An Indonesian Poet Uses Queer Catholic Saints to Create an Alternative Gospel
Norman Erikson Pasaribu on being a multiple outsider and searching for liberation in “Sergius Seeks Bacchus”
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Norman Erikson Pasaribu was born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia but his roots lie in the ethnic Christian Batak community of Sumatra; his family represents the many strands of internal immigration from the country’s regions to its capital.
Though he writes in Indonesian, Pasaribu’s poetry collection Sergius Seeks Bacchus (translated by Tiffany Tsao) carries the inflections, songs, and stories of diaspora. His works offer the joys and isolations of queer life in a conservative landscape, a minority existence (less visible in the Javanese-dominated mainstream), and the influences of Christianity.
Pasaribu and Tsao won the English PEN Translates Award in 2018 for the collection. Pasaribu has also published a book of short stories and received the Young Author Award from the Southeast Asia Literary Council in 2017.
I spoke to Norman Erikson Pasaribu about being a multiple outsider, Batak culture, LGBTQ+ life in Indonesia, and translating gender pronouns.
J.R. Ramakrishnan: What is the significance of the title of your book?
Norman Erikson Pasaribu: Sergius Mencari Bacchus [Sergius Seeks Bacchus]’s first working title is Seperti Pohon (Like Trees), but the day I sent it to the Jakarta Arts Council’s competition, I changed it. I abruptly remembered a paragraph from my first book, where I played with the sound tinggal, which can mean “stay” and “leave,” or even “die,” depending on the prefix or suffix used. It then seemed to me that my life and fellow queer Indonesians’ unconsciously revolved around the word’s multiple meanings: Stay/Leave/Die. We are always in the state of moving as if we are endlessly searching for something. I think that “waiting” is the core component of Christian faith, that you wait because/therefore you are certain it exists. It is the same with the title of this book. We seek queerness and its liberation not because we hope we might encounter this one day, but because we are sure it is already there — printed in our lost history. What we have to do now is seek and reclaim it.
In Sergius Seeks Bacchus, I use a lot of Christian saints’ writings and juxtapose it with queerness and my ideas of love. I wrote about this for English PEN’s PEN Transmissions. Sergius and Bacchus are two of the many Christian saints that have been long adopted by queer communities. They are discreet Christians who went to the underground to pray. They both also worked for Galerius’ army. Eventually, their Christianity was uncovered and they were executed. However, Sergius and Bacchus are more mythical than historical figures. I found a lot about them from John Boswell’s work on early and medieval Christianity, which some considered as too queerly speculative.
When we were first dating, my boyfriend and I met in his car at a mall’s basement car park. We would kiss with eyes opened to look around just in case a janitor passed by and caught us. And once it seemed to me so clearly that we were exactly like those early Christians. We are Sergius and Bacchus. And some people here can bluntly associate being gay and queer with evil spirit possession or Biblical and Quranic apocalypse. I feel that if I use their faces, without subscribing to saints’ assumed perfection, it is a way to resist those associations.
JRR: Your poems brim with Christianity. How long has your family been Christian? Do you still practice?
NEP: My mom has always been a devout Protestant. She grew up poor and Christianity gave her hope, as it did for many working-class Indonesians. My father came from a Muslim farming family, but he was orphaned when he was very young. He desperately wanted a family, a normal life. He met my mom in Jakarta and converted.
My parents sent me to a Catholic school because they associated it with a better education. I was easily awed by Catholicism’s imagery: the sad and solemn Mary, the halo in her head, her shining and burning heart. Batak-Protestantism, which stemmed from the Lutheranism, is flat and emotionless. In our church, you wouldn’t find a statue or even a picture, just a metal cross behind the podium.
I don’t go to church anymore. In 2016, after my book won a prize from the Jakarta Arts Council, I got severely depressed after online bullying. In April that year, I attended my old office’s Easter mass, and the priest, who was a Toba-Batak man, threw homophobic slurs during his sermon. I ended up excusing myself and cried outside the hall. After that, the desire to go to church gradually diminished.
My relationship with Jesus now is like with a cousin’s new boyfriend that everybody likes and praises, but you actually never meet. I want to know him, but perhaps it’s better if this cousin’s new boyfriend stays a story. I also think I can’t fully divest from Christianity more because it is a shared experience that I have with my mom, who means everything to me. It will always affect my writing and how I feel about this world. But for now, I want it to stay dormant.
JRR: You have an epigraph from Gregory Pardlo — “You are home now, outsider, for what that’s worth.” Those commas embracing “outsider” are everything! You occupy this place in multiple ways. Would you talk about “Erratum,” which is about falling in love and coming out?
NEP: I used to fight a lot with my dad, and used to hate him so much. When I got older, I felt the urgent need to look at my parents with a more intersectional lens. It’s possibly the kindest thing a queer child may offer to their parents: zoom out and another zoom out until you get the whole story. I wouldn’t ask this from anyone, but this gave me my peace.
Also, I want to admit first that I dislike it when people read my poems as memoir. It’s true I played a lot with the idea of nonfiction, but being read as a memoirist-poet also made me vulnerable. If things in the poems are not 100% what happened, I have manipulated my readers. One example is the kissing scene in “Erratum,” which never happened, even though I did fall in love with the boy who sat beside me at school.
What actually happened was the rain. In my junior year in high school, my father kicked me out of the house. It was nighttime, and I only had around Rp20.000 (around $2) in my pocket. Out of the blue, it started to rain. I was on the street in short trousers and flip flops. I was so scared and decided to go to an aunt’s house. I silently cried during the whole trip, pondering over water tails on the window. It’s one of the moments where I felt so unloved, and all I wanted at that time was death.
Whenever this memory returned, I would get sad. I invented the kiss as a poetic intervention and because I root for the boy in the poem. I want him to also have something beautiful and alive to remember. I want — as the great Mary Szybist wrote in one of her poems — the emptiness in his stomach to stop gnawing.
JRR: Homosexuality is not illegal in Indonesia but intimidation and hostility of the community seems common with anti-LGBTQ+ marches and other acts. How do you view the state of things at present?
NEP: “Not illegal” gives a radically different idea from what my friends and I currently experience. It’s not easy to speak about this without minimizing Indonesia. As a postcolonial nation, Indonesia has been through a lot. My instinct is always to always look at Indonesia intersectionally as I don’t want to reduce Indonesians into a bunch of evil-minded people.
Indonesia is communitarian. When a loved one dies, it’s common for people to collect money and give that to you as “uang duka” (mourning money). On public transportation, it was not unusual for people to start talking to you and ask about your height and weight, job, and whether you are married and have kids. This communitarian mind translated into my parents telling me, “Apa kata tetangga nanti?” (What will the neighbors say?), making social acceptance gravely important. Even to be eccentric, to be a loner, to be a reader is to be seen differently here.
All this has been heightened with social media. It has greatly affected queer bodies, who are visibly defiant of the typical “rejeki anak sholeh” (pious people’s good fortune) faces. Now more visible, queer Indonesians are ready to be put under fire — that is my bitter take about this.
With social media, it’s easier to imagine a queer liberation, now that the world is just a touch screen away. Sometimes I wonder if this terrifies the fragile hetero community, when they see the very people they’ve always dismissed are now people with more platform and agency. When the U.S. legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, the outrage here was severe. Not long after that, AILA (Family Love Alliance) proposed a judicial review to criminalize LGBTQ+. The proposal was rejected by a dissenting opinion of 5 to 4! We all feel very relieved but now, there is another proposal going on, to revise the penal code.
Some say we need to abandon the penal code since it is a legacy of the Dutch. But pre-colonial Indonesia was more inclusive in terms of gender and sexuality! And the homophobia we now have is the legacy of European colonization. Why do we want to abandon the colonial penal code, but not also the colonial mind?
JRR: Your book is resistance to these forces. How do you find and hang on to the courage to stand in this place?
NEP: I am not even sure if I am courageous or brave. I get terrified a lot now. What I know is I am furious with my country, I’m angry with the writers who’ve bullied me; I despise the so-called progressive heteros who conveniently went silent whenever queer Indonesians were under fire. I’m tired so I want a real change. And liberation is never a gift. We have to snatch it from the fuckers’ hands. So that’s what I’m trying to do now, as with all the queer artists and activists before me. I am just a person in a long queer history, after all.
JRR: In “Scenes from a Beautiful Life,” you mention waria, the trans community, which has perhaps historically occupied spaces differently in the region than elsewhere. I am thinking of the five genders in Bugis culture. I also remember when I was young in Malaysia, my family was friends with another family whose members included a trans person. It was regular seeing transpeople at gatherings of friends of my family. It was a tolerated — if not exactly embraced — part of reality. Public same-sex relationships, however, were abhorrent. More recently and very depressingly, there have been horrifying violence towards trans people there. I don’t know if it is the same in Indonesia? Perhaps you can tell us about the place of the waria in Indonesian society (or societies) as you see it?
NEP: I also have thought the same. In the past, it was easier for people to look and accept trans identity perhaps because there were more efforts and a clearer political stance to emancipate waria. Ali Sadikin, a former governor of Jakarta, famously said in 1968, ‘Trans people are human, and they are also Jakartans. So I have to take care of them.” But trans communities have always been the most vulnerable part of our society. They are outsiders in all levels of life. They are even hated by some gay people (who are relatively more privileged!) because they “make us all look bad.” But, imagine, you can find so many gays in offices and banks in Sudirman, but would you find a single openly trans person there, or perhaps even as a server in a nearby junk-food chain restaurant? Even the pseudo-progressive capitalists dismiss them. If you want to understand more about the complexity and beauty of Indonesian trans identity, please see Anggun Pradesha and Rikky M. Fajar’s Emak Dari Jambi (“Mommy Is Visiting from Jambi”).
JRR: Pronouns in Bahasa Indonesia are not gendered. Was this a challenge during the translation process? Do you feel like the meaning has changed in any way with the explicit gendering in English?
NEP: It was a bit comical because Tiffany at first thought the use of English would kinda make the poems “come out” more, while I felt from the beginning the poems are so visibly queer since the gender-ignoring pronouns effortlessly give room for nonbinary experiences. It then became harder in the translation process as we started to feel that even they/them pronouns feel different from Indonesian pronouns. Anyway, Tiffany wrote a lengthy note about our collaboration and I encourage everyone to hear directly from her.
JRR: Who are Indonesian writers you are excited about right now so that we may check them out?
NEP: I want to send a shout out to Is Mujiarso/Mumu Aloha who edited the queer-themed anthology Rahasia Bulan. It is groundbreaking for its time of publication (2006) and I love Mumu’s short story in there. And then: Saut Situmorang, who is one of the best Indonesian and Batak poets working today. His collected poems Otobiografi explores the complexity of being in-between as a Batak person in terms of the geographical, the emotional, and also the poetic. And this Tupelo interview with Saut is a bliss.
I also want to share my admiration for Erni Aladjai and Dicky Senda, whose works offer understanding about life in Eastern Indonesia. Erni’s short story about a woman asking for fish for her sick daughter from her fishermen neighbors still haunts me. And to Hanna Fransisca and Cyntha Hariadi who have spoken about Chinese Indonesian identities with such depth. I feel that we are so lucky we have Aprilia Wayar keep writing against all odds as a Papuan woman journalist and novelist. I also can’t wait for the English publication of Intan Paramaditha’s novel The Wandering (trans. by Stephen Epstein).
JRR: Would you introduce the Batak community to those who are unfamiliar with it?
NEP: “Batak” is the name we use today to call the indigenous people of Tapanuli land (in northern Sumatra). Pre-colonial Batak people lived in small communities and very differently to one to another. We had different cultures and languages. Batak also used to be an evasive identity, coined by the Melayu people who lived mostly on the shore and interacted with foreign traders. So it’s one of the outside ideas, which often can be very monolithic and misleading, and got spread by travelers like Marco Polo.
And then the Dutch colonial establishment intervened. To colonize us better, the Dutch needed a name, a collective identity, something simple. They subscribed to this idea and sent people like Franz Junghuhn to research. And, at that time, who would question a white man’s research findings? That’s how the outsider’s view became the norm. While, today there are some Tapanuli people — like some Mandailing people who live in the south Tapanuli — who dislike to be called “Batak.”
From the 1900s, Batak people began migrating to Jakarta. And today, the Batak identity is a sign of brotherhood, of sisterhood. It gives you instant intimacy with a stranger. Halak kita (Our people) is how we refer to another Batak person.
JRR: I enjoyed the Batak pop lyric — “In places I wander, my heart weeps…” — in “Poetry.” How has the Batak language informed your poetry and writing in Indonesian?
NEP: The intimacy with Batak language is one of the things I’m reclaiming at the moment. When I was a kid and felt inferior to our Javanese neighbors, I would say, “I don’t even speak the language” to signify I was not so different from them. Many younger Batak people in Bekasi, like my sister and brothers, speak English better than Batak language! We have Batak-inflected Indonesian, and I use that in my writing, though I don’t think many Indonesian readers notice it.
I grew up listening to Batak pop songs. The song in “Poetry” is “Mardalan Ahu,” written by Tilhang Gultom, and is about someone who travels far and misses home and their mother. It’s the soundtrack of my parents’ generation, the Batak who migrated to Greater Jakarta. And I don’t want the sound of their footsteps drowned in the sea of time. I want it to be the foundation of my writing, the state of mind.
JRR: Your name reminds me of a line from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth: “Children with first and last names on a direct collision course.” She is referring to the novel’s immigrants’ offspring, who have names like Danny Rahman, Quang O’Rourke, and Irie Jones.
NEP: In the tarombo, the Batak family tree, we can see how names evolved over the centuries, from Raja Habeahan, to Patarnabolon, to Mangambit, to Nanggar, to Philipus, to Wilhelmina, to Johanna, and now to William, Maria, Astuti, Elizabeth, James, Sandra and so on.
My mother took “Erikson” from a Swedish brand she found in the newspapers she read excessively when she conceived me. “Son” is also a heavily-used sound for contemporary male Batak names such as Johnson, Tyson, Bison, Robinson, Jekson. These western names are, yes, rooted in the Christianization of Batak people, which took place from late 1800s until the mid-1900s. But I think, the preference for the sound of “son” came from Batak cosmology, where the names of the divinities and ancestors were full of the “on” sound. For example, Mulajadi Na Bolon (in the beginning something so big happens) who is the highest god in Batak myth.
Pasaribu is a marga (way or road), similar to a family name. When I was little, kids teased me because when they read it as a phrase in Indonesian my name might mean “pasar ibu” (market for mothers) and asked if they could buy my mother there, while I think it just means ‘The Thousandth.”