Kitab Kawin


Published in Indonesia by Gramedia Pustaka Utama (2021) all other rights available

Described by its author, Laksmi Pamuntjak (Winner of Singapore Book Awards 2021 Best Literary Work for Fall Baby) as a playful attempt to ‘marry’ the word Kitab (the Arabic word for ‘Book,’ but whose common usage in Bahasa Indonesia imparts a sense of ancientness or sacredness, e.g. Kitab Suci, the Holy Book) and Kawin (which can mean that most solemn of occasions: the marriage or wedding vows, but can also mean the primal act itself—the act of copulation), Kitab Kawin (The Book of Marriage) offers a more versatile interpretation on women in relationships. It depicts a cruel and tender world not only where desire, longing, and modern perversity go side by side, but also where the realities of women’s lives often include the violence visited upon their bodies.

In the eleven stories that make up this collection, we meet women as diverse in experience as they are in age and occupation: former child brides living together in a Korean restaurant-cum-presumed brothel; a pair of middle-aged artists bickering at the funeral of their famous former lover; a hardened insurance company executive and writer-wannabee trained in the art of self-preservation; a yoga instructor-cum-reluctant swinger who might or might not have killed her own husband; a 15-year old girl raped repeatedly by her own father in their own home; a native Moluccan woman entwined in a perilous relationship with a Javanese political prisoner; a lonely middle-aged woman finding herself besotted by her daughter’s new partner; a restless housewife keeping three boyfriends on a leash as a way to cope with the infidelities of his husband; a successful art consultant meeting for the first time the fiercely loyal wife of her long-time secret lover; a woman falling madly, almost ruinously in love with her own brother’s wife; a ghost telling the story of her own grisly murder.

Spanning different locations and islands—from comfortable Jakarta upper-class middle-class homes to pokey minimarts, from the Bogor Botanical Gardens to the Left Bank streets of Paris, from small towns in rural Central Java to the former prison island of Buru in Eastern Indonesia—each of these stories distil as well as enlarge women’s affairs—relationships that sour and fester, spouses who hurt and betray, family members who molest, children who leave, bodies that cave in to age—in a culture that so often radicalises ordinary human experience and describes the colours of corrosion in the flat, one-dimensional language of dysfunction.

The women in these stories are brave and vulnerable, malleable and intractable, raw and calculated, healthy and hurt. They yearn, trust, desire and love. They fear, waver, doubt, and hate. They fight, defy, fail and triumph. They are often attuned to their own flaws, but are not necessarily apologetic about them. They talk and think about sex and their bodies, plumbing into the depths of the feminine experience as something that is located in the body, sensed from within. They could be any of us, whose struggle between what we are and what society wants us to be is the staple of our daily lives.

Though the stories’ contemplation is bound up in sex, power, pleasure, pain, guilt, and often debilitating sense of duty, the true events of Kitab Kawin are the unending quest for self-knowledge: what holds the solitary self together and what blows it apart, what makes a woman and what undoes her, how to make peace with one’s past and present selves.

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