Azhari Aiyub

Bincang Buku (Talking Books) is a series of interviews with authors and translators working in or writing about our close neighbour Indonesia, discussing both their writing practice and issues that matter to Indonesian literature as a whole.

Azhari Aiyub was born in Banda Aceh. His latest novel, The Bearded Turtle (Banana, 2018), won the prose category at the 2018 Kusala Sastra Khatulistiwa Literary Awards. He was awarded first prize in the Ministry of Education and Culture’s short story writing competition in 2003, before receiving the Poets of All Nations’ Free Word Award in 2005. In 2007 he received a fellowship from the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) in Amsterdam and Leiden. Azhari was selected for a writer’s residency in Mexico by the Language Development and Fostering Agency in 2015. His short story collections Perempuan Pala and The Garden of Delights & Other Tales have been translated into English, German and French.

Photo of Azhari Aiyub

Which narratives- oral or written – had an effect on you as you grew up?
Firstly of course stories. Childhood stories told by women from my mother’s side of the family: my grandma, aunts, and my mother herself. These stories were told in the evenings in my grandmother’s house on the banks of the Neng Banda Aceh river, encircled by pitch black mangrove forest. In the early 80s not everyone’s homes in Banda Aceh had electricity yet. No television. Only the local coffee stall or prayer house had a television. Men would watch programs there, the majority of which were New Order propaganda. Women and children stayed home. Before these women went to sleep there was plenty of time to fill, so while taking care of the children or doing housework, these women gossiped. What they discussed differed from night to night: neighbour’s affairs; people who obtained wealth by making deals with the devil; criminals of the past; the mass killings of 65’; the sorcerer who wouldn’t die even though he was already 100. Young children like me (who weren’t allowed out of their houses at night) were stuck with these stories whether they liked it or not. And this left an impression that remained for years, eventually encouraging me to write short stories and then finally novels. Their stories were like a box containing an inventory of characters and events, and occasionally in urgent situations I’d break the box to rearrange the characters or events for a story I was working on. The tsunami in 2004 destroyed my kampung and killed nearly 80 percent of its inhabitants. Now there’s only a few original inhabitants and no more than 10 people from my grandmother’s generation. Sometimes out of nostalgia I meet with the old women of my grandmother’s generation and ask how it is with them, about who’s practicing sorcery, about victims of the mass killings, satan worshippers, or the history of criminals – everything women of my mother’s family spoke of before. In this way, I look after the stories and renew my inventory box.

It seems many writers, Indonesian or otherwise, draw inspiration from informal, sometimes innocuous oral traditions in their childhood which remain impressed in the memory long afterwards. Your newest work, Kura-kura Berjanggut (The Bearded Turtle) is an epic in three parts, almost 1000 pages in length. What prompted you to write this book?
After 12 years  (I started writing this novel in 2006 and finished it in 2018) I no longer remember what first prompted me to write it. The tsunami initially made me lose my desire and ambition to write, even though I’d only just began a career as a writer (my first book was published a few months before the tsunami). In the aftermath of the tsunami, a lot of friends came and encouraged me – Brother, you have to write again!. I didn’t think it was possible. There were huge problems in my life, and writing was almost a luxury. But I tried. In 2006 I devised a structure for Kura-kura Berjanggut, but didn’t have enough self confidence to believe I could finish it at that time.

I started with planning. For two years I composed diagrams for the figures in the story, identifying characters, structuring a plot and thinking out the scenes. The work was joyful, it entertained me and brought me back to life. But I wasn’t yet brave enough to write it – I’d shudder when I saw the blueprint for the book.

I said to myself, isn’t this too ambitious? I mean, I began it in a state that was really difficult and not at all propitious to writing a book .

What about the writing process itself – where did you get inspiration, influences and energy on the long road to the publication of this book?
At that time, I thought that over the course of my life I had to write at least one book that was good. The risk was that if it wasn’t good, then there wouldn’t be any novels. Like a guerilla who prepares a single bullet for himself, at that time I prepared a waste basket for the novel I was writing. I didn’t matter to me that I needed a long time to write it. I narrated parts of the plan for the novel to close friends: the premise, scenes, characters, backdrop. Telling others that you’re writing a novel is a mistake. I shouldn’t have done it. They end up asking you all the time when will it be ready? Can I read it yet? Why’s it taking so long? Those questions frustrated me. Let alone entering a bookstore and seeing all the latest books in print. That’s truly painful. Haha.

The blueprints were contained in four notebooks (about 200 pages), and some of them just sat in my head. Some parts of the plan I even drew on butcher’s paper and stuck on the wall of my room. At the time my room looked like the office of a detective pursuing a serial killer in a Hollywood film. For years the other corner of my room has been full of books and manuscripts that I’ve read over and over again, about the lives of pirates, fugitives, assassins, secret societies, heresy, ships logs from the 16th to 18th centuries, the encyclopedia of the Usmani caliphate, travel diaries, the reports of botanists and ethnographers during the colonial period in South East Asia, books on the history of photography in the Dutch East Indies, and trash – conspiracy theories, books on the benefits of gemstones and poison that I wouldn’t touch any other time. A dream of mine is to get these containers out of my room.

The hardest part came when I began to write. As I had suspected, writing from a plan you’ve made for yourself is not at all enjoyable. Time and time again I gave up. For years I asked myself, does it have to be like this? What if what I’m writing is bad? Indeed, much of what I wrote didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped. I’d read what I’d written over and over again, and more often than not I’d dislike it. Why is it so bad? That’s the hardest part. There was only one way out: I’d step back, leave my laptop, and waste months of time at the coffee shop doing nothing. Then when the desire to write the cursed novel slowly returned, I’d start it again. That’s how it was, constantly, from 2006 to 2018.

It appears that the content of The Bearded Turtle is far from the reality of the conflict and tragedy that you and the province of Aceh have experienced over your lifetime. But perhaps this book can also be read as an allegory. Could you explain the relationship between fantasy and reality The Bearded Turtle?
True! At the time I set conditions for myself. I wouldn’t write about the tsunami or the conflict in Aceh (at that time my short story collection, Perempuan Pala (Nutmeg Woman), had just been published. One of the themes of Perempuan Pala was life in Aceh under the military State of Emergency and even at the time the book was published, military operations were still being conducted to hunt down and destroy the separatist Free Aceh Movement. I wanted there to be a distance in the work that would leave me feeling comfortable. In other words, I didn’t write about what was happening at that moment and in terms of time and space the contents of the book were far outside my realm of experience. But the problem was, no matter how far the distance being covered (The Bearded Turtle encompasses a time period between the 16th until the 20th century) there are always patterns that return throughout human history. As a consequence, the work can risk being too general. But on the other hand, it can be quite helpful. For example, when at one point I reached a dead end in moving the plot forward, when the solidarity between the main characters was moving towards dissolution and an opportunity to bring in a new character had to be opened up convincingly, I suddenly found a way out that was very close to what I was experiencing at that moment – a major natural disaster. In The Bearded Turtle there’s one scene about a major natural disaster that happened at Lamuri in the 16th century, and about how the sultanate, which was poor and had recently been struck by famine, should face it. When writing this, I was greatly helped by my experience with the 2004 tsunami in, amongst other things, understanding human nature. I’d seen firsthand the self preservation, cheating and disgusting opportunism, which under normal conditions are suppressed by ethics, religion and humane values, or by police batons and fear of the law. When something huge and terrifying attacks their lives, people think of nothing other than how to save themselves. In situations like this sometimes miracles also occur.

You’ve established Dôkarim, a writing school in Aceh. Where did you get the concept and desire to create this school?
In 2003 Jakarta declared a military offensive in Aceh. The military offensive destroyed civilian rule and martial law was installed. Information was strictly controlled by the Regional Military Emergency Authority (PDMD). Even the national press was at that point allied with PDMD to control the flow of information. The national press accepted quotes about military operations from just one source: the military. What’s happening in Papua now is very similar, even though there’s no State of Emergency. At the time, pro-democracy elements in Aceh had already been paralyzed. Negotiators within the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka – GAM) had been arrested on false charges, hundreds of pro-democracy activists were on wanted lists and many of them fled Aceh. Extrajudicial killings were happening every day, and so were kidnappings. Kampung neighbourhoods were being raided and curfews were imposed. Military propaganda was heard daily. A few of us junior activists (clearly posing no danger to the Indonesian military) wanted to document what had happened in this terrifying era of martial law, so we set up Dôkarim school. We taught school and university students how to write about the everyday events happening in their neighbourhoods over the martial law period. That was the background.

How do literary communities operate in the social-political climate of Aceh?
Now there are many literary communities in Aceh, and they’re all very diverse. They can be roughly divided between those that are very political and those who are apolitical. The political ones are involved in campaigns challenging the destruction of the environment and campaigns against corruption. They are generally from the younger generation. The older generation tends to be apolitical, and close to the government. The divide between these two positions is stark, and the two parties almost can’t be brought together.

How about that younger generation of Acehnese writers – whose work do you admire?
There are many new writers from Aceh, particularly from the 1990s and 2000s generations. They exist within a relatively healthy ecosystem of literary communities. This generation rarely writes about the traumas of the politics of the past – of the Aceh conflict. Two writers from this new generation who I admire are Raisa Kamila and Putra Hidayatullah.

Can you tell me about your current projects as a writer and through your involvement in literary communities?
I am currently writing a new novel. And I have returned to a familiar cycle: happy with the blueprint, the broad concept, but scared about moving ahead and writing it.

Translated from Indonesian by Jorgen Doyle and Hannah Ekin.


Iven Manning is a scholar of Indonesian studies and linguistics. He is interested in language, ikat textiles, meaningful engagement between Australians and Indonesians and, last but not least, sport.

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