Happy Stories, Mostly

The stories collected in Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s Happy Stories, Mostly (translated by Tiffany Tsao) demonstrate a writer delighting in the form. Pasaribu is Indonesian and many of his stories reflect on what it means to be gay in that country. Homosexuality is not illegal in Indonesia but, as Pasaribu has said, “Not illegal” gives a radically different idea from what my friends and I currently experience.” As he goes on to explain, community is important, but this can lead to a pressure to conform:

“Even to be eccentric, to be a loner, to be a reader is to be seen differently here.”

This is evident in ‘So What’s Your Name, Sandra’ where a mother travels to Vietnam after the death of her son, Bison. The name, she felt, “sounded manly and strong,” perhaps partly to compensate for an absent father – a fact that means “all the kids called him ‘Bison the Batak Bastard,’” an early sign of community disapproval. A more significant ‘difference’ occurs alter when Sandra discovers he has a boyfriend:

“I told him he was no child of mine. And then I kicked him out.”

The story is beautifully paced, intercutting her trip to Vietnam (where she intends to visit My Son) with moments from the past.

Interestingly, ‘The True Story of the Story of the Giant’ also examines its gay characters from the outside, using a heterosexual narrator, Henri. Henri’s friend, Jamie, acts a comedy chorus, for example replying to Henri’s concerns that he is “confirming stereotypes” by having multiple partners:

“Henri, Henri… all the hetero guys that I know have three or four girls! What do you call that?”

The focus of the story is a newer friend however, Tunggul, whom he assumes is straight until he tells him otherwise, admitting that he has kept it a secret as his sister has already told their parents she is a lesbian and, “All my parents have left is me.” These very human stories combined with the story of the giant man which Henri hears in different versions, a story that comments on the nature of friendship. This story within a story is an example of Pasaribu’s skill with the form; other stories showcase a more obvious experimental streak. ‘A Young Poet’s Guide to Surviving a Broken Heart’, for example, is addressed directly to the reader. Largely humorous in tone, it ends on more poignant note with a poem slipped between the pages of a book.

Pasabiru also ventures into science fiction in ‘Metaxu: Jakarta 2038’ with the same mixture of humour (“vidxfessions”) and humanity. The narrator confesses to throwing a medicine bottle at her brother which leaves him deaf in one ear, and further to refusing to help him when he wanted a job at the karaoke bar where she works:

“I never mentioned my brother to my boss. Not only that, I fibbed to buy time.”

The science fiction is in some ways incidental, but it does allow a striking juxtaposition at the end where the idea that “we’ll soon have the technology to erase all our bad memories for good” is mentioned alongside her memory of her brother looking “like an old photo.” Pasabiru moves from science fiction to fantasy with ‘Welcome to the Department of Unanswered Prayers’, a monologue addressed to a new staff member:

“When it comes to lunch, I’d suggest only sitting with people form this department. Try to avoid interacting with others, especially those in Matchmaking.”

As with Pasabiru’s stories in general, the humour directs us towards a more thoughtful conclusion, as the listener is warned that one day their own unanswered prayer will appear:

“Just remember: Don’t trust any of your feelings. They’re wrong.”

Perhaps surprisingly, my favourite story was ‘Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam’ about a retired nun, Sister Tula, who begins sneaking out of the convent:

“She feels like Lazarus: raised from death to life by the power of Jesus Christ.”

On one ‘outing’ she encounters a young boy who is lost and, in returning him to his father, gets an invitation to visit. The father is gay but won’t live with another man as he fears his son will be bullied. Tula becomes intent on developing a relationship with the boy and the story’s light-hearted premise soon acquires an emotional depth.

Pasaribu’s stories suggest a playful but serious imagination. Sometimes they are heart-warming, sometimes heart-rending, but they always touch the reader’s heart. Happy Stories, Mostly may not have made it onto the International Booker shortlist, but it provides a wonderful example of the exciting writing brave publishers like Tilted Axis Press are discovering and bringing to an English-speaking readership.


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5 Responses to “Happy Stories, Mostly”

  1. International Booker Prize 2022 Longlist | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Happy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated from Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao (Tilted Axis Press) […]

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    This sounds like an excellent collection, and I like the idea of combining some valuable underlying messages with a playful, engaging approach. It’s interesting just how many short story collections made it onto this year’s International Booker longlist. Do you have any theories on this, other than they just happened to be the best examples of fiction out there? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Also, it calls into question the rules surrounding some of the leading prizes for fiction written in the English language e.g. the Women’s Prize for Fiction, which (I believe) has a minimum word count for eligibility. (I remember seeing something on Twitter that suggested Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These and Natasha Brown’s Assembly were ineligible due their brevity.)

    • 1streading Says:

      It is unusual for there to be so many, but I like the fact that it is open to short stories as well. At the end of the day, it is up to the judges to decide what deserves to be there. I think it’s more difficult for a collection of stories to win as they have to all be excellent!

  3. Tony Says:

    A nice one, not quite in my top six – always a chance of a Shadow Shortlisting, though 😉

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