Ed. by Michael Farrell
Reviewed by GARETH MORGAN
While the term ‘mode’ suggests something computerish, or mode as in moda, fashion, the poems in Ashbery Mode are less ‘coding’ or ‘trying on’ of style, more an absorption inside of a massive body of work. Ashbery’s poetry is a challenge for critics but great nourishment to poets. As the cover suggests, ‘we’ (koala) look up at these American heads, a cruel joke on the idea of Antipodes and perhaps a version of terra nullius from the American perspective. I am reminded of John Forbes’s ‘Antipodean Heads’, which starts: ‘I wish we could be nicer / like the Americans’, how we know so much of them, and keep looking up that way. In the ‘Antipodean Manifesto’ (1958) a group of Australian artists and the critic Bernard Shaw took a stance against abstract expressionism, the New American Painting exhibition, fearing its influence on local aesthetics. This collection, brought to life by editor Michael Farrell, indulges in North American influence, especially the charm of abstraction, freneticism and freedom of movement in poetry. Featuring poets who encountered John Ashbery and other international modernist poetry after 1958 let’s say, Ashbery Mode charts this epic influence in so called Australia. Just how nice are they ‘over there’? Ashbery Mode considers just how nice Australian poets can be, even and especially under the influence.
Chris Edwards’s poem ‘Rat Chow’ (cute product for a dystopian supermarket!), cannibalises Ashbery’s book length poem Flow Chart to give us a ‘Reconstitution’ of that book. What nutrients did the author ingest before expelling the flesh of Ashbery’s poem? From the difficult puddle surface hidden gems. ‘things keep arriving from the florist’s’ e.g. is typical of Ashbery’s ‘tone’ or ‘imagery’, and perhaps an easy metapoetic statement. The poem is like flower painting, as in decorative; the ‘Ashbery Mode’ draws so much of its value from being an attractive, baroque, shifty surface from which emerges a strange country. These ‘things’ (e.g. ”You’re a grown man now, but must sit in a tub, on a comfortable income and a few puddles of camel-stale, jotting down seemingly unrelated random characteristics.” a quote from the blue and quite a ‘thing’) are good for merely existing, delicious, and being cannibalised into the poem. As Brazilian poet Oswalde de Andrade claim in his Cannibalist Manifesto (1928): ‘Cannibalism alone unites us’. Ashbery’s is poetry that makes you hungry, and poets unite in this collection around this act. To the question of nutrients… is this Mode lifegiving? Yes, through decadence, which Edwards and many others collected here enjoy, like soft cheese.
David Prater’s poem ‘Ninety Nine Rabbits’ hilariously remarks ‘I like John Ashbery’s fingernails’, the dead excess of the poet’s presence (in Aus). Prater’s poem tracks the influence of Ashbery on Stephen Malkmus (of the band Pavement), whose first album Slanted and Enchanted, made him ‘throw up’. What a thrill! (I wonder what Ashbery Mode might sound like anthologised on vinyl…) There is a lot of eating and drinking in this book, which feels like a metaphor for influence’s effect. Stuart Cooke ‘lick[s] the ash / of brie’ on the porch while Oscar Schwartz’s uncomfortably Australian poem ‘Wine’ drinks deep: ‘This is the wine from ripe red land […] This wine is sacred beer. / And it is to be served in jugs’ (‘ripe’—eek!). Poets unite here in the ritual consumption.
I am often made to think of Ashbery when reading Gig Ryan (and vice versa). Her poem, ‘Epitome Of Variation’ (from Heroic Money (2001)), is ‘very Ashbery’, but also ‘very Gig Ryan’: ‘The swift barman’s cellophane gloss / glides beyond me / explosive celebrant, stoned croupier / in crushed Adelaide.’ Ryan’s poem is engaged in a struggle for something new (for Adelaide, for Australia), a tough and brutal way of building a scene, melancholic (‘Dwindled day’) and a bit dreamy (‘beige sunset’) always full of jarring turns. Great, influential Australian poetry that takes from Ashbery’s density, flightiness and obscurity.
Bella Li’s prose poem ‘Just Then’, concerns itself with how the local blends with the foreign: ‘Ah California! I’d give my arm leg for a shovel and a fat wheelbarrow.’ It’s a funny poem, a scene in which the speaker waits lakeside for a goose to show up. It mock-begs for Imagist clarity, taking pleasure in the flow of linguistic noise that busts Imagism up. Language runs along hectically, ‘juicy oranges getting juicier’…’fuzzy marmots […] but no goose’. The objective is less goose-hunt than the margins of that. Travelling up to North America, Li’s short poem apostrophises American locations (and rodents) for their importance (and cuteness), but also demonstrates the importance of moving on, losing focus. Something like New York might exist here too, wouldn’t that be cool, and it does, it’s poetry, like ‘chintz in the wild’ that decorates Li’s expanding, expansive view.
The epigraph to Tim Grey’s poem ‘6, From Bio’ regards the influence Ashbery wore on his sleeve: ‘absolute modernity was for him the acknowledging of the simultaneity of all life, the condition that nourishes poetry at every second. The self is obsolete‘ (Ashbery on Rimbaud in his translation of Illuminations). Ashbery’s connection to Rimbaud, whose modernity was perhaps to Ashbery as Ashbery’s is to Li, Ryan, Grey, etc.– is concerned with nourishment for poetry. Grey’s poem is busy, violent, a flipside to Li’s joyous play: ‘taxi ploughing into his bicycle in the box-smoked dusk’ shows off modernity’s simultaneity in a different way.
Louise Crisp’s two comparatively chilled out poems of modernity also pinch from an Ashbery line for their epigraph, from Some Trees: ‘The river slides under our dreams / but land flows more silently’. In ‘Ground’ a man ‘hoes vegetables’ and, digging, finds ‘another layer of ground / under the colour of vegetables / patterned in the shape of his country’. This sombre poem digs with Ashberyan tools, unravelling modernity’s papering over of Aboriginal land.
It strikes me that John Ashbery received a National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2011. (Who are ‘our’ equivalent poets? What poetry do our Prime Ministers read and reward outside maybe Les Murray? And when is Michael Farrell gonna get a medal?!) Despite it’s naughty experimentalism, hermeticism and lyric obscurity, one of the curious things about Ashbery’s poetry (at least as it can be / has been in places critically received) is that it ‘stays out of it’ when it comes to politics, or protest. (We might remember that Abstract Expressionism in Jackson Pollock was supported by the CIA). While it would be foolish to pursue this binary too hard, it’s interesting how politics shows up in Ashbery Mode to reflect on Ashbery’s legacy.
Fiona Hile’s ‘Consumption’ is a hot little almost-sonnet that takes on the Capitalist pig. The speaker complains ‘if you say you don’t believe in that thing / about money and desire I’ll just die– […] But that’s okay, I hate work, and, anyway…’ In a tone evoking too the charm of Frank O’Hara, ‘Consumption’s’ lyric investigation of death and legacy ends on the joke that at least of the body ‘Nothing will be wasted’. Full of jokes, like the speaker’s ‘father’s / puns’, the poem combusts in a mess, abandoning the ‘ticklish’ world of novelty the poem is disgusted by. Language under consumer capitalism (‘double absolute modernity’?) will make you sick– luckily we have poetry to help with that. (Help to purge?). Does Hile’s poem diss the baroque novelty of Ashbery’s abstraction, the pursuit of a higher poetic good ‘outside capital’? I’m not sure.
Pam Brown works from Ashbery’s ‘political poem’ ‘Default Mode’, which Brown heard him read in New York in 2008. ‘Antipodean Default Mode’ mirrors the refrain “They were living in America”, inserting ‘Australia’ and animating points from the original, like ‘…living in America fictitiously’. Brown: ‘everything had seen better days / They were living in Australia / just for the heck of it […] like true blue Americans’. The poem absorbs the twin fictions of America and Australia and spits out a flatter version still. Nationhood for settlers is rendered spurious, and the fruits of colonial violence and modernity, like ‘biodegradeable mousepads’, fill out this sad, cutting and funny poem.
Farrell notes in his Introduction that the poets included ‘span roughly fifty years’. I’m left wondering what a part two of this collection might look like– another fifty years of influence in the rapidly heating Antipodes should produce some fresh takes on this monolith of modern poetry. The poems vary greatly, but in many there is a sense of poetry in breakdown, a reflection on the passing of a great poet and a changing world. Luke Beesley’s ‘Timber Hitch’ is a short, crumbly prose block below which a scrappy drawing of Ashbery, and the caption ASH. A phoenix… or ashes to dust…
In any case, with a nod to ‘what’s next’, Ali Alizadeh begins ‘The Poet (After ‘the Painter’)’: ‘Crouching between horror and language / I hate writing about this damn world,’ and concludes his polemical response: ‘The age doesn’t demand an image of the world / in any language. Better to tattoo fear / on the page, in a dark inaesthetic poem.’ Alizadeh’s mad sestina is a fine, if random place to stop eating of these poems, and to look forward to ever newer versions of the Mode. Dark, inaesthetic, cruel… tho probably in equal measure desperate attempts to delight oneself and others.
Chiasson, Dan. “Postscript: John Ashbery”. New Yorker. 2017
de Andrade, Oswaldo. ‘Cannibalist Manifesto’. trans. Leslie Barry (1991). Latin American Literary Review. 19. 38. 1928 p. 38
Forbes, John. Collected Poems. Brandl & Schlessinger. 2001. p 104
GARETH MORGAN is a poet and co director of sick leave reading series and journal. His work can be found in Rabbit, Cordite, Australian Poetry Journal and other places.
On Scars and Flying Horses:
Linda Christanty is an Indonesian author and journalist. Her writing has been recognized by various awards including the national literary award in Indonesia (Khatulistiwa Literary Award 2004 and 2010), award from the Language Center of the Ministry of National Education (2010 and 2013), and The Best Short Stories version by Kompas daily (1989). Her essay “Militarism and Violence in East Timor” won a Human Rights Award for Best Essay in 1998. She has also written script for plays on conflict, disaster and peace transformation in Aceh. It was performed in the World P.E.N Forum (P.E.N Japan and P.E.N International Forum) in Tokyo, Japan (2008). She received the Southeast Asian writers award, S.E.A Write Award, in 2013.
Linda Christanty begins her short story “The Flying House of Maria Pinto” with a seemingly mundane encounter: an Indonesian soldier gets on a train, sits down next to a young woman reading a Stephen King novel, and tells her a story. The story he recounts is that of Maria Pinto:
“Maria Pinto was originally just an ordinary young girl who had once studied literature at a renowned university in Jakarta, and held out until the third semester before returning to the land of oranges and coffee. The people in that land died too early; they disappeared, committed suicide, went mad or plunged into the forest to unite the wild boar and the reindeer.”
Maria Pinto’s people give her ancient weapons and a flying horse, choosing her as their protector and commander.
“As of that moment, Maria Pinto had become the leader of treacherous troops, trapping the enemy in every zone, deterring those who only relied on tangible things; those who shunted aside fairytales and dreams.”
We as readers will not be able to set aside so easily the fairytale aspects of this short story; the soldier’s dreamlike narrative comes to overtake the rest of the plot. The woman on the train tries to ignore the overly chatty soldier, returning to her book until finally arriving at her destination. But after parting, the soldier is tasked with killing the enemy rebel target. He shoots at a figure on the street from a neighboring skyscraper and, when he goes to recover the body, discovers that this rebel is actually woman on the train who had listened to his story. Is the woman from the train the same enemy rebel from the soldier’s tale, Maria Pinto? That question remains unanswered, but what becomes clear is how political conflict finds its articulation in close, personal encounters and everyday stories.
Christanty is an Indonesian author known for approaching social and political issues in her writing. A student activist who participated in the movement that forced Indonesian dictator Suharto from power in 1998, Christanty has long dedicated her life to activism as well as the written word. After Indonesia’s return to democracy, she worked as a journalist and human rights advocate for women’s issues. For her activism, she was nominated for the N-Peace Award in 2012 in the Asia Pacific category and won the Kartini Award in 2014. Meanwhile, her fiction has won a range of national awards as well as Thailand’s prestigious Southeast Asian Writers Award in 2013.
According to the introduction to her collection, Final Party and Other Stories, in which the short story “The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto” was published in Debra Yatim’s English translation, “[Christanty’s] political activism is reflected in her prose . . . It is as if she feels the need to tell these things in order for us not to forget, and also maybe not to flinch when facing the demons of history.”
“The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto” is no exception. Though more implicit than her other stories in its political content, this narrative encodes questions of military violence and resistance. In fact, it is the inclusion of a second narrative plane–the mythical tale integrated into the direct encounter between the representative of the state (the soldier) and the representative of resistance (the woman)–that comes to command our attention and the progression of events itself. Indeed, the soldier’s story could be understood as a meta-narrative that reveals how this figure understands his own pursuit of this so-called “enemy.” The fascinating quality of “The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto,” and of Linda Christanty’s fiction more generally, lies not in literal depictions of conflict, but rather in the socially constructed narratives of conflict she interrogates through multiple layers of storytelling.
I spoke with Linda Christanty in Jakarta in 2019 as part of a series of interviews with contemporary Indonesian writers who represent Suharto’s New Order dictatorship in their work. The project is an effort to understand how authors construct counter-histories about an authoritarian past that the Indonesian state refuses to recognize for its brutality. As a U.S. American, I recognize the role my country played in supporting the anti-communist Suharto regime and turning a blind eye to the gross violations of human rights that took place. This traumatic past is not bounded by Indonesia’s nation-state boundaries; it is a history that incorporates global actors and that remains relevant beyond Indonesia. For foreigners, exploring how Indonesian writers revise and reconstruct narratives of the past can be a way to revisit questions of post-colonial, transnational leftism, which found its initial articulation through the 1955 Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung before the Suharto era ruptured bourgeoning international solidarity between recently independent nations.
Christanty is well positioned to reflect on politically committed writing in Indonesia, both in terms of her role in her generation and independently, as an author. As a key figure in a literary movement that used words first for liberation against an authoritarian regime and then for the project of reckoning with that authoritarian past, Christanty has witnessed marked shifts in Indonesia’s literary scene. And, in her own short fiction, the question of how characters invent narratives to understand their own experiences of social upheaval remains central, whether in “The Wild-cherry Tree,” where we find ourselves immersed in the imaginative perspective of a young girl processing assault, or in “The Final Party,” where an informant who sent friends to prison copes with his choices while arranging his birthday party.
When Linda joined me in a bustling café in central Jakarta, we spoke about free expression under dictatorship, continuities in violence, literary categories, and the Western gaze on socially committed Southeast Asian fiction. Much in the line of “The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto,” the question that spanned each topic was narrative itself, and how the language we use to tell stories frames history.
Lara Norgaard (LN): The memory of Suharto’s New Order dictatorship is a near-constant feature of your short fiction. Almost all of your short stories in the English-language collection Final Party and Other Stories relate in some way to that period’s violence, though sometimes that connection is not immediately apparent. Some of the moments that I found especially interesting are ones in which this history is implied in language rather than made explicit. For example, in “The Final Party,” when a man who had worked as a state informant recounts how he explained his job to his daughter for her school project:
“One day, little Alma asked about his work.
‘What do you actually do, Papa?’
‘I’m a note-maker.’
‘Note-maker?’ Little Alma laughed.
‘Yes,’ he answered firmly.
But in his daughter’s report book, he wrote down: entrepreneur.”
On a level of language, how would you say Indonesian either contains the memory of Suharto-era state violence or actually obscures the history of that period?
Linda Christanty (LC): There are a few expressions that people would use in the Suharto era, and especially language used by Suharto’s government. For example, most people, including any member of the military or the police, would very rarely say, “that person was arrested” or “that person was taken to prison.” Instead, they would usually use the phrase, orang itu diamankan – “that person was secured.” As all of us who were alive in that era, secured means that someone was arrested. It immediately had that connotation, conjuring up an image of someone who confronted the state apparatus and had to be “secured.”
It was also unusual, or taboo, to use the word buruh in the Suharto era. Worker, working class, labor. The government preferred that people use the word – employee – so that power relations would disappear. As a result, there wouldn’t be any apparent power dynamic between higher-ups and subordinates, bosses and workers, or in fact any oppressive relationship at all. That’s because the term karyawan in Indonesian relates to the term berkarya, someone who creates, someone who says something in the world. Buruh, on the other hand, means laborer, someone who only has the power to work. That person does not have authority over anything else; for example, they do not control the means of production. In that sense, when we use the word labor, it means resistance, because it means that oppression is present. When Suharto was in power, if a person used the word buruh it meant that they were also radical. Buruh is a word that collects or contains radical social movements and a long history of struggle. That was erased. So you would use more neutral terms: karyawan, which means employee, and kerja, which means work or job.
Then there’s one more example from when I was little. One day, I was talking to my grandfather in our house on Bangka Island. A man passed by out front, the father of a friend of mine from elementary school. My grandfather told me that this person, my friend’s father, wouldn’t ever be able work again at his company because he was terlibat – involved. In the Indonesian of Suharto’s New Order, the word terlibat always connoted being involved with the Indonesian Communist Party. ‘That person was involved,’ and people immediately or automatically knew that they had connections to communism.
There were so many euphemisms back then, you would hear the word terlibat and diamankan, and then the word buruh was erased, it never appeared.
LN: After the Reformasi period in 1998, when Suharto was removed from power and Indonesia returned to democracy, did these euphemisms continue?
LC: When Reformasi took place, or even before Reformasi when social movements were growing stronger and labor strikes and student actions were more and more frequent, people did start using the term labor, buruh, again. For example, when they would talk about labor or factory movements. And progressive students, the ones concerned about labor, would also use the term. Indeed the intellectuals at the time became a kind of driving force for change, recuperating this language that had been banned.
LN: For you, specifically, how has this influenced your writing?
LC: I started writing fiction when the New Order regime was still in power. Back then, if you wanted to write something or send a short story to print media, like a newspaper, the government had established rules. You couldn’t break the rules, so your story couldn’t contain any elements related to politics, religion, race, or anything that was seen as going against Indonesian society. The point is, you couldn’t have critical thought in your stories. But you could package it with something other than what you meant.
In fact, in the early 1990s I was writing fiction and news stories about the lives of marginalized peoples. And I also wrote stories about factory life. Usually, I wouldn’t write those for mainstream media, but instead for student magazines. At the University of Indonesia, which was my university, and also at other schools in Solo or Yogya, a subset of the student body was involved in the student movement. And some students who were quite forward-thinking, brave, and critical would publish work more freely, allowing people to write relatively unfettered by censorship, at least in comparison to mainstream media.
LN: In an interview with the online publication Arsip Publik, you stated that you don’t like the term “Reformasi literature.”1 I see your argument that this label makes it seem as though no one was openly writing critical texts before the transition to democracy took place. At the same time, I imagine that the experience of writing was indeed different before, during, and after the transition from authoritarianism to democracy.
If you don’t like the term “Reformasi literature,” how would you reframe shifts in the Indonesian literary world since the early 1990s?
LC: There are differences, of course, especially in what I was telling you about how certain words changed in their use. I still remember how, before Reformasi, right around 1997, we would usually use the term wanita (lady) when talking about perempuan (woman). The word for lady was seen as carrying more respect than the word for woman, as though the term perempuan had a certain negative connotation. But then, the Indonesian women’s movement was active at that time, and I still remember how in one issue of the magazine Kalyanamitra, they began to use the word perempuan to bring awareness to readers, to define the concept of perempuan and how it could in fact be emancipatory. The word perempuan, or woman, has something that could be understood as equality, a kind of strength. And so they began to use that term.
Writing under Suharto’s New Order is like what I already described. If you wrote for mainstream media, you would worry that they wouldn’t publish certain things. That wasn’t just about specific terms but also about certain topics. For example, it would of course be difficult to write realistic stories about Timor-Leste or disappearances. So writers like Seno Gumira Ajidarma, when he wrote about Timor-Leste, had to make the incident occur somewhere else, and make the characters from somewhere else so readers could maybe imagine this had happened in Latin America, for example.
I felt some of that myself, but I usually sent my stories to student publications because I wrote critically and said what I thought without allowing sensors to limit my work.
For literature after Reformasi, what’s actually very interesting is how varied the subject matter became. So many authors chose to write openly about their bodies after Reformasi. In the period before Reformasi, women were not free to write about their bodies. There are some personal aspects to that, but it also relates to how women’s bodies were associated with the leftist women’s organization Gerwani. During the Lubang Buaya incident2, these women allegedly danced naked and cut off the generals’ genitals. So, women’s bodies under the New Order regime were always associated with something evil, something immoral, something violent. And as a result, women could not easily speak openly about sex or sexuality.
But men could write exotic stories under New Order regime. No woman writer could so easily discuss the sorts of things that men wrote when they described women’s bodies or sex so openly. While men wouldn’t get any social pushback, women felt like it might be incriminating if they wrote about the same things. So, later, Reformasi was also marked by the appearance of novels that were more explicit because women were free to talk about their bodies, to write about eroticism and other aspects of their own experiences.
Of course, it was also during Reformasi that stories from the Suharto era—stories that people had been too afraid to talk about– started to be told. That includes political issues, injustices, and human rights violations that people hadn’t been brave enough to discuss.
LN: How about in the present?
LC: Actually, these problems from the New Order continue today. That includes, for example, human rights violations and gendered violence, which have continued since the New Order. Over the course of 50 years, not much has changed. Take women’s issues. Rates of sexual assault are still very high, violence is still very common. In 2019, the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) published a report3 stating that violence against women increased by 14% from 2018. It’s unclear if that’s actually because there are more victims or because survivors are more and more likely to come forward, but regardless, the rates are high and the numbers haven’t dropped. Now, in terms of human rights violations or the criminalization of environmental activism, those are things that happened during the New Order and that still happen today.
Today, when people defend their land, or defend land that companies want to seize from communities, or when they defend the environment and try to prevent heavy metals from destroying rivers and fish, that’s considered a political act. That’s taking a stand, not just against companies, but also against a sector of the elite within our government. During the Suharto era, a political act was understood only as speaking out against the state and the military. Now, activists who don’t want companies on their land are also taking a stance against the state. Environmental issues are very crucial, on the same level as other human rights issues.
I see myself, along with Leila Chudori and Ayu Utami, as writers who grew up under the New Order and who were already in our twenties when Reformasi began. So we were born into that regime and lived under it through our early adult lives. That means our way of thinking, our memory, is very tied to that period. We are motivated to write about things like the 1965 Tragedy4 because that period, or stories about that period, are so strong in our memories. We write about what took place a bit later on, too, like activism under Suharto. That’s a common narrative in our lived experience. When we write about these topics, we’re also writing as witnesses, or maybe as people who grew up hearing these stories, as people who knew about or who may have been affected by the disappearances.
After us, there is a group that is far more distant from these stories. For some, their writing does touch on themes from our generation. But a different group has already moved on to write about other topics, which are not any less interesting but that also don’t necessarily depict authoritarian regimes or imagined dystopias.
For instance, Ziggy Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie is one writer from the current generation that’s very interesting, in my opinion. She writes about a completely different world, and politics come through in her selection of symbols. Her novel, Semua Ikan di Langit (All Fish in the Sky) really impressed me. It takes place in a huge trash heap. Her main character is the corpse of a little boy. Her other characters are a cockroach and some fish, and they all ride together in a broken city bus that had been dumped in the trash heap. It turns out that the corpse becomes a certain kind of god or idol for these strange creatures. So the bus is flying along in this universe of trash, and one day it stops and a little girl gets on. The girl, who is actually the boy’s sister, is a Holocaust survivor. In this sense, Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie writes about an event from the past, but her approach is very different from the one that my generation takes when we talk about similar topics.
LN: I’d like to hear more about your own approach. You’re a journalist as well as an author of fiction, and a lot of your stories have direct connections to real political issues. Your writing is far less surreal than Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie’s, for example. When you write fiction, are your stories grounded in the kinds of events you yourself witnessed or in reportage about specific events?
LC: Well, let’s look at one of my stories, “Fourth Grave”. It’s about a young girl who is disappeared. Actually, I never say that she is based on someone real because she and her family are not real at all. In the story, there is an old married couple of Chinese descent, and their daughter is involved in politics. Up to this point, it’s all fiction. But were the disappearances real? Yes, they were. So I imagined a situation in which the daughter is kidnapped, like what happened to so many people who really were disappeared.
The story is about what I don’t know, like how a family would react if their child is disappeared. How does that affect the relationship between husband and wife? How do they remember their daughter? What is most painful in day-to-day life? It turns out what hurts are the little things, like when the wife wants to cook fish, but then all of sudden the husband says, don’t, our daughter might have been thrown in the sea. Memories arise, and they imagine what it might be like if their daughter had ended up in the ocean and then was eaten by a shark. And then they saw the fish in a totally different light, and they can’t eat it again.
LN: There are readers who say your stories are very sad.
LC: That’s true.
LN: I agree that they’re dark, but at the same time you include some whimsical elements. “Fourth Grave” actually has a lot of fantastical references to comics like Kho Ping Hoo, and “The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto” involves a supernatural flying horse, for instance. Could you comment on these dimensions of your work that are less realistic? What role does whimsy and fantasy play in political storytelling for you?
LC: Perhaps these elements, which many people would label magical or fantastical, are actually very everyday aspects of Southeast Asian societies. People believe that in addition to what we see in this dimension, there are also creatures alive in a different dimension. In belief systems or cultures around Southeast Asia, these elements are understood as ghosts or creatures on the threshold.
For example, where I was born on Bangka Island, people believe in 20 different kinds of ghosts. There’s a ghost that appears just as a head, for instance, called Anton, like the name for a little boy. Another one is called Hantu Burung Kuak, or Kuak Ghost Bird. If that one releases a specific kind of noise, it means something bad will happen. The ghost Menjadin can tear people apart. Aside from those, there are ghosts from Java that are pretty well known, like Kuntilanak, which is also called Pontianak in areas near Kalimantan. That means that in Malaysia, it’s also not uncommon to also hear about a ghost called Pontianak. Then there’s a snake ghost named Paul, like a white man. And there’s one called Mawang, too.
People who live on Bangka Island, in Sumatra, and even in the eastern islands of Indonesia, like Maluku or the Nusantara region, they take it for granted that these creatures are a part of their everyday lives. So when someone writes a story set in a society like ours, non-human characters are just normal. They aren’t strange. They just describe what’s going on in that other dimension.
When I wrote “The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto”, for instance, it was inspired by a trip I took by train. It was just one very brief moment. While I was in the train, I met a soldier. And during the New Order I really didn’t like soldiers, you know. I thought, oh no, a soldier is sitting next to me, how should I act? This was maybe five years before the New Order ended. Since I didn’t want to talk to him, I started reading some novel, I don’t remember which one.
That soldier wouldn’t stop talking to me, and then I noticed that he had a scar. From there, I started to imagine what I would end up writing in the short story.
1. Sastra Reformasi, or Reformasi literature, is a term used in Indonesian literature to refer to an outpouring of openly critical literary production in the wake of the country’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy in 1998. Linda Christanty’s argument as to how this literary category obscures the tradition of critical writing before Suharto’s fall from power can be found in her interview with Arsip Publik: http://arsippublik.blogspot.com/2015/01/wawancara-linda-christanty-2.html.
2. Lubang Buaya is an area on the outskirts of Jakarta where seven Indonesian generals were murdered in 1965 in an incident that came to be known as the 30 of September Movement. The incident became the justification for Suharto’s military coup d’état and the ensuing mass killings, imprisonment, and persecution of members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and affiliate organizations (including the Indonesian Women’s Movement (Gerwani) and the Institute for the People’s Culture (Lekra)), as well as people with any perceived connection to the aforementioned groups. For more information on Lubang Buaya and its role in the foundational myth of Suharto’s authoritarian regime, see John Roosa’s Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’État in Indonesia (https://uwpress.wisc.edu/books/3938.htm).
3. The full annual report can be accessed online here: https://www.komnasperempuan.go.id/read-news-siaran-pers-catatan-tahunan-catahu-komnas-perempuan-2019%20.
4.The 1965 Tragedy refers to the mass killings of 1965-1966 that took place in the wake of Suharto’s coup d’état. Estimates on the number killed range from 500,000 to three million people, and researchers have made the argument that the killings should be considered genocide. For more, see The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres by Geoffrey Robinson
and The Army and the Indonesian Genocide: Mechanics of Mass Murder by Jess Melvin (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/15/killing-season-geoffrey-robinson-army-indonesian-genocide-jess-melvinreviews).
This interview, translated from the Indonesian by Lara Norgaard, was edited and condensed for clarity.
Lara Norgaard is an editor, essayist, and literary translator from Colorado. After graduating from Princeton University in 2017, she served as Editor-at-Large for Brazil for Asymptote Journal and directed Artememoria, a free-access arts magazine focused on the memory of Brazil’s civil-military dictatorship. Her essays, literary criticism, and translations can be found in publications such as the Mekong Review, the Jakarta Post, Asymtptoe Journal, Peixe-elétrico, and Agência Pública. Currently, she is a Henry Luce Foundation Scholar at the Lontar Foundation in Jakarta, Indonesia and will begin her Ph.D. in comparative literature at Harvard University in September 2020.
My Van Gogh
By Chandani Lokugé
by Paul Giffard-Foret
Chandani Lokugé’s fifth novel My Van Gogh takes the reader on a romantic and artistic journey across borders, from the rural farming lands of Victoria in Australia, where part of her characters’ family on their father’s side is from, to some of France’s touristic hotspots, including scenic areas of Le Loire Valley, the southeast region of Provence, or its capital city Paris. The metropolitan provenance of the novel is made evident by the design of the book cover. It shows a snapshot of what is reminiscent of the Tuileries Garden, which is located in the vicinity of Le Louvre Museum. This is despite the fact that Lokugé actually writes from the periphery of what constitutes her Sri Lankan Australian background. The terms of “periphery” and “metropolitan” are used here with a postcolonial agenda in mind, to refer to the ways in which the old structures of Empire and European colonialism still play out in our contemporary era. Lokugé is aware of such lingering structures insofar as her oeuvre as a novelist may easily fall under the loose category of “postcolonial fiction”. As an illustration, Lokugé’s second novel Turtle Nest, published in 2003, dealt with the issue of sex tourism and trafficking of local children for Western customers in a small fishing village in Sri Lanka.
We may wonder, then, what postcolonial elements there are in a novel in which the main characters are white and relatively privileged —symbolically at least, being endowed with cultural capital—and where a driving theme is the artistic legacy left by one of the most iconic Western painters and representatives of High Culture, namely Van Gogh? To revert to my earlier allusion to Turtle Nest, this novel shares with My Van Gogh a common concern with travel (and tourism) that itself recurs as a distinct motif in diasporic literatures of dispersal by migrant authors. Yet this time, the gaze happens to be reversed, for My Van Gogh, as its title suggests, does not so much speak of the master painter’s life as it heralds its appropriation by the margins. My Van Gogh’s central Australian-born character, Shannon, sets out on a quest for meaning by travelling to France in very much the same way that the West would journey to the Orient and the Far East in the hope of being “revealed” by the sheer Sublime of the place, by its spirituality, its history, art and craft. The tourist’s gaze operates a process of “museumification” which not only sublimates the real, as Jennifer Straus spelled out during her speech at Lokugé’s book launch, but it also flattens things out by silencing “accidents” of history.
So it is to Lokugé’s credit that the rippling echoes of those series of murderous terrorist attacks which have struck France since 2015 can be felt. These attacks carry along their trail of death haunting memories of a colonial era thought to have been long gone, since the last major terrorist attacks on French soil took place in the context of Algeria’s War of Independence and Algeria’s Civil War in the 1990s. The blight of terror is another common point with Lokugé’s homeland, Sri Lanka. As Shannon and Guy are walking along the promenade in Nice on Bastille Day, they must bear witness to “a ceremony to commemorate the lives lost” (55) on that very same spot and day in 2016, killing eighty-three. Shannon’s prolonged sojourn in France is meant as a way for him to reconnect with his French mother and brother Guy, both of whom are “exiled” in France away from the family farm in Australia, as well as with his great-grandfather Grand Pierre, who fought and died a hero during the Great War of 1914-1918. Yet their mother remains an “absent presence” throughout the novel, having cut off links with her family, while Guy, being now well established in his adopted country, and having started a new life in Paris as an art dealer, feels in some way estranged from Shannon. Grand Pierre’s military heroism, which is very much part of the family’s lore, gets somewhat dampened and overshadowed by the fact that his body remains are yet to be exhumed and identified after all these years.
Their scattering evokes the scattering, more broadly, of family relationships, friends and lovers, and in the final instance, of identity markers themselves, which is an aspect of our postmodern “liquid” selves that transpires in Lokugé’s novel. Put simply, identity relates to people and places, but the latter in My Van Gogh remain loosely connected and grounded. Lokugé highlights her characters’ difficulties to communicate with, and feel for, one another. Her characters, indeed, seem enveloped within a Hopperesque halo of solitude, like a carapace preventing them from facing and sharing with others those vagaries of life that otherwise fill the void of our existence. In this light, Lokugé’s choice of a happy ending sounds like a trompe l’oeil, especially with respect to the book cover. It shows empty chairs lying stranded and looking abandoned, and an individual’s silhouette walking away into the distance towards a vanishing point, being flanked on both sides by rows of tall, erect, autumnal trees. This image intimates that one’s personal journey is a lonely trail, as it must have been for the tormented, maddened Van Gogh.
In effect, the many touristic sites and scenic places (including Van Gogh’s temporary home in Arles), as well as churches and museums, though they are in part aimed at recalling her mother’s presence, all seem but a poor distraction and lack substance in the face of Shannon’s own pill-dependent depressive state. We are told that “for Shannon, also, it had become ordinary, a boring show staged for self-indulgent tourists. That quiet desperation, that unconscious despair that is concealed under the amusements of mankind, Shannon reflected, recalling the words of Thoreau.” (54) I am here reminded of award-winning French author Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian portrayal of France as a theme park for foreign visitors and local tourists in his novel, The Map and the Territory, whereby largely uninhabited town centres have been transformed into standardised temples of consumption and sanitised variations of the picturesque. As a review of the novel published in the New York Times concurred, “Houellebecq’s Paris exists in a state of flagrant social breakdown and the countryside has become an emptied theme park of itself.”
The parallel with Lokugé’s work can be further made here, since both authors have shown a deep, continuous interest in tourism as a powerful metaphor for our globalised era. As the New York Times review added, The Map and the Territory “deals with art and architecture, rather than sex tourism. It is set in galleries and villages rather than S-M clubs and massage parlors.” My Van Gogh similarly deals with the art market as a global form of currency. As earlier mentioned, Guy is a gallerist, and Shannon a student in art history. Shannon’s girlfriend Lilou, besides being a tour guide, is a musician and a painter herself, while Guy’s French lover Julie graduated in Fine Arts. Furthermore, the novel is peopled by references to mythical figures such as Proust, Beckett, Hemingway or Matisse, who at some point lived and worked in France, at a time—at least until World War Two— when Paris happened to be the world’s artistic hub and would attract artists from different nationalities, including Van Gogh himself. So at some point in the novel, Shannon for example goes to visit the southeastern village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where Van Gogh was interned in an asylum for a year there, and where he achieved some of his most famous paintings.
In the same way that Houellebecq is, Lokugé is further concerned in her novel with those children belonging to the post-soixantehuitard (sixty-eight) generation, as they are dubbed in France, who grew up in the wake of the May 1968 Revolution. The upheaval, mostly student-led, entailed among other things a radical dismantling of the traditional family. Lilou, whom Shannon met during his meanderings across France, for instance is said to have parents who lived “wayward, hashish-filled lives—with a tribe somewhere in the Himalayas from what she’d seen in Facebook months ago.” (120) As Shannon tells her: “We are a lost generation—une génération perdue.” (121) This historical allusion to the devastation wrought by the Great War upon the youth in particular points to the existence of a crisis of a spiritual, metaphysical and civilisational nature at the heart of Western, and more specifically, French contemporary society, as Houellebecq himself exposed in The Map and the Territory, which won the Prix Goncourt (the equivalent of the Booker Prize) in 2010. This crisis would ripen to a full and explode in the form of the Yellow Vest protests by the end of 2018. The occupation of roundabouts by Yellow Vests across the French territory, in particular in deserted rural areas where the movement started, represented a desire to rebuild solidarity and cohesion in the face of a torn social fabric, as well as gain democratic sovereignty through this modern version of the Greek agora. Lokugé in her novel summons the imagery of the carrefour (not the hypermarket chain here, but its semantic meaning of a “crossroad” in French) to poetically express the random contingency and situatedness of cross-cultural love, which, as the reader is led to understand, can be undone as quickly as it can be struck. And this is precisely within the knots of this tension that lies the beauty and dramatic force of Lokugé’s prose. To quote from the novel:
They lay entangled in each other. Her hand in his, a drowsy bird. The room was almost black, a shadow of light across the bed. He could faintly see her face raised beside his. They hardly knew one another. That was beautiful, he said. Thank you, she whispered. It’s a gift then. Whose voice, whose words? Didn’t matter. They were etched in him, deep inside. He kissed the fold of her elbow. Carrefour—he said—meeting place. He felt the texture—this word so foreign to him. Meeting place, she said, lieu de rencontre. (57)
A carrefour implies a certain level of reciprocity and a readiness to let go of one’s own cultural attributes to meet the Other on neutral, naked grounds. Travel narratives usually make for good romance precisely so because the characters in these narratives stand outside of their comfort zones. Standing outside or in-between cultures as do Guy the expatriate and Shannon the traveller make both brothers more easily vulnerable or susceptible to the possibility of yielding to the unknown of cross-cultural romance. As the French Iranian author, Abnousse Shalmani, reminds us, Guy and Shannon are “métèques” (a word originating from Greek and meaning whoever resides away from home). As such, métèques “do not have buried secrets within the attics of country cottages, no class prejudices, no embarrassment vis-à-vis History, culture, language; he or she has in effect left of this behind. The métèque goes beyond rules, common decency, social order.” (Shalmani 106; my own translation) France’s geography, located at the crossroads between six nations (which is why it is known as the hexagon), spans cultural realities as distinct as Provence’s Mediterranean Sea and the wine routes and forests of Alsace in the east. Alsace is probably the most métèque of all regions considering its historical ties in Germany, where Guy and Shannon’s great-grandfather Grand Pierre was killed. As a former imperial power and neo-colonial player, France has often proved unceremoniously unkind and unwelcoming to its métèques. Notwithstanding, My Van Gogh with its wanderings across some of France’s over-saturated historic sites operates a cosmopolitan itinerary worth following for the reader insofar as this scenic drift becomes a pretext for an inward exploration of the human condition itself.
Shalmani, Abnousse. Éloge du Métèque. Grasset, 2019.
Shulevitz, Judith. “Michel Houellebecq’s Version of the American Thriller.” New York Times, Jan. 13, 2012. <https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/books/review/michel-houellebecqs-version-of-the-american-thriller.html> (Accessed 19 Dec. 2019)
PAUL GIFFARD-FORET completed his Ph.D. on Australian women writers from Southeast Asia at Monash University’s Postcolonial Writing Centre in Melbourne, having completed his MA in Perth on Simone Lazaroo’s fiction. Paul’s research deals with gender studies, racial and cultural hybridity, migration, multiculturalism and related issues with a focus on postcolonial and diasporic Anglophone literatures from Australia, Southeast Asia and India. His academic work has appeared in various journals and magazines in the form of peer-reviewed articles and literary reviews.