The Java-born poet is using his work to challenge gender and sexuality norms in his homeland—and hopes his words reach further afield, too.
Can you describe your writing?
My work interrogates the intersection between religion, sexuality, my Bataknese culture and growing up working class in Bekasi. It’s hard to find themes; it’s more about how I can navigate myself as a person.
How is that received?
In my culture, the idea of being normal and accepted is very influenced by what the community thinks. [As a queer person], you are hyper-visible but also invisible—nobody cares what you say. This ambivalence shaped who I am right now, but in a way, poetry enables me to resist those ideas. I use poetry to experiment because it’s short, open-ended and you can resist convention. In novels you tend to think that there should be a character, a plot, an arc.
Do you write to help other people in your situation?
As a kid, the books I read portrayed typical heterosexual love. When you don’t see yourself on the page, it’s harder to imagine yourself as a person. It’s like the heteronormativity is pushing everything down—you don’t feel comfortable with your body and your being. I want to resist the idea of queer absence. I think absence triggered me to write.
How have you found the process of being published internationally?
My poetry collection, Sergius Seeks Bacchus, is coming to the UK with Tilted Axis Press and Australia with Giramondo, and we're looking for a US publisher. After the turmoil about bullying in my life, I feel so much better about myself because people who are so far away are reading my book. I think that’s the biggest quality of literature—you can connect people who will never meet each other in real life. It’s like social media, but kinder and more thoughtful.
Are you looking forward to the London Book Fair?
I’m excited because I want to know how people in the UK will read my book. In Indonesian, we don’t use gender pronouns but English is about specificity. During the translation, I started to wonder, “Should we translate this as a 'he'? What can a 'he' entail to someone else?" It becomes a political question—how do you translate a queer text in non-gendered pronouns into a language where everything is so defined?