Longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, Norman Erikson Pasaribu is the author of Happy Stories, Mostly.
He tells us how translation makes meaningful connections across languages possible and how the LGBTQ+ community that surrounds him inspired him to write his novel.
What first inspired you to write Happy Stories, Mostly?
The time spent with my queer friends laughing over our miseries and crying over our achievements. The lives of our kind-hearted but homophobic moms. Europe’s wooden hands that altered the fabric of our lives. The hetero-patriarchal capitalisms that forced us to keep ‘bettering’ ourselves just so people would tolerate our queer lives. And how our hard-earned happy days could be gone in a flash by a co-worker cosily outing us, by someone in the neighbourhood who saw us with our lover at the mall, or by someone framing us into the monsters that we aren’t. Even without us realising it, all this time, we’ve been standing on this edge of the ravine that I called the Hampir, the Almost, and it would only require a gentle tap to make us fall. Whereas: ‘In a country where queerphobia has zero consequences, how could a queer person build a liveable life?’
What’s your earliest reading memory?
I learned to read a bit late — perhaps because of an undiagnosed dyslexia. My aunt and mom used three pieces of lidis and would hit my hand if I had trouble with my spelling. Ironically, ‘ayah’ (father) was one of the harder words to spell because its syllables had odd-numbered letters. In confusion, I would spell, “a, y, a, yah, h, ayah” and the lidis would swing. At those times, reading felt overrated. However, when I eventually could read, reading was so joyful that I could never stop. I devoured written words indiscriminately, from books of folktales to the Bible, to matchmaking columns in the newspapers to Iwan Gayo’s encyclopedic Buku Pintar.
What authors have made the biggest impact on your work?
I have an endless list for this, but: Dorothea Rosa Herliany, Wisława Szymborska, Mary Gordon, César Aira, Elfriede Jelinek, Budi Darma, Herta Müller, Han Kang, Sapardi Djoko Damono, Simone Weil, Mark Doty, Andrea Barrett, Franz Wright, and more, and more. And (of course! Of course!): Nhã Thuyên, a poet based in Hanoi, Vietnam. Her “non-sense” poems, in Kaitlin Rees’ translations, are one of the most daring, most brilliant, most breathtaking poems coming from Southeast Asia today.
Translations have opened doors to places where my writing can live terror-free. Where they will be loved, cherished
How does it feel to have your work translated for people in the English-speaking world to read?
Sometimes it feels strange to me because my mom doesn’t speak English. She doesn’t understand why I am so happy to have Tiffany translate my writing so well. What it means to have this intimate linguistic connection with someone that actually didn’t see you growing up.
But, most of the time, it feels great. Translations have opened doors to places where my writing can live terror-free. Where they will be loved, cherished. (Yes, I know they will see other kinds of challenges — the western standard of writing, for example.) There is an American mother who wrote a long blog post about how the short story ‘So What’s Your Name Sandra?’ helped her grieve for her son after his suicide. I want this mother to reclaim her life, wherever she is right now. Tiffany’s translation has made this meaningful connection possible.
What other books would you like to see Happy Stories, Mostly sit beside on a bookshelf?
The Vegetarian! (by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith) It’s one of my favorite books of all time, and why I really wanted to work with Tilted Axis [Press, publisher of Happy Stories, Mostly]. Also: Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Ellen van Neerven’s Comfort Food. And, it’d be an honor to sit with these brilliant books from home: I Am My Own Home by Isyana Artharini (that every single single-person should read), Ziggy Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie’s Semua Ikan di Langit, and Tiffany Tsao’s The Majesties. And oh so many more!
Tell us a lesser-known (fun) fact about you.
I have an exalted Jupiter in the tenth house. My boyfriend Leo said this is a promise of success, a promise of big things in my life. But I also have a Mercury in Pisces — and this is a promise of being harder to be understood, of being an alien, as if I am speaking in a different language. A stranger in a strange land. Somehow, I thought that the only way I could be free from this Mercury in Pisces was if people read my writing slowly.
What inspired me to write? The hetero-patriarchal capitalisms that forced us to keep ‘bettering’ ourselves just so people would tolerate our queer lives...
And an interesting fact about the book.
‘Cerita-cerita Bahagia, Hampir Seluruhnya’ was a fulfillment of my Saturn return. And in 2020, right before I turned thirty, I wanted to make a limited edition of the book. I would talk to the printer, going back and forth from Bekasi to Jakarta. I showed the manuscript to friends because I was nervous about it. During those bus rides, I would edit and proofread. My boyfriend, Leopold Adi Surya, made a blue cover for this edition — a cover that I so loved. And then, for the mass printing edition that was out with Gramedia, he made another cover. And, for the Australian edition of its English translation with Giramondo, he made another cover. He’s there for this book, every step of the way. Leo himself is a writer and he writes brilliant sci-fi short stories. I hope he publishes his first book soon!
Tell us about a book that changed your life.
Elfriede Jelinek’s Sang Guru Piano (translated into Indonesian by Arpani Harun). I have this queer friend from college who is so significant to my writing life. Not long after college, he chose to pursue a monastic Buddhist life. But, once upon a time that now seems simultaneously like only yesterday and forever ago, we would spend hours talking about this book, gossiping about the characters and the phrases in it, comparing the English and Indonesian translation (Oh, how its music feels so much better in Indonesian), comparing our miserable love lives to Erika Kohut’s, and arguing about the scenes, about the movie adaptation, about Jelinek’s other books. And this happened day to day, for years, without us ever getting bored because of it.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
In 2018, I joined a poetry workshop by Hoa Nguyen (who is a brilliant poet) in Hanoi — facilitated by my friends at AJAR Press. The workshop was dreamlike and wonderful, but it was what she said after, when she read a tarot for me, that I kept on thinking about. She said: listen to the moon. After that, I began writing poems based on my dreams.
What book haven’t you finished?
Khairani Barokka’s Ultimatum Orangutan! It’s on my bedside, and I am (re-)reading it from time to time. :-)