Your fiction often deals with themes of religion, belonging and rejection, and being an outsider in one way or another. What draws you to these themes, and how did they become so important to you? Do you think fiction is able to look at these ideas in a way other kinds of writing can’t?
Growing up during a totalitarian regime, and experiencing and witnessing first hand the sorrow and brutality along the way (see my novel "The Years of the Voiceless"), while also coming to a sense that the so-called reform of overthrowing the military regime followed by democratization process have not make people of the country free from oppression, torture and discrimination. Freedom must not be taken for granted. In the case of Indonesia -- and probably many other developing polities -- the move toward Western (or foreign) typed free society and democracy, and thus their inclusion into the global capitalist system have brought complexities, depriving the hard-fought freedom sought from the military in the form of the emergence of corrupt bureaucracy and local elites and, rent-seeking taipans serving only their own interests, as well as deep-lying consumerism and economic dependence. More than 20 years after Suharto regime was gone, I can't tell if Indonesians -- in term of livings as a human being entitling of their birthrights -- are better off today than during the military regime. Sure, physically we have more freedom now, but our mindset is chained more than ever by all capitalist system illness -- corruption, over the top materialism and prevalent hypocrite mindsets.
In regard to religion, for instance, the military regime has been replaced by religious, I should say Islamic clerics -- and mind you that more than 200 million Muslims are Indonesians, the world's biggest Muslim community -- as the most powerful force within the society. These religious elites occupy the realm of what is right or wrong for most Indonesians -- which the so-called mainstream Islamic teaching leading the way. Any other Islamic interpretation of Islam has no place in Indonesia. These monolithic interpretation of Islam have caused suppression and oppression or even violent attack against various minority groups, such as Ahmadiyah, Shia as well as LGBTs and atheists.
In prevalent consumerism, technology and Indonesia's addiction to social media, I feel that threat is even bigger. And as the present is still too recent to have a conclusion, not many writers dare to question this issue. But this issue will determine the fate fate of Indonesians more than any other matters since colonialism.
So, I am in the mood of so far so good. I feel and I believe several things have gone wrong and many other will follow. As a writer I have to speak them now otherwise It's going to be too late. This is why I write "The Outcast" about state violence against Ahmadis, "86" about prevalent corruption within even the low level Indonesian society, "Bound" about oppression against transgenders, and "The Last Crowd" about the impact of technology and social media within Indonesia.
Recently, I am focusing my energy to write children's books as I see the significance of such books. In this genre, I write stories with the background of many regions across Indonesia. The bottom line is I want children to have more stories, and what unique is that these tales of Indonesian ethics and regions have not been written before, and have hardly been touched even by local people in the respective region. I am trying to include issues of environment, ecological justice and multiculturalism and local struggles to exist in the globalized world. First novel Mata di Tanah Melus (Mata in the Land of Melus) has been published in January 2018, while the second Mata dan Rahasia Pulau Gapi (Mata and the Secret of Gapi Island) will be out in December this year. The third will be about people living on sea featuring the life of Bajau people in Southeast Sulawesi.
Yes, I believe that fiction has more power to raise these issues than other kinds of writing. I see that as other nations we have the problem of too much information. People, especially the young generation which I am targeting to have been bored to death with dry reports, slogans and advices. Fictionalized worlds -- such as movies, stories and novels -- are the alternative to narrating truths. And as long as I write about human being with their meats and bloods full with their real psyche with honesty, I believe they can touch the heart of my readers, and thus hopefully ring as a conscience voice inside their heads. Of course, only time will tell if I can be really read and heard, but I ma going to always try.
You’ve had novels translated into English or German so far. Are there elements of your writing that are especially difficult to communicate in another language? What role does language play in how you write?
First of all, I see a translators as a reader, albeit an expert one. He or she will do their best to write whatever they obtain from reading the novel just like a story teller tell a story she or he heard before. I don't mind the language but it is unavoidable that some mood of the story will be gone. Take for instance, my first novel "Entrok" which is full of Javanese diction and concepts only Javanese can understand. These words can't even be translated properly into Indonesian language, let alone into English. The first translation of "Maryam" into "The Outcast", for instance, must be heavily rewrite to mirror the meaning of the original. Let's see this way, if my original novels are a steak with adequate fat and spices that make it so yummy to eat then the translated ones will be a steak with less or more fat and spices -- It is still a steak, and thank God my novels are translated. However, I believe that translated version of my novels is a wholy different entity from my works. It is an independent work done by independent writers with his or her authenticity and autonomy. The translated works wholly belong to the translator.
For me, language is essential. It even differentiate me from other writers beside the story I want to tell. Choice of words and how I form phrases and sentences out of them, then create the story define me and form my authenticity. Language is power, and influenced by power behind it such as culture and norms, so, it is altogether the power to limit and to free myself. It is also politics as I believe language is not neutral. When I chose certain words, and not others, I have exercised my power, but in doing so, I do inclusion and exclusion. In "The Years of the Voiceless" ("Entrok") I deliberately chose to use many Javanese concepts and words. In both cases, it will be different in meaning, mood and power if I use Indonesian language.
Can you tell me about the ASEAN Literary Festival? What made you realize there needed to be one, and what did you have to do to get things started?
ALF is a personal project of me and my husband, a journalist who covers a lot about the grouping and the region. This is an attempt to provide a platform where writers from various countries can exchange ideas and improve themselves as they interact with each other, while hopefully can contribute to the betterment of people in the region by proposing shared ideas on particular issues seen important for the people of the region. The long term goal is achieving the slogan of "written by ASEAN authors, read by ASEAN people and the world. In other words it is also an attempt to widen the readership (sustaining literary industry in the process) by enhancing translation of ASEAN works into languages of ASEAN nations, and of course into English.
To be honest this is both political and cultural endeavor. We were very well aware that ASEAN is a political term, very elitist and a top-down initiative. So, by using ASEAN instead of Southeast Asia, we have been political, and want to get more support from government and elites.We believed this is important to sustain such a festival.
Interview with Claire Jacobson, 2018