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A Literary Interview with Laksmi Pamuntjak, Celebrated Indonesian Novelist

NOW! PEOPLE | 7 January 2021

Laksmi Pamuntjak

Laksmi Pamuntjak (1971 - ) is a bilingual Indonesian novelist, poet, journalist, essayist, and food critic. She writes opinion and features articles for numerous Indonesian publications as Tempo and the Jakarta Post, as well as international publications such as South China Morning Post, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and Die Welt. Laksmi’s first bestselling novel, Amba/The Question of Red, won Germany’s LiBeraturpreis 2016 and was named #1 on Germany’s Weltempfaenger list of the best works of fiction from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Arab World translated into German.The novel has been translated into several languages.

Laksmi recently met with Alistair Speirs Now! Jakarta’s publisher at Amuz Gourmet Restaurant for lunch and a far-ranging chat about her extraordinary career.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on another book, hopefully out in a few months. It’s a compilation of short stories on women in relationships entitled Kitab Kawin (The Book of Marriage). This will not be a light read, as some of the stories focus on difficult, unhappy themes such as domestic violence, polygamy, child marriages, rape, adultery. But this is the reality for many women around the country, and these stories need to be told.

I’ve been working on these stories for more than two years now, and I feel very blessed to still feel so strongly about the things I want to write about. One of the debts I still owe myself, for instance, is to write about blasphemy, which my PhD thesis at Oxford—which I deferred to 2020, and now because of the pandemic, and other complicating circumstances, I have decided to forfeit, even if it breaks my heart-- would have been on. But I will write about it in another form one day. I guess my point is, the worst thing for a writer is to feel she’s running out of things to say, or losing the will and energy to say it.

I think one of the blessings of lockdown is how it makes us think about time, how to use it, how to remember it. How it makes us think about how we have lived and how we are going to live. Whether we choose to hang on to our old prejudices, stale ideas and polluted rivers and oceans or to keep the positive lessons of our isolation---our heightened gratitude, our greater mental and physical discipline and our renewed sense of purpose. Whether to wallow in our miseries or to enlarge our solicitude toward others and advance causes that are bigger than us.

I certainly feel I have learned to listen better, and it often means to take time, to not rush all the time, to learn to rest in our solitude. In fact, this may be the greatest lesson I’ve drawn from 2020: taking my time. Previously there was no time for time. I was constantly in a rush, hurtling from one goal to the next, one place to the next, one achievement to the next. I did not even have time—or give myself time--to enjoy the fruits of my labour and think about what they mean for my personal growth or the common good.

What’s left for you to achieve?

Looking back on my life, I think I have actually achieved most of what I set out to achieve, including having some of my wildest dreams come true. I have published most of the books I wanted to write, written on the subjects I wanted to tackle (art, history, politics, music, food), and for the most part in the way I wanted.

My first novel in English (my third novel overall) was published by Penguin Random House SEA, which felt like a huge honour, an endorsement of quality. I got accepted for a PhD at Oxford at the age of 47, and have even delivered a keynote speech there in 2017 on a topic closest to my heart: living with difference. I have read poetry with fellow poets all around the world and in 2012 shared the stage at the Poetry Parnassus in London with some of my favorite poets, Kay Ryan, the late Seamus Heaney, Jo Shapcott, Wole Soyinka. Even as a pianist, in a previous lifetime, I have played as a soloist with an orchestra (1993, Ravel Piano Concerto in G, with the Nusantara Symphony Orchestra), which was among one of my ultimate life goals. I have lived in many cities around the world that each gives me a piece of home and lasting inspiration. I have wonderful friends all around the world, who have given me comfort, inspiration and love. Both my parents are still alive.

But nothing surpasses the joy of knowing that my daughter, Nadia, my one and only, who lives in Boston and will be 24 in February, is now happily living the life she has always wanted. She graduated two years ago from a university of her dream, has a job she loves and thrives in, is married to the love of her life, lives in a city and in a part of the world in which she feels she belongs, and has a new family who loves and cares for her deeply. There is no greater gift, no greater achievement than the feeling that we, as a mother, have helped our children forge their own paths in life and made them happy and strong and confident. If this were to be my last achievement in life, then I’d die happy, because it is without a doubt my greatest accomplishment.

Laksmi Pamuntjak

Do you despair when you see kids (and adults) only reading phones and laptops?

Yes, I do, deeply.

I lament the dearth of literary and intellectual curiosity (found in reading proper books, serious literature, long, in depth essays and articles), and the appreciation for serious thinking, for in-depth investigation, for research, for things that take time.

I lament the diminishing ability to bask in sensory experience: of watching a live concert or a dance performance, being in an art museum and looking at paintings, dining at a restaurant and thinking and relishing the real, actual experience before turning it into an instant IG experience.

I lament the death of language, of the joy of discovering poetry, beautiful prose, thoughtful analysis, in-depth reporting, that isn’t a reduced, 150 character version of it.

I lament the death of real communication, of being able to talk to the person in front of you, at the dining table, without reaching for your phone and losing yourself in it.

Do you think books still have life left in them?

I was raised by book people—my late paternal grandfather was one of the directors of Balai Pustaka, and later co-founded the publishing house Djambatan in 1954, I grew up in a house full of books by book-loving parents who taught me to read at a very young age, part of my childhood was spent in a bookstore (that Djambatan owned). I was raised to love and appreciate and READ books. In different junctures of my life I have been a publisher, bookseller, editor and author--I know every step a book goes through from the germ of an idea to a printed thing of beauty. And I believe that books still, and will always have life in them because there are still many people out there who think like myself and make sure that physical books continue to be produced.

The digital era has changed the way the way people read and consume books, for sure, and publishers have had to adapt to this new reality. The pandemic has magnified this predicament a thousandfold: demand for print books has plummeted, select publication dates are pushed back or moved forward, there are no more book fairs and literary festivals to attend, authors cannot tour with their new books in a new environment like social media (which not everybody is suited to).

I don’t have to look further than my own experience in April: the publication of my latest novel, the Indonesian version of Fall Baby (which I translated myself from English into Indonesian) had to be delayed, and I was ready for the novel to be published first in e-Book format. I understood the need to adapt, and I was already so grateful that my Indonesian publisher was still committed to publish the book despite the heavy toll the lockdown on their finances and their ability to publish on schedule. But as I was bracing myself for the e-Book publication, they said they were getting back on track and ready to publish the print versions. To me this was a testimony to how important print books still are to the publishing industry. So I am hopeful about the future of books.

What has been your favorite book so far? And your favorite article or story? Why?

Being asked what your favorite books are is like being asked the story of your life. There are books that inspired you when you were young, books you feel compelled to revisit at different stages of your life, and books you just picked up and enjoyed so much you want everybody to read them now. There are those so-called timeless books, which bring joy, solace and sustenance at any given time, and there are books that speak more forcefully to the times we are living in. And those times, right now—need we be reminded—are like no other.

The most important novels of my life are The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Overstory by Richard Powers, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, Being Dead by Jim Crace, The Loser by Thomas Bernhard, The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan, Notes of a Scandal by Zoe Heller, The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, The End of Alice by A.M. Homes and Secret History by Donna Tartt.

My favorite books of short stories of all time: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Otessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Her Neck and all of Lorrie Moore’s and Lydia Davis’ short story collections.

This is a very diverse list, I know, but each teaches us something about the human condition, and each has its own magic—its own wit, intelligence and compassion. I like stories that are psychologically acute and sympathetic to man’s ambiguities and imperfections without necessarily sentimentalizing them. I like stories that are spare in their eloquence. I like stories that are wise without trying to be wise. I like stories that make us understand that bit more about the world and ourselves. After all, as Susan Sontag, one of my favorite essayists, wrote, “To write is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading.” Good books, good writing makes you want to write. And write better each time.

How do you find your inspiration?

I never plan this part as different stories or pieces or novels come to me in different ways. Some of my most sparkling ideas—a line, a lead, a paragraph, a way to resolve a problem in my story, the idea for a new book---came when I was taking a shower or in the bathtub. Many came to me during long walks, usually when I was traveling, and almost all the time in a museum or an art gallery, in front of a painting, and in a concert hall, listening to a classical music performance. With poetry it’s harder and more unpredictable; you don’t say to yourself OK, now I want to write a poem, and the poem just comes. You can’t will a poem into being. But that’s the magic of poetry: sometimes, a strain of familiar music, a burst of color in the leaves of trees, a stray memory leads you to a poem.

In general, traveling almost always makes me feel freer, more open and more liberated.

How do you write? Do you have a secluded private spot to go to? Or can you write anywhere … in a plane … in Starbucks?

I can write almost anywhere, depending on what I am writing (a novel, an essay, an article) and the deadline. Sometimes I need to be at my writing spot (in my study, at home, wherever home is at any given time) and I’m famous for not going out or socializing for days, weeks on end when I’m really in the thick of writing. But sometimes I need white noise, and this is where traveling comes in handy. When you step out of your place and go into a café or a restaurant to work, say, you don’t meet people you know.

Also, what I almost always need is uninterrupted time in a day. I am not very good at squeezing other activities into my day when I am writing, because I have to be in a particular headspace in order to focus. That’s probably why authors like to go into writing residencies (I do too).

The only place I cannot write in is a place without a window. I find writing facing a wall is tough, however nice the wall is. I’m pretty claustrophobic too, and need a lot of light.