Notes: On “Happy Stories, Mostly” by Norman Erikson Pasaribu

By Teta

Happy Stories, Mostly” (Cerita-cerita Bahagia, Hampir Seluruhnya), the 2021 short story collection by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated from Indonesian into English by Tiffany Tsao, is one of my favorite reads this year.

I have a soft spot for art that has “happy” in its title but is bereft — robbed, really — of happiness. “Happy Together” (1997, dir. Wong Kar Wai) is one of my all-time favorite movies. “Are You Happy Now?” by Michelle Branch is a 2003 certified classic. So it’s only fitting that “Happy Stories, Mostly” joins this hallowed collection of melancholic works. It may be scant on happiness, but it’s rich in emotional space-making that remains pliant with bouts of humor and real care for each character.

Major congrats to Norman and Tiffany, as “Happy Stories, Mostly” makes it onto the 2022 International Booker Prize longlist and is on the shortlist for the 2022 Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses! What a joy to see a queer Indonesian writer celebrated for an incredible work of drama, metafiction and speculative fiction that tightly weaves together Batak Christian ontologies, working-class experiences and queer daily life, from the mundane to the surreal.

U.K.-based Tilted Axis Press offers a lot of great English-translated prose and poetry from Asian authors.

Three years ago, I first read Norman’s work with his portal-opening debut poetry collection, “Sergius Seeks Bacchus,” where the past, present, and future felt within reach all at once.

It was also the first time that I had read the work of a queer writer who was born in, had grown up in and currently still lives in Indonesia. I’ve read the works of LGBTQ+ diasporic writers such as Dena Igusti, Ally Ang, Tess Liem, Zavé Martohardjono and Jessica Jemalem Ginting, who mostly write in English. Reading Norman’s poems felt like a link to a far-reaching lineage of understanding and being.

Let me now get the Diasporic Distress™ out of the way: I’m terrible at reading Indonesian and my speaking skills are only slightly better. I can understand Indonesian pretty well when I hear it, but I need to read aloud written words or else I have no idea what I’m seeing. I’ve only read works from Indonesian writers in English, either translated from Indonesian or written originally in English. That means there’s a wealth of Indonesian literature that is totally inaccessible to me, and I mourn it every single day.

The U.S., where I grew up and still live in, has a dearth of translated works. If the American film industry is resistant to subtitled movies, the American publishing industry is insultingly ignoring translation. More than half of the nearly 5,800 translated books from 2008 to 2018 were from just nine countries, according to a 2019 Quartz article: France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Japan, Sweden, Russia, China and Norway. Certainly there are other aspects in play — the lack of multilingual U.S. editors, the publishing output of other countries, etc. — but that is a sliver of books in a world blooming with languages.

As such, there are limited ways of accessing translated Indonesian work in the U.S., and the novels that do get translated into English often fall under very heteronormative, mostly Javanese, historical fiction territory. The first translated Indonesian novel I’d ever read was “Beauty Is a Wound” (Cantik Itu Luka) by Eka Kurniawan, translated by Annie Tucker, back in 2016. But as I read more, from Pramoedya Ananta Toer to Okky Madasari, I started to get frustrated with what seemed to be a focus on sweeping, historical introspections that felt like “Indonesia 101: The Building of a Post-Colonial Nation” for an English language market that may have never considered Indonesian literature on its own merit before. I was grateful to be able to read these writers, but I was frustrated with a publishing ethos that failed to see Indonesian literature on its own strengths and depth of stories. And I love historical fiction, don’t get me wrong. I just also wanted to see more horror (shout out to Intan Paramaditha), more science fiction, more slice-of-life contemporary novels that don’t have to answer “Why is Indonesia…?” to an unimaginative English language market.

Reading “Happy Stories, Mostly” was a revelation. I love short story collections; I think the ability to tell a story within a discrete moment is an extraordinary talent. Some of my favorite short story collections include “The Book of Jakarta: A City in Short Fiction” (2020, translated from Indonesian by various translators), edited by Maesy Ang and Teddy W. Kusuma; “I’m Waiting for You: and Other Stories” (2021, translated from Korean by Sophie Bowman and Sung Ryu); and Matsuda Aoko’s “Where the Wild Ladies Are” (2020, translated from Japanese by Polly Barton). So Norman’s “Happy Stories, Mostly” was already going to get top marks from me for form alone.

In a 2021 video interview for U.K. translated literature festival Gŵyl Haf, Norman explains the collection more:

So many people [say] like, ‘oh my god, none of these [stories] are happy!’ Well, because we have a Disneyfied version of happiness — it’s as if nothing is sweet unless it’s super sweet, even though in real life we rarely get super-sweet moments. … I’m also taunting people to reconsider what they thought is happy, for example. Being happy is very much linked to our own privilege. How do you expect, for example, queer people to be happy in a place where they are hated? We can make so many possible ideas of being happy, but when we have the Disneyfied version of happy, it’s a bit hard to imagine those possibilities.”

Norman Erikson Pasaribu, Writer, “Happy Stories, Mostly”
The quote starts after the question at 36:35.

Norman’s writing, as conveyed through Tiffany’s translation, has a kinetic creativity that draws me in as a reader, holding me through some of the tougher stories handling suicide such as “So What’s Your Name, Sandra?” and “The True Story of the Story of the Giant.” Longer, swirling sentences, like the ones in “Enkidu Comes Knocking on New Year’s Eve,” ebb and flow against shorter, punchier moments that gleam across the surface like a dragonfly’s wings. And my shortlist of favorites are the post-Jakarta-as-the-capital future “Metaxu: Jakarta, 2038,” the bleak heavenly bureaucracy of “Welcome to the Department of Unanswered Prayers,” and the trials of a (forcibly) retired nun in “Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.”

So if you like the depth, textures and music of “Happy Together” (1997) but are eager to stretch your imagination more, run to “Happy Stories, Mostly” and find care and possibility with each page.