Happy Stories, Mostly: an alluring new collection from Norman Erikson Pasaribu

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Photo: Inclined axis press

A new voice in global queer fiction is always cause for celebration. In a conversation dominated by the US and UK, the emergence of – and growing curiosity about – writers from elsewhere can only be welcomed.

Recent years have seen successful translations by South Korea’s Sang Young Park and Finnish-Kosovar Pajtim Statovci, among others, while Nigerian-born Akwaeke Emezi remains a veritable literary star.

An exciting new discovery comes from a region always underrepresented in World Lit Talk: Southeast Asia. Born in Jakarta, Norman Erikson Pasaribu, a homosexual from the Indonesian Christian minority, is an undeniable talent. (As does its award-winning translator, Tiffany Tsao.)

In 2019, Pasaribu’s collection of poetry Serge is looking for Bacchus impressed with its thoughtful depiction of local queer life and its skilful blending of high and low culture. Sociable and intimate, these poems are even slyly hopeful, even if they still bear the wounds of homophobia. A poem, where two lovers secretly kiss in an underground car park, riffs on John Henry Newman and Augustine of Hippo, before falling into a tragic finale:

The two young men sometimes wondered why they were the ones who had to show that love can bloom anywhere, even in the dark.

Not all young poets make the jump to fiction, but Pasaribu’s collection of short stories Especially happy stories is even more attractive. Out now on Tilted Axis Press (and partly funded by a grant from the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin), this book isn’t even “mostly” happy. Yet he navigates queer suffering with a deep reserve of tenderness and humor – and with empathy for all of his characters.

The breadth and force of Pasaribu’s imagination is particularly impressive. His wandering stories blend elements of science fiction, prose poetry, postcolonial criticism, and romance; they reuse tropes from classical literature, Indonesian history and the Bible.

As he explains in an interview with Tsao, included in the book: “Layered stories, with their endless connections to other or older texts, work very well with queer narratives…. We have to invent our own new stories, because our own stories have often been erased, and fiction is just the medium for that.


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