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.
Walter Benjamin famously says: “Work on a good piece of writing proceeds on three levels: a musical one, where it is composed; an architectural one, where it is constructed; and finally, a textile one, where it is woven.” I always struggle with plot and structure, and tend to write aimlessly and copiously before being able to ‘see’ the story.
This includes deciding which in my material is the serious element, which is the merely trivial. Needless to say, I suffered quite a bit with my first novel, especially when there was so much I wanted to bring in. In the end, though, it was the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.
What’s your idea of bliss?
1. A spring or fall evening with my beloved, listening to Bill Evans and talking life and literature, with our favorite bottle of wine. 2. A day with my daughter, dining at our favorite restaurants, doing the museum rounds, walking the city. I say this because she’s at university in the US, I don’t see her that often, and I miss her so much! 3. Sitting in a concert hall/music auditorium, watching my favorite classical musicians perform my favorite works. If that’s not bliss, I don’t know what is.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
Bullies. Bigots. Misogynists. Arrogant people. Bad-mannered people. In other words: Donald J. Trump.
What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
A complete set of Henry James’s novels; a complete set of W.G. Sebald’s novels; Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, Helen Garner’s new book of essays, Everywhere I Look, the complete stories of Lydia Davis, the new Kafka biography by Reiner Stach.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
My laptop! (And my 13-year-old cat, Isabella The Queen of Spain a.k.a. Belly—can’t live without her.)
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
“To be truly modern is to make your own choices in life; always, always be the subject of your own story.”
I also subscribe to two wisdoms: “We all have reasons for moving. I move to keep things whole.” (Mark Strand) and “To be happy is to be able to be aware of oneself without fright.” (Walter Benjamin)
Laksmi Pamuntjak is a bilingual Indonesian novelist, poet, essayist, journalist, and an award-winning food writer. Amba: The Question of Red, her bestselling first novel, won Germany’s LiBeraturpreis 2016 and was named #1 on Germany’s Fall 2015 Weltempfaenger list of the best works of fiction translated into German from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Arab world. The novel was also shortlisted for the Khatulistiwa Literary Award 2012 and appeared on the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s Top 8 list of the best books of the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015.
Pamuntjak was the Indonesian representative for Poetry Parnassus at the 2012 London Olympics. Her bestselling second novel, Aruna and Her Palate, will be published in the US and Germany in 2017. Her latest publication is There Are Tears in Things: Collected Poems and Prose (2001-2016). She works as an art and food consultant, writes opinion articles on culture and politics for the Guardian, and divides her time between Berlin and Jakarta.
Aminah Sheikh is the Online Editor of Kitaab