Four days ago, on 21th November 2015, I was lucky enough to attend the launch event of Sapardi Djoko Damono’s latest novel, Suti, at Balai Soedjatmoko, Solo (my hometown). You may not know, but ever since I read Trilogi Soekram earlier this year I’ve become a big fan of the very famous senior writer so I was very happy that I could make it to the event (I should thank my blogger friend Sulis for that). And what a fantastic night it was.
The event was organized by Balai Soedjatmoko and had one of Pawon members (our local writers’ community) as the master of ceremony. It was opened with a symbolic handover of the (big) cover of the novel from the publisher, represented by Mr. Yunas, to Mr. Damono himself. Then the ceremony immediately moved to the more relaxed agenda: reading one small part of the book by a member of Pawon, and then a few words from Mr. Yunas which was soon followed by expressing opinions on Suti by some people who were lucky enough to be the first to read it. All had their own opinions, interpretations, and of course, ways of appreciations. But one thing for sure, all were amazed by the book.
That wasn’t the best part of the event, though, at least to me. The best part came as the audience were all brought to the Q&A session. The discussion wasn’t really about his newest novel in particular, but more about why Mr. Damono writes fiction and about his creative writing process. His loyal fans, or perhaps people familiar with his works, must know that Mr. Damono is actually a poet—he gained his national and international fame/acclaim by writing poems and had received so many awards for it—but he recently released more works of fiction than poetry. People might question this “change of course” of his career, especially at his now very old age, but when asked why he now seems to write fiction more, he only said, “Why can’t I?” And everybody at the hall were laughing. In an act of recollection, he told the audience that the very first time he started to write, that was when he was still in middle school, he actually wrote a short story. He tried and sent it to a newspaper (or maybe a magazine? Sorry if my memory didn’t serve me well, I was so in awe of him that I became half deaf), but the editor rejected it, saying that it didn’t make sense. It didn’t stop him from trying to write again, though, and in high school he started to write poems. He thought, at that time, that poems didn’t need to make sense, that poems could be as strange as we happened to write them, that we could make them any way we wanted them to be. I assume it was the starting point of his career as a poet. And only 15 years ago did he understand what it took to write a story: causality, a logical storyline. The world of fiction works just exactly the way our real world functions, but it needs a “plot”. Nothing in stories can happen “suddenly” without any explanations as it often happens in our life—if you’d just remember the saying that “truth is stranger than fiction.” And so, in 2000, Mr. Damono started to write short stories again, and released a story that now has become one of my favorites, Pengarang Telah Mati.
In the middle of the Q&A session, which I cannot tell you more about here since I have a very short memory, Mr. Damono had important messages for the audience, especially those who have a passion to write and to become a writer. He said that a writer has to have a very good mastery of language because that’s the weapon to “handle” the reader. In writing, it’s not about what we write, but how we write it. Love story has been told for so many times from the Creation era to this day by so many writers, but what has made them different from each other? It is, definitely, the way they write it. So a good mastery of language is important. What’s not less important is for a writer to master the background they use in their stories. Write what you know, if you only know your life experience, then use it. That’s why Mr. Damono also pointed out that using our real life as a story background doesn’t necessarily mean that the story is about us. He emphasized it by stating that the story in Suti is not about him, even though some (who know him) might think so. Fiction is fiction, it’s a world of creation.
Really, if only I could remember every detail of the discussion last Saturday night I would have written them all down, but my short memory stopped me. Be that as it may, there’s this one thing that stayed long in my mind. One woman, apparently his former student at the University of Indonesia, asked him which young Indonesian writer(s) today he deemed bright and have the potential to become a literary star in the future. Instead of answering this question, Mr. Damono only said that he didn’t want to say who’s good and who’s not. It all depends on the reader. However, he bravely stated that he was fascinated by the mastery of language of our today’s young writers. He thought that they can master language far better than he could when he first started to write at his young age. And it’s because of the technology we have today. We have the computer, we have the Internet, and he didn’t have those in 1960s. So that’s why his third message to the audience was to make the best of today’s technology to gain more and more knowledge and master the language better as knowledge and language are our main tools to become a great, successful writer.
I truly enjoyed the discussion, even though it wasn’t exactly about Mr. Damono’s new book, Suti. It ended with a music performance by a flute player, Hai Hai Bung Cu, who performed a very, very beautiful piece of Mongolian music for the audience (he also played a little to accompany two attendees who dared themselves to recite Mr. Damono’s old poems before the hall). It was really, really a great event. Thanks to Mr. Sapardi Djoko Damono for coming to our (and apparently his own) hometown and sharing his thoughts with us, thanks to Balai Soedjatmoko for organizing the launch event, and thanks to my friend Sulis for giving me a lift! 🙂
P.S.: All that Mr. Damono said that night have been paraphrased and summarized, and then translated into English for the wider target readers of this blog.