Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s Happy Stories Mostly Anthology Reviewed

by Jun 27, 2023Book Reviews

     The stories in Happy Stories, Mostly, which is forthcoming from Feminist Press this June, are not happy—they do not even pretend to be happy. No, most of these stories are tragic—within these pages, a sister betrays her brother over a menial job, a mother mourns her dead son, who has killed himself after she has disowned him for being gay, and a man begins working, inexplicably, at the Department of Unanswered Prayers—yes, really. These stories, from author Norman Erikson Pasaribu and translated from the Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao, dip into the magical realist at times, but stay consistently inventive, humorous, and tragicomic as they do. Happiness is a concern in these stories, as the protagonists try desperately to find their place in the world, but frequently, what they find is misery; everyday, banal misery, or misery of a more curious kind. Always surprising, with Pasaribu’s clever wit, these stories are not easily forgotten. They slip under the skin, and bring to the surface emotion, laughter, and above all, a kind of bittersweetness. 

     Pasaribu reminds us of both the magic that is about to take place in their collection and the border of tragedy they are walking in their first few lines, which are about the Indonesian word “hampir,” which means “almost.” As Pasaribu notes, “hampir” is only a letter away from “vampir,” the bloodsucking demon. “What does it mean to be happy?” they ask. “So, in a world where we celebrate disneyfied heterosexualities, for queer folks, what is happiness? Often, it becomes the bloodsucking demon, the vampir, the hampir.” 

     We can see this border in the first full-length story of the collection, “So What’s Your Name, Sandra?” which is about Mama Sandra, who travels to My Son, Vietnam, from Jakarta, Indonesia, as a tourist after the death of her only son, Bison. The story is a triumph of incomplete information—Pasaribu withholds the most important part of the narrative until the very end, which is that Mama Sandra’s son has killed himself after confessing to his mother that he has been in a relationship with another boy at his university, and she has reacted poorly. Neither Mama Sandra nor Bison is happy—this is a tragic and familiar narrative. Although this is a common queer story, and one that we have seen before played out both in media in the United States and elsewhere as well in film, TV, and literature, Pasaribu makes it new again with innovative wordplay, use of irony, and comic wit. 

     Pasaribu’s sense of humor will consistently be at use here—in their story, “Welcome to the Department of Unanswered Prayers,” we see a manager welcoming a new employee to a department of Heaven which specifically deals with the unanswered prayers, strictly from an archival point of view. Using a directive pronoun, “you,” Pasaribu goes over the rules and regulations of the department: “This may be heaven, but there’re no luscious celestial nymphs here. Those dirty comic books littering the metaphorical corridors of your pubescence, they totally got it wrong.” Pasaribu breaks up the heavier stories in the collection with these lighter ones, but they slip into darker tones occasionally, showing us their concerns and interests. A juxtaposition of light and dark—the comic with the tragic—is a consistent trademark here. 

     At their most emotional, Pasaribu can also shine. In the story, “Metaxu: Jakarta, 2038,” they tell of a sister and a brother trying to survive in Jakarta on a small income after their father’s death. The brother and sister have a falling out, and of this, the sister says, “While researching my dissertation, I watched an article that said we’ll soon have the technology to erase all our bad memories for good. For good. Funny, isn’t it, how that phrase never inspires confidence? I’ve already tried erasing my memories, but they keep surfacing anyway. They’re made of protein, and protein is forever.” The concept of forgetting is one that returns throughout the collection. These narrators wish to remove themselves from their difficult existences, where just surviving means to be in pain. But they cannot escape—they are trapped by the reality of mortality, and the physicality of their suffering binds them to their bodies. 

     Queerness, like a blanket, covers this set of stories. It hides and lurks in the corners, and while it is only explicit in some of the stories, Pasaribu is adding to the queer canon in a vital way by writing these stories, which are experimental, inventive, and exciting in the way that only queer literature can be. This freedom of spirit is uniquely queer, and although these are only mostly happy stories, they have a looseness to the writing and a joyousness to the prose that is deeply admirable. 

     Pasaribu has established themself as a vibrant and unique voice in Indonesian and now American literature; this story collection is sharp, smart, and funny, with a kind of irony in it that one does not often see in contemporary writing. Pasaribu’s writing is self-aware, but more than that, it is tender. Pasaribu has a tremendous empathy for their characters, even as they put them through more and more tribulations and trials—but they are also not afraid to experiment, stretch and manipulate what is possible through writing. It is this freedom, again, which attracts me to their writing, and what should motivate others to enjoy their stories. This is a collection which will lead others to change the way they think, and perhaps, encourage others to live in a happier, kinder world.


You can get a copy of Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s Happy Stories, Mostly, from The Feminist Press here.

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