Okky Madasari: When Luck Is Not Enough

Blog / People


February 22, 2015 — Valent Mustamin


Editor’s Note: The following text is adapted from Okky Madasari’s original paper in Bahasa Indonesia titled “Ketika Keberuntungan Saja Tidak Cukup“, as translated by Retna Karunia. Delivered at #KamisLiterasi session, as part of IDWriters Literary Day on January 29, 2015 at Goethe-Institut Jakarta.

by Okky Madasari *

One week before the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, I received a letter from a reader in Paris. Marie-Angele Martinez was her name. In her letter, she expressed her appreciation after reading The Years of The Voiceless (Entrok), The Outcast (Maryam), Bound (Pasung Jiwa). The letter deeply affected me. First, since it was hand written, sent by mail across countries in a time when technology has given us the convenience of sending a letter via email or direct communication through social media. Second, since knowing my work can be read and enjoyed by people from different cultures — so much so that they’re even moved to write to me.

Three months earlier, a Spanish journalist sent an email to me and requested an interview for a Spanish magazine. The reporter discovered my book while on vacation in Bali. He was impressed by it and wanted to write a deeper coverage about my work. The results of the interview was published in his magazine last November.

10929569_1549452591962958_877360747222639297_n-1

I consider the two examples of appreciation from overseas readers I’ve mentioned above as luck. I call it as luck, because it did not arise in a structured – massive – systematical way. Readers of my books from abroad are those who by chance found my book tucked in between piles of other English-language books, or read an article about me and bought the book on Amazon, or met with me at a festival or conference and then bought my book just to get a signature directly from the author. Thank goodness that the coincidences and unintentional moments did not lead to regrets, but instead delivered them to understanding and appreciation of my work.

Of course, we cannot always depend on luck. As a writer, I am still have the dream that my books will be available on the shelves of major book stores in various countries, reviewed in their local media, and, more importantly, known and read by the people. All of this certainly require great efforts that involves many parties. We can not just rely on the quality of the book and then close our eyes and pray, waiting for those who are willing to burrow in a haystack to find a piece of gold.

The position of literature in society are erected by chance. It is a product of consensus, It was born of a meeting between the power of knowledge, the power of state, and the power of capital. A work of quality will be widely known only if there is a joint work of the three powers.

As a product of knowledge, literature has the power to influence and control the mind of the readers. Each work is fighting for a position, to gain as many readers — and to finally have the authority as the source of knowledge, of truth, and as an ideology.
The great power of literary works prompt the state to intervene. Literary works from America, Europe, Russia, Japan, China, were brought into the various countries in a variety of ways. Through colonization, cultural diplomacy, trade, through cultural centers that are established across developing countries. The industry later realized, extensive book market will multiply the profits. With guidelines established by the state, the industry sells books of foreign literary works in various countries.

To simplify the understanding of the work of these special powers in recent phenomenon, I will give a brief review of two examples of literary events: Frankfurt Book Fair and ASEAN Literary Festival. For the latter, I happened to be the initiator.

Frankfurt Book Fair has had a long history as the largest book publishing market in the world. It is an annual event that brings publishers from around the world to sell copyright and make agreements on translating the works. At first glance, this is purely business affairs: about our publishers who want to buy the rights to Harry Potter and various chicklit series, while, at the same time, attempting to offer Indonesian literary works in order to gain overseas publishers. For every book that are exhibited, the publisher must pay to the organizer. Thus the publisher must be very selective and are very limited in introducing literary works.

Realizing that publishers have a very limited ability to introduce their literary works, since 1976, FBF has the initiative to involve the state in the annual event through the implementation of the concept of guest of honor. The concept was made not established for the sole purpose of showing off, but it is part of an effort to maximize the role of the state in the introduction of literary works to the world. This can be seen when Indonesia is chosen as this year’s guest of honor: The Government specifically makes the preparatory committee for Indonesia’s participation in the FBF. Special fund of no little amount are disbursed to translate Indonesian books and promote the participation of Indonesia as the guest of honor of FBF 2015. Apart from the various shortcomings and criticism of this committee, I would like to say that the great work of the introduction of Indonesian literature on the world stage is only possible if the government has the care and will to participate. Unfortunately, this kind of work is only seasonal project which is only conducted when there are incentives and media coverages, not a long-term program that’s continued with a noble purpose and integrity.

After FBF, let’s take look at the ASEAN Literary Festival. This is a little bit of our efforts to build opportunities for the literatures of Southeast Asia to be known — and especially so that we can get to know every literary works from Southeast Asian countries. The remainder of colonial politics, the cultural hegemony of America and Europe, makes us more familiar with Western literature rather than the literary our neighboring countries. We must open up our horizon that our neighboring countries are also producers and potential market for quality literature. Translation of literary works between countries in Southeast Asia is needed. ALF is attempting to be the bridge that can realize that effort.

Of course, for this, the role of the state is crucial. From the simplest thing: the state is expected to participate in sending the best writers, publishers, and literary works from their country every year. It turns out that for this simplest thing, not every country is able to do so. Laos and Timor Leste, for example, are the two countries which state that they are unable to provide support due to lack of budget. As a result, writers of the two countries rarely get the chance to introduce their work. Indonesia, is also the country that is quite stingy in providing support. Not due to inability, but because it fails to see the importance of literature. The Government rather provides the budget for officials to conduct comparative studies rather than to bring the country’s literature to the world stage. This contrary to other Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. These countries give special attention to the development of literature through allocating the budget and through serious work of the government agencies to utilize the existing budget appropriately.

Not to mention, we refer to countries in Asia that have emerged as the mecca of culture, along with its rate of economic growth. China, India, South Korea, Japan, are examples of such countries that have, from the beginning, realized that the greatness of a nation is inseparable from the greatness of its cultural products.

The subject about the role of the state are a subject that can not be ignored when we want to see the author and his/her works on the world stage. The world is built upon national boundaries, agreements between authorities, the cycle between capital and production — including cultural products. Litterateurs are only a small part of the governance of the world. The duty of a litterateur is to pour their mind and imagination for the progress of civilization. The duty of the state and the owners of capital is to bring the product of the literary minds across borders, and win the battle, both in influence and economic value.

The question is: When will our country starts to really care?

*) Okky Madasari, author of four novels. Three of them have been translated into English. The novel 86 is now in the process of translation. Completed a master’s degree in the Sociology of Literature. Initiator and Program Director of the ASEAN Literary Festival.