Laksmi Pamuntjak’s novel “Amba” or “The Question of Red” made waves both in Indonesia and abroad. The author is currently working on the sequel, which will be published in Germany in August. At the same time, the movie version of her book “Aruna dan Lidahnya” or “The Birdwoman’s Palate” will be released in Indonesian cinemas in September. Laksmi spoke to NOW! Jakarta about how her own passion for art is reflected in her upcoming novel, and what it means to “let go” of her book as soon as it was turned into a movie.
Laksmi, I remember you telling me that in your new book, the protagonist is strongly rooted in the world of art. What role does art play in your life?
I have a deep, lifelong, abiding love for art. For me art is like poetry. It’s about ways of seeing. It’s very important for me to go through life knowing that there are different ways of seeing, different points of view. That even within one person, there are multiplicities, myriad selves – because human consciousness is never “one thing.” We may react a certain way toward one thing, and quite differently toward another.
I grew up with paintings, as I did with books and classical music. I had one scene early on in my new novel in which the protagonist, Srikandi (Siri), the illegitimate daughter of Amba and Bhisma—the ill-starred lovers in my first novel, Amba/The Question of Red—is taken by her mother, Amba, to the house of the great Indonesian artist Sudjojono. She meets the maestro and becomes acquainted with some of his works. A few weeks earlier, she sees a painting of her mother by an artist friend of Bhisma’s, a member of the leftist artist colony, Bumi Tarung. That’s when she knows she wants to be an artist. She learns to trust her own gaze early.
Later she learns that a painting is always two paintings: the one you see and the one you remember. Sometimes, you look at a painting close up, from several feet away, from either side. But other times, you just stand before a painting as if before a great big ocean, not taking in any of its details but allowing the breadth and vastness of it to carry you away in waves of feelings. And yet every painting worth talking about reveals itself over time and takes on its own story inside the viewer.
Every viewing of a painting is private, an experience strictly between the spectator and the image. And it is this nature of seeing that allows Siri to slowly make sense of and even make peace with her past full of secrets, of her parents’ history, and of her own relationship with history. She learns to know her biological father, Bhisma, whom she never knew, through the act of imagining him, painting him. She pays eternal tribute to her adopted father who has taught her to see beyond the image. She learns to understand anew her relationship with all the women in her life: her mother, Amba; her best friend-turned-foe Dara, a political activist, and most importantly, her stepdaughter Amalia.
Speaking about your upcoming new novel, could you share the latest updates with us?
The novel will be published in Germany on 10 August. The German title is Herbstkind. I will be presenting it at the Berlin International Literary Festival (ilb) exactly a month later, on 10 September.
The novel will be published in German first. Why not in Indonesian or English?
Yes, this is certainly not the usual route. What happened was that my German publisher, Ullstein Verlag, asked me in fall 2015 whether I was considering writing a sequel to my first novel, Amba/The Question of Red, my modern retelling of the Hindu epic Mahabharata set against the 1965 anti-Communist massacres in Indonesia. If I were, they told me they’d be happy to publish it. They were happy with the way Alle Farben Rot, the German translation of Amba/The Question of Red, which they published in 2015, was generally doing in Germany.
At that point, I’d been sitting on the story of Siri, Amba’s daughter, for a while. In fact, the earlier drafts of Amba had always had the triple narratives of Amba, her daughter Siri, and Samuel, the Ambonese man who met Amba on her trip to Buru Island. The mother-daughter story was always crucial. But I decided that Siri merited her own story—it was the story of a different generation, a different world: different circumstances, different sensibilities and different ways of processing history, of approaching family. So, the story of Siri was always there—just waiting to be written more fully.
Then there is also the presence of Germany, or Europe, in this new novel. By this time, the idea I’d always had of Siri being a globetrotting, contemporary multimedia artist had become the defining feature of the novel. She is by definition a traveller, both in the mental and physical sense, constantly struggling with her multiple identities—with what it means to be “Indonesian” and “of the world,” in life and in art. Siri decides to move to Berlin following yet another row with her mother to feel closer spiritually to both her fathers. So, the presence of Berlin in this novel is strong.
I wrote the synopsis and Ullstein liked it, but because the translation into German would take some time, and my publisher needed to know what I’d written pretty fast to give it her go ahead, I decided to write the novel in English. I spent many months over the course of two years writing in Berlin, which has been like a home to me, and now I am writing the novel in Indonesian. With some luck the Indonesian version will be ready for publication at the end of the year. Meanwhile, I’m still sitting on the English version and will only submit later in the year.
In addition to your new novel, your book “Aruna dan Lidahnya” or “The Birdwoman’s Palate” will soon come to cinemas as a new film directed by Edwin, starring, among others, Dian Sastro and Nicholas Saputra. How excited were you about this incredible team of crew and cast?
Oh, no one could hope for a better cast and crew. It’s inspired, it’s fabulous, it’s the absolute dream team. What I love about this team is how invested they are in this project – not just about their engagement with food in every aspect of the movie, which is such a lovely thing to witness – but also in how they think of and get into their characters, how generous they are with themselves in identifying with these characters. All four main actors don’t just become their characters; they are the characters.
As for Edwin, I trust his vision, his instincts and aesthetics. I trust his gaze. When he told me in late 2014 that he’d just read the novel and loved it, I liked that he saw the many aspects in the novel – not just the culinary and travel part, but also its political and social dimension, the way food multiplies us to other things. I felt we were kindred spirits. He’s a thinker, a deep reader, someone who takes his art seriously but can connect with the audience. And he loves his food like there’s no tomorrow.
This is the first time one of your books has been adapted as a film. Were you involved in the process at all?
The minute your work is adapted into another medium, it ceases to be your work. It might be inspired by your story, by your creation, but it has been transformed into something else. Different rules apply, different considerations are at play. You as the author have to accept and respect that. You have to let go, and I think I did – or at least tried to [laughs]. Especially because I made a conscious decision not to be a co-screenwriter or a co-producer and to trust the team that they’re going to do their absolute best with the material, and to honour its essence.
I really appreciate the team for the way they always make me feel part of the project: they seek my feedback on the script, they are in constant dialogue with me, they communicate their ideas, ask my opinions. Of course there is always a risk involved in having your work adapted to another medium – to the work’s integrity, so to speak. But to me it feels like an honor.
As I said, I trust Edwin unreservedly. And that means trusting his choice in screenwriter, who in this case is Titien Wattimena, who has done a good job. Because at the end of the day it is his vision that has to be transmitted to the screen, he has to be able to work with the partner of his choosing, the screenwriter who shares his vision and with whom he’s comfortable.
You are an accomplished journalist, food critic and writer. You also co-founded Aksara. Is there anything new you’d like to try? What else can we expect from you in the future?
There are four things I’d like to do: improve my German, improve my cooking, sing in a choir and learn to dance the flamenco. And to keep writing somehow.