LitBeatLite!: Reading and Writing for Education With Laksmi Pamuntjak

Happy National Book Day!

Litbeat Lite is a pre-event program for Litbeat in a virtual format. An attempt to continue to present discussions, seminars, and programs related to literacy and other forms of creative production during this pandemic period. We know, although we are facing a difficult situation, the needs of our society in general for creative products or activities still exists and has increased.

This discussion, which we have titled Reading and Writing for Education, is the third Litbeat Lite program specially designed to commemorate our National Education Day. We know, literacy and education are two friends on the same path and cannot be separated. Someone can’t be educated without being literate, and conversely, it is also impossible for someone to be literate without being educated. But of course, we are referring to literate and educated in the broadest sense. To evaluate whether a nation is educated or uneducated, one of the indicators is how high or low people’s interest is in reading. 

However, as we all know, the interest in reading people in Indonesia is indeed very low. What has happened within our education system? Why have we seemed to fail in providing what is the most basic education, that is reading? And what if we use the indicator of writing. How many Indonesians can express their thoughts and feelings through writing?

To discuss this problem, we have invited Laksmi Pamuntjak, a well known Indonesian writer, to discuss the practice of reading and writing as an important part of education. In particular, to look at this through her personal experiences. 

Laksmi Pamuntjak is a bilingual writer whose works have been translated into various languages. She often writes about politics and culture in a range of different media in Indonesia as well as abroad, including in the British newspaper the Guardian over the last 5 years. 

Laksmi has published 3 books of poetry, Ellipsis, Anagram, and There Are Tears in Things, a collection of short stories based on interpretations of paintings, The Diary of R.S.: Musings on Art, one philosophical essay, Perang, Langit dan Dua Perempuan (War, Sky and Two Women), two translations of the works of Goenawan Mohamad, 5 editions of the series Jakarta Good Food Guide, the first independent restaurant and literary guide in Indonesia. Laksmi has also published 3 novels. 

In 2012, Laksmi represented Indonesia at Poetry Parnassus, the largest poetry festival in London held in conjunction with the London Olympics. In 2016, Laksmi’s first novel, Amba, won the German literary award, LiBeraturpreis. The film based on her second novel, Aruna dan Lidahnya, won two awards at the Indonesian Film Festival (FFI) 2018.

Her third novel, Fall Baby—her first novel in English—was published in September 2019 by Penguin Random House SEA. Previously, in 2018, that novel was published in German by Ullstein Verlag with the title Herbstkind.

Q&A Litbeat Lite: National Education Day May 2, 2020

1. What is the meaning of education for you? And what are we celebrating on this National Education Day?

Yes, for me that’s an important question. The issue is what’s the use of our having this or that holiday without really understanding what we are celebrating. Every year as of May 2nd approaches, I, feel a need to reevaluate: what does it mean, celebrating National Education Day? What is the meaning of education?

From years ago I would hear the advice from my parents: what’s important is to teach a child how to think, not to dictate what she should think. 

The goal of education–as the experts say–is to develop young people who think critically and independently, who have information about themselves, want to give something positive back to society, know how to interact with others, and can overcome or adapt themselves with various challenges in life. Education also has to be able to develop individuality, talent, the physical and mental capabilities of each child, teach them about peace, tolerance, gender equality, and friendship among people.

But, in practice, education has a different meaning for each person. Some see it as a right, a necessity, a responsibility, a challenge, a luxury, or a dream. For those of us who are lucky, the measure of education differs depending upon different phases in our lives. When we are young, we are taught to study seriously, pass examinations, get a diploma, find a job, then to work, and be of use for many. After we are grown-up, perhaps we will also advise our children in the same way. At every phase in our lives, we empower ourselves to think, question, choose, and educate our ability to evaluate life.

2. From a writer’s perspective, how do you see our education today?

Frankly, there are still so many problems that we must overcome in the education world. From the aspect of access to education, there is still a gap at every level: between islands, between the center and the regions, between urban and rural areas, between socio-economic classes.

According to 2018 data of the Bureau of Statistics, only 37 % of children are registered in PAUD or early childhood education. The quality of teachers is seriously inadequate: 68 percent of kindergarten teachers do not have high school diplomas. And, 4.2 million children between the ages of 7 and 18 do not go to school. Of that number, for most between the ages of 16 to 18, the reason is mainly early marriages.

According to the PISA report at the end of last year, the score for reading in Indonesia was ranked 72 of 77 countries, although reading is extremely important for education.

Now, what is the meaning of education if many Indonesian children do not go to school or do not have access to adequate education? In the interior parts of Papua, children are so poor that they go to school hungry—if they go to school—because they don’t have enough food at home. They go to school barefoot because their families cannot buy shoes. Or they don’t go to school because it is too far away, there are not enough teachers, or because there is no school. For these children, education is a luxury. 

But the facts still don’t change, and these children will continue to be disadvantaged in life. A child who is illiterate or does not know math will not be able to get a job. There is a good possibility that he will not be healthy and he will not be well nourished. The number of girls who do not go to school perpetuates gender inequality because for many years the value of girls’ education has been regarded as far less than that of boys’ education. Oh yes, and that’s not to mention children with disabilities. Most of them will not go to school, because the majority of educational facilities are not able to accommodate them. 

For many poor families, school is too expensive and children must stay at home to help with housework or work to help support the family economy. This will extend the cycle of poverty and lack of productivity which have held their families, prisoners, for generations. They will never achieve the ‘demographic bonus’ needed for the future of the nation’s economy.

And so on, and so on.

There are still many inequalities in this country which will become our homework for a long time. We are still far from the standard set by article 28 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Children, which states, “All children have the right to high-quality education. Elementary education must be provided for free, middle school education must be made accessible, and all children must be encouraged to attain the highest possible level of education. Discipline applied in school must respect the rights and dignity of children.” 

3. Creativity is often made secondary in our education, although creativity is not only artwork. And science also demands creativity. How do you view creativity as one of the goals of education?

A perception indeed exists that scientific thinking and creative thinking or creativity are two skills in opposition, but that perception is incorrect. Creativity does not merely mean wild energy without form, or freedom to be chaotic. 

But imagination, or the ability to think outside the box, is a skill greatly needed in life, especially nowadays.  

The desire to delve deeply into something, to question and not just to swallow wholesome information that may not be correct, to try to find out about something, to look for a solution or a way out that is more efficient, makes more sense, is better, to look at a problem from several angles, all of that requires creativity.

In the past, in high school, I remember the students were asked to choose and take the role of some important character in history. 

We all had to do research, including on the choice and emphasis of the angle of the narration, how would we play that figure in our imagination, how we would imagine that figure would think and decide upon important things. 

4. Can reading and writing become a means for education? If they can, what kind of reading and writing?

For me, the habits of reading and writing are the foundations for education. I always believe that reading and writing are two sides of the same coin: they need each other, they complete each other. I always remember what Susan Sontag, my favorite American philosopher, and writer, said: when we write, we are sharpening the art of reading, with extra intensity and attention. In my experience, I’m always excited about reading, when we read a good text, or inspiring, or touching, we are moved to write. But maybe that’s because I am a writer.

When I was little, reading was my first window on the world. 

Before TV, we first learned about the world through our reading. The world in the sense of a world greater than our homes. Other countries, other cities, other cultures. We can learn empathy, tolerance, respect for difference, and other people’s cultures, or different opinions while still respecting each other, from our reading. And that awareness was continually fostered until we grew up.  

Writing is also good to train the ability to argue, to sharpen our thinking, train our memories. We learn to analyze a problem and understand as well as improve the way we think. I always remember something better if I have written it down in black and white.

5. What were your experiences in the education world in Indonesia? Can you give a comparison with education in other countries?

Every time I am asked what education means to me, I remember my Indonesian teacher in elementary school. Her name was Bu Tommy. Bu Tommy was my homeroom teacher in third grade—we are talking about the 70s now—and she was also the language teacher. Sometimes she also taught religion and because it was a Catholic school, the materials were focused on lessons in Catholicism, although the approach was very open and inclusive. 

Bu Tommy was not just the only teacher at the school who was thinking outside the box, she also made a great contribution to my life: she encouraged me to send my writing to magazines such as Hai and Ananda, encouraged me to take part in writing competitions, until in 1980 I won the IKAPI national essay competition. I was just eight years old at the time, and that was the first time I stood at a podium on the top floor of the Aldiron Plaza and had to verbally deliver the essence of my essay titled, Perpustakaanku (My Library), after practicing with my mother and Bu Tommy, before I received the award from the director of IKAPI and also from the Minister of Education and Culture at the time, the late Daoed Yusuf. 

I’m even convinced I became a writer thanks to Bu Tommy.

From the beginning, she always stressed the importance of reading and writing. At that time, the nature of the curriculum for Indonesian was very technical and based on memorization: memorizing proverbs, memorizing compound words, memorizing synonyms and antonyms, memorizing vocabulary, but there was almost no component about rhetorical structure, in the sense of how to write or present an idea or arrange sentences and paragraphs well with each other, how to think about flow and structure. There was also no component on grammar—basic understanding of commas, periods, exclamation points, question marks, or parentheses. What is the meaning of the subject, predicate, object, and how to arrange a sentence correctly? 

All of that was sorely lacking in our language foundation. 

We can see the manifestation of that everywhere until today: in texts found in public spaces, in media reporting, in company reports, in captions at museums and art galleries. Sentences that are incomplete, or make no sense, or which are grammatically disorganized, or that have lots of repetition. That’s why I was very lucky to have a language teacher like Bu Tommy, who taught us all of that which was not in the formal curriculum.  

There were four practical methods that Bu Tommy taught.

First, practice writing. She taught that there are many types of writing: Fiction and non-fiction, prose and poetry, essays, letters, a diary, a travel journal, reports, reportage, stories, or prayers. Bu Tommy gave us writing assignments every day.

Second, accustom yourself to reading every day. She always said, the more we read material that is well written, the more we will want to write. We will have a reference, aha, this is good writing. In this case, the role of parents and family is of course important. The culture of reading often begins at home.

Third, practice composing fiction, and she differentiated it with just writing. Composing requires the ability to tell a story, she said, combined with imagination and structure. Once a week, Bu Tommy would have us compose a story. We could compose anything: a short story, an illustrated story, or a one-page story. 

Sometimes, we were asked to write a prayer in our way, and I remember I would be inspired by verses of the Bible, collections of prayers, and books about the lives of the prophets which we read in class or the library in the form of comic books with illustrations and well-written texts. 

The language was so good, like poetry. 

Several years later, when I began reading translations of Al-Quran—not in a religious context but more in a literary context—I also became aware of the beauty of its language, like the Bible. 

Poetic language.

So for me, religious instruction became literary enlightenment about life, not merely religious advice, a guide in religious spirituality, philosophy, or a collection of rules and prohibitions.  

Fourth, she also taught about being precise—the art of summarizing an article, argument, or situation. At the time we didn’t realize that this skill is very important in life, to read something quickly, summarize a complex situation, get into the essence of a story or narrative quickly, especially these days when everything is so fast-paced. These skills also made us become better writers: not too emotional, understanding what is meant by pacing, rhythm, efficiency, and precision.

I don’t know whether it was conscious or not on the part of Bu Tommy, but these two lessons—language and religion—became meaningful for me. 

This was so different from the lessons in Pancasila Moral Education (PMP) which was just memorizing about good and moral behavior, or History of the National Struggle, which was just anti-Communist propaganda disguised as history lessons—neither contained any elements at all of the critical thinking, we learned how to think through reading and writing.

In the history lessons, my generation who experienced elementary school in the 70s and 80s, was unfortunate, because we were continually fed anti-Communist propaganda by the Suharto regime. Besides that, we didn’t learn history to find out about the meaning of history, but just to memorize a bunch of names and ancient dates. 

Examples of the memorization: “The period of the government of Hayam Wuruk, the fourth king of Majapahit, began in 1350 and ended in 1389”; “Mahendradatta was a beautiful queen. She was the mother of Prabu Airlangga from Bali.” 

We were also force-fed Sanskrit names which were long, poetic, but empty without context. Examinations were always in the multiple-choice format with answers a, b, c, d. We were never given a historical perspective or taught to analyze history and several versions or interpretations, why something took place, at that time what was happening in the world, how did this and that relate. Everything was black and white, nothing was in the middle. 

6. How much did the activity of reading shape you personally? Is there a literary work and an author/thinker who had the most influence in shaping you? 

I was fortunate to grow up in a house filled with books and in a family of readers. My parents taught me to read from a young age. My aunt, Roswitha Pamuntjak, helped to raise me in the family bookstore, PT Djambatan. That bookstore was part of my family’s publishing company that was established in 1952. It was the second bookstore in Jakarta, after Balai Pustaka. 

I was such a bookworm that I became famous for never going anywhere without a book. At home, I was also like that. 

Maybe also because I was an only child, I was used to being alone.

The first book I read that left a lasting impression on me was Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. 

The story of a governess who was alone in the world then went to work for an aristocrat and fell in love with him. 

I don’t know why, but I was always interested in stories about women who were strong and resilient and had an independent spirit particularly in facing injustice, inequality, and difficult love. 

Jane Eyre was also a reader—and I learned a lot from the way she looked at life and evaluated it through her reading. Charlotte Bronte’s prose in Jane Eyre is rich and very beautiful, even brilliant—and whenever I read it again, at whatever age, that always arouses something in me. There is always a part of the book that makes me think: aah, this is a good description, it’s so amazing the way she explains that problem. I’m always moved, and I learn again about empathy and sacrifice every time I read this book.

The second book that was memorable for me was Portrait of a Lady by Henry James—Isabel Archer, the main character in that novel, like many female characters in novels by Henry James, is an intelligent, well-educated, broadminded woman who is beautiful, but who is often treated as an object, an object admired and desired by men. The women characters of Henry James are mostly aware of their shortcomings, but they have moral integrity, they know what is right and wrong, they dare to take steps or make decisions they believe to be right, or the best ethical decisions for the good of many, even though at times they must sacrifice.

In my mind, Henry James is also a connoisseur or an expert observer of the human psyche—almost no type of human being or existential human situation has not been explored in his works.

Two other figures who have been important in shaping my perspectives on the world, and I’m not talking about just one, but a variety of perspectives, especially ways of looking at art, are Susan Sontag and John Berger. Susan Sontag was an American writer, public intellectual, and filmmaker, and my ways of viewing the world were particularly shaped by her early collections of essays, Against Interpretation, Styles against Radical Will, Regarding the Pain of Others, On Photography, Illness as a Metaphor, The Way We Live Now. Her scope was broad—from media, culture, film, photography, to human rights, communism, leftist ideology to literature and art. She was a woman of extraordinary erudition, and her prose is brilliant.

John Berger was a British cultural critic and writer. I read his most well-known work, Ways of Seeing, in an undergraduate course at university, and it shaped my thinking about the world, and also about art. We each have our particularities. So all attempts to force one single perspective, for example, the one Islam, or one style or esthetic or a single ideology towards the world will never succeed.

Meanwhile, the novelist who has influenced me the most is Toni Morrison, the great writer who just passed away several months ago. She is an example of a writer who can combine precision and poetic lightness with important themes of humanity such as injustice, slavery, colonialism, lack of freedom, and the shackling of humans. She is someone who can write both ‘small’ and ‘large.’ There is a sentence in Beloved, the first of her novels that I read, that always echoes within me, and which I just used as the title of my speech at ANU last week: “Freeing oneself is one thing; claiming ownership of one’s freed self is another.” Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer with her novels, July’s People, Burgher’s Daughter, Renata Adler with her work, Speedboat, that is part memoir part narrative journalism part philosophical meditations, and Christa Wolf, a German writer whose work, The Quest of Christa T, is an incredible novel about identity with autobiographical elements. I also like the short stories and novels of A.M. Homes, Jeanette Winterson, and Lorrie Moore.

7. Do you have plans to launch a new book? And with the situation like it is today, what impact are you feeling as a writer?

Yes, next week Insya Allah (God willing), the Indonesian version of my third novel, Kekasih Musim Gugur, will be launched by Gramedia Pustaka Utama. The German-language version was already published two years ago and launched in Berlin in September 2018. Then the original version in English, Fall Baby, was published by Penguin Random House SEA in October 2019. Now finally, there is an Indonesian version. I say version, not a translation, because I rewrote the book, I didn’t just translate it.  

This novel is a sequel to my first novel, Amba, and the main character is Srikandi, the daughter of Amba and Bhisma born out of wedlock. Srikandi is a contemporary artist who has traveled widely living in various international cities, but she can’t free herself from her dark family history, which is connected to a wound in the nation’s history. Srikandi comes from a generation different from that of her mother, Amba, so her sensibilities, modernity, and freedom to speak and behave are completely different from those of Amba.

This story is not just the story of Srikandi, or a story of strengthening and discovering her multiple identities and making peace with the past, but also the story of Dara, her friend who becomes her enemy. 

Dara is a political activist. Srikandi and Dara differ in terms of family background, religion, and socio-economic class. The way they struggle is also very different, one as an artist, and the other as an activist. But the values they are fighting for are the same: An Indonesia that is tolerant, open, and democratic.

This novel highlights relationship of mother and daughter, between Srikandi and her mother Amba, and Srikandi and her step-sister, Amalia, and also between friends, Srikandi and Dara. The novel also sheds light on art, and how art can be an instrument to fight against forgetting and injustice. So those who like art will find many artists and interpretations of their work in this novel, from the political art of Sudjojono to Djoko Pekik, from the abstract style of Umi Dahlan to the aspect of sexuality in the works of I GAK Murniasih, the Balinese painter. For those who have read Amba or the English version The Question of Red, reading Kisah Musim Gugur or Fall Baby will feel it is a continuation of an unfinished story. KMG can also be read as a novel that stands alone. 

Of course, I am very concerned about the impact of the Coronavirus crisis on the world of publishing and bookstores. Bookstores have had to close, the publishing business is stalled, printing has faced obstacles to its work, people can no longer go to bookstores and buy books. Employees have lost their jobs; writers are also distraught about not being able to sell their works.

I established a bookstore myself, Toko Buku Aksara, in the early 2000s, so I know exactly the challenges involved, especially in a city where the interest in reading is not too great compared with other cities or countries in general. So I am excited about publishing my novel in the form of an e-Book first so that readers can support publishing and bookstores by buying the novel through Gramedia Pustaka Utama online, and then later when the PSBB (large scale social restrictions) have passed, the novel can be provided in the physical form. 

The plan is that KMG will be published as an e-Book on May 11th. Don’t forget, for those who want to buy it, you can buy it at GPU online.

8. Your advice for increasing interest in reading and writing during this pandemic

About a week ago I posted on Instagram my 9 tips to fight against frustration and keep on writing. This time here are my 6 tips for increasing interest in reading and writing while WFH:

  1. Make a list of any books you want to and must-read in a month. Make a target of when and how many books you have to finish. This is a commitment, so we have to do it. Believe me, every time we reach a target, we will feel happy, because we feel productive and we have learned something new.
  2. Every time you watch a good film on Netflix or whatever channel, make a habit of observing its structure. Watching a film doesn’t mean being lazy or not doing anything. I often get inspiration from films or TV drama series because writing good scripts for TV is not easy—we are talking about pacing, rhythm, arranging dialogue, constructing scenes, creating characters, building internal coherence, thinking about visuals, summarizing and condensing—and all of that can be applied in our writing.  
  3. For writers and non-writers: accustom yourself to writing something, anything, every day. About what happened that day, about your feelings and observations, about your ideas even the banalest. There is nothing that is not of value if we write about it.
  4. For writers: use this time and space for practicing writing. Yesterday I was chatting briefly with Pak Sapardi on WhatsApp. He said: “Literature is the way writers present their ideas, not the ideas presented, which in essence are the same since literature has been written.” We can only improve our ability to present ideas by continually practicing: reading good writing, doing research, taking notes, contemplating, looking for fresh metaphors, making lists of new vocabulary, as well as editing and perfecting our writing. 
  5. Don’t take whatever we do or experience lightly, even what is not related to the world of literacy or reading-writing. Cooking at home, sports, enjoying painting or drawing, washing the car, rearranging the house, listening to music, it can all be material to enrich vocabulary and expression: color, tone, smell, sound, texture, composition, also about our feelings and emotions.
  6. I’ve already said this, but I’ll say it again: Have confidence! Believe that we have something valuable to contribute through our writing.

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