From Indonesia to Germany: The Story of Nuril Basri
Author Nuril Basri comes from a very small village in Tangerang, Banten, where his father had a job as a janitor and his mother worked in the rice fields.
His childhood was simple and modest — there wasn’t much time or money for reading books.
“One day, when I was 4 or 5 years old, my dad came home with a graphic novel, and apparently I asked my mom to read that story to me every day,” Nuril recalls. “She told me that even though it was always the same story, I never got bored listening to her.”
While reading material was scarce, Nuril was always a good listener and had a rich imagination. But it was only in university — he studied English at the Islamic State University in Jakarta — that he discovered a passion for writing.
“In my family, we didn’t even know the definition of a real writer and always wondered, what is it that they actually do all day long?” Nuril says with a laugh. “Even today, my parents seem to be confused about the fact that I became a writer, but even though they may not fully understand, they always give me their full support.”
Despite his newfound love of writing, Nuril never thought of it as something he’d do as a fulltime job someday.
During his studies, he worked many different jobs to be able to financially support himself, from a mini-market cashier, language tutor and a waiter on a seven-month cruise to an administrator at an internet café.
“For me, writing was a tool to escape from my life and at the same time imagine the life that I wanted to lead,” Nuril explains. “I found my day jobs quite exhausting and tiring, and the only thing that made me happy was to go home and write at the end of the day.”
Nuril, who describes his earliest works as “comedies for teenagers”, began to write “more seriously” in 2009 when his first bildungsroman Halo, Aku Dalam Novel (Hello, I’m in a Novel) was published by Gagas Media and has since written quite a few tragicomedies, combining his humorous and serious side.
In October 2017, the Lontar Foundation published his coming-of-age novel Not a Virgin, which revolves around four Indonesian high-school students who are on a quest to discover what the future holds for them and aim to find answers about their sexuality. Not a Virgin features drag queens, fanatic Muslims and transvestites, and moves between an Islamic boarding school and a gay bar in Jakarta.
The novel earned praise by Indonesian bestselling author Dewi “Dee” Lestari who said: “Nuril Basri tells his story in a way that is at once light, straight-forward and humorous. In this novel, he has created something that is both beautiful and moving, a tale that makes us willingly contemplate serious issues.”
Not a Virgin was partly inspired by people Nuril met during the time he worked at the internet café.
“There was a beauty parlor in the next building, which was often frequented by transvestites and transgender people,” Nuril recalls. “During my breaks, I’d often hang out with them, and they told me many stories. I began to write the novel after I quit my job at the internet café.”
He adds he doesn’t have an agenda, nor does he see himself as an activist for certain issues.
“I don’t write about a certain topic because I think it’s a very important message that I want to convey,” he says.
“When I start writing, I do it because I personally felt affected by something, an issue that has drawn my attention. If it speaks to my readers and they can relate to it, I’m obviously very grateful, but during the writing process, it’s completely for my own pleasure.”
Nuril says he likes to write about topics like friendship, families, loneliness and underdogs, “people who usually don’t become the main characters in a novel”. But his approach to the story and the writing process varies.
“One of my other books, which is called Sunyi [Silence] and was published in Malaysia last year, is an accumulation of my dreams,” he says. “For a whole year, I had the strangest dreams. I began to make notes and sketches every morning, right after waking up. Even though the dreams were very different, I decided to connect them in a plot.”
Currently, Nuril is in Germany on a research grant called Crossing Borders, initiated by the Robert Bosch Foundation and Literarisches Colloquium Berlin to fund international research visits by authors, filmmakers and photographers.
The program’s aim is to support the development of creative projects, which break existing stereotypes and open up a broad perspective on the diversity and multifaceted character of Germany to a larger public.
His research for his new novel, which is a sequel to Not a Virgin, took him to Berlin, Cologne, Bonn and Frankfurt.
“To be honest, I expected Germans to be a little bit ‘cold’ and with little or no sense of humor — that’s the stereotype,” he says, but quickly adds that he was pleasantly surprised once he arrived. “The people here, especially in Berlin, which is a melting pot and home to so many creative people, are extremely nice and welcoming, and very appreciative of what I do.”
Nuril is also taking part in this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest and arguably most important fair in the publishing industry. During the fair, which runs from Wednesday to Sunday, he will join a panel discussion with other writers from Southeast Asia — a perfect opportunity to gain more international exposure, even though his works have already been translated into English and Malay.
If there is any drop of bitterness to Nuril’s story of success, it is the difficulty to find suitable publishers in Indonesia.
“Four of my books haven’t been published in Indonesia yet,” he says. “Maybe they simply have a different taste. I sent Not a Virgin to so many publishers but was always rejected. I used to think that my writing may not be good enough, but now I think the topic was deemed too controversial.
“In any case, it doesn’t matter,” he adds, a smile on his face. “I will continue writing because I really like it.”
This article was first published in the Jakarta Post on October 11, 2018.