Singer, songwriter and author Dee Lestari took time to speak to us about London Book Fair, translation and what the UK can learn from Indonesian literature.

Tell us a bit about yourself

My name is Dewi Lestari but I have a pen name, Dee Lestari, because Dewi can be difficult for foreigners to pronounce sometimes!

This will be my first London Book Fair experience, and of course I’m honoured, thrilled, I cannot wait to be there. I know that LBF is one of the most respected book festivals in the world so I’m so happy that I can represent some of my Indonesian fellow writers to go there.


You’re a songwriter, a singer, a writer. Can you tell us a bit about how you divide your time?

If I look back, I think deep down inside I’m basically a storyteller. I’ve loved music since I was small, and I love creating stories, they somewhat naturally form in my mind, and I like to imagine plots and all that. So it’s been a very natural tendency for me to build stories, but of course when it comes to writing it takes a lot more effort, and a systematic way to compose our thoughts into a compact story. So for me music comes more easily, but when it comes to writing I need to make mistakes, and learn from them. I took courses and I read books about writing, so it’s a more complicated yet very exciting journey for me.


What are you excited about learning about from the UK, and what do you think the UK could learn from Indonesia?

I think the UK has a very solid written tradition. The publishing industry there is way more advanced than ours, and also the reading habits and drama. You have Shakespeare, the father of drama and story-building, so there is something that Indonesians, who come more from an oral tradition, can learn more about. Also when it comes to the publishing industry itself, Indonesia is now progressing into better practices, but there is a lot for us to learn, such as how to create sustainable readership, how to encourage people to read more. I think that will take a lot of effort from all walks of life, not just from the government but from writers, too.

And vice versa, I think Indonesia has a lot of exciting things to offer: our culture, our thoughts, our various backgrounds. You know we came from a lot small kingdoms which came into one republic so there are so many varieties of cultures, and these are the kinds of things that we can share with the world.


Could you tell us a bit about your writing?

I’m a fiction writer and my first book was published in 2001. I’m the type of writer who’s in the intersection between literary high-brow culture and pop culture. My work is always a mix of those two worlds, so some people say it’s not easy to categorise, so I just say I write fiction, basically. I like writing series, I’ve published 12 books now and 6 of them - half of them - are a series of novels, which is called Supernova. Writing in serials, long story, long plot, is one of my biggest interests.


Have any of your works been translated? 

From 12 books just 2 have been translated into English: my first book, Supernova, the first episode, and Paper Boat. It was interesting because these two books are actually quite different, they belong to different genres. I must say that translation is very challenging, not only because we don’t have a lot of translators from Indonesian to English out there, but also I think translation is what makes or breaks a book. You know, when you get a good translation, then it’s like a doorway for a lot of good things, but if you have a bad translation in the beginning then that door is already closed for you. So it’s really crucial to have a good translation, and it takes time. Even though I’ve written 12 books now, I know that maybe not all titles will work for the international or global market, so it’s a tricky thing…but you know, I’ll roll with it I guess, and see what comes!


Which Indonesian writers would you recommend?

I like Eka Kurniawan but I think Eka is already well known, so I will recommend a writer called Fahd Pahdepie, I’ve known him since high school and even then the writing he wrote when he was still in high school was mind-blowing for me, so much potential, and he already has several books out there but none of them have been translated yet - it will be interesting to see his works translated into English.

Also, Sapardi Djoko Damono - I think he received a lifetime’s achievement award this year at Ubud festival, some of his work is already translated into English. I think his poems are really something, its world class for me, so I hope people learn more about him.

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