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Aan Mansyur on Writing: The Only Way to Find Answers for His Restless Mind

Story / Interview

By Valent Mustamin,
Sep 28, 2015

He said he doesn’t love writing and the process of making a book is always excruciating. But for a poet and a novelist Aan Mansyur, writing is the only way to find answers for his restless mind.


Reading Aan Mansyur’s poems were like being invited into a room of sorrowful – yet beautiful – thoughts about life, love, and everything in between. You could sense the gloom that you can relate to and feel the sweetness of life at the same time.

But it was not all, as his words would also provoke your brain to wander.

It was like listening a monologue that force us to keep asking questions: was this is about Aan’s life? What is the story behind this?

Sapardi Djoko Damono, the father of Indonesian poet, felt the same too. In his review for Aan’s Observing How Fire Works, he asked: What was a poet imagine while he wrote his poem. Was it while he wrote he imagine we sat in front of him, listening what he said? Or did he imagine we glared his poem intensely word by word?’

Aan Mansyur – born in a small village in Bone, Southern part of Sulawesi, Indonesia – is known as a poet, a short stories writer, and a novelist, whose career is shining among the writers from the east.

His books successfully attracted young readers and his latest novel The Last Man Who Cries on Earth which was launched in June 2015 in Makassar was rated 3,8 of five stars on Goodreads – in fact, most of his books are rated above 3,5.

Aan said he knew many questions would pop up in reader’s mind. He did it intentionally as he wanted us to wander with him to find answer.

‘Fighting inside my brain’

Writing a book, as Aan said, is a process to spill out every question inside his complicated brain and an effort to find answers.

“Writing is more like a tool I use, to acknowledge those that I continuously ask, rather than sharing what I already know to the readers.”

Living a life as Aan Mansyur, he said, was like living with three different people who keep arguing on each other.

First one is a Buginese man who is nurturing the traditional value of life. Second, is an Indonesian man who has lived in big city of Makassar for almost 20 years. And the third one, is an English-influenced man who learned western culture through their literature.

“My first language is Buginese, my way of thinking is of Buginese. (But) every day I use Indonesian languages and for seven years I studied under English literature department. Thus as a self, I am divided into three different languages and in my head, each of them has different ways viewing the world.”

“It is like there are people arguing inside my head, while looking at all those problems around me.”

His loyal reader

Aan has published several poetry collections in Indonesian language including Have You Hug Yourself Today?; My Brain: The Busiest Office in The World; and Observing How The Fire Works.

He has started to write when he was little, but it was not something he obsessed about – and if he could go back in time, he wished he could be a farmer.

“Writing was a necessity,” he said, recalling his childhood memories. His willingness to write was solely driven by his complicated relationship with his mother.

“At that time, the only way for me to communicate with other people is writing.”

As a child, he spoke to his mother with letters that he put under his mother’s pillow. His mother would read it and replied with the same method: wrote letters and put it back on the pillow.

Aan described his mother as a reserved woman and living with her was like playing ‘guess your mom’s mind’ game.

“As long as I live, I feel that we play riddles on each other. She will guess what I think, and I will guess what she’s thinking too.”

Even though they live in different cities and barely spoke to each other, the bond between them felt so strong.

This unique and strong relationship with his mother is playing as a central role of what Aan has become today. Writing letters had become a habit, and his journey of becoming a poet was open.

“My mother will always be the first who read my poems.”

Getting worldwide

As one of the writers who came from eastern Indonesia, Aan Mansyur faced bigger challenges – comparing to writers from Java – to promote his books to the wider audience.

For decades, eastern writers were having difficulties to access publishers and media coverage because literature is centralized in Java. Many writers, Aan said, should “double the effort” if they want to be recognized in a national scale.

But a change is on its way as the literature movement on the east has risen with annual writer festivals, competitions, and community events.

In the last few years, few (if not many) eastern young writers including Aan, are getting more recognizable.

How about worldwide?

It will be a tougher. But Aan has a different perspective in terms of promoting books in the world, and it was not all about translation works:

“First, people rarely thought that there are a lot of people who can read Indonesian language, outside our country. They may live in Malaysia, Singapore, or Australia, but they read Indonesian novel and buy mine.”

“So, promoting Indonesian literature in the world doesn’t always about translation.”

“But if you do have to translate, the alternative solution is creating barter culture, when other writers abroad and I can exchange books to translate in different language with translators help.”

“In Indonesia you know the issue is not about how good the quality of the book is. The problem is about economy, money. Translation is expensive because our currency is relatively weak compare to others. So we should find the alternative.”

At the end, we think, most people will agree that how great a book will echo is depend on how good the book is.

You may find good publisher or agent who can make your books translated and sold in many different countries, but if you don’t have many things to offer, those books will ended up in the very back of the shelf.

Critics said that Aan’s poems and stories may exaggerate things, and sometimes too poetic, so that readers could lose the plot.

But Aan’s works are definitely something that worth to read. And as Sapardi said, “Aan is one among two or three Indonesian poet who can force us to listen carefully for appreciation of the beauty of his tales.”

* * *

An extended version of our previous video post, “Aan Mansyur on Writing“. Franciska W has teamed up with Valent Mustamin wrote this post, based on special interview with Aan Mansyur during the Makassar International Writers Festival (MIWF), at Fort Rotterdam Makassar, in June 2015.

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