HISTORY AS FUN – BUT WHERE ARE THE BUYERS?
© Duncan Graham 2006
Feel like a career as an author? Always assuming you can write there are some essential extras according to prolific East Java novelist and historian Dukut Imam Widodo. These include:
· Have a supportive spouse and family.
· A fat wallet.
· Limitless patience, personal discipline - and
· A day job.
“I usually get up around 3 am and write till about 5 am,” he said. “I do a bit of exercise and after breakfast drive from Surabaya to Gresik. (He works as manager of general affairs for a Japanese smelter. Gresik is about 25 km north west of the East Java capital)
“If I’m lucky I can be home by 9 pm, depending on the demands of the job and the traffic. I get to bed by 10 pm. I’ve been doing this for a long time.”
The latest product from this scarifying routine titled Tempo Doeloe Malang (Malang’s Olden Days) will be released this month (May) by Yogya publisher Bayumedia, with the printing bill being paid by the author.
Widodo says he’s had to resort to vanity publishing because his past experiences have been, well, far from satisfactory.
He claims copies of his book Tempo Doeloe Surabaya have been squirreled away by the Department of Tourism to be handed out as souvenirs to VIPs.
A similar fate has overtaken Tempo Doeloe Gresik with the Bupati (Regent) snapping up a bulk order but not distributing.
For his latest work he’s trying to be both author and marketer – a job he’s approaching with formidable energy at every forum he can find. If the book flops it won’t be for want of T-shirts and promotional CDs.
It all sounds extremely frustrating.
“I’ve been paid, so that’s OK. But I’d really like to see government agencies selling my books. People ask me where they can buy and I can’t tell them! I want Indonesians to know about the past before it disappears. Frankly the amount of demolition of old buildings makes me feel like crying.
“I’m never going to deal with the government again.”
Tell our readers about your latest book’s background.
“This has taken me 15 years to research and write. I’ve been able to get little information from the city authorities. Most historical documents I’ve found have been in the Netherlands.
“I’ve been there twice and have followed these visits up with e-mail inquiries. They’ve been extremely helpful and all services have been free. But when I wanted copies of documents from the national archives in Jakarta they charged me Rp 500,000 (US $ 56).
“The culture here towards books and history, reading and writing is so different from the West. But the kids seem interested. (This conversation was held in a gallery showing Widodo’s photographs which attracted scores of viewers.)
“The basic problem is the quality of education in Indonesia. We’re not taught to respect books.”
Can you make money from writing?
“Yes. I’m a businessman. I’ve written 26 novels. I’m 51 now and I’ve been writing for 25 years. But when you take into account the time involved in research the returns aren’t that good.
“I have to think: Who will buy? The answer is big businesspeople with a sense of history and a feel for culture. Some have already put in orders. I hope every school library will have a copy.
“I wanted Tempo Doeloe Malang to be 900 pages long. (It’s a coffee table book with sepia pictures.) That would have meant a retail price of Rp 750,000 (US $ 84) which is too much.
“So I’ve had to cut it by a third so it will sell for around Rp 375,000 (US 42) which I hope will be acceptable.”
Are you a qualified historian?
“No – but I can tell you more about history in East Java than most lecturers. I love listening and researching – it’s something I got from my father.
“I’ve had lots of help with this book, particularly from Oei Hiem Hwie. (A former political prisoner who was held on Buru Island with the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, and now runs a library in Surabaya.)
“Some of the chapters have been written by my friends and students using data I’ve collected. I hope these people will become the historians of the future.
“I don’t write in an academic style to bore people. History should not be too serious. I want to keep my prose light and funny so people will enjoy. For example one section is about the internationally famous Mata Hari who lived for five years in Malang.
“She was born in the Netherlands as Margaretha Zelle in 1876. She came to Java as a teenager and became an exotic oriental dancer. When she returned to Europe she was a lover of many famous and powerful men.
“In the First World War she worked as a spy and double agent and was executed by the Germans in 1917. I’ve written a novel about her, but the facts are in Malang Tempo Doeloe.
“My next book will be about old advertising and night clubs.
“To be an author you’ve got to be a little bit crazy. Writing is my hobby. I want to keep doing it till I die. But it would be impossible without the support of my wife Kiky Ernawati who I married when I was 22.
“I tell you this: Behind every successful writer is a good woman.”