“Happy Stories, Mostly” by Norman Erikson Pasaribu

Norman Erikson Pasaribu (photo: Mirna Yulistianti) Norman Erikson Pasaribu (photo: Mirna Yulistianti)

Norman Erikson Pasaribu is an Indonesian poet whose debut collection Sergius Mencari Bacchus won the 2015 Jakarta Arts Council Poetry Competition. It was translated as Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Tiffany Tsao. Pasaribu’s recent collection of short stories, Cerita-Cerita Bahagia Hampir Seluruhnya, has also been translated by Tiffany Tsao, under the title Happy Stories, Mostly. The collection was longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize.

Happy Stories, Mostly could mean that most of the stories in the collection are happy, or that each one of the featured stories is itself mostly happy. But none of these stories is straightforwardly happy, and stories which are happy, mostly are mostly interesting for the ways in which they are not happy. Rather than happiness, the collection explores the ways in which people can deprive themselves of happiness, often by failing to connect with loved ones who do not conform to heterosexual norms—particularly mothers who want the best for their sons, but betray themselves and their sons alike, when they discover those beloved sons are gay.


In “So What’s Your Name, Sandra?” Mama Sandra takes a trip to a Mỹ Son, in Vietnam, to grieve the death of her only son, Bison who poisoned himself four months previously:


Poisoned himself? But why?
Because I told him he was no child of mine. And then I kicked him out.
But why did you kick him out?
I found out he had a boyfriend …


Mama Sandra had called Bison “son’”for short; it is a name suggestive of bi-sexuality, as well as of brute strength. Such playfulness of language in a tragic context is typical of the collection. Throughout, the writing is always vivid, and often exuberant, or funny, even when the characters are dealing with anguish and horror.

“The True Story of the Story of the Giant” is another in which a gay man reveals himself, is met by rejection, and then kills himself, but here the suicide, Tunngul, is rejected by his love-interest, Henri. Their tragedy is nested within the (true?) story of Parulian, a giant from days of yore. After Tunngul’s, death Henri decides to write a version of Parulian’s story:


Not a history. Not even a secret history. Something like a tale. So I wouldn’t have to try so hard to stay true to what had or hadn’t happened—just to what I had to say as the story’s writer.


“A Bedtime Story for Your Long Sleep” is almost verbal slapstick, except the story that sets it off concerns Alarm Man, who missed out on love because he slept through his alarm—and stayed asleep for fifty years. On waking, Alarm Man tells his tale to the narrator’s mother, who has to inform him his beloved died two years previously of prostate cancer. The narrator’s mother then also dies. But the sadness of all this is semi-disguised by a wild parody of creative writing classes, which involves a discussion about which is sadder: a sad story, or a sad story told and disbelieved:


And I also thought to myself: if the tale of me telling the story of Alarm Man and being thought a liar was sadder than the story of Alarm Man itself, wouldn’t the tale of me being thought a liar after telling a story of me telling the story of Alarm Man and being thought a liar be even sadder still? I felt that such a story would prove useful someday—a bottomless pit of sorrow-bricks for me to mine, to build my Babel Tower of misery.


Happy Stories, Mostly", Norman Erikson Pasaribu, Tiffany Tsao (trans) (Giramondo, March 2022; Titled Axis, December 2021)
Happy Stories, Mostly, Norman Erikson Pasaribu, Tiffany Tsao (trans) (Giramondo, March 2022; Tilted Axis, December 2021; Feminist Press, June 2023)

Many of the sorrow-bricks from which Norman Erikson Pasaribu builds these stories concern in-betweenness: living between the gay and straight worlds; between love and regret; between happiness and misery; between past, present and future; between the need to believe in God, and God’s absence from believers’ lives.

The title of Metaxu: Jakarta, 2038 makes explicit reference to in-betweenness, and to Simone Weil’s reinterpretation of the Platonic concept—itself being explored by the protagonist. Weil provides the epigraph to the story, which is in part an exploration of her idea that every separation is a link. Two denizens of the future, a partially-deaf brother and the sister who caused the damage to his ear, and who now works at a karaoke place known as “All Ears”, have become separated following their father’s suicide. The sister is now telling a priest their story—which is one of failing to effect a reunion. Despite its sadness, the story is leavened by jokes. The karaoke equipment at “All Ears” lacks “fancy translingual voice recognition to tempt smart-ass students into trying to confuse it: ‘Chúng tôi muốn All I want for Eid Mubarak Is You by Aeesyah!’ ” As befits the future setting, the language sometimes hints at sci-fi. The sister tells the priest the story she’s about to tell is “a departure from my usual “videxfessions”. College kids listen to whatever is trending on “vidxradio”.

Names—Anton, Yohannes—are often repeated in different stories, as are phrases. Many stories have Batak, or Christian, or Batak Christian backgrounds. One, “Ad maiorem dei gloriam”, is about a retired nun who begins to doubt the life she’s led. The next, “Our Descendants Will Be as Numerous as the Clouds in the Sky”, uses Ad maiorem dei gloriam as the title of a novel: “Who would have guessed Thomas would use such a Catholic title. How cliché can you get, Amang!”

For its playfulness, its ambition, and the way it builds its sorrow-bricks into stories that confront head-on challenging situations and emotions, this is a collection that deserves to be read and re-read.

Rosie Milne runs Asian Books Blog twitter@asianbooksblog. She lives in Singapore.