My Jakarta: Ratih Kumala

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Jakarta Globe, 11 January 2009

Ratih Kumala is a Jakartan, first by birth and then by marriage. Born in the city 28 years ago, the writer-cum-editor moved to Palembang, South Sumatra Province, when she was in the fifth grade. She lived there for three years before her family took her to Solo, Central Java Province, where she eventually married writer Eka Kurniawan in 2006. Just one week after the wedding, Ratih followed her husband to the Big Durian.

What was it like to return to your birthplace?

I was shocked to see how much Jakarta had changed, especially the traffic. Let’s just say I’m glad my job doesn’t start at 9 a.m.

What do you do?

Right now I’m a script editor for Bioskop Indonesia, an Indonesian-films-made-for-TV program on Trans TV. I used to be a freelance scriptwriter for Jalan Sesama, the Indonesian adaptation of Sesame Street, and then someone told me that Trans TV was looking for a full-time script editor. I’ve been doing it for three months now.

Has Jakarta changed your personality?

Not that I know of, but when I meet my friends in Solo [Central Java], they say that since I’ve lived in Jakarta, I always seem to be in a rush, that I have become impatient. There, life goes by the saying: Alon-alon waton kelakon [slowly but surely]. Here, my life revolves around deadlines.

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How does Jakarta affect your writing?

I think reading materials are the things that affect the way authors write. Wherever you live, your writing style will evolve over time because of what you read. However, Jakarta favors writers that are market-oriented. There is a bigger chance here than anywhere else in the country that you will be influenced to think about what readers want and what the publishing industry is looking for — what really sells.

Jakarta forces you to be realistic. That’s also what I feel as a script editor. My team and I have to weigh up the viewers’ expectations, the producers’ money and the quality of the film altogether.

Were you thinking about the market when you wrote your last novel?

No. “Kronik Betawi” [Batavia Chronicles, published in Republika newspaper as a series] was inspired by my father’s side of the family, which is Betawi [native of Jakarta]. Moving to other regions sort of deprived me of my Betawi roots, but I feel like a Betawi whenever I gather with them here. I put parts of my childhood, my admiration for Benyamin Sueb [a late Betawi artist] and bits and pieces of Betawi culture into the novel. “Kronik” shows how the Betawi people like to get married several times, how they feel strongly about their culture and Islam and how they gradually became marginalized.

What is your Betawi family like?

Just like any other family, except louder! Betawi families also are religious. I was raised in a devout Muslim family. My grandfather was a mosque preacher, and my family used to run a Koran reading group in the village.

What is the greatest thing about Jakarta for you as a writer?

The cafes! Many cafes here offer a great atmosphere for writing. There didn’t use to be any cafes in Solo, but during my last visit, I saw several.

Where is the best cafe to write in Jakarta?

Bakoel Coffee in Cikini. It’s quiet, especially on the second floor. It has a wireless Internet connection and it’s close to the [arts and literary] scene of Taman Ismail Marzuki, which is basically my territory.

Will you stay here for good?

Someday, when my husband and I feel that we can no longer progress, that we have grown too comfortable with life in this city, we will move somewhere else.


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