Laksmi Pamuntjak: literary force of Indonesia talks of female ambiguity and “Asian literature” in the West

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When Laksmi Pamuntjak published her first volume of poems, Ellipsis, Herald UK selected it as one of the best books of 2005. She has written for Indonesian weekly Tempo, The Jakarta Post and The Guardian, among many journals.

Then, in 2016 her best-selling first novel Amba, won the LiBeraturpreis – the only German literary prize for authors from Africa, Asia, and Latin America – at the Frankfurt Book Fair.  Based on the Hindu epic Mahabharata, the novel tells the story of the young girl Amba fighting to determine her own fate during the political turbulence of the 1965 mass killings and the Buru penal colony in Indonesia.  It was published in 2012 and has been translated into English, German and Dutch.

On top of living a literary girl’s dream, Laksmi Pamuntjak created the award-winning series The Jakarta Good Food Guide – the first guide to food and restaurants in Jakarta, published in five volumes between 2001 and 2009. She also co-founded the bilingual Aksara Bookstore in Jakarta.

Q. Growing up in Indonesia, how did you experience the role of women?

Living in Indonesia, which, for all its open embrace of diversity, is largely still about negotiating how to guard and protect our independence and our right to be the subject of our own lives and how to adapt, within reason, to the expectations of a patriarchal society.

I grew up around strong women as my role models.

My grandmother was born in West Sumatra in 1900, and her parents sent her to Jakarta by herself at seventeen to live with a distant relative to learn other ways of life.  Even though West Sumatra is a largely matrilineal society, the sort of traveling experience she had was unheard of.  But then she married and raised six children, of whom my father was the youngest.  Though raised as an independent person and thinker, in the end, she bowed to patriarchal norms and become a homemaker.

My own mother is a tough and exceptional woman, too.  She studied in Holland and England, and speaks several languages.  She met my father, twelve years her senior, in Europe.  However, in her last semester of a pharmacy degree, my father, afraid to lose her, gave her an ultimatum: marry me, now or never.  My mother gave up her studies, went home and married my father.  For all her free spirit and fierce intelligence, something deep inside her has internalized family values above and beyond her own desires.

Jakarta Good Food Guide 2008-2009 (Photo: Laksmi Pamuntjak official website)

The other role model I grew up with was my aunt Roswitha, the elder sister of my father.  She took over the family publishing business when her father died, and she knew the only way to succeed in business was to be married to her work.  So she didn’t get married until she was 60 years old – to a widower ten years older.  They had only been married for a year before he died. She was so bereft that she died not long after.

So I grew up with this constant paradox – strong, independent women who were allowed to pursue higher education and to an extent their own ambitions only to have their freedom curtailed or truncated before they reached their full potential.  To an extent, I, too, experienced a similar double standard.  When I came home from my studies, suddenly there were so many prohibitions: I felt assailed by rising social and religious conservatism from my parents, all to conform to ‘societal values.’

One has to always be creative and resourceful in carving out one’s own individuality – it’s an ongoing process.

Q. Let’s tackle your novel Amba.  The framework is based on the Mahabharata epic, but it deals with the issue of breaking through the female stereotype.  Amba refuses to be desirable through her beauty and insists on raising intellectual awareness.

Well, if you were born beautiful, you can’t help it.  Being beautiful and smart is both a bane and blessing: a woman is lying if she says it hasn’t made certain things easier for them.  And yet beauty is almost invariably a curse because there is still in society a deep-seated mistrust of beauty.  One finds it difficult to see past beauty.  Women have to expend more energy and effort to prove their worth. And this is pretty universal, I think.

The Amba and Bhisma story is quite significant in the Indonesian version of the Mahabharata, but it isn’t well-known.  To me, there is something so very sad about the idea of a fallen woman, and in this case, Amba is the definitive fallen woman, at whom society’s cruel and punitive gaze is directed.

I guess I am always drawn to the interior of such difficult, unfortunate, marginalized or cast-off characters.  I wanted to rewrite the Amba story by turning her into a spunky woman, someone who dares write her own story, subvert her own naming by living life by her own lights.

Laksmi Pamuntjak’s bestselling novel, Amba (Photo: Laksmi Pamuntjak official website)

Q. In your essay, On Reading Woman, you pointed out that classical mythology holds “powerful lessons about the ambiguity of Woman”. And in your novel, Amba’s daughter Srikandi has two faces – of a girl and a boy.  Could you explain this metaphor?

Srikandi, the warrior into whom Amba is said to have been reincarnated, has always been a symbol of a strong woman.  In India, the Mahabharata often cast her as Sikhandin, a male warrior, whereas in Indonesia, or in Java and Bali to be precise, she is normally seen as the courageous and competent woman warrior who is also one of the wives of the noble Prince Arjuna.  It is this idea of Srikandi’s contested sexuality that gave me the idea of the Srikandi in my novel as having both the qualities of a man and a woman.  It inspired me to rewrite my life through the act of rewriting the epic itself.  After all, that’s what mythology does.  It begs to be rewritten.

Q. Being an Asian writer, let alone a female one, may affect people’s perception of your work.  What does it mean for you to be an Asian, and Indonesian, woman writer publishing in the West?

The fact that I am a woman doesn’t directly impact how I perceive the more structural problems of being an Asian or an Indonesian writer publishing in the West.  In fact, I think there are many advantages of being a woman because we simply have a wealth of stories to tell!

So many experiences to draw from, so many sources of joy and pain to share with the world.  In Indonesia, despite the gender inequality, women are very present in society.  In almost every political cause, especially that which pertains to human rights, women are often actively engaged, be it at the forefront, or behind the scenes.

My biggest problem with being categorized as “Asian” writer, an “Indonesian” writer, or an “Indonesian woman” writer is the inadequacy and narrowness of the categorizations themselves. They are so flawed not just as concepts but in the way they are positioned vis-à-vis the Anglo-American mainstream (the “West”) and the way they are framed and defined and presented in the West.

They show that our literature, whatever it is – Asian, Southeast Asian, Indonesian, this literature we are somehow lumped together into – is simply not yet part of the Anglo-American mainstream, and because of that we are just not quite up to speed, we are not on par, we are somehow lacking or found wanting.  And of course, it’s absurd to speak of “Asian Literature” as though there is anything that ties Malaysian literature and Korean literature, Burmese literature and Filipino literature, Indian literature and Japanese literature, Indonesian literature and Laotian literature.  Even when we speak of Indonesian literature, we are not speaking of one Indonesia.

Contemporary Indonesian literature as a whole is not a monolithic literature but a series of imaginative works by individuals, each with their own very particular histories and distinctive voices.  As such it offers such a marvelous array of insights into what is meant to be human, or what we all hold in common.

Frankfurt Book Fair 2016 (Photo: Frankfurt Book Fair)

Q. I agree, the imaginary term “Asian Literature” is inadequate.  Still, why is literature from Asia so underrepresented in the West?

For a while, not much was known of Indonesia, much less Indonesian literature, other than natural disasters, terrorism – the Aceh tsunami of 2004 and the Bali bombing – sectarian politics, and what looked like increasing religious intolerance and threats to pluralism – were some ready associations.  Indonesia barely registered as a blip on the global radar.

For a long time, Pramoedya Ananta Toer was the most famous, recognizable literary name from Indonesia, and even then only for the last fifteen years after the fall of the Suharto regime, when previous non-issues like literature could be discussed again and explored anew and language and artistic expression were beginning to reacquire all the qualities that they were stripped off during the Suharto administration – colour, smell, desire.

Recently, some of our writers have broken through internationally: Eka Kurniawan, most prominently, Leila S. Chudori, and Dewi Lestari among them.  There are as yet many more wonderful writers whose voices need to be heard.  International platforms like Frankfurt Book Fair’s Guest of Honor (as Indonesia was in 2015) have been extremely helpful in facilitating this, but there needs to be an ongoing translation program in order to keep the process rolling.

Also, the works of authors such as Ayu Utami and Andrea Hirata have been translated into several languages long before Indonesia became Guest of Honor of the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair.  Recently, the poetry of Norman Erik Pasaribu, translated by Tiffany Tsao, won the PEN Prize for Best Translation into English.

Q. How does your bilingualism affect your writing?

The thing is, except for a brief British occupation in the 19th century, Indonesia and England have very little shared history.  This makes the Indonesian experience very different than, say, the Indian one, or even with the former British colonies in Africa.  Now, because my ‘language’ demands an English-speaking audience, it turns me into a kind of ‘double Other,’ if you will: to Indonesians I am different because I write in English, to the English-speaking world, I am different because I am an Indonesian.  Indonesians expect me to write about things Indonesian—whatever they are—to represent “Us,”  while the English-speaking world expects me also to write about things Indonesian—to represent “Them.”

Things become more complex because each side, Us and Them, also finds me wanting, for in my Indonesian-ness I am hardly of ‘one root’ – I don’t speak Javanese or Minang (the language of the West Sumatranese), my writing isn’t necessarily always about ‘Indonesian’ affairs, and in my English-speaking ways, I still lapse into Indonesian, from time to time, as though by gravity.

I was born and bred in Jakarta, but grew up with English, read avidly in English, studied in English-speaking schools and traveled extensively.  Both my parents had lived and studied in Europe for nearly a quarter of their lives, they speak a combination of Indonesian and Dutch to each other while my mother still speaks Javanese to her domestic help.  But this amalgamation of experience and layers doesn’t always bode well for my perceived authenticity.

Laksmi Pamuntjak (Photo: Laksmi Pamuntjak official website)

Q. What advice would you like to give to aspiring Asian woman writers?

Write from experience, read as widely and as deeply as you can, have some idea of the sort of stories and storytelling that ‘travels across borders’, have the courage to be original, and please find a good English translator.  In fact, the quality of the translation is crucial – it can make or break a book.

I also think a certain accessibility, or what people like to refer to as ‘universality,’ is important, as well as a generosity with one’s history.  But a foreign audience cannot be educated without being entertained or intrigued or moved at the same time, which is where ‘freshness’ is equally crucial, especially in an international market saturated with ‘universal’ stories from all over the world. There has to be something that distinguishes your work from the pack, somehow.  Your voice has to be unique.  You also need to have a sense of proportion as to how much is too much (as in, don’t burden a foreign audience with potted lessons of history, or cultural particularities) so as to keep your audience engaged.

In Amba, a woman is torn between the gaze of the other and her own strong will to live freely.  Still, she neither denies nor opposes her being female.

Laksmi Pamuntjak draws attention to the ambiguity that is commonly shared by human beings across gender, nationality, and culture.  The reader is encouraged to rethink the concepts and categories, which determine and divide the life of the individual.  For human beings, she says, “are never the “one” thing, that we are, always, subjects in the process.”

(Written by Yeseul Park.  Yeseul currently writes her master thesis about German contemporary literature.  She lives and works in Frankfurt, Germany.)

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