Writings


This American Life

There were moments in what Garin called his American life when he felt the urge to stop himself, while walking down some familiar street, caught in the midst of a moving crowd, staring at faces, places, as if he were lost, or otherwise found. Then, with both hands tucked in his pockets, he took a deep breath and exhaled quietly the seconds brewing within him, racing – always racing – against the rapid surge of a city, a whole nation, until it became unrecognizable, and he found himself yearning to be home.

Home, he recited the word in his head: this morning, when he tossed a box of fruit loops into a ceramic bowl he purchased not a month ago at Crate & Barrel; when he stood on a platform waiting for the train at Kenmore Square; or when he sat in the subway car, going north toward Gov’t Center, next to a woman who smelled of corn oil, who was eating fried rice out of a plastic container; and again, when he switched lines at Park Street.

Riding on Boston’s underground trains hadn’t always been Garin’s thing. In fact, a lot of modern conveniences didn’t used to be his thing – until he arrived in America. For a while, in the beginning, he couldn’t drop mail inside blue boxes planted on street curbs every few blocks, because he had had misgivings about the way postal systems operate in general – a service liability he’d grown used to in Jakarta – where mail is constantly lost among the heaps of thousands, and hundreds of thousands.

More than that, Garin also used to find it highly suspicious for anyone to deposit their cash at the ATMs. Obviously, smart machines intimidated him.

It was different now, though. Garin had gotten used to the system: he home-ordered everything that could be home-delivered, from books to groceries to DVDs to takeout meals; and he screened his calls: letting most of them go straight to voicemail, only hours later sorting through voice messages – which, in Indonesia, was simply not done. It’s rude, they would say, to turn somebody away. Imagine if it were your call, they’d add, being ignored. But what he didn’t tell them is how, in America, everyone is turned away at one point or other, and it isn’t his duty to make the process less inconvenient.

Recently, a call came through marked as a private number, and as usual Garin let his voicemail pick it up.

The message, when Garin got around to checking his voice mailbox, was from an old friend, Amulet. She was going to be in town this coming weekend for a quick visit. She had news to tell him. That, and The Nutcracker was going to be playing at the Boston Opera House. It would be nice, she said in a hyperactive voice – as if she was in a hurry toward some place exciting – if they could grab a drink together. Just the two of them, after the show.

It was a week before Christmas, Garin had been waiting for snowflakes to sprinkle down from the sky. Back when he still lived in a tropical country, he had thought every Christmas in America was a white Christmas. He had been wrong: some Christmases are dull and gray with a gloomy air wrapped around them, though some others are postcard-perfect.

Garin had seen the Nutcracker before, in his first year away from home, on television, aired live from the Kennedy Center, Mikhail Baryshnikov taking center stage. It was impressive, but Garin didn’t understand ballet. And he’d never made the effort to understand it. Not really.

“Aw my Lord!” Amulet shrieked at the sight of him running up to her, moments after he’d gotten out of the subway station in Downtown Crossing, then strutting past a long line of late-comers who were hoping to buy discounted tickets at the Opera House. Garin wore three layers of clothing, yet he was still shivering. “Look at you, guy!”

“Hey,” Garin said. It was all he could say. He kissed her absent-mindedly on the lips, which was how he remembered to greet her. They hugged briefly, amicably, as old friends would. Her cheek flushed when it touched his. “Have you been waiting long?”

“Yes, I have,” she said without taking her eyes off Garin. “You owe me a drink.”

“Sure.” He mustered a smile.

“Okay.”

Finding Garin’s freezing hand, she led him into the lobby area – where they ordered two glasses of Shiraz at the concession stand and purchased a copy of the show’s program to be shared inside the theatre.

Joining the dozens who milled around in the lobby, the two secured a corner spot by the banisters, half hidden by the grand staircase. The room was flooded with orange lighting that spilled from the chandeliers above. Garin hadn’t faced her in so long he forgot what it was like to be in the presence of her breath, as he made the painstaking effort to talk over loud chatter emanating from the crowd.

“So what did you want to tell me?” he asked, taking a small sip of the Shiraz.

Amulet gestured with her hand and mouthed the words: “I can’t hear you.”

She wore a tight, black dress underneath a heavy overcoat, and through the unbuttoned top Garin could see the fullness of her cleavage.

Since they’d seen each other last, she had cut her hair off to shoulder length, had had it curled and dyed into a shade of burgundy with pink highlights. She had also lost a considerable amount of weight, which struck him as odd, because he had always thought the extra weight was what made her more human, less like every other woman who aspired to be thin and frail. The thought of touching her frightened him now, thinking she would break easily.

Garin leaned forward so his lips touched her earlobe. “Are you getting married?”

A smile broke through her countenance, and she pulled away from him. “Oh, right: go there,” she said.

He had thought of marrying her once, back when the choice was his to make, and when the concept of America was still as strange to him as that of the rest of the world, the peoples and places that made up the vast universe he lived in.

It seemed only yesterday Garin had stood before the Immigration Judge and told him (under oath) of a story that originally belonged to his cousin, Ansari, whose parents were sent away to a correctional facility in Nusa Kambangan for having co-written a controversial book damning an Indonesian elite society. The imprisonment took place during the peak of Suharto’s 32-year regime: a long, long time ago – when Garin was four and Ansari was nine – but he told the story so well he was quickly granted the right to seek political asylum.

*

It was Nyoman’s idea that Garin should apply for asylum, because his wife, a Korean-American named Da-Hee, which onomatopoetically means ‘forehead’ in Bahasa, was a little wary about her husband harboring an illegal alien.

Garin had been in America for a little over a year at the time: he spoke fluent English and a few words of Spanish. He thought it absurd that anyone should refer to him as an alien, as if he’d been dropped out of the sky and crash-landed on earth’s proud land, devoid of origin. Yet, all the same, he let the word define him, render him an outcast, who didn’t belong, or was less human than everyone else.

I Made Nyoman was a Balinese painter who’d been living in New England for twenty-two years, whose work had been called “courageous” – if not “audacious” – by some of his admirers. Attempting to introduce Balinese arts to the international artsy scene in and around Boston, Nyoman opened a gallery near his home in Jamaica Plain called I Made Art, which Garin thought was a nice wordplay on his name.

The two met while Garin was still busing tables at a Mexican restaurant downtown, and Nyoman quickly recognized the familiar traits of his cinnamon-colored skin, dark eyes, and unusually lean body that seemed to have been built to appease rather than appeal: delicate, slim, petite. Although, it probably wasn’t so much Garin’s looks that captivated Nyoman and alerted him of the presence of a fellow countryman as it was his demeanor.

Garin didn’t talk much, and when he did it was often out of politeness. Even so, there was something about Garin that appeared detached from his surroundings, as if he was bumbling inside his own head, while desperately trying to concoct the perfect formula to blend in with everyone else.

Nyoman took the initiative to introduce himself to Garin. But just as he had spotted a fellow Indonesian by way of his appearance and gestures, Garin had apparently received the same vibes from him. There is always something in the way people carry themselves that rarely fails to communicate their origin, Nyoman thought, even when it’s cloaked under the most sophisticated disguises.

When Garin lost his job after 9/11, Nyoman kindly offered him a managerial position at I Made Art as a gallery manager. Even though the job required Garin to work seven days a week, eleven hours a day – with the exception of the Day of Silence, which falls annually around spring time – he accepted the offer because otherwise he would have had no other choice but to go back where he came from.

“Did you really tell the judge that?” asked Nyoman, after Garin recounted to him the details of his summation at the immigration court. “And he bought your bogus story?”

Garin shrugged. “I suppose he did.”

They were unloading the latest work of a young Balinese painter from a large wooden crate. The painter, who lived in Bali and often had his work shipped in a container, had just finished a series of paintings set in Pasar Sukowati, an open market on the island that’s famous for its hand-crafted jewelry and batik.

Nyoman shook his head at all seven paintings which Garin had stood on their ends in a row, against the wall. “Tsk, tsk, tsk,” he clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth thrice, his chest heaving with wonderment. “This kid captures the details perfectly. Luar biasa.” He turned to Garin. “Don’t you agree?”

“Sure,” Garin said, a little too quickly, as if playing an automated reply.

“Anyway,” Nyoman threw one arm around Garin’s shoulders. “That’s wonderful news, Gar – now my wife can shut up about you not being good enough for the gallery.”

Sometimes, Garin wished his country were at war, so he didn’t have to work so hard at convincing others how much he wanted – and deserved – to stay in America.

The truth was he hadn’t a reason to be there, at all. Unlike other immigrants who had come to America out of necessity, either to flee from a persecuting dictator, or endless famine, the decision Garin had made to leave Indonesia was not prompted by impossible conditions; on the contrary, he left because he was young and hungry for the world.

Garin was 23 – fresh out of college – when he boldly went to his father and asked to be sent abroad. It would be good for him, he reasoned with his father, to see the world, and to change with the world. It was a time of youthful arrogance, Garin admitted, but he could not miss out on the journey of a lifetime. He needed to be where everybody was.

Yet in spite of his dreams, Garin would discover his America to be nothing at all like what he had imagined. A college graduate with a degree in social sciences, Garin had longed for a life worthy of its pursuit, a life of meaning. Though, in time, he settled for less than what he deserved.

When his father died from a heart attack, Garin wrote in a black, blank card to his mother to tell her how sorry he was for her loss. He said he was also sorry he couldn’t come home to be with her, because his visa had nearly run out and he didn’t want to risk deportation. Inside the card, Garin enclosed a white piece of glossy magazine paper he’d cut into the shape of a rectangle, which was emblematic of his grief, and signed his name at the bottom of the card.

Licking the back of a stamp he bought at Kinko’s, attaching it to the envelope, and dropping the mail into a blue mailbox in Harvard Square, Garin realized he’d stayed in America solely out of habit – because the home he was supposed to return to no longer made sense to him.

“Take the weekend off,” Nyoman punched Garin on the arm in a brotherly spirit. Garin cringed at the sudden burst of excitement, which seemed to him somewhat premature. “Go someplace you’ve never been. Celebrate.”

“Where would I go?”

“Don’t be such a baby,” Nyoman said. “You’re one step closer to being an American now: make your own adventure.”

Later in the evening, in bed in his studio apartment that overlooked Mass. Avenue, sandwiched between rows of establishments run by a number of foreigners just like him, the Armenians and Brazilians and Puerto Ricans and what have you, Garin leafed through travel pages in old magazines he’d stolen from Nyoman’s office. Cuba, Hawaii, St. Moritz, Mexico, City of Angels, Nevada—

Printed on a glossy page next to an Online Poker ad was a blow-up photo of Reno, The Biggest Little City In The World, fortressed by the Sierras. At sundown, the mountain range mysteriously changes form not unlike shadows of other, distant hilltops, corralling a city that glows like hidden gems in its midst. A tagline across the page says, in silver lettering, “Cash your dreams here with us!”

Garin hadn’t thought of cashing anything in Reno, but when he rode in a taxicab as soon as he got out of the airport, wheezing past casinos, restaurants and night clubs, it was difficult to resist the idea.

Compared to Boston, Reno was another world, which gave Garin the odd impression it had been strung in an entirely different solar system. At the motel where he had arranged to stay, Garin was complimented with a small stack of brochures by the manager, who couldn’t stop telling him what a great club they had just a few doors down.

“What would you like to drink, honey?” asked the bartender, a woman in her late forties who sported pink short hair and a pierced lip. The club had everything: a bar room, a casino, karaoke rooms, a modest hotel, and private dance chambers.

“Uh,” Garin looked at the dozens of liquor bottles shelved behind the bartender, where the overhead lights bounced and were distorted, creating haphazard effects of mini shooting stars, right there in the bottles – needles of pixelated rays suspended in alcohol. “Long Island iced tea?”

“Coming right up,” said the bartender.

With a glass in one hand, Garin went to the cashier’s desk and exchanged ten dollars’ worth of quarters, before going to the nearest carousel and dumped three quarters into the small opening in the slot machine.

Garin pulled the iron lever, while reciting grace under his breath – but nothing was happening. Instead, the screen flickered with images of cartoon characters he recognized from Nickelodeon. Another player who sat at the next machine made a rudimentary comment about how the lever was decorative, and that he should press the mounted plastic buttons below the screen to spin the reels.

Garin thanked the other player for the tip, and went about pressing said buttons with each inquisitive blurb that appeared on screen, which didn’t seem to have anything to do with the game.

[The cartoon character] is going to the woods with his friends. Spin or Bet?

Garin pressed Spin.

In the woods, [the cartoon character] meets with an evil witch. Spin or Bet?

Garin pressed Bet Max, dropped more quarters into the slot.

The evil witch entices [the cartoon character] with a magic ring. Spin or Double Bet?

Garin pressed Double Bet, spent all of his quarters.

Would you like to cash out now, or continue to play?

Garin sipped his drink noisily through a straw, considered his options, and pressed the other, smaller button at far left: cash out. If he could get back half of what he’d spent on the game, he’d be a happy man, he thought.

While the machine tallied the game’s results, Garin finished his drink and slid two ice cubes into his mouth, crushing them with his teeth. The other player who gave him the tip about the lever being a mere decorative tool had lost a few rounds by now and was starting on a new spin. He stared at the screen impatiently as if he was about to smash his head through it, which, Garin assumed, wouldn’t be the strangest thing to happen in Reno.

“You done?” he asked Garin, in the middle of a spin.

Garin shrugged. “I think so.”

“Win anything?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Shouldn’t’ve stopped so soon,” said the man. “You could land a real jackpot with these babies.”

“I don’t really gamble,” Garin reasoned.

The other player cracked a cynical smile. “Everbody gambles,” he said, pressing the Spin button.

Garin slid more ice cubes into his mouth. “If you say so,” he said dismissively.

“Everybody gambles,” repeated the other player. “Mark my words.”

As though on cue, the slot machine Garin had played sputtered handfuls of coins out of the hopper. The other player went wild at the sound of this, and told Garin to quickly grab a drop bucket available at the cashier’s desk. Within seconds, and not a bucket in sight, hundreds of quarters bounced off of the machine’s base and dived to the carpeted floor.

Garin couldn’t believe his eyes.

A man dressed in a red uniform, in the fashion of a hotel concierge, approached Garin while carrying a red drop bucket in his hand. He was polite and helpful, collecting all of the quarters, which filled the bucket to the brim, and told Garin to follow him to the cashier’s desk.

“That’s got to worth at least a hundred dollars,” said the other player, holding his breath, following the tall man who had the winning bucket with his eyes.

“You think?” Garin spit the half-chewed cubes back into the glass.

“You hit a jackpot,” observed the other player in a tone that Garin found somewhat disturbing, as if he was relenting on past mistakes, or regrets. “And you said you didn’t gamble.”

“I don’t,” Garin muttered.

At the cashier’s desk, Garin finally figured out the exact amount of his win: $160.75—paid to him in bills of ten and twenty. He gave thirty dollars to the man in uniform and pocketed the rest.

Back at the bar, Garin ordered a margarita. Then he went to the poker table and sat there for an hour until his eyes watered from looking at playing cards and chips.

Garin was a happy drunk, always had been, who liked to laugh and get a little clumsy with women. But he was never violent or pushy with them: the alcohol in his blood usually only strong enough to compel him to perhaps steal a kiss or two, before it drove him to nausea, or sleep.

However, that night was not the same as other nights he had been inebriated, because he met someone he thought he could love. She told him her name, Amulet – like the talisman. For nearly an hour, she danced for him in a private room where the walls were painted brown and a disco ball hung from the ceiling, sending millions of fractured lights around the room, blinding him.

At the motel, Amulet undressed for Garin and let him kiss her on the lips, although she warned him not to, in the beginning when he asked her to come back to his room, because she only kissed men she was interested in, not those who paid her to pretend to be interested in them. Garin went for it, anyway. That was the only foreplay he knew, the only way he could get himself hard without jerking off.

For three hundred dollars a night, Amulet didn’t mind the kissing. Garin was generous with her – adding a fifty-dollar tip on top of what she’d already made, if she would let him call on her the next day. Amulet agreed, and they had sex again the following night.

*

In total, Garin cashed out more than half of his savings on Amulet: extending his stay in Reno for several more days, in spite of Nyoman’s objections, and once going at it in the backseat of a rental car with Lake Tahoe laying majestically in the backdrop, while the sky above them turned a deep shade of orange.

When morning came they were awakened by a warm stream of sunlight entering through the car windows. He smelled of cheap wine, and so did she. Amulet suggested they sober up with a cup of coffee and a quick breakfast at the nearest diner, where she then asked whether he would be interested in going for a hike.

Garin was not fond of hiking, or any activity that required him to sweat profusely, except for sex, because even though the famous Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, said “pain is inevitable and suffering is optional” in relations to the author’s running habit – Garin believed that pain, too, was a matter of choice: if he could avoid pain, at any cost, he saw no reason why he should have to embrace it. But he enjoyed spending time with Amulet, and he was short on cash, so it was out of necessity that he accepted the invitation.

“I really like your name,” said Garin, as they walked out of the diner, the sun glowing bright on their faces. “It has a mystical ring to it.”

“It’s not my name,” said Amulet. “I mean, it is my name; but it isn’t.”

Amulet was twenty-six. Her father was Peruvian, her mother was Irish: which explained Amulet’s dark hair, velvet eyes, and milk-white skin. She wasn’t skinny like most strippers Garin had previously gone to watch at strip clubs; she was curvy, her love handles had jiggled some when she had sat on him the previous night. Perhaps that was what had attracted him to her in the first place: her ordinariness, her flawed dispositions. So, despite her earlier warnings, he continued to steal from her a few intimate kisses.

A trailhead mark stood on Fairway Drive, facing a community center building, a mere short drive away from his motel; and because Amulet hiked regularly, she refrained from taking a copy of the trail’s map provided specifically to highlight certain paths and facilities new hikers would have otherwise ignored. Garin snatched a copy when she wasn’t looking, folded it in half, shoved it into his back pocket, and made a comment about fir trees dotting the trail. He didn’t care about the trees, though: he just wanted her to not notice the slight bulge on his ass.

“What do you mean by it is and isn’t your name?” asked Garin, spreading both arms apart the way he used to do as a child, pretending to be an aeroplane, except this time he did it to balance his body weight. Only a few minutes into the hike, the trail had begun to annoy him, consuming his energy: they were climbing up a steep hill.

“Amulet is my stage name,” said the young woman. “It was given to me by my booking agent, so I would sound more … exotic.”

“You’ve a booking agent?” he licked his upper lip, tasted his own sweat. “Like a manager?”

She snorted: “Sure.”

“That’s–” Garin wondered if he knew anyone else who had had their own manager “–awesome.”

Amulet rolled her eyes, went ahead of him and farther up toward the granite peaks. She was wearing a pair of black tights and a white sleeveless top: watching her hike the looping trail from behind was not unlike catching a glimpse of a tiger cub in action, mounting on rocks and leaping across narrow streams with the same agility as that of a felid. When Garin pointed this out to her, she chuckled.

At one point during their hike, Amulet stopped to show Garin the beauty of Lake Tahoe, which the trail conveniently covered in a circular form, where blotches of dark green, blue and grey were thrown together as though to enrich an abstract painting – and where each color complimented the other.

From where they stood, Garin saw two towering pine trees lean toward the lake and looking down onto a thick pine forest sprawled across a nameless valley. A breeze came their way: light, reckless. For some reason, he had hoped for the presence of solitude in such an environment, yet what he discovered was that the world had always been full of noise and that it was rather incredulous to expect otherwise. He smiled at this.

“What.”

“Nothing,” Garin shook his head, took a deep breath, let it out slowly. “It’s strange how silence can be so loud.”

Aptly called the Tahoe Rim Trail, it comprised the entire rim of Lake Tahoe, boasting a total length of 165 miles and passing through the states of Nevada and California. Campers loved this particular trail for the wealth of hiking options, and the full breadth of scenery which could practically be enjoyed from any point on the trail. But the idea exhausted Garin, who considered himself a city person, and therefore, in his opinion, is unable to appreciate, truly, the beauty of nature.

Yet standing next to Amulet, on a slope overlooking the valley, the front of his shirt sticking to his chest and displaying a chalice-shaped sweat stain that was dark and limp, Garin paid his compliments. Nobody liked a downer, he thought, and it certainly would have ruined the mood between him and Amulet were he to tell her what really ran through his mind: that the glittering surface of Lake Tahoe, guarded by an army of forest trees, were not worth the pain he had had to endure as he followed her up and down meandering paths.

Then, somewhere between rock slabs and a row of spruce trees: Garin was ready to quit. He didn’t know where he was: this, despite the fact that Lake Tahoe is so large it is visible from space. He wondered if Amulet knew the way back, or if she wanted to get lost on purpose, because everywhere he turned there was an open path, leading to more open paths. It occurred to him, while walking past patches of low-lying manzanita bushes, that they might already be in California, miles away from his motel in Reno.

“Damn,” he said.

“Anything wrong?” Amulet asked.

“I forgot to confirm my flight,” Garin told her. “I was supposed to call the airline this morning to confirm my flight, and I forgot.”

“You don’t have a fixed ticket?”

“I changed the date, remember?”

“Oh, right.”

“Damn it.”

“Then, stay another day,” Amulet shrugged.

He looked at her. “Why?”

“Because.”

“What.”

“I like you.” She took his hand in hers, held it there for a minute. “And you can stay with me, so you don’t have to go back to that dingy motel.”

“I don’t think it’s dingy,” he said, giving her fingers a squeeze.

“Believe me,” she squinted at the sun. “It’s dingy.”

*

Compared to the service (one-bedroom) apartment Amulet lived in, the motel Garin stayed at was, as she had said, dingy.

Her bedroom was larger than what Garin had anticipated, almost twice the size of the motel room he had rented at the rate of sixty-six dollars a night. It had a walk-in closet and a Queen-sized bed, a large window connecting it to the sun porch, overlooking the bay area, where tall ships gathered at the dock. Unlatching the window, Garin caught the salty air wafting in from the ocean. He sat cross-legged on the deep sill.

Here, in this room, Garin learned about Amulet’s real name: Olivia Montero. She told him about her childhood, how she had taken ballet lessons from a Russian ballerina named Valeriya Eltsina – Lera – who inspired her to become a dancer, and who later wept with her when, in high school, she snapped a tendon during a complicated dance routine. She told him about her brothers, both of whom were younger than her, who still lived in San Antonio, where she grew up, and who thought she made her living assisting the elderly in a home – because that was what she wanted her parents to believe.

“You’re the first customer I let in here,” said Amulet.

With her back to him, Amulet peeled her clothes off, tossed them to the floor, her long mane of hair wet and sticky from sweat. Garin could see, from his seat, the saggy parts of her body, the mild excess of fat weighing on her underarm, waist, thighs: the beauty in skinfolds. Then, she went to her desk, reached for a letter opener, and used it to hold her hair up in a knot. Garin didn’t know how she did it, the twirling and swirling of hair women were so good at, to keep it in place.

They had sex again that night, free of charge, and for a moment it surprised Garin how he didn’t care if he would come, focused solely on the possibility that she would, touching her in places he’d not touched a woman before, feeling at once powerful and helpless. Later, when she came close to climaxing, he held her tight against his body and thought of the blue water in Lake Tahoe, the long and winded trail, the paths that led to more paths.

“Sometimes I think if I were not me, my life would have been so much the better, easier,” Garin whispered in the dark. It was late: Amulet curled up beside him, her hand on his hairless chest. Sparks of light stealing its way in from the street outside bounced around the bedroom’s ceilings, illuminating their existence, some brighter than others. With one arm around her shoulders, Garin touched Amulet’s earlobe, the back of her neck. “If I were taller, richer, lighter, stronger, faster, smarter, sexier.”

“That’s a little dramatic.”

“Is it, though?” – he exhaled – “Don’t you ever wish for a different life?”

“Sure, I do,” she said. “Who doesn’t in this country? But I’m saying it doesn’t have to be everything you wish for.”

“Well, you probably like your life.”

Amulet straightened her position in bed, so they lay shoulder to shoulder, and looked up at her bedroom ceilings. She took a deep breath, the broad part of her chest heaving upward, until she felt she had sucked all the air in the bedroom.

“Honestly, I don’t hate it,” she said, pushing air out of her mouth, slowly, still assuming the same position, as if in the middle of a confession. “And I’m beginning to think that I don’t even have the ability to regret my life, in ways that people sometimes regret theirs. How they wish to go back and redo things and all that. A time machine would have been lost on me.” She turned to him, gazed into his eyes. “It really would.”

Garin frowned. “You’re saying you want this?”

“And by this, you mean—”

He gestured patiently with his hand, moving it in the air. “This, what you do.”

“Whoring?”

Garin frowned at the word. “Stripping.”

“The money’s good,” she said casually. “And I’m very, very good at what I do – in case you haven’t noticed.”

“But it can’t be the only thing you’re good at,” he said, turning over to the edge of the bed, reaching down to the floor where his khakis were, quickly locating the pack of cigarettes he’d had in his back pocket. He pulled himself up into a sitting position and leaned against the head of the bed. “You’ve a lighter?”

“Top drawer to your left,” she said. “Light me one, too.”

Garin placed two cigarettes in his mouth, lighted them both simultaneously, and took a drag off of each until swirls of smokes trailed out of his nose. He passed one of the two lit cigarettes over to Amulet. She got out of bed, a cigarette in hand, and pulled on her bikini panty. From the bedroom bureau, she produced an extra large shirt the color of egg yolk. She stood across the room, her back against the bureau, so they were facing one another.

“Come here,” he said tenderly.

“I don’t have any sad stories to share with you,” she started to say, the bottom of her shirt extending to her knees. “I had a great childhood, and my parents are good, loving people. I have two wonderful brothers for whom I would do anything. I was never in an abusive relationship, and I have never been made to do things I don’t want to do.”

“I’m sorry—”

“I don’t need your chivalry,” she said. Amulet’s face was overcast with pink bright light that came from a billboard across the street, blinking enticingly throughout the night. “Because I don’t have a problem with this—” she opened her arms wide, as if presenting the room and all its contents to him. “And I don’t appreciate you making all these judgments about my life after, what, five days?”

“I’m sorry,” Garin relented. “That wasn’t my intention.”

“You’re not my boyfriend,” she said. “This isn’t a relationship.”

“I know.”

She walked toward the bed, toward Garin. Then, she sat next to his legs. There was defeat in the way she moved, but he didn’t acknowledge this. “Not everything has to mean something,” she said. “Sometimes you have to accept the fact that things are the way they are because there’s no other way for them to be. It is what it is.”

Garin was silent, staring at the cigarette between his fingers.

Amulet cupped his face with both hands and searched into Garin’s eyes. They were misty, as though layered with a sheet of rain, drowning her. “I wonder what the world has done to you,” she said, quiet.

He kissed her, hard. For the first time since the two met at the club, Garin made love to Amulet as if he had known her forever, and in the absence of an answer, he gave her affection, something he reckoned didn’t come very often for her: and it was the closest thing to love he would ever feel.

*

One of the things Garin liked best about being in America was no matter how hot it got in the summer, the sun would always command a pale and luminous light to shine over the big blue sky, where clumps of fluffy white clouds hovered as if lost in a stream; which was nothing like how he remembered his days back in Jakarta, where it was summer all year round and the sun was constantly overheating the surface of the earth: the sky a canvas of gold.

The first two months of his relationship with Amulet were mostly spent in bed, where they did everything naked – reading, eating, drinking, watching TV, making love – and it wasn’t until the third month when their activities began to have some semblance with those of normal couples the world over: dining in restaurants, going to the movies, grocery shopping, watching live music at the neighborhood bar, or sometimes lying in bed and not having sex, designing the future, picking the past apart.

In the two years that followed, their relationship continued to drag them both across the country, between cities, as they collected frequent-flyer miles and banking points.

Amulet was not the first woman Garin had dated in America: there had been others, women who caught his attention and made him believe in everything that was right with the world, and who had offered him bits and pieces of their home. When, one by one, they left him, he didn’t forsake the idea of love – or happiness, for that matter, because he knew someone, anyone, else would come along: this was the way of the world, he thought, whereupon the death of one, a thousand more sprang to life.

“What were they like?” Amulet asked him one night, while lying in his futon bed. It was the end of summer, and the city was held hostage by a heat wave. Garin kept a window open to let the air in. Their sweat glistened in the moonlight.

“They had their moments, you know,” he said, lighting a cigarette. The studio smelled of sex and stank of burnt tobacco, which made him feel like an adult. Someone to be reckoned with, perhaps. “But I don’t think I ever loved them.”

“Why?” Amulet stirred under the white, thin sheet. She had one arm stretched across his stomach, another behind his back – holding him sideways.

Garin sighed. “I guess it was never there,” he said.

“Even now?” Amulet whispered into his ear.

He turned to her, which caused the tips of their noses to touch. Then, he did what he saw once on National Geographic channel, an Eskimo kiss, where a pair of lovers had the tips of their noses rub against one another, like cats. Amulet laughed when he showed her how it was done: it tickles, she said, please stop. So he stopped. But, seeing the disappointment in his eyes, she sought his lips and kissed him back.

Garin never got to answer Amulet’s question, and she never asked him again. But what he should have said, or wanted to say, was that he did feel something for her, which he had hoped to be love, or something that resembled love. When they were together, he not only believed in everything that was right with the world, but also everything that was wrong – in this way, she kept him sane.

Garin mentioned his previous life to her: the death of his father from a heart attack, and his mother’s marriage to an old family friend who used to come to his house and smoked clove cigarettes together with his father out in the verandah, dissenting politics.

He, too, as Garin told Amulet, had no sad stories to share. His was an average childhood, an unremarkable period of youth, and as he grew to become a man, his adulthood was no better. In college, he’d hoped to be transformed, but the only transformation he experienced mostly had to do with his physical appearance –the vicissitudes of his teenage years shedding away like autumn leaves and leaving him with permanent scars: the small, razor cut below his chin; the once dislocated joint in his shoulder; the tiny burn mark on his arm, from a cigarette brandished by an angry girl he used to date in junior high, the one who had introduced him to cigarettes, and who didn’t like the way he had ended things with her.

At some point in their relationship, Garin and Amulet talked about what frightened them the most. Amulet said she feared abandonment, that someday somehow she would end up losing everyone she loved, how she despised death for what it does to the living, and how little else would matter once it struck. Ironically, she said, death is the beginning of everything. Life always begins in the wake of someone’s death, Amulet concluded.

“How about you?” she asked. “What are you afraid of the most?”

Garin looked into her expectant eyes. “This,” he said.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“You’re scared that people will leave you,” he said. “I’m scared that I’ll disappear.”

They were strolling down Wells Avenue, his arm around her shoulders, hers around his waist. There was something unnatural about the way they clung to each other, as though they would otherwise fall and hit the ground. Walking past Tapatio Deli, where Amulet liked to order her favorite Cuban sandwiches, Garin offered to buy her lunch. She declined, slipped a strand of hair behind her ear. “Disappear how?”

“I don’t know,” said Garin. “Sometimes, when I’m not paying attention, I’d forget where I am. Or what I’m doing.”

“Well,” she tightened her hold on him, smiled. “You’re here with me now.”

“When I’m in a crowd—” he went on, reciting the sensations he was constantly exposed to “—I’d often stop to look at the concrete beneath my feet. I have to constantly remind myself of all the things that brought me here, the reasons I’m still here. Because these are the things that define me.”

Garin frowned at his own admission, thinking hard, as if he’d accidentally stumbled upon a revelation.

“These are the things that define me,” he repeated himself. “And nothing else.”

“Nothing else, at all?” she asked.

“No,” he said, looking at her emptily.

Amulet stopped in her tracks. Stunned. The sun was high above their heads, but she could feel it burning down on her as fierce as if it had hung right over her head.

“What,” he said.

“Nothing,” she said, walking ahead.

“Ames,” he called out, reaching for her arm. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I’m fine,” she said, turning to him, feeling both entitled and ludicrous—gently pushing his hand away. “It’s fine.”

“You’re important to me,” he said. “We’re important to me.”

Garin stood facing her, the sun burning down on him, too. She didn’t know what to make of it, the fact that after all this time, she still was not factored into the things that defined him. But she didn’t let on.

“I know,” Amulet said, almost tenderly.

She took his hand in hers. It was the right thing to do. The only thing to do.

*

What they had was a good thing, Garin was sure of that; and how it came to an end was unfortunate, though he couldn’t help wondering if it was never meant to be, from the beginning.

“Then what’s the news?” Garin continued to prod her.

“Not now,” said Amulet, finishing her drink and handing her glass to a waiter who carried a tray full of empty stemware. “After the show.”

Theirs was the first row called into the theater to assume their seats. At the door, their tickets were checked by an usher. Amulet walked behind Garin toward their seats. She forgot to check her coat at the door, so he said he’d hold on to it.

Fifteen minutes later, when a majority of the seats were already filled – the house lights grew dim, forcing those who ran late to feel their way around the aisles.

Subtly, the speakers above the room let out a soft, baritone voice which requested the audience to deactivate their cellular phones and stay silent throughout the show. It also warned them that the theatre was a non-smoking area, and that if anyone was found smoking the show would be stopped until the person who was found smoking ceased his or her actions. It proceeded to tell the audience to never take a picture during the show, reasoning how camera flashes might distract the performers and cause a serious injury.

After the house lights were turned completely down, the room experienced a momentary lull. A few seconds later, though, once their eyes had adjusted to the tone of utter darkness, every other sense automatically gained strength in recognizing what the eyes could not see. For instance, suddenly the ears caught familiar noises coming from every direction: the rustling of paper, whispering voices, the touching of hands, the faint vibrations of cellular phones set on silence and stolen kisses.

In the orchestra pit, strings were checked and music pages were turned and adjusted; the conductor stood anxious holding his baton, ready to wave it, to create magic.

*

The last day they had spent together, Garin took the red-eye flight out of Boston and knocked on Amulet’s door at seven in the morning. It was Thursday: he’d left a message on Nyoman’s voicemail saying he’d had an urgent business come up and probably wouldn’t be back at work until Monday. Sometimes, when Garin felt like distancing himself from the gallery, he had to make up an excuse, some bogus emergency he pulled out of thin air. This wasn’t one of those fake emergencies.

Garin didn’t have a traveling bag with him; in fact, he had brought nothing but the clothes on his back. He used the spare latchkey hidden under the mat, opened the door to Amulet’s apartment, walked in, and crossed the foyer toward her bedroom, where he found her seated on the windowsill, tossing a wad of Kleenex to the floor, next to dozens of others that formed a small hill of dried tears laying in waste.

Neither of them had slept: her eyes were swollen and red. They’d been on the phone for six hours before he left to the airport. Amulet told him it wasn’t working, anymore: she was tired of waiting. In his defense, Garin never asked her to wait for him, he couldn’t even think of asking anyone to wait for him, so it seemed strange that she should feel as though he had. Over the phone, and across the line, they were quiet for a long time, their breathing came and went. She did most of the crying, Garin was listening intently.

He tried to reason with her, apologized to her, but Amulet wouldn’t hear any of it. She was done, she said. “Besides”—she blew her nose—“What good is an apology if you have absolutely no idea what you did wrong?”

Garin knelt and collected the scattered wads of tissues in his arms, dropping them into a plastic bin behind the bedroom door. He sat on the edge of her bed, waiting for her to speak, for himself to speak: but neither of them did—at least, not until the sun was high up in the sky.

The last thing she said to his face was, “It wouldn’t have lasted, anyway: I don’t believe in long-distance relationships.”

They stayed in touch after the break-up: at first, out of habit; and then out of courtesy. The frequency of their efforts to keep each other updated gradually diminished as time went by, until the very substance of their relationship was reduced to birthday messages left on answering machines or one-liner notes sent via email. They weren’t the kind of couple who relied on each other’s strength like parasites: their need was limited, proportionate. Maybe that was their problem.

*

On stage, it’s Christmas Eve, and the Stahlbaums are gathered together in a festive mood. When a mysterious man in a long, dark overcoat enters bearing gifts, the children are joined in an elaborate and joyful dance, with the exception of the girl in the white dress, Clara, who pouts disappointedly at the mysterious man for having forgotten her present. The man produces a Nutcracker toy from under his coat, hands it over to Clara, and pats her on the head before joining the adults. The party ends not long after Clara receives her new toy, with Clara sleeping under the Christmas tree, holding the Nutcracker close to her chest.

Garin couldn’t have known what was happening on stage had he not cheated and read the chronology of unfolding events in the show’s program. Others did it, too: they consulted the program every few minutes, or whenever the stage presented them with a new twist they did not see coming.

Next to him, Amulet was far away: her gaze settled on the crowd of men, women, little children in tights making merry over a few dance numbers – her mind was elsewhere, unreachable to him. Her hand, leaning against the armrest, turned colors as the stage flooded with lights of varying bright shades. Garin wanted to touch that hand, just to see what would happen if he did.

He watched the faces of those seated around him: some of whom had aged, some others had only begun to age – fathers, mothers, children. For the moment, they were united by the seats that enveloped them, the room they occupied, the performance they were watching. Soon they’d go back to their separate lives, out of this theater and into the world, where they would resume their previous roles as strangers, citizens of an absurd universe. Garin let out a small sigh at the thought of it, the absurdity of his life, of everyone’s life, and how interchangeable everything really is.

Tilting his head to one side, Garin watched as Clara attempts to run from a colony of mice led by a Mouse King. The music thundered away from the orchestra pit and filled the stage in surges, commencing a beautiful symphony. A moment later, when the Nutcracker toy comes to life and marches toward center stage, followed by a band of soldiers in tights – the audience gushed in awe.

Near the end of the first Act, Garin stirred in his seat while the Nutcracker transforms into a human Prince. Together with Clara, the Prince leaps into a world of dancing fairies and sleigh-rides, of singing taffies and laughing sugar plums. It was quite a sight to behold. Then, suddenly, Garin felt okay, being here, where he was, where everybody was. And when a wave of fear came at him, arresting him, he didn’t stop to question it, or to breathe more air – for he knew he was home.

Seconds before the curtain fell, Garin took Amulet’s hand in his. He no longer cared what Amulet had come all this way to tell him, and he was not going to ask. For now, they watched with amusement as the Prince rides off to fairyland with the girl in white: away from the Christmas tree.

Trials of fiction: We lose the battle again

A half century after the first defeat of the imagination of a short story in court, leading to the imprisonment of leading literature critic HB Jassin, we have lost a second battle against irrationality, arrogance and backwardness.

Again we are witnessing the curbing of creativity that should otherwise flourish and bring this nation forward into the realm of reason and progress.

Back in 1968, Jassin, then-chief editor of Sastra (Literature) magazine, was jailed for blasphemy as he had published a story which had personalized God and Prophet Muhammad, a taboo in Islam. Titled Langit Makin Mendung (The Darkening Sky), it was written by Kipandjikusmin, a pen name whose real identity Jassin refused to disclose.

The courage of North Sumatra University (USU) students to bring their case to court this year sparked hope that reason would prevail this time. But the Medan State Administrative Court decided to be on the wrong side of history, ruling against the creativity of our young people.

In mid-November the court rejected a lawsuit against the rector filed by students working with the Suara USU student website who had been fired from the editorial board for publishing a short story accused of containing pornography and lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender (LBGT) issues.

The court’s ruling was not only deeply disappointing for me personally as an expert witness for the students in the case, but it profoundly hurt the already dwindling condition of freedom and freedom of expression, as well as hard-fought efforts to create a just legal system in this country.

The ruling will become a bad precedent for any case against media shutdowns and will be a dent on freedom of expression for a long time to come.

Fifty years ago, against the backdrop of the Cold War and the ghost of communism, maybe there was understandably low public support for writers and literature, compared to loud defenders of religious teachings.

But even then, the records show rigorous debates between those who accused the story of blasphemy and those who strongly believed the story was about social criticism.

Like the trial from decades ago, the Suara USU trial is not so much about legal reasoning. It’s about interpretation of the short story in question; whether the story is pornography or not, promoting LGBT or not.

As I told the court, the short story Ketika Semua Menolak Kehadiran Diriku di Dekatnya (When Everyone Refuses My Presence Near Her) is not pornography at all. A story, book or film can be categorized as pornography if it is created merely to make the audiences aroused and if the content, be it the story line or the aesthetic aspects, only serves to stimulate sexual desire and imagination.

However, the story by Yael Stefany Sinaga does not contain any suggestion of sexual stimulation or any intention of arousing sexual desire at all. It’s a story about girl falling in love with another girl and publicly expressing it, but the latter girl rejects her. When everybody finds out, including both families, the main character is heavily condemned. She feels rejected by her surroundings.

It’s as simple as that. No kissing, no hugging and certainly no sex.

The exact same thing happened with Langit Makin Mendung. Those who condemned this story refused to read and understand the whole work, focusing instead on some small parts.

While in the case of Langit Makin Mendung people were offended by the personification of Allah and Muhammad, in the latter case, the rector was only questioning the opening part of the story referring to rahim (womb), sperma (sperm) and the sentences saying that “no men will enter their thing into yours” and also, “I will not like men but will like women.”

By any means, these words and the sentences are there not to make readers aroused, but to build the fictional universe based on the writer’s imagination. If some readers get sexually aroused by this part of the story, as the rector told the students during a closed meeting, it is no fault of the writer. Thus, there is no reason for the rector to replace the editors and staff.

Instead the rector’s action counters the spirit of Law No. 12/2012 on higher education, which encourages creativity, tolerance and critical thinking.

Above all, fiction is fiction, written based on the writer’s imagination. No individual or institution, not even the court, can intervene into one’s imagination. A fiction writer deserves absolute freedom that can only be limited by her own reason and conscience.

I believe that the judges have gotten it terribly wrong. But the damage has been done, and the second cut could be much deeper.

Realizing the profound impact of the case, the verdict should be reviewed by a higher court. We may lose the battles, but hopefully, in the end, we can win the war.

Two new poems by Mikael Johani

chapel hill

stuck a pin in your back bone
haven’t you noticed
chapell hill hasn’t got its own passaic*
look at its spine:

a spine-tingling web of fronts running thru shop-windows
caribbean curry & parota shops, pawnshops selling prototypes of shark burgers
pickled, shredded, chili-ed hengstenberg rotessa apfelrotkohl!

there’s sweet in bitterness, as always
try an earthen-jarred kimchi buried six feet under
in the north korean border
you want a range life?

summer babes do handstands on joburg beaches’
open bar tops
piña coladas spiked with antiseptic hand soap?
you’re crazed!

safari now, settle down never
the green hills of africa have gone panic-stricken
a lone olive tree stands at the pink edge of a mozambique desert

projet pour la protection des animaux sauvages?

les hommes you mean?

‘tsvangirai withdraws his party from election saying
to continue would cost supporters’ lives’

gokil, that’s what i mean

at uc san diego then nyu
you did yer post-grad on films
got your indonesian late ‘80s horror flicks’ fix from mondo macabro
lady terminator v jaka sembung
bawa golok gak nyambung

starálfur!

you’ve seen them? how did you stop yer heart
from stop-beating?
stop beating, stop breathin
breathe in for me now

cut yer hair and don’t get a job
pretend you never go
to grad school

i’m bored at lamont and everywhere else
gonville and caius, magdalene, all souls

all i ever wanted was to be your spine

canto cxviii (i forget most everything)

in medias what res?

‘i am happiest when i follow
how things sound.’ —

i’m startin to get
patterns tics repetitions
the ferris wheel

off yer mind

i get
you cherry
cherry
cola
i get
you lil raccoon
of my hearth

in 1876 rimbaud set sail for Java
in august Batavia
flayed his boots along Molenvliet
jogged along Weltevreden
on the Kwitang Bridge:
jules et jacques debated the latest fashion in women’s hats

Rue de la Paix

l’Opéra were in their last run of [do more research]

do you read
these things
lil raccoon
of my hearth?

a lil bit of marjorie
a dash of hugh
a decade of pattern-making

in early dec. r. got the first merchant ship out
Ireland!
you know why

NO-ONE could hack the south-bound procession of Casteel Batavia

imagine me
w/out you

the gangrene has seeped into my crotch
c’est pour toi
DIONUSOS
let the bacchae

burn myrrh all nite long

KNOW what YOU want to DO

i wanna paint the sky-wide cloud
red
the red of yer labia [PANTONE do more research]

i want to be catherine the great
trail my train across the blood-red snow

no one misses you
‘cept remus
one teat less to suck
(sure you’ve put that
into consideration)

regardez toi!
that’s what I tell myself
(not to do)

i’ve never ever tried to write paradise
oublié moi!

in 1928 a bunch of louts descended into
the capital and decided on a strange
lingua franca

something simple and malleable
for the [forget—do more research] grammata
common market-man malay!

no c no j no v no x no u no you

’tis hopeless when i try to write paradiso
like you me the rest of this
cuntree

in 1945 a couple of louts in muslin declared
independence in real time and a mangy dog walked across the first
state-sanctioned
photo-op

someone wore a suit bespoked out of old curtains
jodhpurs cut off above the knees

do you know the mythologoi simulacra simulacrae simulacri of this
our belovéd
cuntree

lil raccoon of my hearth?

do ya read
me?

In 1965 a river of blood
”     ”     ”     ”     ”   heads
”     ”     ”     ”     ”   body parts (random)
”     ”     ”     ”     ”   i don’t give a fuck anymore it’s [something to be decided later on]

lacking the moral fibre
of the average person’s brain

[see lil raccoon of my heart i’m now sittin in a pizzeria somewhere in the back of my mind next to me the three magi (chinois) they’re debatin the eco-friendliness of screen printin vs digital the image of choice would be the standard portraits of bung dan bing soekarno-hatta]imagine that
lil big raccoon of my hearth!

in 2008 forget it
a rickshaw driver who was

DISAPPEARED

in 1996 still leaves
footprints in the sand

ishikoro!

do ya read
moi?

my heart broke when I saw yer last
ym! status why do ya

in 2009 pretend a general election
will ignore primary results
and go straight up the caucus

oublié libre seduis-moi!

*Glossary

‘chapel hill’

passaic: The Passaic River passes through Paterson, New Jersey, USA. It also appears in William Carlos Williams’s long poem, Paterson. Williams lived for most of his life in Rutherford, 14km away from Paterson.

parota: Hindi; Indian flatbread.

apfelrotkohl: German; ‘apple and red cabbage’; Hengstenberg Rotessa is a brand name and product line.

kimchi: Korean; fermented vegetable, commonly cabbage.

projet pour la protection des animaux sauvages: French; ‘project for the protection of wild animals’.

les hommes: ‘men/man’.

gokil: Indonesian slang; ‘awesome’, ‘awesomely crazy’; sometimes a jibe, as in ‘mad skills’.

jaka sembung: a classic of the genre of fantasy action Indonesian films from the 1980s. Jaka Sembung is a warrior who fights Dutch colonial oppressors, as well as collaborators who have supernatural powers.

bawa golok gak nyambung: Indonesian; ‘Jaka Sembung, bawa golok gak nyambung’ – literally, ‘Jaka Sembung carries a machete, WTF?’. Indonesian equivalent of a Cockney rhyming slang, meaning ‘You’re not making any sense’.

starálfur: Icelandic; ‘staring elf’; cf. Sigur Rós.

‘canto cxviii (i forget most everything)’

Molenvliet: Dutch; ‘windmill stream’; a canal in Jakarta (‘Batavia’ under Dutch colonial rule) that used to have windmills powering small workshops producing sugar, arak and gunpowder.

Weltevreden: Dutch; ‘well satisfied’; colonial district in Jakarta during Dutch rule. Now called Sawah Besar (‘Big Paddy Field’). There are no more paddy fields, just government buildings.

Kwitang Bridge: Nyai Dasima, in the famous eponymous short story by English author, G. Francis (possibly first written as a poem by Chinese-Indonesian author Lie Kimhok), was murdered under the Kwitang Bridge.

jules et jacques: Jules is Jules in François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. Jacques is Jacques Pangemanann, the antihero and narrator of the last instalment in Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet, House of Glass.

Rue de la Paix: French; ‘avenue of peace’; central, high-fashion street in Paris.

l’Opéra: Opéra Garnier (aka Palais Garnier), an opulent opera house at the northern end of Rue de la Paix.

marjorie: Perloff, literary critic.

hugh: Kenner, literary critic.

r.: Arthur Rimbaud.

Casteel Batavia: Dutch; Batavia Castle, a fort in Jakarta and the former administrative seat of the Dutch East India Company.

c’est pour toi: French; ‘It’s for you’.

remus: twin brother of Romulus, mythological founder and first king of Rome.

regardez toi!: French; ‘Look at you!’

oublié moi!: ‘Forget me!’

grammata: grammar (i.e. the book that contains rules of grammar); so, ‘Common market-man Malay grammar’.

bung dan bing soekarno-hatta: Indonesian; Bung = comrade (male), Bing (rarely used) = comrade (female). Soekarno was Indonesia’s first president, Mohammad Hatta was his vice-president. Jakarta’s airport is called Soekarno-Hatta.

ishikoro: Japanese; ‘pebble’; circa late 2000s it also meant disused or neglected blog.

moi: French; ‘me’; also Toril Moi, feminist literary critic.

ym!: Yahoo Messenger

oublié libre seduis-moi!: ‘Forget me, seduce me’ in Indonesian translated through multiple languages ending in French using AltaVista’s Babel Fish translation engine in 2009.

Violet

Violet and I had our own language. She was the belle of the entire school and I was the overly emaciated girl everyone loved to mock. I was very bony and tall and the boys at school kept telling me I’d make a great pretzel stick. I didn’t like to eat – food made me nauseous – so I had to drink vegetable mixes and protein shakes to help fatten myself up. It didn’t work, though. The nurse at school said I should stop by the clinic during recess so she could pump a few drops of saline water and sugar concentrates into me. My mother had taken me to more doctors than I cared to remember. My father was never home and when he did come home he’d take a good look at me and tell me how beautiful I was. My grandmother said I was possessed by evil spirits and convinced my mother to take me to church and have the priests perform an exorcism on me.

Where we came from everyone believed illnesses and misfortunes had been borne by evil spirits.
Thirteen years ago, Violet sat next to me and offered me a piece of her Kit Kat. It was sweet and crispy and I did what I could to stop myself from vomitting. Violet said, “It will go away, it will go away eventually” and I wanted to believe her.
But nothing changed and everything stayed the same; except for Violet. She went away, far far away.

Why Are Indonesians Being Erased from Indonesian Literature?

What we lose when Indonesian writing is evaluated according to Anglophone preferences.

When I entered the world of Indonesian literary translation several years ago, I was blissfully unaware of how dysfunctional it was. (Nor did I suspect that I would eventually become so troubled by its colonialistic aspects that I would write a controversial and impassioned Tweet thread on the subject.) What I’ve found, though, is that unequal power dynamics are determining how literature from Indonesia is being curated for consumption by the English-speaking world. The problem is systemic, evident in the condescending attitudes of Anglophone publishers and advocates of Indonesian fiction and poetry—and also which authors get to regularly represent Indonesia on the international stage.

A bit about myself: I am of Chinese-Indonesian descent, but only lived in Indonesia from the age of 9 to 15 (the rest of my childhood was spent in Singapore although I was born in the U.S.). I grew up hearing Indonesian spoken around me and though I occasionally used it myself, I only began making concerted efforts to improve my language abilities during graduate school by taking classes and reading Indonesian fiction.

I was driven by a desire to connect with a part of my heritage that my family, for their own reasons, had discouraged me from cultivating. I moved from being a reader of Indonesian literature to researching it as an academic before becoming a full-time writer and translator. Ever since, I have become increasingly horrified at the multiple layers of gatekeeping that distort the Western world’s impression of Indonesian writing. I attempt a partial exposure here to help with efforts to solve the problem—not only in the context of Indonesia, but also other countries that may be facing the same issues.

“Publishers Aren’t Looking For You.”

Does this book travel well? This question is maddeningly familiar to those operating in international writing and publishing networks. The variations of this question include: Can this story cross cultures? Will readers be able to relate? Is there too much historical and cultural detail for the reader to process? Publishers don’t mean that they are looking for “un-foreign” foreign work. Rather, foreign work needs to be foreign in familiar ways—exotic enough to give the reader satisfaction about foraying into another country or culture without overwhelming or alienating them. It’s like crafting the perfect tourist experience. Unfamiliar yet comfortable. Orientalizing, not disorienting. This is why once a few authors from a particular country win over the English-speaking market, other authors may follow suit: their subject matter has become more known and therefore more palatable.

If prodded, individuals in the publishing industry may be apologetic. They may acknowledge it’s unfair that Western readers get to be so finicky when the rest of the world (including Indonesia) readily consumes whatever books are taking the English-speaking world by storm. Nevertheless the expectation that the rest of the world cater to Anglophone tastes remains in place, informing the assessments of even those who earnestly profess to be seeking content from other countries. As a recent Guardian article has observed, English is colonizing the planet, which is also why getting the attention of the English-speaking market is key to global literary success.

Indonesia’s literature is no exception to the rule, subject to the same concerns about works “traveling well” even as they remain recognizably foreign. I was once asked to recommend a work to a publisher—something “classic” and “universal” was the stated preference. These terms are code for the question, Can the Western reader relate? I’ve also been asked to assess whether a novel “would speak across cultures” and whether its cultural and historical details would prove too challenging for readers.

Conversely, works have to be sufficiently “Indonesian” to excite interest. I found out from two friends who co-translated a short-story collection that a UK press rejected it for not engaging deeply enough with Indonesian political and social issues. As one longtime publisher and translator has baldly stated in a Jakarta Post interview: “Publishers aren’t looking for you, they’re looking for Indonesia.”

The parochialism of the Anglophone publishing industry also means that it is unwilling to trust the judgment of Indonesians concerning their own writers. While a positive reception back home may certainly earn an author’s work a closer look, they won’t ultimately compel an editor to accept a work for publication. This effectively means that Indonesian authors have to pass through two stages of screening to find a publisher abroad: one on its home turf, followed by another in which any accolades or rave reviews garnered may be discounted, or worse, contradicted.

I’ve received rejections from editors at anthologies and literary magazines, some of them supposedly eager to receive Indonesian submissions, who have dismissed short stories using language that suggests the works fall short of some objective non-culturally-specific literary standard—despite the fact that the same stories, among Indonesian readers, have garnered recognition and praise. For example, one journal expressed “concerns about the structure of the story”; another piece was deemed well-translated but “a bit muddled” with regards to its handling of time. The same two friends I mention above received in their rejection letter the remark that the writing “wasn’t arresting enough,” despite the fact that the author in question is widely considered one of the nation’s greatest revolutionary-era writers.

In short, Indonesian literature undergoes a transformation when it moves beyond its country’s borders. Beloved, acclaimed, or influential at home, the same literary text may be dismissed, even denigrated, by Western arbiters of taste abroad. One would hope, then, that those responsible for bringing these texts to the attention of the western world would do their best to counter such disdain. Unfortunately, by and large, those who advocate on Indonesian literature’s behalf are often guilty of perpetuating the problem.

“Limited at Best”

Anyone remotely familiar with Indonesian literature in translation will have heard of John McGlynn. Born in Wisconsin, McGlynn moved to Indonesia in his late twenties and is now the most prominent and powerful individual on the Indonesian-literature-in-translation scene. In addition to being a translator and chairman of the Lontar Foundation (which promotes and publishes Indonesian literature in translation), he sits on the National Book Committee as supervisor of its translation and literature funding programs. McGlynn was also responsible for coordinating Indonesia’s literary programming at both the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair and last month’s London Book Fair, where Indonesia was, respectively, the guest of honor and market focus. I would hazard to say that he is regarded internationally as the foremost expert on Indonesian literature in translation, and the overwhelming majority of Indonesian literature showcases featured in literary magazines—at least within the past several years, have been curated or co-curated by him, including those featured in Words Without Borders’ 2015 and 2019 issues, Asia Literary Review, AAWW’s The Margins, Cordite Poetry Review, and Stand.

Given McGlynn’s power and visibility, he inevitably sets the tone for how to perceive and treat Indonesian writers. Therefore, it is somewhat concerning when he writes in Issue 52 of the translation journal In Other Words that the Lontar Foundation has resorted to publishing Indonesia’s most revered authors because their “chance for commercial success outside Indonesia’s borders is limited at best.” (The text of the journal article itself, originally made public on the National Centre for Writing website, was taken down due to some controversy caused by the thread I wrote and a Jakarta Globe article by an Indonesian writer published soon after.)

It is also alarming when he observes disparagingly in an interview that “a lot of stuff that Indonesians write in English tends to be flat.” (Of course Jhumpa Lahiri now writes in Italian, but everyone seems to think it’s a smashing idea.)

The statement I mention earlier in this essay—“Publishers aren’t looking for you, they’re looking for Indonesia”—hails from the same interview. McGlynn’s other remarks about “Indonesians” include their helpfulness in soliciting funds for Lontar: “donors look askance at giving money to an old white man, even if it is for a good cause. But a beautiful Indonesian woman, that’s another story.”

McGlynn is certainly entitled to his opinions, which come from more than forty years of experience as a translator and publisher. The real question is: does such experience give someone who is meant to champion the merits of Indonesia’s literature the right to speak so dismissively and pessimistically about its literary canon? Or the decisions its authors have made about what language to write in? Or their attractiveness to foreign publishers, which appears to reside solely in their Indonesianness? Or Indonesians’ pretty faces?

But McGlynn is not the only Western advocate of Indonesian writers who is guilty of condescension. We find patronization even in what is meant to pass as praise. For example, Benedict Anderson’s foreword to Eka Kurniawan’s Man Tiger, in which the late Indonesian studies scholar takes the liberty of remarking how much the author’s craft has improved. In Man Tiger, Anderson asserts, we find “a growing discipline in the use of the supernatural….a better grasp on chronology. In Beauty Is a Wound there are a great number of time-shifts but they often seem arbitrary and needlessly confusing…”.

Even dedicated Western translators of Indonesian literature may assume this attitude of superiority, regardless of good intentions, and whether they are aware of it or not.

For instance, in an essay appearing in the aforementioned issue of In Other Words, the respected and prolific literary translator Harry Aveling writes, “there was often a lot of opposition to my translations, particularly from critics who knew Indonesian well but had little appreciation of the subtleties of English.” I find it interesting that Aveling, who himself is a non-native speaker of Indonesian, assumes that his critics are wrong about the quality of his translations, not that his translations may indeed be flawed due to his inability to fully appreciate the subtleties of the language he translates from.

More recently, Words Without Borders published an essay in which seasoned translator Toni Pollard reflects on the challenges of translating gender fluidity in Clara Ng’s “Meteors.” Despite consulting Ng and the various non-binary options that Ng provided for translating the gender-neutral third-person pronouns of the story, including the grammatically acceptable gender-neutral singular “they/them,” Pollard appears to have chosen the option that Ng was least comfortable with. “As all translators must ultimately do,” she reflects, “I had to make a decision myself.” (Numerous people on Twitter expressed frustration at this outcome, including the author herself.)

Like it or not, the globe still reels from colonization’s effects. The resulting power imbalances—political, economic, and cultural—have enabled those from Western countries and backgrounds to occupy positions of authority over Indonesian writers with relative ease. (To test the truth of this assertion: imagine the likelihood of the reverse scenario occurring, where the foremost experts on American, British, or Australian literature are mostly Indonesian, or simply non-white.)

But lest we forget, Empire has historically relied on the complicity of the native ruling elite, and this is no less true of neo-colonialism today. A simplistic “West versus rest” opposition elides the power dynamics operating among Indonesian writers themselves. For example, a disproportionate number of the authors chosen to represent Indonesia at international events like festivals and book fairs tend to be affiliated with Komunitas Salihara—an arts centre founded by the journalist and writer Goenawan Mohamad that has been criticized within Indonesia for the undue influence they exert over the arts scene. (For a glimpse into the situation, see the section on Salihara in this article by Indonesian writer Wayan Jengki Sunarta).

It’s Broken. Let’s Fix It.

I have no doubt that Western translators and others who speak with authority about Indonesian literature act with the best of intentions—if not, why would they expend so much time and energy trying to further its cause? I also do not think that the Anglophone publishing industry is purposely attempting to shut out Indonesian authors’ voices. But I do believe both parties need to recognize that their roles as publishers, promoters, and translators do not give them license to disrespect the autonomy that Indonesians themselves should have when it comes to appraising the worth of their writing, having a say in translations of their writing, and deciding how “Indonesian” their written work should be and what language they want to use.

Additionally:

1. Anglophone publishers might think twice about whether their reasons for rejecting a manuscript rest on Eurocentric assumptions about what constitutes “good” writing. They might try to be open to the genuinely unfamiliar, especially when it comes to countries that are more underrepresented in the Anglophone literary world than others. (By daring to do this they’ll nudge readers in the same direction).

They might even consider seeking permission from relevant parties to publish (and publicize!) new translations of a work already available in English but that has gone out of print or been translated poorly. If multiple English editions of Kafka’s Metamorphosis exist and can be appreciated alongside each other, then why not multiple English editions of Indonesian literary texts?

2. The Anglophone world in general should also avoid relying too much on certain individuals or groups (including me) for their knowledge and experience of Indonesian writing. As with any literary scene, there are people that have more power and visibility than others. It is certainly easier to rely on ready-made connections, but it will come at the expense of doing justice to the diverse world of Indonesian writing.

3. Promoters of Indonesian literature in translation, like the Lontar Foundation, should have more faith in the marketability of the texts and authors they represent. And they should be willing to publicize other initiatives and individuals who have chosen to work independently rather than ignoring their activities or giving them minimal attention.

4. Translators should work closely with their authors if the latter are willing and able. They should do their best to respect their authors’ wishes, dialoguing until an agreement truly satisfactory to both parties is reached. I’ve learned from experience that even if a writer isn’t a native English speaker, their feedback can be invaluable and improve a translation dramatically, taking it in different directions and to new heights you wouldn’t feel comfortable with if you were acting alone.

I’m guessing that these observations and suggestions may also apply to literature in translation from other countries. I hope that they will be of some help in those situations as well. By working collectively and respectfully, we’ll hear the voices of those we translate, advocate, and publish. And we’ll also do a better job of making them heard.