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Andrea Hirata Interview
By: PP Wong
"The worst consequence of poverty is a poor child has a lack of confidence and I believe that problem can be solved by education. That is the significance of education for me. Education gives inspiration to survive and even to make progress.”
Andrea Hirata is the biggest selling Indonesian author of all time. His novel The Rainbow Troops sold over 4 million copies in Indonesia alone and was adapted into a movie that broke box office records. In an intimate interview with BW we discover a kind hearted, positive author with a heart for helping children reach their potential.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
If Only They Could Talk by James Herriot
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Simple, Poor, Happy
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
Alice Munroe, Ishmael Beah and Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
Just the fruit
Your novel The Rainbow Troops takes the reader into the world of brave school children. What was your childhood in Indonesia like?
I was born in Belitong Island, a small island on the southern part of Sumatra, Indonesia. The island is very rich in natural resources, especially tin. Some people say Belitong Island is probably one of the richest small islands in the world. I believe that because there’s a record that says the island alone not so long ago supplied almost the whole world’s need for tin. Other than that, we have high quality clay, silver, zirconium, gold, and even uranium. The natural resources are exploited by a state-owned company. Anyway, back in the early 80s we were native children of the island and couldn’t even go to school because we didn’t even have one. The native families were very very poor. (They still are now). We were like a pack of rats starving in a barn full of rice. I was one of those native children. Back then, there was a little girl of 15 years old, she started a school with her uncle to give those unfortunate children education for free. Nobody cared for the teachers, nobody paid them. The little girl called us her ten students as The Rainbow Troops. The name then becomes the title of my first novel. You will find character names Ikal and Ibu Muslimah in the story. Ikal is actually me and Ibu Muslimah is the little girl. In so many ways, The Rainbow Troops are based on true events and characters. Later on, I couldn’t believe my childhood story could reach foreign readers. I still cannot believe it has been translated into many foreign languages and enabled me to go to different places.
In the novel, you tackle the topic of the importance of education and the gritty reality of many children who do not have the right to a good education. Why was it important for you to talk about this topic?
I know how it feels like to be trapped in a circle of poverty. It’s like a snake biting its own tail. I know how it feels like to see something educated, accomplished and wealthy and think that I wouldn’t be part of those achievements. That those kinds of things would belong to somebody else. Therefore I believe the way poor people think can only be understood by poor people because I have been there. The worst consequence of poverty is a poor child has a lack of confidence and I believe that problem can be solved by education. That's the significant of education for me. Education gives inspiration to survive and even to make progress. For some communities such as mine, education is the only way out of poverty. The impact of education can only be seen on Belitong Island nowadays. We have better living standards, better public service, better quality of learning, better reading interest as there are more and more Belitong young people getting education. Compared to the situation in the early 80s, we have made much progress and I believe that’s one of the results of education.
We understand you resigned from your full time job to become a writer. What made you decide to do this and do you have any advice for people who want to become full time writers?
To decide to become a full-time author is actually a kind of “suicidal” decision. I guess there’s very few Indonesian authors who make such a decision, but I think that one of the luckiest people in the world is the one who has an opportunity to follow his own dream. I was working for Indonesia’s biggest telecommunication company for 12 years as a finance analyst. I can say that I resigned when I was at the top of my career. I was in biggest comfort zone one could ever imagine, the most promising future in Indonesia’s fastest growing industry. But I have a tremendous love for art, music and especially literature, these interests called me all the time. Life is hard now but I am happier.
Which Asian writers have made the greatest impact in your life and why?
Haruki Murakami. As an author I admire the way he works the details of his story. His strong sense of time and place and his ability to write such a powerful story that can be enjoyable for readers across cultures.
In 2010, you founded Indonesia’s first literary museum. What inspired you to start such a wonderful initiative?
I started the literary museum (Museum Kata Andrea Hirata – Andrea Hirata Words Museum) located in my home village in Belitong Island. It is a non-profit museum (we don’t sell tickets) with the main purposes of encouraging reading interest among young people and supporting the Belitong Tourism industry. Since the screening of The Rainbow Troops the movie in 2008, tourist visits to the island increased over 1800%. And for the first time the island has its own tourism industry. Tourists come from all over the place to see the island, to follow the story of The Rainbow Troops and to see the places depicted in the story. Now the literary museum has become the no. 1 tourist destination in the eastern part of the island.
What are the greatest joys of being an author?
Since I have an economics background, I have a great interest in research. From my education, I have learned research methodology. The great joy for me is to find the balance between scientific approaches and imagination to create literary works.
What are the biggest challenges about being an author?
For me the biggest challenge is how to get my works published in other countries. Translation is one of the obstacles. As I write my original work in Bahasa Indonesia.
What do you think is the role of an author in society?
An author in his own way contributes to the community. As for me, I don’t focus myself only on creating literary work for the beauty of the literary works themselves but also for the real impact on people especially for public policies.
What is the next story in Andrea Hirata’s life?
I am now working on a new novel, but cannot disclose the title yet. The setting is still on Belitong Island and I consider it a cultural novel. I hope it will be published in early 2016. BW