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Erni Aladjai: Wandering Kei

Blog / People

July 4, 2015 — by IDWRITERS

Last updated on August 13, 2018 at 2:17 pm

“After my writings were published in Femina, the road of being a writer has been a smooth one. It was the first time my writing got published in a print media from Jakarta.”

One month ago, Erni Aladjai received an e-mail from New Jersey, USA. It was a request for an interview about Kei people’s social capital in a reconciliation on a Maluku conflict. Apparently, they had read Kei, the novel.

That wasn’t the first time Kei had received that kind of response. Erni confessed she felt joy, when students from Medan and East Java sent her e-mail regarding Kei.

The novel was first published by Gagas Media. Then, the English version was published by Dalang Publishing on October 2014. Dalang Publishing is a non-profit publisher that make Indonesian literature more available to the International community.

Lian Guow, an Indonesian who has been residing in USA for many years, is the owner of Dalang Publishing. She read Erni’s writing by Manneke Budiman’s recommendation, then she decided that she wanted to publish its English version. Manneke, a lecturer at the Faculty of Humanities, University Indonesia is also a literary critic. Near the end of 2013, in a phone call, Gagas Media delivered the idea to translate Kei, to Erni.

With Resita and Windy Ariestanty from Gagas Media, she met Lian. Erni explained, “Gagas Media agreed to collaborate with Dalang Publishing, and it went smooth. Then, both I and Mrs. Lian edited Kei before translating it.”  Now, the English version of Kei can be found in some book stores in California, USA.

Kei was Erni’s second novel. In 2012, Kei was one of the featured winners of the biennially Jakarta Arts Council Novel Competition. However, that wasn’t the first time Erni participated in a writing competition. Years ago when she was a child, Erni competed in a writing competition held in Sports and Arts Week. “I wrote about a wounded tiger died in the forest. I placed second at that time. After that, I never wrote again, until I found myself doing it in university, when I lived in Makassar,” she added, an amused chuckle followed afterward.

Erni then told more of her writing past. She participated in writing competitions because she thought that publishing a book would be a hard thing to do. She assumed, if her writing won a competition, then her writings would have a good chance to be published. “Although, it shouldn’t always be the case,” she added with a laughter.

Moving on, she reminisced the time when two of her writings won the second and third place in 2012 Femina Serial Competition. She was in joy at that time. It wasn’t only the matter of winning it, but because in that competition, her writings was read by none other than her writing-hero: Leila S. Chudori, which happened to be the jury.

She continued, “After my writings were published in Femina, the road of being a writer has been a smooth one. It was the first time my writing got published in a print media from Jakarta.”

Following her path as an established writer, invitations to participate in several literature festival in Indonesia were sent her way. She admitted to use those moments to learn, especially the creative process from other writers, either from Indonesia or abroad.

For her, taking part in that kind of festival was not about getting the spotlight or celebrate her writing. She wanted to pass on thoughts to the future generation. Only, she felt what she wrote has done nothing yet. “What my dad does as a farmer is probably cooler. He produces something; whereas what I do is writing lovey-dovey stories,” she said while laughing.

A Story-teller

The world of reading and writing was a familiar one for Erni, even at such young age. Back in her hometown, her grandmother was a story-teller. “In my hometown, she is the only one good at story-telling,” said Erni with a nostalgic tone.

Little Erni lived in Lipulalongo village–a small island in Banggai Sea, Central Sulawesi. there were around 300 people, who knows each other well. There wasn’t many entertainment. Actually there was almost nothing. Even a local library was absent from her village. Except the one from her school, even so the collections was a poor one. However, for little Erni it was a great treasure. Her dad, who at that time was a school guard whose job was to close the gate after school ended, always brought some books home with him. From the biography of Soeharto–Indonesia’s second president–to the children version of Mahabharata stories entitled Rama and Shinta, she read them all.

Not many from her school read in the library, not even the teachers. Instead, many of the books, growing old with no one to open its pages and read, had fallen victims to termites. One day, the school decided to burn those books. A teenage Erni wailed as she witnessed the fire feasted on the old, worn-out books.

As life went on, she chose to wander out of the small village. She went to high school at Luwuk, a bigger and more developed regency. With no relatives at this new place, she chose to live in someone’s house, and in return of that kindness, she helped with the household chores, such as cooking, washing and cleaning. “It was tiring,” she said, “When you are back from school, you can’t right away eat, more so study. You need to cook, wash dirty laundry, and clean the house first.” It was a common thing to do at Luwuk that time. Now, no one would want to do it anymore

Passing the first grade, she chose to move out and rented a room, until she graduated two years later. Then Erni was wandering again, this time to Makassar. She went to Hasanuddin University as a France Literature student, while also worked as a journalist. She wrote in Panyingkul citizen’s journalism website and joined “Identitas”, a campus newspaper from Hasanuddin University.

In Makassar, she truly learned the process of writing. During the process, she confessed that writing became the way she channeled her worry, or thoughts that piled up inside her mind. Erni admitted that she was thinking of many things, things that she probably shouldn’t.

One day, she received bad news. Her grandmother passed away. She was in Makassar and couldn’t come back home to send her away. At that time, money was her enemy. She was sorrowful, especially when she found out from her mother that her grandmother had waited for her.

“I got along with my grandmother better. Everything (I did) was with her. Only when I grew older that I got along better with my parents.”

Since then, there was one more reason for Erni to write: for Among, her grandmother. Since then, she has become more active in writing.

Erni’s parents understood her profession, that she didn’t need to be the civil servants, as many from her hometown expect someone to be. In her village, a civil servant was considered to be an honored profession. But as a writer, too, she can make her fortune.

In 2013, her wandering brought her to Depok, West Java. It was because she found it closer to Jakarta, the capital city, also the center of everything. Now, if she doesn’t spend her time on writing novels, Erni dedicates it to working on research projects.

“For a spoonful of rice and a handful of diamonds,” she said in a joke. But, a serious one. It is a known fact, that presently in Indonesia, a writer can’t live a decent life yet just from book royalties.


Written by Sica Harum, teamed up with Uswatul Chabibah; and Ellen S Kusuma for translation, this article was originally published in our bi-monthly literary magazine, 2nd Edition, May-June 2015. 

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