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Mind the Supernova: Dee Lestari trailblazes at The London Book Fair

Confidence in sci-fi writing is rooted in facts, says Dee Lestari. The Indonesian author regaled the audience at the English PEN Literary Salon with an anecdote of her journey from pop stardom to literary acclaims. Publisher rejections knocked the confidence of the young Dee Lestari, but that didn’t deter the author from pursuing her literary dreams.

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Dee Lestari, the sci-fi author who successfully crossed over from pop stardom to literature. Image source: The British Council

When it comes to fantasy, Indonesia beats its ASEAN neighbours in terms of storytelling. A healthy acknowledgement in cultural diversity and lack of self-censorship put Indonesian fantasy at the high end of the region’s literary scale.

At the age of 25, Dee Lestari wrote a science fiction for her first novel – a move beyond the comfortable zone of fantasy. In 1998, it was an unconventional first choice for a Southeast Asian female author. Given that Indonesia is now catching up with Japan in terms of comics and animation, is sci-fi and fantasy nearing its zenith in Indonesia?

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Dee Lestari interviewed by Matthew Janney at the English PEN Literary Salon at The London Book Fair 2019. Image: © Zarina Holmes / Story Of Books

Sci-fi is tougher than fantasy

Lestari told Story Of Books that sci-fi is still not as big in Indonesian literature although her breakout novel, Supernova, is within that genre. Fantasy, however, is strong because the country has plenty of myths and folklore to choose from.

“Sci-fi is tough,” said Lestari who have authored six Supernova novels. Sci-fi is based on facts that are rooted in science and technology. There are topics in sci-fi that Lestari wouldn’t broach because of the lack of knowledge in a particular science. For Supernova, her angle was on the science of human consciousness. It was around this that she developed the existentialist theme for the series.

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The Ramayana given a modern interpretation via this manga series by Is Yuniarto. Fantasy is strong in Indonesia because the country has plenty of myths and folklore to choose from. Image: © Zarina Holmes / Story Of Books

Lestari’s explanation makes sense because authors do need to base their sci-fi on real science, or at least widely accepted scientific theories, to make their stories believable. At the MCM Comic Con last November, Tommy Yune, Creative Director, Robotech, told Story Of Books that the animators of the series studied engineering and industrial design. This explains why Japanese writers and illustrators are good at storyboarding and animating sci-fi.

Given Indonesia’s rich flora and fauna, and the country’s achievement in animation, perhaps the next big sci-fi will be on the environment – like Godzilla? Just an idea.

Modesty makes a star

Films based on Lestari’s fictions. Image source: Dewi Lestari / IMDb

Dee Lestari began writing at the age of nine. But it wasn’t until she was 25 and famous as a singer that she decided to publish her own novel.

Supernova was first published under her sister’s name as a pseudonym. Initially, Lestari hesitated to use her own name. She felt less confident because of the rejections she got from magazines when she was a budding writer at university. “I submitted my short stories to magazines, they got rejected and I doubted myself,”she said.

After she graduated with a degree in international relations, Lestari became a singer. She felt writing wasn’t as easy. Music was easier because her father is a musician and so is her sister. But the success of Supernova convinced Lestari to pick up where she left off in terms of writing. She was glad to have discovered like-minded people who were also into the genre.

Twenty years later, Lestari was at The London Book Fair to promote her novels. She was very self-effacing at the English PEN Literary Salon today. It’s the kind of modesty you see a lot lately in pop stars east of the Asian region. The “look-at-me” theatrics don’t suit the local sensibilities anymore. If you don’t follow Southeast Asian pop culture, you wouldn’t have known that Lestari had four pop albums with a girl band, a solo album, and seven films adapted from her novels, short stories and a musical:

The Filosofi Kopi (The Coffee Philosophy) films were based on her short story. These later became the inspiration for a coffee chain in Indonesia.

Not bad for a lady whose short stories – a long time ago – were mistakenly deemed not good enough for the local magazines.

About Dee Lestari

Indonesia at The London Book Fair

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Editor, Story Of Books. Co-founder, GLUE Studio. A writer since 1995.

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