant if we're talking about quality, ideas and influences on the readers. I want to be published in the US. I have to admit, whether you like it or not, it's key to the market and the industry. Being published in the US with a great name gives you considerable clout. So it's not just about getting published anywhere.

In Yang Bertahan dan Binasa Perlahan, you talk a lot about intolerance. Was this timely that you put it out when a lot of people protested the statue of a Chinese Deity in Tuban, East Java?
Yang Bertahan dan Binasa Perlahan is a collection of stories that I wrote for a decade, from 2007 to 2017. The underlying thread is the struggle for humans to preserve themselves as the world is bubbling around them. Intolerance is one of these struggles.

There's a short story called Patung Dewa about how a statue gets torn down because many think that it's not in line with religious values. I wrote it four years ago. And now something similar happened. I put them out to mark a decade of my career writing fiction. This whole time I tend to steer away from releasing short story collections—especially if they just gather all the unused remnants of our stuff. After 10 years and five novels, I feel like it's as good a time as any to put this out.

What can young writers do to succeed today?
There are many writers younger than me. Their writing is good and they're also smart because they have access to a lot of references and means to communication. But then the question is how they maintain some the consistency needed to be able to continue. How they conserve their energy so that they can keep putting out new work. How they can become a significant part of the arc of Indonesian literature. I believe that any literary journey is a process.

Writing one book that gains some traction and then petering out will not be enough for you to continue. That's not to say that I rely on quantity. It's more about the means to stay consistent and able to weather through problems.