Jakarta. A sequel to Laksmi Pamuntjak’s award-winning debut novel "Amba," or "The Question of Red," is expected to be released next month, but not in the author's home country of Indonesia. "Herbtskind," or "The Fall Baby," will instead be published in Germany by Ullstein Verlag. The author spoke to the Jakarta Globe on Friday (20/07) at the newly revamped Aksara Kemang bookstore in South Jakarta to explain how this less-than-usual publishing story happened.
First released in Indonesia in October 2012, the prequel "Amba" was shortlisted for the Kusala Sastra Khatulistiwa – Indonesia's richest literary award – the next year.
The German version of Amba was published in August 2015 by Ullstein Verlag, under the title "Alle Farben Rot." The book won the LiBeraturpreis award in 2016.
The award is given in Germany to female writers from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America.
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper also said the novel was one of the most "important novels" at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair.
Laksmi said the publisher was happy with Amba's critical reception and asked if she had a sequel in mind.
The answer was a definite yes. Laksmi wanted the opportunity to dive into Amba’s relationship with Srikandi, her illegitimate daughter.
Laksmi said she had always wanted Amba to be an "intergenerational story" with Srikandi as one its main narrators.
The original 500-page novel can be seen as a retelling of the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata, the source of many wayang stories in Indonesia.
The bildungsroman follows Amba's journey from youth to adulthood, set against the modern backdrop of Indonesia's 1965 anti-communist pogrom.
"Now it's time for Srikandi to stand on her own. She has to narrate her own book. It's a chance for me to write from the point of view of Srikandi – Amba and Bhisma's illegitimate daughter," Laksmi said.
Laksmi, a bilingual writer, wrote the draft for the Amba sequel in English, with a view that it would then be easier – and faster – to translate the book into German.
"It had to be translated pretty fast. With a big publishing house like Ullstein Verlag, you really have to stick to your deadline. If you’re late even for a month, your book might have to go back to the queue for two years," Laksmi said.
This was the first time Laksmi wrote a novel in English first. The early drafts for Amba were in English, but Laksmi discarded them and rewrote them in Indonesian.
Herbstkind is set to go on sale on Aug. 10. Laksmi still feels the English version needs a bit of extra tinkering, and won't be offering it to publishers until later this year.
She is also rewriting the novel into Indonesian herself.
"Hopefully the Indonesian translation will be done by October," she said. That means the Indonesian version of the book should be out by early next year.
A Child of East and West
Amba ends with a big reveal, that Srikandi's real biological father was Bhisma, Amba's old boyfriend, a German-educated doctor who disappeared during the 1965-1966 mass killings of Indonesian communists.
The sequel is set in 2015 with the adult Srikandi, now a visual artist, busy globetrotting and doing some serious soul-searching.
Laksmi said Srikandi is a free-spirited and rebellious character, just as Amba would have been if she hadn’t been shackled by traditions.
Just as Srikandi starts to settle in Berlin, unexpected family drama demanded her return to Jakarta.
Back in Indonesia, Srikandi has to confront her family's dark history and Muslim hardliners railing against her "blasphemous" art.
Laksmi said Srikandi turned to art to cope with her family problems.
"She was already 40 when she found out she was adopted. This [novel] is about coming to terms with being adopted, with having two fathers, one whom you never even had the chance to meet. Can you get to know that person through your art? You want to have a memory of your father, but how can you have a memory of someone you never knew?" Laksmi said.
Art is a constant theme in The Fall Baby. Laksmi – who wrote "The Diary of R.S.: Musings on Art," a collection of short stories on "art and memory" (says the book's blurbs) – describes in great details the booming Indonesian art scene, observing that many local artists try to achieve success in the West by showing off their Indonesian-ness.
"There’s always something of their Indonesian-ness that escapes. [But] how do you create art that transcends borders?" Laksmi said.
"This is increasingly the story of our generation. Make it in the West or bring the West to the East. [But this time] we have agency, we're not just being exotic for the West. We make our own art. We distill what we know," Laksmi said.
Politics is another central theme in the book.
"In the '70s and '80s, history was very black and white. Now things are being reassessed. How do people do that? [Srikandi's friend] Dara through her political activism, Srikandi through her art," Laksmi said.
Laksmi said incorporating all these themes in her new book was "easier said than done." But she said readers should expect The Fall Baby to be about memory and identity, the power struggle between the East and the West, making peace with one’s history and the sisterhood of women.