Dewi 'Dee' Lestari: Love,
spirituality and ecology

A. Junaidi, The Jakarta Post

Ask author and singer Dewi Lestari to discuss spirituality and she will explain to you with equal enthusiasm the values of Christianity, Buddhism and Kabbalah.

""It is spirituality that drives me to work and it is also my concern,"" said Dewi, popularly down as Dee, during an interview with The Jakarta Post at her South Jakarta apartment early last week.

Born on Jan. 20, 1976, in Bandung, West Java into a strict Christian family, Dee, who has been studying Buddhism and Kabbalah, tries her best to explain the link between spirituality and the growing fundamentalism and environmental destruction in the country. Indeed, religion is an underlying theme in her novels, short stories and songs.

Married to singer Marcel, Dee launched two weeks ago her new anthology of short stories and prose Filosofi Kopi: Kumpulan Cerita and Prosa Satu Dekade (Coffee Philosophy: A Decade's Collection of Stories and Prose), which explores the themes of love and spirituality.

Essayist, senior journalist and literary critic Goenawan Mohamad writes in the foreword: ""Uncomplicated, in fact quite brilliant ... There is an English word, wit, that can perhaps be translated as cerdas (vivacity, verve). This collection of prose will revive the cerdas of Indonesian literature.""

Along with the book, Dee, who was a member of the all-female trio Rida Sita Dewi (RSD), also released her first solo album Out of Shell, which presents similar themes.

Dee, who has a son with Marcel, made her mark on the country's literary scene in 2001 with her science fiction work Supernova and its sequels Supernova: Akar (Supernova: Roots) and Petir (Storm).

A graduate in international relations from Parahyangan Catholic University in Bandung, West Java, Dee is in the process of completing the fourth book in her Supernova series, Partikel (Particle).

To gain insight into her life and thoughts, Dee was interviewed by the Post last Wednesday. The following are excerpts from the interview.

Your book ""Filosofi Kopi: Kumpulan Cerita and Prosa Satu Dekade"" is more philosophical. Can you tell me more about it

Actually, I used to write longer novels. The works of Ana Castillo (Chicago-born feminist writer) made me realize me short stories are not always the same length.

It's kind of refreshing for me since I have written three novels. For my readers, it's kind of refreshing too since they can see my other sides.

Coffee philosophy is about a man who has an ambition to make the perfect coffee. He fails. Like coffee, there is a bitter side to life. I believes everybody is a philosopher.

Do you have a favorite philosopher?

There is no philosopher who could understand everything. I read philosophy. I like Ken Wilber (Kenneth Earl Wilber Jr., an American and Buddhist philosopher). He is not only a philosopher but also a spiritualist. I also read Friedrich Nietzsche, Emanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger.

Is the book intended to prove to your critics, who may have underestimated you, that they were wrong?

I want to say that I can use the ""eyeglasses"" of those critics. I used to look at a literary work in terms of ""like or dislike"". I did not use the term ""quality"".

Terms like ""fragrant literary"" (associated with female writers) were coined by the mass media. It is up to the critics to dissect a literary work. In a way, it is a good promotion for the author.

As for me personally, I will just say thank you if many literary critics appreciate or criticize my work. Praise and criticism are the same to me, they never burden me.

Do you have any favorite writers?

Actually, I'm a fan of non-fiction. I'm not Richard Oh (author and founder of QB bookstore chain) who can write books and explain literary works. I can only come up with a few names.

I like Sapardi Joko Damono. He makes me love poetry. He makes me more lyrical. I also love Seno Gumira Ajidarma, who writes on urban and contemporary themes. He is like an oasis. Before Seno's era, literary works were stereotypes. There were local languages and cultural backgrounds etc. I love writing on urban themes.

Ayu Utami, I love her. She is like a sculptor. She can give the very detailed and neat (description of a sculptor). Ayu's novel Saman encourages me to write. As I mentioned earlier, I like Ana Castillo and Dave Eggers (an American writer and editor). Also I like a Thai writer, whose name escapes me.

You are now working on the fourth book in the Supernova series. Can you tell me a little more about it?

I have carried out extensive research for the novel. I hope to release it next year. Its title is Partikel. Its main character is Zarah, an environmentalist. So, ecology is the central theme of the novel.

What prompts you to focus on the environment. Is it because of its current miserable condition?

Yes, it is. Now, I'm reading a book titled The Coming Global Superstorm (written by Art Bell and Strieber in 1999). The book inspired a 2004 movie The Day After Tomorrow. I really love the movie. I found the book clearly talks about ecology. The book predicts the possibility of disasters being unleashed by global warming. The evidence is too obvious to be ignored. Along with your new book (Filosofi Kopi), you also released a new album...

Actually I started working on the album in 1994. I completed the master recording for the album in 1997, but due to my hectic schedule, including with my trio (Rida Sita Dewi) -- and later I got married and gave birth -- the album's launch was postponed over and over again until two weeks ago.

Writing can be anywhere and anytime, during pregnancy or after giving birth. But for the album, I had to organize the musicians and so on.

You are marketing your songs through iTunes...

Before launching the album, I signed an agreement with iTunes. I met Mark (Mark Hanus, founder of www.EquinoxDMD.com) and told him I had an album. He had a listen and told me he liked it. He told me I should sell the album in the conventional market and so I did. And, it has done quite well.

Then I met a friend of mine, who agreed to distribute my CDs and cassettes to shops (in the capital and around the country). So, my album was in the shops in just three days. You see, I waited to launch the album for years, but it was settled in just three days. Life is so funny.

Besides love, your album delves into more spiritual themes. Any special reason?

My enthusiasm for work comes from spirituality, which is my driving force. It's my concern. I try to carry a holistic paradigm. By disseminating the paradigm, we will be productive, and happy.

There are many counterproductive perceptions about religion in Indonesia. More fundamentalism, more fanaticism. Many urgent things, such as the economy, ecology and education, are neglected, while we are busy taking care of unimportant issues, including pornography.

Too much energy and money is spent by religious followers on non-urgent things. The energy and money could be used for more useful things.

What do you mean by holistic paradigm?

The essence of all religions will meet in the holistic paradigm. The analogy is like islands and the sea. All religions are fragmented. When religions become institutions they are distorted. They focus on the number of followers.

According to the holistic paradigm, we are just cells in a big whole body that could be called the universe or God. The paradigm does not see sciences as separate entities.

We see relations and connections in everything -- politics, the economy, ecology etc. The earth is sending a message. We are on the brink of extinction. Our thoughts about God are fragmented. If we thought we were just cells in one body, we would be more careful.

How do you react to comments that spirituality is just a celebrity trend?

Now, it's not like the New Age movement of the 1980s. Fundamentalists are crazy. And the number of people, who like me say no to religion, is increasing. We are going to see a thing to repeat again. Maybe, it is what is called doomsday. The evidence is everywhere.

Amid growing fundamentalism, as a spiritualist, what you can suggest?

It's so simple. When we stop pointing the finger at other people and try to look at ourselves, we will have no time for war or taking to the streets. We should engage more in self-reflection and fight our own hatred. Our life would be more peaceful if we considered the feelings of other people.

I have been told you are learning about Buddhism?

I cannot say whether I have converted to Buddhism, because my perception about religion is probably different from other people's. My love of Buddhism is more a practical choice. In Buddhism, rituals no longer matter. What matters is how you live out your life and karma -- you do good, you will receive good things and vice versa.

Actually, I appreciate the traditions of all religion. Religions and God are like islands and the sea. There are many islands but only one sea. I'm a diver in the sea. Since the state only recognizes five religions, I've got to make a choice. If there was a sixth choice -- not to choose any religion -- I would probably choose that.

Besides Buddhism, I'm also studying Kabbalah. I'm reading the Book of Kabbalah. Its way of life is the same as Buddhism. Kabbalah is very detailed. I found that some references for my novels are written in the Book of Cabal, such as sacred geometry and the Star of David.

You have such an open mind. How did your family raise you?

I grew up in a strict Christian family. My late mother was a board member of our church HKBP (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan). I went to church regularly.

I have one unforgettable moment in my life. One afternoon, I was listening to a sermon at my church in Bandung. I saw sunshine through the church's Dutch-style window. The whole room turned yellow. So, I slowly walked out of the church to see the sun, but I could not see it because there were many big trees around the church. I walked further, but still I could not see the sun.

I then drove my car and found a spot on a railway track where I could see the sunset. Although it was just for a minute, I saw the sun was very beautiful. For me, that one minute was much more precious that a lifetime of worship.

I went back to the church, but the sermon was over. But I never regretted it. I found something -- I don't know, it's a thing named God. It's like ecstasy. I found it myself, not through the priest. I think other people could also find it. It's free and easy.

Your husband is a singer, you are also a singer, but probably more contemplative. Do you have conflicting ideas?

No, we don't. I influence him. Marcel always says he has learned a lot from me. He says I have had an impact on him, including in Buddhism and spirituality. I give him much more. He would say: ""Yes, you are right.""

For me, he adds another color to my life. He is an element of the reality of my life. (laughs).

I have written songs for him. But we have not collaborated yet since his music is so different to mine.

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