Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Leila Chudori
By Phan Ming Yen
It is easy to feel hungry when reading Indonesian writer Leila Chudori's novels.
Food, family meals and Indonesian culinary traditions are very much a part of her two novels, Home (Pulang, 2012), and the 2020 South-east Asia Write Award-winning The Sea Speaks His Name (Laut Bercerita, 2017). Both were translated into English from Bahasa Indonesia by John H. McGlynn, the editor, translator and co-founder of the Lontar Foundation in Indonesia.
In The Sea Speaks His Name, the protagonist, Biru Laut, wins the heart of his girlfriend by cooking instant noodles for her. Family meals are also central in the character and narrative development. The novel is inspired by true accounts of student activists who vanished into political detention in the 1990s during Presidents Suharto's regime (1967-1998).
In Home, the main characters operate an Indonesian restaurant in Paris as their source of livelihood. The book draws on actual experiences of political exiles who fled to France following a failed coup in Indonesia in 1965 which led to an anti-communist purge.
Food is more than just a literary device that serves as a reminder of home or family.
In The Sea Speaks His Name, the use of food was also inspired by interviews Chudori conducted with the abduction survivors. At the launch of the English translation of the novel at the 2020 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, she said: "Most of the time during the kidnapping, their eyes were covered… [and] their sense of smell became stronger and stronger."
As a result, the writer made Biru Laut's family a food-loving one. "From their childhood they were taught to love food and to smell certain herbs in Indonesian cooking," she added.
Born in Jakarta in 1962, the writer is the daughter of the well-known Indonesian journalist Muhammad Chudori (1926-2012), who wrote for the Jakarta Post and the Antara news agency. She was a journalist with Tempo magazine for 28 years before retiring in 2017. She remains a regular contributor to the publication and teaches creative writing at the Tempo Institute. Aside from the abovementioned novels, she has also published two short-stories collections and written scripts for films and television.
1. What are you reading right now?
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play or poem, what would you be and why?
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
4. Name one living author and one dead author you most identify with, and tell us why.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
6. What qualities do you most admire in a writer?
7. What is one trait you most deplore in writing or writers?
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
This is part of a poem written by Soetardji Calzoum Bachri for my 25th birthday. I asked his permission to use this excerpt in The Sea Speaks His Name. It became the soul of the novel.
In English, as translated by McGlynn, it reads thus:
"Die, you will die
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I…
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
12. Write a short-short story in three sentences that include the follow three words : hantu (ghost), penyair (poet) , kopi luwak (Luwak coffee).
[As he sipped his cup of Luwak coffee by himself, the poet became aware of how the pandemic had reduced his hometown to a ghost town. Dark, dusty. Desolate.]
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
15. If you have a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soirée, and why?
Orhan Pamuk as I am fascinated with My Name is Red. I think it is one of the great literary masterpieces. I have all his books, but My Name is Red is the one I have re-read.
Chairil Anwar, the Father of Indonesian Modern Poetry. I'd like to sit and drink with him and listen to whatever he has to say about literature back in the old days. He may choose to eat in a warung [roadside foodstall] though!
16. Both Home and The Sea Speaks His Name are inspired by historical events. In your essay "Why I wrote a novel about Indonesian political exiles" for The Margins, the magazine of the Asian American Writers Workshop, you mentioned that "a novelist is a storyteller, not a historian or a politician who unleashes propaganda," adding that "the story is about the characters, the figures" and that "I am just the medium." What are the challenges you face as a "medium" balancing between history and fiction and how to do you overcome them?
What readers read are usually "softened" versions of what really happened. Sometimes, authors just do not wish to describe the vulgar nature of truth, or maybe it just cannot be expressed.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
[Alone, but not lonely]
QLRS Vol. 20 No. 3 Jul 2021