Up Close: Clarissa Goenawan

The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida

By Charles Salzberg

Full disclosure: This is my second encounter with Clarissa Goenawan for The Big Thrill. When I accepted the assignment to write about Goenawan and her debut, Rainbirds, I had no idea what I was getting into. I knew little about her writing and even less about who she was.

Fortunately, and this isn’t always the case, I was impressed from the first page of her novel. Here was a young author who knew how to write and how to tell a story—which doesn’t always go hand in hand, especially when it comes to a first novel. The story is set in motion with the murder of a young woman whose younger brother then comes to town to find out who murdered her and why. I bring this up because her second book, THE PERFECT WORLD OF MIWAKO SUMIDA, while not a sequel, inhabits the same world and is the second installment of a series of three novels.

As with Rainbirds, THE PERFECT WORLD OF MIWAKO SUMIDA begins with a tragic death—in this case it’s Miwako Sumida, a young college student who has hanged herself while hiding away in a remote mountainside village. The novel revolves around her friend Ryusei, a fellow student who falls in love with the mysterious Miwako, trying to make some kind of sense of her suicide.

Since I already knew a lot about Goenawan from interviewing her a couple years ago, I’ll lay out the facts about this wonderful writer and then concentrate on her latest novel.

Clarissa was born and raised in Surabaya, the second largest city in Indonesia. When she was 16, she migrated to Singapore, where she currently lives. Though trained in visual communications and marketing, she always wanted to be a writer since she was a child.

“Becoming a writer is my childhood dream,” she says.

And so, she studied novel writing with Curtis Brown Creative, a London-based school run by the literary agency. Rainbirds was started in response to the NaNoWriMo challenge, to write a novel (or at least start one) in a month’s time.

Clarissa Goenawan

Where did the idea for THE PERFECT WORLD OF MIWAKO SUMIDA come from?

I’m fascinated with the idea that often, we think we know a person well, but actually, we don’t. I’m intrigued with the question: how far would you go to uncover the truth?

What’s the connection between Rainbirds and this novel?

Rainbirds and THE PERFECT WORLD OF MIWAKO SUMIDA are part of a series of interrelated novels. You’ll see characters in one book make appearances in the others.

Are the characters based on anyone in particular?

Most of them came from my imagination, but a few were loosely based on people I know in real life. All the characters’ personal stories are, of course, fictional.

Why did you decide to tell the story in the first person and the third person?

Interesting question! The first person POV is the most natural for me, hence the first draft of THE PERFECT WORLD OF MIWAKO SUMIDA was indeed written in multiple first person POVs. In the subsequent edits, I rewrote the entire manuscript in the third person. I played around with various combinations before finally settling down with the current format.

Goenawan is interviewed for Indonesia’s MNC Trijaya 104.6 FM Jakarta in late 2019.

Why set the story in Japan?

The main reason was probably that I love Japanese novels, especially literary and crime fiction. I’m also a huge fan of manga (Japanese comics). It’s my guilty pleasure. I read way more manga than I’m willing to admit. Setting the novel in Japan also means I have access to four seasons and a wide range of natural backdrops, such as mountains, rivers, lakes, etc.

What did you learn from writing Rainbirds?

I learned so many things! Every single chapter, every paragraph, every sentence, even every word… each of them is an opportunity to grow. Characterization, plotting, tension, pacing, the list is endless. But it’s not just limited to the craft aspect of writing. I also got better at interacting and working with others.

This isn’t your typical Big Thrill/Suspense/Crime/Thriller book. Why do you think it belongs in this category?

My writings are generally skewed towards literary mystery. That being said, I love to experiment and constantly try new things. I realize my novels have different elements from various genres and do not fit into one particular category. My lovely agent once described my novels as having “a crossover appeal,” and I’m crossing my fingers that they will resonate with a wide audience.

Goenawan sits for a radio interview in Surabaya, Indonesia, in November 2018.

I think this novel is a love story, not only romantic love but also sibling love. Can you talk about this?

I do agree with you that love is one of the central themes in THE PERFECT WORLD OF MIWAKO SUMIDA, even though this is not a romance novel. Labeling can be very tricky, but also important so booksellers know where to place the book, giving it the best chance to reach its intended audience. I prefer to leave this task to my publishers, who are more familiar with their respective markets. Someone once told me it doesn’t matter which shelf they put your book on, as long as it’s not getting moldy inside the storage room.

Have you been to the locations you write about in the novel?

I’ve traveled to Japan. Not a research trip, though. It’s more of taking a break from work. The last Tokyo trip I took last year in April was to celebrate my birthday. Kitsuyama, the village on the mountain area, is a fictional place.

Without giving much away, this book obviously has elements of mysticism and supernaturalism. Can you talk a little about that?

I’m intrigued by the concept of dreams and supernatural encounter and how we perceive them. I love how they often blend into real life, and this fascination probably explains why they frequently come up in my writing.

Goenawan with Mbak Lulu, the translator behind the Indonesian edition of her 2018 debut novel Rainbirds, and Mbak Didiet, Goenawan’s editor at Indonesian publishing house Gramedia Pustaka Utama.

One of your characters is “trans.” Why did you make this choice and what would you like it to say about sexuality in general?

To be honest, I never give it too much thought. Trans people are people, and their identities are a part of being human. There shouldn’t be any need to explain their existence.

Tell us something that we won’t find out just by reading the book jacket.

My novels feature a collection of my favorite things: classic books, delicious Japanese comfort food, desserts and chocolates, beautiful cars from the nineties, jazz songs and classical music, rainy days, and amidst them small, everyday moments that dazzle me. In a way, I’m turning them into words with the hope of capturing these precious memories forever.

Which authors inspire you?

I admire J. M. Coetzee and Deborah Levy for their clean prose, Haruki Murakami for his magical story, Yasunari Kawabat and Banana Yoshimoto for their beautiful and atmospheric writing, Yoko Ogawa for her versatility, and Stephen King for his discipline and dedication to the writing life.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently working on a literary suspense. Just like Rainbirds and THE PERFECT WORLD OF MIWAKO SUMIDA, it’s set in Japan.  

 

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