The first of six Q&As with Indonesian authors visiting the London Book Fair as part of the Market Focus programme
Agustinus Wibowo is a travel writer and memoirist whose work explores the dynamics between language and landscape. He is a descendant of Chinese immigrants, and the question of identity dominated his earlier life and shaped his perspective. The quest for answers has taken him to many different parts of the world, including Afghanistan, where he stayed for three years as a journalist. He also loves to venture along the obscure borders and to blend into various minority groups. His work has pioneered a new genre in Indonesian travel literature by allowing readers to experience the writer's physical and emotional journey as they contemplate their own conflict and anxieties. His third book, a travel-memoir called Zero: When the Journey Takes You Home, was a national bestseller and will soon be adapted into a film. His latest work, Us and Them, which reveals the roots of human identities and conflicts, will be published in 2019.
Why did you begin travel writing?
Initially I started as a travel photographer, and mostly I took photos of humans. To take such photos, I needed to build a strong rapport with my photo subjects, so I could get access to their in-depth stories. Therefore, in almost every country I visited, I learned the local language, so that I could communicate with the locals in their tongue. Along with these photography subjects, I also heard so many interesting stories and wisdoms worth contemplating. They usually say: "A photo is worth a thousand words". But I realised that a thousand words are never enough to share the stories and wisdoms I learned from the road. Therefore, I started to publish my stories in writing.
How did you obtain your first book deal?
Initially I published my stories on my personal blog. Those days I was in the middle of a long-term overland journey across Asia, and had already spent some months in Afghanistan. I uploaded my stories from the road on almost a daily basis. At the same time, one of the biggest Indonesian news channels, Kompas, was thinking of starting a travel column on its website. The editor contacted me, asking whether I was willing to have a column containing my traveling stories. So I shared the stories of Central Asian countries, Afghanistan, Tibet, India, and Pakistan on that site. Beyond our expectations, the column became extremely popular, and brought new inspiration to young readers on how to travel around the world in a deeper way. Soon after the launch of the column, many publishers contacted me, asking whether I was willing to publish my stories in book format. And thus how I got connected with the publishing world and became a book writer.
What would you tell other young writers hoping to break into the Indonesian publishing landscape?
These days, online visibility is very important. Editors are more keen to publish books from someone they are already sure to have potential readers. So you can write on your blog, or some other writing platform to improve your visibility. Plus, read more. Look for the right publishers, there are so many possibilities now - from indie publishers to major publishing companies. Join writing competitions. Don't be afraid of rejection. Listen to suggestions from the editors. Keep writing. And don't take publishing your work as your final goal, but enjoy the whole spiritual journey to discover the other sides of yourself that you have never known before.
Agustinus Wibowo has been chosen as one of 12 authors to take part in the Indonesia Market Focus programme at the London Book Fair 2019, and is on a panel entitled "The Many Identities of Indonesia" at the Cross Cultural Hub, 1pm on 12 March. Click here for additional events and more information on the 12 authors and the cultural programme in conjunction with the British Council.