Running Away From the Things We Don’t Understand

(Illustration: Natasha Nayee)

Readers, some of you may be familiar with the London Book Fair. You have our sympathies. Recently, one of our editiorial team, Farida Susanty, was invited to experience the fun and excitement of the fair for herself. She returned, and wrote this letter to her colleague, Ziggy Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie, about the experience. We thought you might enjoy reading along.

Dear Ziggy,
I hope this letter finds you well. A week has passed since our first meeting in London, but I still think about the event that we ran away from, the London Book Fair. To be honest, I was glad that you asked me to get out of there, even though we probably shouldn’t have. I admit that I often find myself running away from the things that I can’t understand.
There was nothing wrong with it, but it was confusing, wasn’t it? A stadium-sized building, filled with booths hosted by publishers from all over the world, and so many people in suits and ties, chatting about books over wooden tables, staring intently at each other. I read and write books in my pyjamas, so seeing people dressed up to talk about books was strange and intimidating. And the name of the building, Olympia, just reminds me of the Olympics, and competition. I don’t like writing, and books, to be the subject of competition. Is that naive? People need to make money. The books have to sell. Oh well.
In that building, I instantly felt out of place, even with the name of our country plastered across half of the wall of the building. As you know, Indonesia was the market focus of this year’s London Book Fair. Which is great, because there are so many excellent writers from Indonesia who deserve to reach a wider audience. I like to mention in casual conversations the works of Indonesian writers that I adore, like Eka Kurniawan’s Man Tiger, with the hope that other people, who might be unfamiliar with them, will be interested in checking out the books. And I should tell you this news: there will be pieces written by two Indonesian writers, Andika Budiman and Rain Chudori, in the next issue of The Letters Page.
But even though we are practically Indonesian writers, we didn’t fit in so well at the Book Fair, did we? As soon as we stepped in, you started talking about going to Portobello Market, or even going straight back to the Oxfam Bookshop (we did go there, such a blast). I have to say that I am not sure the event was intended for writers like us. We felt more at home in that Oxfam shop; how crazy is that?
Initially, I was thrilled when I was contacted by our editor, Mas Bimo, who invited me to go to the Fair to meet him. He even referred my name to the British Council, so they could include me in the guest list for the gala dinner later in the evening. Mas Bimo told me that you would be there too, and this put me at ease.
When I arrived in London, on a train from Nottingham, you asked me to meet you at Hammersmith underground station. We planned to get some lunch before we went to the event. You told me that you liked to eat in Nando’s, and that you had been eating in Nando’s for three days in a row. Nando’s! I told you that their sauce tastes like a West Sumatran dish. You thought it was different. It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen you since I came to the launch event of your book, Semua Ikan di Langit (All the Fishes in the Sky), in Bandung. When was that? 2017? But I was glad, after six months of speaking and writing in English, that I could talk and joke in Indonesian with you, although you laughed at my usage of an Indonesian word for ‘delicious’, which, in retrospect, was because I translated the word from English to Indonesian in my head. I felt a pang of guilt for doing that.
In the evening we went to the gala dinner, where we finally met the writers: Mbak Reda Gaudiamo (whose children’s book I loved), Norman Erikson Pasaribu (Indonesian editor-at-large of Asymptote Journal, who launched his poetry book, Sergius Seeks Bachus, that day), as well as Faisal Oddang, who just got back from a writing residency in Germany. The encounter made me feel better, because we weren’t doing the Olympic Games, and we, the Indonesian writers, were all cheering for each other’s effort and accomplishment. But soon, the place was swarmed by so many people that we didn’t recognize, and even though it looked like fun, we agreed to run away from the beautiful and the luxurious London Design Museum, leaving the big glowing lanterns, the music, the wine, and the writers behind us.
I have always been wary of being labelled as an outcast, and it doesn’t help that I have a habit of slipping out of the back of a crowd, because often, people make me feel too giddy, too anxious. But on that day, I felt less alone when I ran away from the events with you. I am glad that, apart from writing, we have this other shared interest in avoiding people.
Let’s run away together again soon.
Ever loving,