Without the storytelling traditions of his native Indonesia, writer Eka Kurniawan says he’d “just be a boring writer who literally followed what was being said by language teachers at school.” Instead, last year he became the first Indonesian writer to be nominated for a Man Booker International Prize.
Kurniawan will be on stage speaking about his work at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival (jaipurliteraturefestival.org), which runs from January 19 to 23 in Rajasthan, India, and is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
The inaugural Jaipur Literature Festival hosted 18 writers and drew a crowd of about 100 attendees, including some who “appeared to be tourists who had simply got lost,” according to the author William Dalrymple, who is the event’s co-director.
Since then, the festival has hosted 1,300 speakers and welcomed nearly 1.2 million book lovers, and it has become the world’s largest free, unticketed event of its kind.
Big-draw names in previous years have included Nobel Prize in Literature laureates VS Naipaul, JM Coetzee, and Orhan Pamuk, as well as the controversial author Salman Rushdie and the talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
This year, well-known international names that will be appearing on stage at the Diggi Palace Hotel, Jaipur, include English novelist Alan Hollinghurst, English historian John Keay, Lebanese-American statistician and writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and Irish film-maker Neil Jordan.
While the festival attracts international literary stars, it also promotes and develops the Asian literary scene. A large proportion of the speakers at Jaipur each year are Indian, and there will be writers and artists from South Korea, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Japan, Iran, and Bhutan at this year’s festival.
And, of course, there is Kurniawan, who will be speaking on January 20, and taking part in a group discussion on January 21.
His novel Man Tiger was published in Indonesia years ago, but only translated into English – along with Beauty is a Wound – in 2015. In the United States and Europe those books gained sudden and immediate acclaim, with some critics likening his work to the magical realism of Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Of the comparisons to literary greats, he is indifferent. “I mostly don’t really care. If they want, critics can find common ground and differences,” says Kurniawan, whose third novel, Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Ca$h, will be published this year.
“Whatever it is, after all, people will say whatever they want, measuring one writer to others. I prefer to think about what I’m yearning to achieve.”
“The achievements of Asian writing are severely underrepresented in the West. I’d love to see authors like Kiran Nagarkar, Yasphal, and even RK Narayan read more in the US, for example”
Kurniawan says that literary festivals in Asia, such as at Jaipur, are a way for Asian writers to become better known – to each other and internationally.
“In contrast to Europe and America, where their literatures have been closely linked in a long history, Asian literatures are scattered,” says Kurniawan. “There is a large number of languages here, but the tradition of translating among Asian countries is not very strong. What do Koreans know about Pakistani literature? How do Iranians identify with Vietnamese literature? A literary festival is one path to bringing down those barriers.”
The Jaipur festival isn’t only breaking down barriers among Asian writers; it may help Asian writers to gain more recognition overseas.
“The achievements of Asian writing are severely underrepresented in the West,” says Delhi-born writer Karan Mahajan, who now lives in the US. “I’d love to see authors like Kiran Nagarkar, Yasphal, and even RK Narayan read more in the US, for example.”
Mahajan, whose second novel, The Association of Small Bombs, was selected among The New York Times Book Review’s Ten Best Books of 2016, will also be on stage at the festival on January 20. He says that his Indian identity plays a role in his novels.
“I’m not conscious of it as I write – it would cripple me as a writer – but obviously where I’m from informs my sensibility and my way of seeing,” he says.