A man who works in marketing and rarely reads fiction said that whenever he heard the word “writer”, the first thing that crossed his mind was eccentricity.
His definition of “eccentricity” is introverted and quiet on one hand; extroverted and rebellious on the other. In short, he thinks writers are a strange breed. Where did he get this idea? “The Hours and Finding Forrester,” he answered.
Three young writers sat in the waiting room of Gramedia Pustaka Utama (GPU) publishing company one afternoon – two girls and a guy. The girls, Ratih Kumala and Dyan Nuranindya, were wearing T-shirts, and the guy, Fadil Timorindo, wore a washed-out jacket and skinny jeans. There was nothing eccentric about their appearance.
“Maybe age has something to do with it. Younger writers like me or Ucu Agustin tend to be more relaxed, even though we write serious stuff,” Ratih Kumala, 27, said. “I grew up in Solo, and older writers there believe in finding inspiration from within, but I prefer to hang out with all sorts of people,” she added. Ratih’s novel, Tabula Rasa (Grasindo, 2004), won third place in Dewan Kesenian Jakarta’s Novel Competition 2003.
But the-man-who-works-in-marketing-and-rarely-reads-fiction is not alone. Fadil Timorindo, whose hairdo resurrects Hilman Hariwijaya’s famous fiction character Lupus, sees literary fiction writers as a group of brainy yet mysterious people.
“High literature works are beautiful, so I guess the writers need to dig deep into themselves to find ways to express that beauty.”
Fadil, 18, the author of the recently published teenlit Let’s Party (GPU), is one of the few males who write in this genre.
Let’s depart Jakarta for a moment and go to Surabaya to meet another young writer. Stefani Hid, 22, has three published novels under her belt. Dealing with heavy subjects like existentialism, depression, obsession with death, and absurdity, Stefani is a pretty laid back person in real life. “I write to get my problems out of my head. I mold anything that is clamoring inside it into sentences. It’s a good form of therapy,” she said.
Subjects like existentialism and depression sound cool, indeed, but our young writers, especially those of pop novel fame, are aware that young readers are especially fond of love stories. Stephanie Zen, 20, another Surabaya-based writer, has written four novels that deal with this theme. “Believe it or not, three of my novels tell love stories in a musical setting: band groups. The other one is about a girl who falls in love with a badminton player.”
Dyan Nuranindya’s best-selling novel Dealova (GPU, 2004) is also about love between young people.
“Tabula Rasa in many places deals with romance in general: relationships between males and females, between a young person and an older person, and between lesbians,” Ratih, who has been married to prolific writer Eka Kurniawan for two years, said.
Do these young writers dare to go further and speak of the unspeakable theme in their works, considering how some, if not most, Indonesians react to the word “sex”?
“Yeah, my novels have some sexual content. In a talk show in Depok, one man who claimed to be a teacher said my works were a threat to the morality of the nation’s youth. So I told him that was not the message,” Stefani, who started writing at the age of 16, said. “Besides, people should no longer turn away from this kind of topic, especially not young people.”
All of these authors either have their latest drafts ready for publication or ideas waiting to be developed into writing. For now, they are content to walk into a store and see their books displayed on its shelves, although they do have bigger goals.
Dyan, who has seen her work turned into a movie, dreams of having her own production house or recording company.
“I have many dreams, but I would like to help people with idealism but are afraid that they cannot sell. I have a musician friend who used to convey political messages in his lyrics, until one day he decided to give up and started writing mellow songs. It’s sad, really,” said Dyan, who would also like to write fairy tales.
Fadil, who studies advertising, thinks that he cannot make a living out of writing alone. “So, I’m hoping to work in an advertising agency one day.”
“Seeing your books brought to life on the big screen does sound exciting, but what would really be an achievement is to have them translated and distributed overseas,” Ratih, who has also been developing scripts for Jalan Sesama, the Indonesian version of Sesame Street, said. “But, actually, I just want to write, and write and write.”
1. DYAN NURANINDYA: (JP/R. Berto Wedhatama)
2. RATIH KUMALA: (JP/R. Berto Wedhatama)
3. The teenlit section of Gramedia bookstore contains novels by young emerging writers. (JP/R. Berto Wedhatama)
4. FADIL TIMORINDO: (JP/R. Berto Wedhatama)
When pop culture meets literary fiction
Meet Dyan Nuranindya, the 22-year-old writer who started Dealova fever when she wrote about a beautiful young girl who likes to play basketball and has to choose between loves.
Sounds like typical teen-themed writing, you might say, but Dyan’s first published work turned out to be a tremendous success.
“The first draft was written when I was in junior high, but none of my friends wanted to read it. I finally found someone who said she would take a look, but days later I found the draft lying on a cafeteria table, smeared with ketchup and soup,” Dyan said with a big laugh.
After rewriting the draft and sending it off to a publisher,Dealova landed on bookstore shelves in 2004. The book was adapted into a motion picture in 2005 and has been reprinted 14 times, setting a new trend in Indonesia’s publishing industry: teenlit.
“Teen literature is very easy to sell,” Hetih, an editor at Gramedia Pustaka Utama, said. “We print 7,000 copies per title, distribute them, and 3,000 copies ought to sell in a few months.
A teenlit work may have a very simple storyline, but if teenagers like it, they won’t stop talking about it. When the demand continues to rise, the book can be reprinted any number of times.”
The profit element has undoubtedly attracted more and more writers into the pop publishing business — teenlit, chicklit, metropop etc.
So what is it like for young adults who channel their idealism and energy into writing literary fiction?
“On one hand, it saddens me that these commercial novels get a larger appreciation than works of literature do,” Ratih Kumala, 27, the author of two novels and one short story anthology, said.
“On the other hand, I am also happy that so many young writers today are not afraid to express their ideas.”
Ratih, who describes herself as a full-time writer, does not deny the possibility of writing a commercial work one day.
“It is more about proving that I can write in that genre. But if that book is going to get me a lot of money anyway, I’d have to say, ‘Hey, why not!’”
Like Ratih, Calvin Michel Sidjaja, 22, also thinks there’s nothing wrong with writing pop fiction. “If I were to write popular fiction, however, I would make sure it wasn’t full of clich*s. Some Indonesian pop novels are blander than others,” he said via online chat. Calvin’s novel, Juktaposisi, won third place in the Jakarta Arts Council’s Novel Competition 2006, and was published last year.
Ratih, Calvin, and other young literary fiction writers agree that it takes special skills to write a good pop novel. Dina Oktaviani, a 22-year-old poet-slash-writer, said that any story had the potential to be an inspirational piece of work, even a pop story, but not all writers had the ability to explore that potential.
“Literary writers think that writing pop fiction means selling out, because many pop novelists here do just that, producing trashy books,” she added.
One young writer is not reluctant, however, to incorporate pop references into her serious novel.
“My book is about teen life, I’m a teenager, and most of the people who read my book are teenagers, so what I wrote must be a teenlit,” Farida Susanty, 17, said.
“But unlike most teenlit works, I chose to reveal the dark side of teenage life. I want people to understand that teenagers have that side too, and to be able to care rather than blaming them for everything they do wrong.” For her unusual depiction of teenage life in Dan Hujan Pun Berhenti (And the Rain Too Stops), Farida was awarded the 2007 Khatulistiwa Literary Award for the Talented Young Writer category.
For Farida, the most important thing is whether readers feel close to a work, “to delve into it, know what it is trying to say and absorb it. You may read some high literature and have no idea what it says — it’s pointless. You can also come across novels that are so commercial it serves no purpose but to be just that”.
Let us recap. Demand is the first thing that underlines the differences between pop and literary works of fiction.
As Indonesian readers favor pop lit, some publishers seize the opportunity, taking on more pop writers.
The second factor is talent. Our young literary fiction writers seem confident that they are able to write pop novels, while most of the young pop novelists put emphasis on the word “high” in high literature, saying it would take them a long time to get up there.
Well, if they can turn The Taming of the Shrew into Ten Things I Hate About You, or Emma into Clueless, maybe one day Dyan can rewrite Dealova, making it into a work of literary fiction, and setting yet another new trend.
Foto: Teenlit books are reflections of the worlds of young people today. (JP/J. Adiguna)
Moment in sun for young writers
A band of young authors, with brave new ideas and works, are leading the country’s literary scene out of a period of stagnation.
An entire genre is dedicated to them: teen-lit or teen literature, the sister genre of chick-lit, in which the story is told Sophie Kinsela-style.
But there is no sense questioning the merit of the work of these young writers and entering a state of being stalemated.
As author Martin Aleida puts it: “Literary taste is very subjective and attempts to rate popular fiction tend to create endless discussion.”
Martin is of the belief that teenage writers have taken the right path to express themselves: through their work.
“Some consider that these works by teenagers are responsible for the bastardization of the Indonesian language, with which I have to agree. But I am also convinced that it’s part of the growing-up process for young writers.
“Only time will tell. As they grow older, their command of the language will mature.”
Martin said that in a country in which reading was not a popular pastime, the efforts of young writers were deserving of appreciation.
Whether they write literary or popular fiction, young writers have seized the opportunity to meet the market demand from young adults and teenagers.
“Young readers definitely prefer to read the work of people of a similar age,” said Martin whose short story anthology ^YLeontin Dewangga^Y won a literary award in 2004.
“It’s good that young people have begun writing as a means of expression, because one of the weaknesses of our culture is that people tend not to be able to articulate their opinions. Writing is a great way of exercising (that ability),” he said.
Young writers have been important throughout the course of the country’s literary history, like Chairil Anwar, which today is a household name.
Starting out his career as a poet and fiction writer at the age of 19, Chairil, along with Asrul Sani and Rivai Apin, was one of the pioneers of the 1945 literary movement that resulted in the birth of modern Indonesian poetry. Perhaps, history repeats itself.
But Martin, who also began sending his prose to literary magazines in his youth, disagrees. “Young writers today don’t have vision (like Chairil did). They do not think politically and socially for a greater cause. They only write about their teenage world.”
However, not all young writers can be so easily categorized.
Surabaya-based Stefani Hid, 22, has three novels in print. Though seemingly carefree, she is not afraid to deal with heavy issues like depression and death.
“I write to get my problems out of my head. I mold anything that is clamoring inside it into sentences. It’s a good form of therapy,” she said.
Ratih Kumala, 27, also said she wrote about serious issues.
“I grew up in Solo, and older writers there believe in finding inspiration from within, but I prefer to go out, hang out with all sorts of people,” said Ratih whose novel ^YTabula Rasa^Y won third place in the Dewan Kesenian Jakarta’s Novel Competition 2003.
Perhaps, the time has come for the older generation to share the spotlight on the literary stage. Younger writers have an avalanche of ideas to offer, and could do with the support of more experienced writers.
“Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy some teen-lit novels too. I believe it’s their time,” Martin said.
Foto: TEEN SPIRIT: Teenagers browse at Gramedia bookstore in South Jakarta on Saturday. (JP/R. Berto Wedhatama)