In Conversation: Clarissa Goenawan (Ubud Writers and Readers Festival Feature)

Meet Clarissa Goenawan in person at UWRF! Asymptote readers enjoy 20% off on a 4-day pass, just enter 'MPAS' at the online checkout.

Continuing our collaboration with the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, Asymptote is pleased to present this interview with Bath-Novel-Award-winning writer Clarissa Goenawan. Her novel, Rainbirds, released earlier this year with Soho Press, has garnered much praise from readers and critics alike. It has already been translated into several languages, including Indonesian, French, and Hebrew. Set in Akakawa, a fictional town near Tokyo, Rainbirds follows Ren Ishida as he retraces the life of his recently deceased sister. Navigating between sudden drizzles, cram school, and a strange arrangement between his late sister and a local politician, he attempts to make sense of her life and death.

Asymptote‘s Editor-at-Large for Indonesia, Norman Erikson Pasaribu, had the opportunity to converse with Clarissa Goenawan before her appearance at this year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. In the following interview, we discuss how Clarissa has moved between languages and places, her Indonesian-Singaporean background, and her choice to set the novel in Japan.

Norman Erikson Pasaribu (NEP): Rainbirds is about the relationship of two Japanese siblings and how one discovers the other post-mortem. What inspired you to write about it?

Clarissa Goenawan (CG): The idea for Rainbirds started from a simple thought: “What if someone I cared about unexpectedly passed away, and I realized too late I never got to know them well?” The question left a deep impression, and I knew I had to tell this story.

NEP: Indonesian is your mother tongue, but you now write in English, which is your second language. Jhumpa Lahiri, who now writes also in Italian, said that she thinks, sees, and feels differently in Italian. Do you feel the same? How do you see your writing in English in comparison with your writing, or even your own thoughts, in Indonesian?

CG: Yes, I do feel that each language has its nuances, which give it its own unique color.

I moved to Singapore when I was sixteen and have lived here ever since. English is the main language in Singapore. It’s the language I use every day, which makes it the natural choice for me when it comes to writing.

Embarrassingly, I have to admit that my Indonesian isn’t as fluent as it used to be due to lack of practice. I mostly use it only to chat with my family and high school friends. Language is like a muscle. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. But the good news is, recently I connected with some Indonesian literary lovers, so hopefully, my Indonesian will improve.

NEP: You mentioned in previous interviews that you read a lot of Japanese novels and also dote on the culture. Rainbirds is interesting also in the way that it presents an imagined Japan as a non-Japanese Asian might imagine it. White authors are often criticized for cultural appropriation or misleading literary representation when they write about “the exotic Asia”. Do you feel any vulnerability in writing about Japanese characters? How do you see your novel Rainbirds in comparison with literary work from Japanese authors?

CG: When I started writing Rainbirds, I didn’t think it was ever going to get published. I know too well how difficult it is to break into the industry. Most first novels would never see the light of the day. Perhaps because my mindset was to write a novel for myself, I didn’t feel any pressure during the initial process.

At that time, I simply had a story I wanted to tell, and I hoped to write the kind of book that I myself would love to read. I chose Japan as a setting because I love the possibility of having different seasons and a wide range of backdrops (mountains, lakes, etc) and I always like the Japanese culture. As you’ve noted, I’m also an avid reader of Japanese literature, not just novels but also manga.

Ultimately, when writing outside our domain, I believe it’s crucial to approach it with proper care and respect. Do plenty of research and get opinions from readers who are familiar with the culture.

I know readers often compare Rainbirds to works by Japanese authors, but personally, I never give it too much thought. I feel that something like this should be reserved for the reader to judge, and not the author. As an author, my only wish is for the readers to enjoy the book.

NEP: Your characters speak, of course, in Japanese. Do you see yourself as a kind of a translator for them? Do you imagine them speaking in Japanese as you write it?

CG: While I am learning Japanese, I’m in no way a proficient speaker (at least, not yet). The earlier draft of Rainbirds does read more formally, following the usual convention in the way the Japanese speak. But during the editing stage, I cut down some of the formalities so the dialog would flow more naturally. I also sought feedback from non-Asian readers who were not familiar with the culture so I knew which parts needed further clarification. While it wasn’t possible to address all inputs (some of them were conflicting), I hope that I managed to strike a comfortable balance.

NEP: The Indonesian translation of Rainbirds was published not long after the English original, which was exciting and has garnered many readers here. Are you involved in the translation or editing process?

CG: Indeed, the Indonesian translation was the first to be published! And I’m so thankful for the support from the Indonesian readers.

Gramedia did send me the translation draft for Rainbirds. I talked to my literary agent and we both felt it would be best to fully entrust the translation to the professional. After all, writing and translating require different skill sets. Also, as someone who grew up reading books published by Gramedia, I knew my work would be in good hands.

I believe I made the right decision because I’ve heard nothing but high praises for Lulu Fitri Rahman’s translation of Rainbirds.

NEP: Would you mind sharing a bit about your future project?

CG: I’m currently working on two novels. One of them is literary suspense, while the other is a literary mystery. Just like Rainbirds, both of them are set in Japan. The three novels are not in a series, but they are interrelated. You’ll see characters in one book make appearances in the others. If you’ve read Rainbirds, I hope you’ll have fun guessing who they are. (*)

Asymptote readers interested in seeing Clarissa Goenawan in person at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival can save 20% on a 4-day pass by entering MPAS at the online checkout.

Image credit: Choo


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