Laksmi Pamuntjak: The Question of Red

There was a phase in Indonesian history in which “red” was identical to communism and communists, who were considered deviant and requiring eradication, even death.  Laksmi Pamuntjak was born in 1971, when the stigma of communism was still strong.

 “At that time, anything related to communism or the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI) was considered taboo. On school, we were indoctrinated with the official Suharto government version that the PKI was responsible for the September 30, 1965 incident,” Laksmi explains. This incident, the abduction and killing of six Army generals and one lower ranking officer, triggered the mass slaughter of around one million people, who were suspected of being communists, by not only the military but also civilians and became one of the largest mass killings of communists in the 20th century.  

The stigma did not end there, the communist label stuck to the families and descendents of communists. Laksmi had no direct experience with 1965, but she did have friends whose family members bore the communist stigma for years, meaning that they were shunned by their communities and had difficulties getting an education and finding work. Yet, in 2009, a survey printed in the media indicated that more than half of the university students surveyed had no knowledge of the events of 1965. This was one of the reasons Laksmi wrote her first novel, Amba, with 1965 as the backdrop in 2012.  Amba has been published in English as The  Question of Red.

Before publishing novels, Laksmi had written several volumes of The Jakarta Good Food Guide, a new take on food writing, as well as poetry. Her first collection of poetry is Ellipsis: Poems and Prose (2005) which was recommended by the novelist and critic Suhayl Saadi in the 2005 Books of the Year page of the Herald UK. Her second book of poems is The Anagram (2007). In 2012, Laksmi represented Indonesia at the Poetry Parnassus, an international poetry festival held in conjunction with the London Olympics.

Laksmi, who writes in Indonesian and English, counts herself lucky to have an auspicious childhood.  “I write my poetry in English because that comes to me as an impulse,” she explains.   

In this inteview, Laksmi explains the story behind Amba and why she deliberately used Mahabharata mythology in this novel.