Penning a novel is a weary process: often, it takes years from putting your thoughts on paper, reviewing and editing to finding a publisher and eventually holding the finished product in your hands. In that precious moment, the authors know that their hard work finally paid off. Indonesian-born Singaporean writer Clarissa Goenawan felt the same way.

It took five years to finish her second novel, The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida, and she was excitedly awaiting its official publication on 10 March 10. Little did she know that by then and in the days after, a global pandemic would make it impossible to follow through on launch events and readings.

Clarissa Goenawan

“Most of my book events have been cancelled or postponed [due to the coronavirus],” Clarissa said. “Shipments are delayed and there is a significant drop in retail sales. This is a very challenging time, especially for those of us whose books are coming out during this period. Book launches are precious because they allow us writers to connect with our readers in person. They’re also a significant celebration, after working on our project for years.”

While she knows and understands fully that safety must come first, Clarissa was heartened to see the outpouring of support from the reading community. 

“Many book reviewers and fellow writers step up to help get the word out,” she added. “This is a tough period, but I’m confident that together, we’ll overcome it.”

“The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida” is interrelated to Clarissa’s debut novel “Rainbirds”, which was published in 2018 to critical acclaim. The readers of “Rainbirds” will come across familiar characters in Clarissa’s second book, which unravels deep secrets about Miwako Sumida, a university sophomore who commits suicide. The book explores the events that led her to take such drastic measures, and the aftermath for the people she leaves behind. 

Clarissa creates a world against the backdrop of a contemporary Japan that is haunting and almost poetic at the same time and deftly spins an intriguing tale, which includes elements of mystery and crime and keeps the reader enthralled to the very last paragraph. Her writing style and storytelling skills have been compared to those of celebrated Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami.

“[I am] extremely flattered, of course, but also feeling an incredible amount of pressure,” Clarissa acknowledged. “Haruki Murakami is one of the biggest contemporary authors right now. I do think that there are similarities in terms of genre and setting, so readers who love Murakami’s works will probably enjoy ‘Rainbirds’ and ‘The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida’, too. That being said, if someone is expecting another Murakami book, they might end up being disappointed.”

Clarissa’s fondness for Japan runs deep. She first fell in love with Japanese novels as well as Japanese comics, manga, which she calls her “guilty pleasure”.

“I read way more manga than I’m willing to admit,” she said. “I’ve also studied the Japanese language and culture—on and off—since high school out of personal interest. Over the years, I’ve dabbled in several traditional arts, including the tea ceremony, kimono dressing, and Japanese dance. I always admired how much thought is put into every single gesture.”

When an author finds acclaim with their debut novel, it often seems like an impossible task to create an equally successful follow up. Clarissa, however, didn’t change much in terms of her writing process: she worked on the first draft for a couple of months and a few years editing it. 

“I wouldn’t say the second novel was harder—or easier—than the first one. Each of them has different challenges”, she explained. “With the first novel, I was still exploring and discovering. The learning curve was steep. With the second novel, there was a benchmark to exceed. I knew I wanted to grow as a writer.”

And even though The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida was published only a couple of weeks ago, Clarissa already started working on her third book: a literary suspense that will again interrelate to her first two novels. 

Due to the coronavirus, more and more people will stay at home in the coming weeks and perhaps even months —so Clarissa recommended a few books that rank among her favourites: “Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window” by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, translated by Dorothy Britton; “Kitchen” by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Megan Backus; “The Professor and The Housekeeper” by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder; “Convenience Store Woman” by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori; and “Strange Weather in Tokyo” by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Allison Markin Powell.

“I picked these five books because all of them are heart-warming and gentle, which made me feel that they could be a suitable read during this challenging period,” Clarissa said. “Coincidentally, all of them are works of female authors. I also included the names of the books’ translators to acknowledge their crucial part in bringing these books to a wider audience.”

And while they are at it, readers should not forget to add Clarissa’s books to their list as well.

Katrin Figge

Katrin Figge

Katrin Figge is a previous editor of NOW! Jakarta. An experienced writer and avid bookworm.