INDONESIA FOCUS: Q+A Nirwan Dewanto

We spoke to Nirwan Dewanto, one of the 12 Indonesian authors representing their country at the London Book Fair.


You started writing early in your high school days, what were you writing about most back then?
I think it is exaggerating to say I started writing at high school. I was already writing, but it was mainly journaling, which was not for public consumption. There was a poem (about a tree in the midst of rain, if I remember correctly) which I wrote when I was in high school and sent much later to the Horison (which is the most important magazine for Indonesian literati) and it was published. I actually started writing - in the sense of having my writing published - when I was at university in the 1980's. I wrote poetry and essays. Those poems were surrealist, on the themes of a dream landscape, a journey to the moon, playing chess, and of childhood. In essays, I tried to understand the problems of art and culture in modern Indonesia; the relationship between literature and politics or the relationship between art and science.

Indonesia is the Market Focus at The London Book Fair. What are your hopes The London Book Fair can help achieve for Indonesian writers?
For the past four to five years I have been actively participating in a series of important international book fairs, including Frankfurt Book Fair & London Book Fair. The internationalisation of the book world and the translation of Indonesian literature into foreign languages is important to increase the standard of publishing. Indonesian literature is not known in the sea of world literature: it needs better marketing to bring it to the attention of international readers. Indonesia's presence as Market Focus in LBF this year is important, but it is only one part of the enormous amount of work Indonesia's publishing industry has to do. To sell literature to a international audience is a new endeavour with a steep learning curve for the Indonesian publishing industry, including by Indonesia's own writers.

We’re looking at building connections between the UK and Indonesia, what do you think there is for people in the UK to learn from Indonesia?
The diversity of culture and languages of our archipelago that leans towards nationalism and internationalism, oral languages that are intertwined with writing culture, rural cultures mixed with urbanism, the remains of pre-science that is combined with modernity and post-modernity: those are what can be learned by the United Kingdom from Indonesian people.

You mentioned Indonesia has a strong affinity for oral language which translates to the strength of its short stories. How impactful are short stories in comparison to long-form?
What I mentioned was Indonesian literature (not limited to short stories) is strongly associated with oral language. The "impact" truly depends on how the awareness of the reader changes after reading the piece. I think short stories and long-form (novels, for example) can be equally impactful for readers. It isn't a matter of length, it is how relatable the work is. Readers who enjoy oral story-telling will choose a shorter read, but for readers who find text enjoyable will enjoy more complex work. When I say Indonesian literature is associated strongly with the oral tradition, I mean that Indonesian writers have the capability to bring that oral tradition to a different form. For Indonesian writers, oral language is a paradox. Today's writers convey a rich heritage which has been conserved by the tradition of the oral form, but this heritage still needs to be brought to life through writing.

What do you think is most interesting about the voices of younger Indonesian writers today?
This new generation of Indonesian writers is able to break down walls. Walls between Indonesia and the world, walls between Indonesian literature and world literature, walls between serious literature the popular kind, the wall between political and personal, the wall between oral and written word, and the wall of market expectation and the critical expectation of literature.

Related projects

BC Indonesia Market Focus Website Banner Stage 1

In 2019, Indonesia takes the stage at The London Book Fair as the Market Focus country. Working with...

Related writers

Nirwan selected 1

Nirwan Dewanto is a poet, essayist, editor, and arts curator. His poetry collections, Jantung Lebah ...

Previous