Happy Stories, Mostly (Cerita-cerita Bahagia, Hampir Seluruhnya) by Norman Erikson Pasaribu
Translated by Tiffany Tsao
Published by Tilted Axis Press (English), Gramedia Pustaka Utama (Bahasa Indonesia)
Indonesian Literature, Short Stories, Anthology
Release Date : December 2021 (Tilted Axis Edition) / October 2020 (Bahasa Indonesia Edition)
Playful, shape-shifting and emotionally charged, Happy Stories, Mostly is a collection of twelve stories that queer the norm. Inspired by Simone Weil’s concept of ‘decreation’, and often drawing on Batak and Christian cultural elements, these tales put queer characters in situations and plots conventionally filled by hetero characters.
The stories talk to each other, echo phrases and themes, and even shards of stories within other stories, passing between airports, stacks of men’s lifestyle magazines and memories of Toy Story 3, such that each one almost feels like a puzzle piece of a larger whole, but with crucial facts – the saddest ones, the happiest ones – omitted, forgotten, unbearable.
A blend of science fiction, absurdism and alternative-historical realism, Happy Stories, Mostly is a powerful puff of fresh air, aimed at destabilising the heteronormative world and exposing its underlying absences.
So, in a world where we celebrate disneyfied heterosexualities, for queer folks, what is happiness?
Happy Stories, Mostly is a collection of melancholic and bittersweet stories that are proudly Batak and unapologetically queer. An enticing fresh piece of fiction that weaves discussions of the Christian faith and heteronormativity of Indonesian society with a blend of sci-fi, absurdism, and alternate-history realism.
Since I started reading books back in 2020 I have not picked up a single book written by an Indonesian author. I am happy that Happy Stories, Mostly is my first dip into Indonesian literature. Plenty of my Indonesian mutuals have read this book and raved about it so when I saw there is a translated version of it, I thought why not give it a try.
In this collection of twelve short stories Norman Erikson Pasaribu captures snippets of individuals in various stages of their lives and sometimes breathing life to inanimate objects. Each piece centers around a character with varying premises and perspectives but they all have a common theme, they don’t have a happy ending but some of them ends on the cusp of something close to a happy ending. Fair warning to readers that have set expectations for a feel good story this is not the book.
Another common theme are the Batak queer characters and discussions on Christian faith. This is what sold me on reading the book because I’m born and raised as a Catholic that is also queer
though closeted. Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s prose is uniquely absurd in a good way, Pasaribu isn’t shy in changing the trajectory of the narrative instead relies on the beat in which the story takes.
The first piece “Enkidu Comes Knocking on New Year’s Eve” is a great example and serves as a good introduction for readers to know what’s in store. As readers dive deeper the stories has undertones of vulnerability that is clearly taken from Pasaribu’s own accounts in life. In this review I want to do a dive deep into the stories that have the strongest impression on me.
Ise goarmu?—What’s your name?
Sandra, Inanguda. Tongtong Sandra goarku.—Sandra has always been my name.
First, “So, What’s your name Sandra?”, the third short story in the book. In this piece Pasaribu introduces us to a grieving mother. The mother’s life has revolved around her son that has passed on (this is established in the first sentence of the story so it’s not a spoiler at all). The death of her son has shook her to the core that she is now numbed by grief. All her life she has given everything to her son from her time, money, and even her identity. Distraught by tragedy she takes it upon herself to travel to Vietnam to find the son she lost.
This piece main theme in my opinion is about identity, regret, and grief. Pasaribu emphasizes on names a lot for example the nickname the mother is given after having her son, the son’s name, and the place she want to go to in Vietnam. A name is the core of one’s identity, the mother in this case has lost her identity because of the death of her son. Pasaribu masterfully weaves this identity crisis into the mother’s process in taking steps to find closure with a question in Batak language that the mother asks herself throughout the story. It is absolutely brilliant.
Everyone was convinced the child was fated to be forever alone. But he had one friend, who was very skinny and very small.
Second—this is probably my favorite one—“The True Story of the Story of the Giant”. This is the longest piece in the book and is the most compelling of the bunch in my opinion. The story is told from the perspective of Henri that stumbled upon a short story that has followed him throughout his teens into his early twenties. He first found this story titled “The Secret History of the Giant Man” on a handout he got when Henri accompanied his gay cousin to a get together organized by the local queer Facebook group in his hometown.
Henri thought it was the most ridiculous short story he has ever read. With the passing of time Henri forgets about this story, graduating high school and then goes to university in Jakarta. The story reappears when Henri over hears an annoying classmate mentioning it to a group of other students.
Reading this piece I got the general vibe that Henri is morally grey and plays the part of an unreliable narrator. The main themes I noticed in this piece are about friendship, grief, and imposter syndrome. Henri’s shaky morality and internal struggle to achieve academic success resulted in him making poor decisions that led to tragedy.
In my opinion it serves as commentary to Indonesian youth that are pushed to be overachievers by any means necessary and the self centered views of certain people by taking advantage of people through friendships. All this is tied together with a centered plot device which is the story about the giant man that connects Henri to his academic rival turned best friend. I don’t want to disclose any details because spoilers and it will ruin the experience.
When I finished reading the whole collection I reflected back on each of them, I’ve come to the conclusion that this story is a prime example of Pasaribu’s ability in story telling and defines his style in writing. The main character seems like an anti hero to me that redeemed himself too late and by the end tragically failed. The unraveling in the character’s development is done wonderfully even though it didn’t end as I expected it to end. It’s bittersweet and beautifully tragic, it is hands down my favorite piece in the collection.
“He’s the Lord,” says Tula, “And he doesn’t care about me anymore.
Third is “Ad maiorem de gloriam”, the piece that focuses on faith and the humanity. This piece hits close to home because I went to Catholic school for 12 years and I was baptized when I was a baby in a church. I grew up surrounded by nuns and priests all my life and spent my early mornings or evenings every Sunday at church with my family. Faith is engrained in my DNA basically. It’s intriguing to see that Pasaribu writes this story from a perspective of a retired nun—Sister Tula—that yearns to feel alive with purpose after being admitted into a convent filled with fellow retirees.
In this piece Pasaribu discusses faith and questions it through Sister Tula. Reading through the book there is always a room that the characters in the stories feels confined to. For me Pasaribu manifested the complexities associated with being a queer person of faith in Ad maiorem de gloriam.
There is another piece titled “Three Love You, Four Despise You” that also touches on the theme of confinement, but for now I will focus on this one because the strongest impressions of it is contained in Ad maiorem de gloriam. Pasaribu intricately conveys the internal struggle of wanting to abandon everything and live the best life but always ending up stuck in a loop that restricts movement and decision making.
This struggle is a prominent thing dealt by not only Indonesian queers but any queer person in countries that has traditional views and sees queerness as an abnormality or absolute crime. The discussions aren’t at all preachy, on the contrary it takes on a vulnerable approach that is accessible and can resonate with so many people that have shared the same experience.
He asked me to return everything in the rainy season He asked me to return everything to the rainy season To the rainy season I returned everything he'd ever asked To the rainy season on the rainy season I asked for a rainy season This whole time he's given me a rainy season hue This whole time he's painted me a rainy season hue Now he asks me to return the Rainy Season to him And I return it in full And I return in full
Final thoughts, Happy Stories, Mostly is an interconnected web of beautiful stories with lyrical prose that strikes it’s own beat in narrative and sings it’s own tune of queer resilience. My first and certainly will not be the last work by Norma Erikson Pasaribu I will read.
I applause Tiffany Tsao for translating such brilliant work to make Indo lit more accessible to western audiences. I understand that this short review wont cover every story in the collection but I will vouch from the moon and back that Norman Erikson Pasaribu is a talented writer that masterfully woven an amazing and elaborate collection of stories that deserves the highest of praise. I highly recommend friends to pick this fine piece of Indonesian literature or if you’re looking for translated work that you can consume and savor slowly in your tight schedule. What a great book to end my 2021!