Towards complete self acceptance, via suburban Jakarta, Christian saints and a shopping centre’s car park: Norman Erikson Pasaribu writes his personal history.
1. The first gay couple I ever saw in real life was a pair of Dutch film festival co-directors who visited Pasar Rawalumbu, a market where my mother ran a kiosk selling clothes. It was 2009. They had come to meet Indonesian directors and were ushered around the country by Pak M who sold cheap imitation Croc sandals next to our kiosk. The market people, looking curious, gathered around the two white men. Oddly their first question was, ‘What are these misters’ religions?’ I still remember the answer: ‘I don’t have one, but John is a Catholic.’ A friend of my mother then whispered to me, ‘How can a person not have a religion?’
2. ‘Where did you come from?’ (meaning, What’s your racial background?) – ‘What is your religion?’ – ‘Where do you go to church?’ is normal weather talk in Indonesia, asked to pass the time. Religion and race play crucial roles here, but both are never that simple for me. My father comes from a Muslim family while my mother is a devout Batak-Protestant. I was educated in a Catholic school. Both of my parents are from North Sumatra’s Toba Batak communities, one of Indonesia’s ethnic minorities. They migrated to Jakarta in the late 70s and early 80s, before settling in suburban Bekasi in 1992, acquiring immigrant-like life experiences for themselves and their children.
3. That market visit left a huge impression on me. Growing up, I had no role models. I didn’t know any openly gay people, let alone a happy gay couple. In local popular media, queer personalities, especially trans people, were merely exploited for slapstick comedy or dead-end tragedy. In my early years, it was hard to find Indonesian literature that spoke of queer love openly and progressively. Queer Indonesians, of course, have always been resisting: Lambda Indonesia (later re-birthed as Gaya Nusantara) was founded by Dede Oetomo in 1982, Q! Film Festival was established when I was in middle school in 2002, Is Mujiarso edited Rahasia Bulan (The Secret of the Moon, 2005), an anthology of short stories with queer themes and characters. But for many reasons, I never had any access to them until I was in college and had internet and my own money, when I was five hours by metromini and bus from my parental home. The possibility of queer love also manifested itself through western pop culture: Brokeback Mountain was released in 2005 and I watched it on a pirated DVD, and there was world literature, like Mark Doty’s poems and Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel. Still, it was difficult to see white faces and think that I could be just like them.
4. An avid reader living in poverty is a re-reader. An avid reader living in poverty who is also a Christian is a Bible re-reader. Biblical tales fascinated me. In fact, the first queer love story I read was from the Bible. Reading the gospel of John, I daydreamed that John the Evangelist was Jesus’ boyfriend. Yet there are blank areas in the Bible that would perplex any seven-year-old: Who was Cain’s wife? Why didn’t God just forgive Adam and Eve? Or turn back time and intercept the snake? No answers. This puzzled obsession lasted until my Sidi time (which roughly translates as ‘perfection’), where Batak-Protestant youths have to study the Bible for a whole year in order to be recognized as marriageable adults, and my tiresome accounting college years, where my interest shifted to the lives and writing of Christian saints. I grew fond of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s nonfiction work on the history of the church, Marianne Katoppo’s radical theology, and John Boswell’s ideas of social tolerance towards same-sex relationships among medieval Christians. It was through Thérèse of Lisieux’s autobiography The Story of a Soul that I reached my complete self-acceptance. It taught me how to see beauty in the ordinary and in being ordinary, and that growing up the way I did is not a hindrance in any way.
5. I also grew up with fraudulent stories about HIV and how it was a ‘curse’ for gay men. The picture of decaying bodies haunted my adolescence. But I am also fascinated by the juxtaposition of images and the contradictions this allows us to feel. I found the stories of incorrupt bodies of saints enchanting: how Bernadette Soubirous was ill all her life but her post-mortem body was a proof of Christian miracle. For me, Bernadette’s body is a queer body and a queer body is that of a ‘Christian-miracle’.
6. The first boy I dated was a relatively devout Catholic. He lived on the other side of Greater Jakarta, coming from a Chinese family who had previously left the capital right after the 1998 riots. We would meet halfway, in a mall in Sudirman, and spend time together in his car in the basement-parking garage. When there were only a few cars in level P2, we would go deeper to P3, sometimes P4. Those two boys in the basement were like the early Christians who literally went underground to celebrate their faith in the catacombs. ‘We are like Sergius and Bacchus,’ I said to that boy once, referring to the Syrian Christian saints who were embraced by the queer community. ‘They’re us.’
7. An on-going juxtaposition: those two Dutchmen in a market — surrounded by, well-received by my mother and her friends — and those two Indonesian boys in a poorly lit basement. ‘There is nothing new under the sun,’ writes the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes of the Old Testament. ‘The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new,’ echoes Samuel Beckett. I find the assumption that everything has been written very misleading. It suggests that everyone is already well-represented, which is wrong. The sun knows so little, it turns out. We don’t know much either.
8. Recently, a local English newspaper asked me whether writing in English from Indonesian authors counts as Indonesian literature. I said yes. I have seen how labels are used to diminish and silence voices, especially of minority groups with limited or no platform. And this is what I have come to believe now: classifications exist so we can understand ourselves and others more, so we can sympathize better. Not to exclude others and build walls.
9. I worked as a tax accountant for years, and it equipped me with a suspicious gaze when confronted with a pretty picture. Everything is, after all, connected and systemized. An analogy: if there is a significant rise or fall in revenue in a clothing manufacturer, to detect financial fraud you can examine how much money has been spent on buttons. The revenues and the expenses should match, but big accounts are where the con men play. To review a society, look at how their minorities live. This means that excessive representation of a majority group will come at the expense of minority groups’ visibility, but depictions of the narratives of their daily lives have the potential to expose and subvert that situation. This is where my concern lies.
10. ‘Amang, you need to have a God,’ my mother said whenever I refused to go to the Sunday services with the family. She sees me as a non-believer, even though I still sometimes go to Mass without informing her. ’‘At least pick one, just one.’ Pick one, as if God was a pin on a table in front of a souvenir shop, proof that I have been somewhere. Proof I have elegantly existed in this world.
Norman Erikson Pasaribu was born in Jakarta. His first book of poems Sergius Seeks Bacchus speaks of the lives of queer individuals in Indonesia. It won first prize in the 2015 Jakarta Arts Council Poetry Manuscript Competition and was a finalist of Khatulistiwa Literary Award for Poetry. The English translation by Tiffany Tsao of poems from the book was a finalist of English PEN’s PEN Presents East and Southeast Asia and has been published or is forthcoming in Asymptote, Asia Literary Review, AAWW’s The Margins, Cordite Poetry Review, and Modern Poetry in Translation. In 2017, Norman received a WrICE Fellowship from RMIT University and Young Writer Award from Southeast Asia Literary Council.
Tiffany Tsao’s English translation of Sergius Seeks Bacchus will be published by Tilted Axis Press in 2019.
You can read Norman’s poem ‘On a Pair of Young Men in the Underground Parking Garage at fX Sudirman Mall’ over at the Asia Literary Review.