Alfred Birney is a descendant of an illustrious planter family in the formal Dutch East Indies. His father was from Surabaya and had Dutch, East Javanese, Chinese and Scottish roots, hence the Anglo-Saxon surname. His mother was Dutch.
Frequently recurring themes in his literary work are alienation from family, constant solving related riddles and the inability to identify with motherland or homeland. He has published novels, novellas, short stories, columns, essays, critiques, plays, journalistic work and didactic material about guitar music.
The style in his novels, novellas and short stories is associative, lively, narrative, dreamy and subtle, but in his columns, essays and critiques the writer is harsh, hilarious, sarcastic, ironic, sardonic and humorous – all of these styles and voices come together in his bestselling novel The interpreter of Java.