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Editor's note

Happy Stories, Mostly: A beguiling new collection from Norman Erikson Pasaribu

Alexander Wells on breakthrough gay Indonesian author Norman Erikson Pasaribu and his new short story collection.

Photo: Tilted 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.

The last few years have seen successful translations of South Korea’s Sang Young Park and Finnish-Kosovan Pajtim Statovci, among others, while Nigeria-born Akwaeke Emezi remains a bona fide literary star.

One new exciting discovery comes from a region perennially under-represented in World Lit talk: Southeast Asia. Jakarta-born Norman Erikson Pasaribu, a gay man from Indonesia’s Christian minority, is an unmistakeable talent. (As is his award-winning translator, Tiffany Tsao.)

In 2019, Pasaribu’s poetry collection Sergius Seeks Bacchus impressed with its thoughtful depiction of local queer life and its deft intermingling of high and low culture. Sociable and intimate, these poems are even slyly hopeful, although they always wear the wounds of homophobia. One poem, where two lovers secretly kiss in a underground car park, riffs on John Henry Newman and Augustine of Hippo, before jolting into a tragic finale:

The two young men wondered sometimes

why they were the ones who had to show love

can bloom anywhere, even in the dark,

and that love growing in the dark is no less life-giving.   

Not all young poets succeed in the switch to fiction, but Pasaribu’s short story collection Happy Stories, Mostly is even more beguiling. Out now on Tilted Axis Press and Giramondo (and partly funded by a grant from the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin), this book is not even “mostly” happy. Yet it navigates queer suffering with a deep supply of tenderness and humour – and with empathy for all its characters.

Especially impressive is the range and force of Pasaribu’s imagination. His wandering stories mix elements of sci-fi, prose poetry, postcolonial critique and romance; they repurpose tropes from classic 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 damn well with queer narratives…. We need to invent our own new histories, because our own histories have often been erased, and fiction is just the way for that.”