Laksmi Pamuntjak delivers her acceptance speech after winning the Liberaturpreis 2016 for her novel 'Amba' at the Frankfurt Book Fair. (Photo courtesy of Stefano Romano)

Commentary: Laksmi Pamuntjak Wins Liberaturpreis 2016 at Frankfurt Book Fair


OCTOBER 27, 2016

It is always moving to see people honored for their work. Watching Laksmi Pamuntjak receive the Liberaturpreis 2016 for her novel "Amba" at the Frankfurt Book Fair is even more so, because it is a breakthrough in many ways, including the fact that the Liberaturpreis is awarded to women writers based on readers' choice.

Amba, in German "Alle farben Rot," is not an easy book to read for a public unfamiliar with wayang or Indonesia’s history. Yet it is already in its second edition, having sold more than 10,000 copies only six months after it was launched in late 2015.

Anita Djafari, director of Litprom — the Society for the Promotion of African, Asian and Latin American Literature — said the Liberaturpreis shows how interested German readers are in finding out about foreign culture and literature.

Litprom, which sponsors translations of foreign literature into German, has been managing the award since 2013.

In her acceptance speech, Laksmi thanked many for all the support she has received, especially ethnologist and Indonesianist Martina Heinschke, who translated the novel.

Journalist and jury representative Ruthard Stäblein mentioned how well Heinschke's translation bridged the cultural gap between Indonesia and Germany. The German translation begins with an overview of the "Bharatayudha" (the Javanese version of a war described in the Indian epic "Mahabharata") characters, whose names coincide with character names in Amba and give hints to contextual similarities between the two works.

Both are stories about war within a family. In Amba, the family is Indonesia during the communist pogrom of 1965-1966.

For Laksmi, her novel offers an alternative narrative on this bloody period of Indonesian history. It is her way to cut open the fog surrounding the episode.

"Indonesia still has a long way to go, we have a lot of work to do, we have a lot of causes that need to be addressed or redressed, but these things give you hope. And a love for a country just doesn't die," Laksmi said.

The 2016 nominees for the Liberaturpreis included other well-regarded women writers such as South African icon Antjie Krog, acclaimed for her "Country of My Skull," Argentinian novelist María Sonia Cristoff, exiled Tunisian poet Najet Adouani whose powerful "Desert Sea" reflects an unbreakable desire for freedom, graphic novelist Marguerite Abouet and Israeli writer Ayelet Gundar-Goshen who was nominated for her novel "Waking Lions."

The Libeaturpreis, which promotes African, Latin American, Arabic and Asian women writers, offers a $3300 cash prize provided by the Frankfurt Book Fair. Anita Djafari, who this year was also awarded the title BücherFrau 2016 ("Woman of Books") beamed with pride when she said there are now many confident young women writers whose works can no longer be ignored.

Since it was the guest of honor last year, Indonesia has had two years of invaluable experience at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Indonesia's National Book Committee has been able to showcase notable Indonesian writers working in various genres – from graphic novels and essays to children books and so much more.

The committee said it will soon begin preparing new strategies and creative programs to connect with a younger public at next year's fair, when it will be France's turn to become the guest of honor.

Edith Koesoemawiria is an Indonesian journalist based in Germany, previously with Deutsche Welle. She was a local coordinator for the Indonesian program at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015.