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Laksmi Pamuntjak: On being the subject of one's own story

Laksmi Pamuntjak, food critic, poet, writer, muse.Life works in mysterious ways, blazing a unique path for some. Tracing the continuous reinvention of Laksmi Pamuntjak’s writing, her fierce independence and adaptation to motherhood come to fore.

Kadek Krishna Adidharma, Singapore
The Jakarta Post, Features April 01, 2007
note: this is my original version, prior to Jkt Post edit

Single parents rarely have spare time, but Laksmi has produced four literary jewels in the space of 2.5 years while keeping up with arts collaborations and freelance work. Spending time with this rising star, I discover a petite Venus with mesmerizing deep-shaded eyes who talks to her cat in the Royal ‘We’, an insomniac driven by a passion for words, a food critic who avoids carbohydrate and deep-fried stuff like the plague, a self-medicating alcoholic who sups for sustenance – only mildly (happily) intoxicated with success.

Laksmi sits across a table laden with fresh Vietnamese culinary delights, sipping Shiraz, demure but for the steely conviction of her words.

In the 24 hours before her interview, Laksmi has had a meagre 1.5 hours of sleep. She was writing until 4am and woke up at 5.30am to prepare a breakfast of croissant and scrambled eggs for her only daughter, Nadia. After takingNadia to school in time for a cross-country run, she spent two hours in the gym before visiting the museums of Singapore for whom she is designing an Indonesian cultural program.

~

Ripe with references, Laksmi’s writing always warrants a second reading. She attributes her early literary interests to her mother, a social worker and women’s movement activist who taught her to read when she was three.

“Growing up with a mother who was devoted to me, who gave up her career, her life, in order to open mine . . . kindled a voracious appetite for reading.”

“My mother and father always prioritized education, travel and books over anything else. We would have little, be sparing in many aspects of our lives, but we would save up.”

In 1991, returning from Murdoch University in Perth after four years of Asian Studies, an idealistic Laksmi quickly found her vocation.

“I knew I had always wanted to write serious pieces. I was dabbling in Vietnam’s post-socialist transition. I had a long article … [which] I re-crafted into a column. That kick-started my writing commitment to Tempo.”

Continuing along the same vein to also write for Forum Keadilan (Justice Forum) and the socio-economic journal Prisma, eventually pregnancy and a difficult childbirth made it impossible for her to continue her career as a political and social commentator.

“I got married early. I had my first daughter. She was unwell. She required 24 hour-care. I had no choice but stay at home and look after her, but I needed to earn. I wasn’t able to observe up close and personal because I couldn’t get out as much as I did before I got married. I had this commitment [to my family]; writing [from home] seemed to be a lot more manageable.”

Drawing inspiration from her love for art, music, food, theatre and cinema, Laksmi became a contributor to the Jakarta Post, peaking at 15 features a month.

After a brief hiatus in Melbourne while her daughter recovered from a traumatic surgery and her husband completed his MBA, she was inspired to embark upon the quest that became her greatest financial success story.

“The Jakarta Good Food Guide started as a total experiment. I saw how thriving the food writing industry was in Melbourne and how influential a food guide could be.”

Laksmi had honed her modus operandi as Epicurus, her food critic nom de plume: like a spy she would go clandestine into restaurants, tasting without telling them she was reviewing.

Spending around 100 million rupiah out of her own pocket over 9 months to eat out before sponsorship kicked in, her audacity was rewarded. Within 2.5 months the first printing sold out and she went on to sell 10,000 more reprints, as well as a subsequent edition.

“There was a demand for it. Jakarta is a fantastic culinary destination.”

Living on the cholesterol fast lane of marathon dining - over 600 restaurants for the 2003 edition - took a toll on her health. Meanwhile, a storm was brewing at home: Laksmi and her husband divorced in 2002.

“Something in me was telling me that I needed distance; space; not to be in Jakarta in order to write. Some certain things needed to come out that couldn’t if I had stayed.”

So she moved to Singapore in 2004: “It was close enough – I could still afford tangible physical contact with Jakarta; not too daunting for my 8 year old daughter.”

“We live in a small apartment, with our cat, Isabella, the most beautiful and playful cat in the land. I didn’t seek a grand tall apartment building. Our building has four levels, sixteen units, with a swimming pool no bigger than a fishpond, without night watch. Our neighbours are mostly families with children Nadia’s age.”

Laksmi Pamuntjak with daughter, Nadia
Laksmi Pamuntjak and her daughter Nadia at home in Singapore

While trying to tame an elusive novel with the working title Amba, she worked for a Singapore avant-garde theatre that worked in cross-cultural collaborations.

Taking the hard decision to abandon the novel, she lifted gems from the manuscript and gave it new life as a collection of poems and poetic prose titled Ellipsis. The floodgates opened, and a treatise on man, faith and violence titled War, Heaven and Two Women quickly followed; then a collection of sublime short stories, The Diary of R.S.: Musings on Art, and a continuation of her poetic impulse, The Anagram.

In her writing, Laksmi gives insight to women in their relationships with their children and mother, women with men, voicing angst on the issues of pornography and polygamy.

She questions the cast role of Woman as Temptress: … between the tears, the hair, and the ointment, all of which were active and fluent … she writesof Mary Magdalene … somebody fingered her as a sinner and so the Son of God had found it necessary to forgive her.

To the narrative-driven characters of the Mahabharata mythology, she endows an inner emotional landscape, such as when the mighty warrior, sworn to celibacy for the kingship of his brother, captures Amba: Bisma cannot explain duty to Amba any more than she can explain to him what it means to be faithful. How can they when he has just stolen her life and she has made him want?

Author and critic Nukila Amal finds that Laksmi’s writing “… shows the working of a feminine sensibility – a refined one at that; exploring the Human (Woman) being in her full-spectrum: roles, relations, desires, wounds, memories.”

Laksmi does not fully agree. Like all poets, she draws from universal experiences “more various and multi-faceted than any generalization, justified or otherwise, would allow.”

“I talk a lot about women who have had sad or difficult relationships with men,” she concedes, “I’m not for male bashing. It is more important for me to highlight the vacillation, the lack of definition, the contradictions, the sheer plurality of desire in Woman.”

“I believe that in the end both man and woman are responsible for his or her own choices. The greatest lesson of life, however unconventional, patriarchal, subjugated or unequal a life seems, is to live it the way only you can live it – you are and should always be the subject.”

~

a poem by Laksmi Pamuntjak

Silent Prayer for My Daughter on Her 9th Birthday:

           How is it again, does one begin?  The notion
itself long fallen into disuse, every beginning
a repetition.  But it will come, my tiny love,
that feeling when something is about to be
born, like the dawn of joy, unknown to joy,
as when you first catch the glints of a golden city,
blue on the blade of a sun-kissed knife;
or when you taste your first mature apple,
blushing clumsily on its crimson pedicels;
or when someone enters you for
the first time, moving inside you in a way
you think is for keeps, all your windows flying
open – take me, I am your gift – giddy, glowing,
red-hot.

            And you will not understand why it feels
the same raw, hard way each time, or whether things
end in order to begin again, whether there is no
such thing as an end,
            why you are always left alone for a while,
in a dark and damp place, sealed from every other feeling
but loss, though your body, take it from me,
 is always made for a new sun.

~

To read Laksmi's writing, visit her website.

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Last updated Saturday 2 June 2007 at 12:05 PM (+8 GMT)

© Kadek Krishna Adidharma (2007). Providing you link back to www.adidharma.net, you may copy up to 800 words without written permission.