American publishing has a notoriously lackluster record when it comes to work in translation; according to one oft-cited figure, translations account for just 3% of fiction and poetry books published in the U.S. each year. And while no single work can be expected to alter that statistic on its own, it’s hard not to hope that a big debut will help ignite interest in the world’s less-translated literatures.
This fall, the Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan will have his North American debut with the publication of his novel, Beauty Is a Wound (New Directions, Sept.). Epic in scope, the novel, which PW starred, takes on dark episodes in Indonesia’s history—including the anticommunist killings that took place there in the mid-1960s—while dealing playfully with the country’s traditional folklore and myths, many of which revolve around the undead. (In the first sentence, the protagonist, a prostitute named Dewi Ayu, is described as emerging from her grave after “being dead for twenty-one years.”)
Kurniawan, who lives with his family in Jakarta, calls the book a “joke of a historical novel, in a quixotic way.” He began work on the manuscript in 2000, shortly after graduating from university, and published it in Indonesia in 2002 with the Yogyakarta Cultural Academy. (Gramedia Pustaka Utama, a larger publisher in Indonesia, reissued it in 2004.)
Annie Tucker, the book’s translator, approached Kurniawan about producing an English version in 2012. With his permission, she completed a translation of the first chapter, which went on to win a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant. Barbara Epler, the publisher of New Directions and one of the award’s judges, says she was “knocked out” by the sample. She acquired rights to the book in the summer of 2013 and became Kurniawan’s editor.
Both Epler and Tucker are hopeful that Kurniawan’s book will open readers’ minds to Indonesian literature and culture. “Beauty Is a Wound carries so much news with its art,” says Epler. “I think if Eka catches on here, he will be a prime force in getting more publishers interested in Indonesia.” Tucker agrees: “There’s a lot of beautiful and challenging work by [Indonesian] poets and novelists from the 20th century that deserve greater global attention.”
For his own part, Kurniawan is “thrilled” that his work is being published in English. New Directions, along with Verso—which is publishing another of Kurniawan’s novels, Man Tiger, also out in September—have arranged for Kurniawan to appear at the Brooklyn Book Festival this September. “It will be one of the great moments in my life as a writer,” he says.