Dewi Lestari, known to her fans as Dee, is an explorer of the creative world. The singer, novelist and mother of two is always willing to try new things, from yoga and meditation to bread-making and vegetarian cooking.
Born in Bandung in 1976, Dee is the fourth of five children, almost all of whom are now working in creative industries.
“My parents always encouraged us to learn music from childhood,” Dee said. “My father was a very good storyteller, though he never wrote any books. He also enjoyed singing and taught himself to play the piano.”
Dee started out as a singer, providing backing vocals for acts as diverse as rapper Iwa K, pop band Java Jive, the P. Project vocal group and a series of legendary singers such as Harvey Malaiholo and Chrisye.
In 1993, she formed the girl group RSD (Rida Sita Dewi), along with her friends Rida Farida and Sita Nursanti. Together, they released three studio albums in cooperation with major record labels Warna Musik and Sony Music, followed by a “best of” album in 2002. Dee later split from the group to pursue a solo career, releasing two independent albums.
While she continued to release music until 2008, she began changing tack back in 2001, with the release of her first novel, “Supernova.” Exploring personal relationships in a humorous style peppered with scientific terms and spiritual philosophies, “Supernova” was a hit, spawning several sequels. With her fan base growing, Dee felt that she had successfully made the transition from singer to writer.
“There are two things about writing that make me more comfortable: the freedom to relax and the freedom to be myself,” she said. “Singing has a glamorous side and some sort of obligation to appear in public, which I am not always comfortable with. I am happy to enter the studio and make songs, but I’m not too eager to get on stage and sing. These days I feel more inspired to sit down and write stories rather than songs.”
Dee’s latest release, “Madre,” was inspired by her most recent creative interest: cooking. Madre, the Italian word for mother, is also a baking term for the yeast-based starter used for making bread.
“Pasta madre is a kind of living organism made of cultured yeast,” she said. “The more I learned about it, the more I was impressed. Just imagine: a single living dough-starter can last hundreds of years and become the mother ingredient for so many loaves of bread.”
She used the idea as a starting point for a story about an old-fashioned bakery that was eventually abandoned by its customers. This was just one of the pieces in the 176-page collection of fictional stories and essays she compiled over the past five years.
Most of the stories in “Madre” explore spiritual themes in everyday settings, looking for meaning in the mundane, as in the story “Semangkok Acar Bawang Untuk Cinta dan Tuhan” (“A Bowl of Pickled Onions for Love and God”).
Dee said she was inspired by writers such as Ayu Utami, author of the groundbreaking 1998 novel “Saman,” and prolific poet Sapardi Djoko Damono.
Sitok Srengenge, also a poet and the editor of “Madre,” said that Dee deserved to be counted among these respected authors as one of the country’s best.
“Dee has a good sense of how to make people curious,” he said. “She is successful as a writer because she offers unique and complex themes in each of her works, delivering her message with a smart and fresh narrative. In ‘Madre,’ I not only find evidence of Dee’s skill in storytelling and the masterful use of language, but also her sensitivity to listen to and respond to crucial problems in human relationships.”
Dee herself has had a complicated love life. Her first marriage, to R&B singer Marcell Siahaan, ended after she gave birth to their son, Keenan Avalokita Kirana. She later married Reza Gunawan, a holistic healer, and had her second child, Atisha Prajna Tiara. She is now happy to stay at home, looking after her two children, exploring her interests and writing books.
For the past 10 years, Dee has regularly practiced yoga and meditation. “Meditation is a counterweight that can make modern man remain conscious and also able to hit the brakes to stop the hectic pace of modern life,” she said. “It is an integral part of any healthy lifestyle.”
Dee has taken her healthy lifestyle a step further, following a strict vegetarian diet for the past five years.
“As a teenager, I always wanted to be vegetarian because I felt sorry for the slaughtered animals,” she said. “As an adult, my motivation is based on environmental research that shows the livestock industry plays a big part in worsening global warming and environmental destruction.”
Dee said she never forced her children to follow her lifestyle, but they no longer ate meat either. She said Keenan did not like meat from the age of one, and neither did Atisha. “Research shows that vegetarian children are not malnourished and actually have above average intelligence,” Dee said.
Staying at home with the kids has not meant that Dee has become isolated from her fans and work. With more than 200,000 followers on Twitter and 35,000 fans on Facebook, Dee is an active online personality, who regularly communicates with her fans. She said that social media, especially Twitter, has become the primary way for her to get in touch with her readers.
“Through Twitter, I can inform my readers about my releases, create quizzes and interact with people with regards to anything from employment to trivial chit-chat,” she said.
And it’s not just the fans who are paying attention — Dee was nominated for the prestigious Khatulistiwa Literary Award in 2001 and 2003. “Madre” might just be the book to finally tip the scales and help her seize the prize.