One of Indonesia’s most popular writers is about to find out if a book about a remote Indonesian island can be a hit in America.
“The Rainbow Troops,” by Indonesian writer Andrea Hirata, is an autobiographical novel that describes the hardships endured by a group of impoverished children on the remote Belitung island, off the southern tip of Sumatra, which is also known as Belitong or Billiton. More importantly, it tells how they managed to lift themselves up out of their tough upbringings in pursuit of their dreams, in no small part due to two inspiring teachers who remained dedicated despite paltry wages and lack of state funds to maintain the children’s collapsing school.
The book sold more than a million copies in Indonesia within seven years after its publication in late 2005, or roughly about 140,000 copies annually. To put that into perspective, a novel that sells 3,000 copies a year is considered a big hit in Indonesia, says Bentang Pustaka, publisher of the Bahasa Indonesian version of the book.
The book was also made into a popular movie, which set records for ticket sales, and the novel has taken off in other parts of the world after being translated into 19 languages, including German, Portuguese, and Spanish. It’s currently being translated into Swahili, Hindi, Icelandic, and French. Overall, non-pirated versions of Mr. Hirata’s works – including a handful of other books – have sold more than five million copies world-wide.
The big question is whether the book will take off in America – one of the biggest markets anywhere for writers —when an English version of The Rainbow Troops goes on sale in the U.S. (along with Australia and New Zealand) this coming January.
“Indonesian writers are so far behind in terms of global exposure compared with the Philippines and Japanese writers,” said Mr. Hirata. He said he’s eagerly anticipating the opportunity to prove the worth of Indonesian writing in such a big consumer market.
“Just like Frank Sinatra’s song ‘New York-New York,’ – if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere,” he said. The launch of an American edition marks only the latest breakthrough for a man who calls himself an “accidental” writer.
Mr. Hirata wasn’t a big reader of novels and had no plans to be a writer in his earlier years. But he was inspired to try his hand at a book after volunteering for relief work following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which wrecked lives across a large part of far western Indonesia in Aceh.
“I saw, among others, many children who lost their teachers,” recalls Mr. Hirata, who is from Belitung. “That’s when I remembered an old promise to my teacher that I’d write a book, as a book was very precious to us back then.”
Mr. Hirata, who was working at the time at a national telecommunications firm, said he didn’t know what to write at first. “I began writing my childhood experience, and it suddenly became 600 pages in three weeks,” he said.
Later, a friend who came to his home to borrow a laptop saw a copy of the story and sent it to a publisher. It was a big success upon publication, and still is picking up fans.
It even inspired Belitung’s port operator last year to change the name of its seaport into Laskar Pelangi, the book’s title in Indonesia. The book and movie – which came out in 2008 and included 10 children from the island itself – have helped lure more tourists to area, with some 50,500 visiting in 2010, compared with about 18,300 in 2006, according to government data.
Among other storylines, the book describes how a bare-footed mathematics genius named Lintang—whose daily commute covers 80 kilometers, including a dangerous crossing of a crocodile pond – wins an academic competition against a school filled with richer kids. It also tells of another child, Ikal, who wins a scholarship to university despite growing up in a region where just graduating from elementary school is considered a major feat.
Mr. Hirata, who thanks to a European Union scholarship now holds a master’s degree in economics from the United Kingdom’s Sheffield Hallam University, also received a grant from the U.S. embassy to attend the prestigious International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2010.
It was there, after having seven novels published, that he felt the urge to quit his job and became a full-time writer. His decision was made easy when upon returning to Indonesia last year, he got word from his agent that New York-based publisher Farrar, Straus, & Giroux was interested in publishing The Rainbow Troops.
“The FSG (deal) was such a game changer,” Mr. Hirata said. After signing a formal deal early this year, “my agent got offers from publishers across the globe every other week,” he said. “I changed the course of my life, from the rigidity of mathematics and the corporate rhythm to a more bohemian world.”
If the book takes off in the U.S., his life will likely change even more.