Laksmi Pamuntjak Touring Europe
Emke de Vries
The Jakarta Post
Indonesian writers have been gaining ground in Germany ' even before Indonesia featured as the guest country at the recent Frankfurt Book Fair.
Laksmi Pamuntjak's book Amba ' released in Indonesia in 2012 and translated into German as Alle Farben Rot ' was recently named Best International Novel on the Weltempfaenger list. Laksmi will soon return to Berlin for a writer's residency at the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin.
Malaysian prize-winning author Tash Aw, nominated twice for the Man Booker Prize, believes Laksmi's book 'may prove to become a landmark work of Southeast Asian writing'.
'It's apparently a big thing,' Laksmi smiles, revealing how she nearly fell off her chair when she saw her picture on every metro in Berlin.
The 43-year-old writer, food critic, poet, journalist and former classical pianist is also one of the guests at the literature festival Read My World in Amsterdam, where she presents the Dutch translation of her book, called Amba of de kleur van rood.
Authors Seno Gumira Ajidarma and Dyah Merta, as well as curator Kadek Krishna Adidharma, are present at the festival.
Laksmi's grandfather owned a tobacco company in Amsterdam, a building that she aims to find during her short stay. Her parents, who still speak Dutch to each other, once lived in the Netherlands.
In person, she is as much of a cosmopolitan as her family, having studied Asian Studies and Political Science in Perth and lived in Melbourne, Singapore and London.
Her novel Amba is set against the backdrop of the historical 1965 tragedy, a period of Indonesian history she was able to study in Perth, while Indonesia was still under Soeharto's authoritarian rule.
As a child, she recalled that she had always questioned the dark period of Indonesia's past.
'As I grew older, I heard more stories from friends who belonged to families that were affected by the events of 1965 and whose fathers were political prisoners and were stigmatized their whole life,' she says.
'I knew of nobody who wanted to talk about it until I went to university. I went to a university with a very good Asian studies department and a lot of dedicated scholars; there I felt that it might be possible to explore the topic further.'
The writer also recalls the moment in 1999 when she returned to Indonesia and she saw the significant changes the country had gone through.
'The gates to freedom of expression opened at that time and new breeds of writers, artists, intellectuals and academics were breaking taboos and exploring new things they were not able to during the [Soeharto] dictatorship,' Laksmi says.
'Not only in regard to content, but also form. Like Ayu Utami, who wrote a very daring and candid exploration of the female body. There was also a new thirst for alternative interpretations of the history, memoires of political prisoners came up, as well as documentary filmmakers.'
Amba is a modern take on the Mahabharata story of Amba and Bhisma, one of many mythological stories Laksmi grew up with.
With the story, she wanted to show an older civilization than the current political Islam, which she says is 'creeping yet persistently becoming more and more dominant in Indonesia'.
'I wanted to show an older Java, and that people, even though they call themselves Muslims, also inhabit and embrace animism, idol worshipping and superstition. This is all part of us and it's beautiful and a testimony of pluralism, which is the DNA of our country.'
She also believes that mythology can teach people to think less in black-and-white and more in perspective.
'There is always a little bit of bad in good people or a little bit of good in so-called bad people. What really connects them is the ambiguity, the doubts, inconsistency, fears and desire, which are all not that easily categorized,' Laksmi says.
'And in a way, not downplaying the fact that the genocide did happen and that the Suharto regime should be held responsible, both sides experience loss in the end. And this is one of the main messages in the Mahabharata; they all suffer, there is no real victor, what have you obtained by killing your brothers?'
Recently, Laksmi also started writing for the British newspaper and online news platform The Guardian, where she found a podium to express her worries about the current Indonesian society and its refusal to acknowledge the past.
She also expresses her hope about civil society's ability to empower itself and set up truth-seeking commissions, to revise history for schools and to tell their own stories.
'Transcendence is never truly possible and confronting the past is risky and painful, but we have to start somewhere. The tribunal that will be held in The Hague next month is a massive triumph of political goodwill and a duty of memory.'
Laksmi calls herself a pessimist though, as she points out the events in the Maluku Islands between 1999 and 2004, when violence between Christians and Muslims erupted, which she calls a 'repeating of history like a dÃ©jÃ vu'.
Currently, she is working on the sequel of her book, named Srikandi, which she will continue to do in Europe as she says it is hard to find solitude in Indonesia. 'I could go to a small island yes, but then I won't find any WiFi there,' she smiles.
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