By Aminah Sheikh
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
I write because it’s the one thing I know how to do. It’s a need and a sickness, a weapon of struggle and an instrument of grace. It’s work and leisure, a way of life. I think it’s been like that since I was six, when I started keeping a journal and writing single page stories that had to end no matter what at the end of a page. Not a single day goes by without the act of writing. Letters, impressions, observations, lines that come to mind.
I write because I read—as Susan Sontag said, the impulse to write is almost always fired by reading. I write because writing allows me to flesh out complex or extended thoughts more readily. It embraces language and ideas, shades and nuances; it is a medium both generous and rigorous. I write because writing always reveals something new about myself and about the world around me. I write because writing gives me my voice and the confidence to use it.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
I’m hard at work at my third novel, The Fall Baby. It is a sequel of sorts to my first novel, Amba: The Question of Red. The Fall Baby tells the story of Srikandi, the illegitimate daughter of Amba and Bhisma, the protagonists of the first novel. It is also the story of Dara, an ardent women rights’ activist who comes from a conservative Muslim family, to whom Srikandi becomes close.
Born in 1966, a year after the Indonesian anti-Communist massacres began, Srikandi—who prefers to be called by her nickname, Siri—is a globetrotting conceptual artist. She is smart, free-spirited, self-possessed. She is also worldly, willfully difficult, wildly successful—and the loneliest woman on the planet. Perpetually torn between East and West, between her home country Indonesia and various cities she has called home—Berlin, London, Madrid—her art mirrors her life in its quest for the ‘in-between,’ the ‘middle ground,’ the grey zones of human experience.
Broadly speaking, my aim with this novel is to present the complex, multiple realities of both “East” and “West,” what it means to have to constantly navigate between different cultures; to be both “Indonesian” (Indonesia itself being an artificial construct, a 20th century modern political invention), and to be a global citizen; and to look into the tension between art and activism. In the most intimate terms, it is a novel about mothers and daughters—a leitmotif in my body of work.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
Hard to describe one’s own aesthetic. If pressed, I would say lyrical realism.
I’m a poet and a musician. So, sound, rhythm, and musicality are very important to my writing. I have to hear the music. It has to sound right when it’s read out. This used to be the biggest thing with me.
I’m also an essayist. So ideas are very important to me; historical reflection, cultural theories, political thinking, philosophy. I like to ruminate. I also have many professional interests: as an art observer, food critic, (former) concert pianist. So I often draw on them. Sometimes these musings are good and useful for the novel; they enrich, add depth, color, taste, texture. Sometimes they’re not so good because they’re digressive, irrelevant. They slow down the pace and distract from the story. Nowadays I’m striving for wit, brevity and precision; poetry also teaches you that.
Who are your favorite authors?
Novelists: Henry James, Vladimir Nabokov; Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky; Jim Crace, Richard Yates, Walker Percy; Jorge Luis Borges; Thomas Bernhard, Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, Christa Wolf, Hilary Mantel, Michael Cunningham, Ian McEwan, Stefan Zweig, Colm Toibin, A.M. Homes, Annie Dillard, Djuna Barnes, Elfriede Jelinek, Herta Mueller, Elena Ferrante, Margaret Atwood, Aleksandar Hemon; Helen Garner, Georges Simenon, Clarice Lispector. Evelyn Waugh for his wit and his glorious, rigorous prose.
Short story writers: Kafka, Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis.
Poets: Paul Celan, Philip Larkin, Ingeborg Bachmann, Wallace Stevens, Tomas Transtromer, Adam Zagajewski, T.S. Eliot, Kay Ryan, Rita Dove, Chairil Anwar, Goenawan Mohamad, Sapardi Djoko Damono, Tomas Salamun, Pablo Neruda, Wislawa Symborzka.
Essayists, philosophers, art/cultural critics: Walter Benjamin, John Berger, E.M. Cioran, Helene Cixous, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag and Rachel Bespaloff.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
My first novel, Amba: The Question of Red. It was my first attempt at writing a novel—and a big, ambitious one at that. I was inexperienced and I had no clue how to go about it. The novel’s canvas and expectations always seemed too big, and that was often paralyzing. My DNA as a poet often got in the way. Also, my bilingualism and biculturalism—normally a twin asset—sometimes backfired when I tried to contextualize complex Indonesian history into a different language, mindscape, and culture (English in the case). Lastly, the novel took too long—ten years—and I was working on different projects and published eight books during that time. It’s hard to sustain a novel when so much time has passed. Everything changed: you, your relationship with the world, your relationship with the novel.