Quality literature continues to lose out to how-to manuals and trashy novels
A man of literary passions
Richard Oh is the author of three novels, numerous articles and writer-director of a feature-length film. His novels, Pathfinders of Love (1999), Heart of the Night (2000) and The Rainmaker’s Daughter (2004), deal with subtly Indonesian aspects of love and life. His articles, written for Jakarta’s newspapers range across subjects like technology, philosophy, the middle classes and sex. Oh is also the co-founder of the Khatulistiwa Literary Award (KLA), which was initiated a decade ago following an evening of discussion at a restaurant in Jakarta’s Jalan Veteran with Takashi Ichiki (then the Director of the Plaza Senayan mall in Jakarta), the writer Danarto, poet Sutardji Calzioum Bachri and several other Indonesian literary figures. One of its kind in Indonesia, this award is arguably the single most important award for young and upcoming authors in a country where arts funding is scarce and revenue from book sales remains minimal, due to limited sales and weak copyright implementation. Richard Oh, who was until recently the founder-owner of one of Indonesia’s leading bookstores and literary establishments, QB World Books, spoke to Laura Noszlopy.
Now that the award is running for its tenth year, what do you think can be discerned from the list of previous winners, and what can be learned about supporting the future of Indonesian literature?
In the early years, KLA was viewed with scepticism. This was due to its three-tier judging system and the fact that the jury members are sworn to silence and barred from knowledge of other members. Things didn’t get any better when winners of the prize were established figures in the literary circle: Goenawan Mohamad, Remy Sylado, Hamsad Rangkuti and Seno Gumira Adjidarma, for example. But as the years passed and the new generation of writers started to win the prizes - people such as Joko Pinurbo, Linda Christanti, Acep Zamzam Noer, F. Rahardi and Sindu Putra - the KLA gained the respect that it truly deserves as a literary award that critically selects its winners each year. It has in a sense established itself as a benchmark of Indonesian literary trends and achievements. That said, the state of Indonesian literature remains entrenched in its own limitations, even after ten years of Khatulistiwa. The main sponsors are still major expatriate corporations such as Honda, Secure Parking and Mont Blanc. Without these corporations, the award would not survive. Literature, like most things cultural, is not seriously supported by the government here. The politicians only talk about writers and artists when they are on the campaign trail.
Where do you think the future of books and publishing lies in Indonesia? What efforts are being made to encourage literacy and a love of books and literature among Indonesia’s children and young people?
I truly believe that Indonesian children, like children all over the world, love reading and being told tales. All we need are easily accessible libraries. Libraries today are too poorly stocked and not designed to attract the reading public. We are fortunate to have a handful of passionate individuals who, through dedication and perseverance, have established a network of reading services for children and youth from poor neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the city. Ironically book publishing in this country is flourishing, albeit in a flagging economy. But these publishers are churning out cubic metres of trash. There are heaps of how-to books, from how to invest in stocks, to how to operate BlackBerry cellular phones and translations of mega-bestsellers like the Harry Potter series, The Da Vinci Code and Meyer’s Twilight series. Most of these books are published by small companies that produce five to ten titles a year. Many are located in Yogyakarta and are run out of a boarding house or rented space by three to five people.
Does this explain why your wonderful bookshop and literary establishment QB World closed down?
QB Bookstores was founded on my passion for books and knowledge. Bookstores are too esoteric for a lot of people; they have become fossils in a fast-moving world in which electronics triumph over reading habits. This, and the inability of most Indonesians to pay Rp150, 000 (A$18) for a paperback, spells doom for any bookstore owners. It’s a losing battle. A sad fact.
Koper was released in 2006. At the box-office it was a bigger success outside your own country, despite the story, dialogue and actors being Indonesian. Do you accept this as a reflection of Indonesian attitudes to more literary genres or ‘serious’ art-house styles more generally?
We live in a country that still feeds on superstitions and cheap thrills. Art house or anything serious is likely to be condemned to oblivion, or worse yet the creators daubed pretentious or downright incompetent. This attitude, I think, is prevalent in Third World countries in which entertainment generally means slapstick comedies and ludicrous horror shows. Commercialism, in the end, triumphs since audience tastes are very predictable and not at all complicated.
Will you tell me about your current film script? How does it develop from Koper? And have you shaped anything in it to deliberately attract an Indonesian rather than foreign audience?
I’m afraid I’m pretty stubborn on what I want to achieve. This new film script is about a girl in Singkawang born out of wedlock to a mother from Padang and a Chinese father. The man she believed to be her father turns out not to be. The girl, Meta, is held in captivity by traffickers. In her cell, in a metaphysical moment, she somehow reunites with the man she considered her father. The tentative title for the film is metaWorld. It is, I suppose, a film designed for the international film festival circuit.
What are your future plans? Will you be returning to the novel form or exploring different media?
I’m exploring the medium of film at this juncture in my life. On the side, I’m still writing a novel that has so far progressed very slowly. My last novel was published in 2004! Maybe deep down, I have a suspicion that books are soon to be irrelevant. Maybe iPad will change everything, and writers will be set free from quirky publishers who are bent on publishing the next trashy novel. In any case, for me, to have an audience of ten or ten thousand is not as important as sharing the story in the most creative way possible.
Laura Noszlopy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway, University of London and a member of Inside Indonesia’s editorial team. Richard Oh (email@example.com) is an author and filmmaker, based in Jakarta.