Louise Doughty, whose novel Black Water is set in Indonesia, poses questions to Indonesian writer, Laksmi Pamuntjak, ahead of her appearance at The London Book Fair next month.
Indonesia is the country of focus at the London Book Fair this year and recently at Frankfurt - to what extent do you think Indonesian literature is finally having it's moment in the spotlight?
I cannot say for certain what these one-off ‘spotlights’ on Indonesian literature would mean for Indonesian literature in the long term. But it is an encouraging sign; the relatively short three-and-a-half-year gap between Frankfurt Book Fair (FBF) 2015 and London Book Fair (LBF) 2019 means we are still—or possibly even more—interesting to the publishing industry. And while I wish more Indonesian writers are being translated into English—and translated well—some of us are starting to break through internationally. It always takes one or two to pave the way.
For me personally, FBF was a game changer in many ways. Before that we didn’t have the publishing infrastructure necessary with which to promote our literature abroad. We didn’t have literary agents – in fact I only knew of one, and he used to work for my Indonesian publisher Gramedia. It was he who took a chance on the English version of my first novel, Amba/The Question of Red, and brought it to Frankfurt Book Fair in 2013, where the novel was picked up by Ullstein Verlag and published in Germany in 2015, ahead of the FBF. So I was very fortunate. A few months later, I landed a literary agent in New York, through whom I managed to sell world rights to other European markets. Later this year, I signed up with another literary agent, based in Bangalore, to represent my third novel.
Last year, in September, Ullstein Verlag published Herbstkind, my third novel, ahead of the original English version, which has recently been bought by Penguin Random House. Ullstein has also bought the German rights to The Birdwoman’s Palate, my second novel, due out in 2020. Mine certainly isn’t the conventional path, but it is fair to say that my so-called international career grew out of the success of my debut novel in Germany. And FBF 2015 did a lot to bolster it when Indonesia was its Guest of Honour.
You are one of Indonesian literature's most successful exports and you've been particularly successful in Germany, do you feel obliged to be a kind of ambassador for literary achievement from Indonesia or do you resent that kind of pressure?
Yes, I often do, because the expectation presupposes a set of criteria imposed from outside of what literary success—or successful literature—is. And I find it so reductive. I also dislike labels, especially one that effaces diversity for the sake of reaching a wider audience. I’d like to think I am first and foremost a writer, not an 'Asian', 'Indonesian' or, worst, an 'Indonesian woman' writer. A writer's background is just one of many influences fueling his or her imaginations. It's not the defining quality. Besides, understanding literature in terms of a homogenised construct, whether it's 'Indonesian', 'Southeast Asian', or 'Asian' is almost always misleading. It doesn’t allow for the many differences including race, class, ethnicity, gender and generation in both the writing and the writers, especially those who want to explore areas not stereotypically understood as 'Asian' or 'Indonesian'. Who would it include and who would it exclude? What things could or couldn't it be about? Would it be geographical?
Again, the problem lies in the inadequacy and narrowness of the categorizations themselves. Especially in how they are framed, defined and presented in the West. They show that our literature, whatever it is called, is simply not yet part of the Anglo-American mainstream ('the West'), and because of that we have to be up to speed.
I often feel that if we didn’t write about matters ‘political’ our authenticity is questioned. I do wonder whether in some ways it has contributed to the interest in my work, particularly in Germany and Holland. But, of course, the idea that in order to be credible, non-Western writers must deal with particular issues or perspectives is absurd. It takes away the writer's freedom to do what they do best, which is to write. I’d like to think of Indonesian literature like any other literature. It is literature that speaks out of the place that it is written. And by this it doesn’t have to be a geographical place but an individual imagination made up of many parts.