Exotic traps for the rash foreign writer
Beloved Land: Stories, Struggles and Secrets from Timor-Leste
By Gordon Peake Scribe, 288pp, $29.95 By Mark Heyward Transit Lounge, 280pp, $29.95
OBSTACLES abound for the Westerner who wants to write about Asia. It’s impossible not to talk about the politics of cultural representation. In expressing an estrangement from their surroundings, even the most skilful writers can fall into the trap of fetishising otherness. The roots of such accidental exoticism are often benevolent, but its presence reveals much about how Asia figures in Australia’s national imagination.
Tasmanian Mark Heyward, author of Crazy Little Heaven, descends from a long line of adventurers. His grandmother’s brother was a missionary in Papua; his uncle became a school principal in the Malaysian state of Sarawak; his brother, at a loose end, ended up in Borneo. And Heyward joins them in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, in 1994, teaching at a school set up for the children of expatriate miners.
It’s not long before he finds himself drawn to the country’s charms, embarking on an expedition from one side of the archipelago to the other that spans two decades. It’s a period of considerable tumult for Heyward, who finds his loyalties increasingly aligned to Indonesia as his bond to his family frays, at a time when Indonesia is facing enormous political and economic upheaval after the death of Suharto.
Heyward’s memoir is mostly a warm embrace of our northern neighbour, but it does touch on the cultural and political intricacies that tug at the fabric of its nationhood.
He excels at providing rich scenic details and writes in a style so unaffected and intimate that it reads like a well-edited travel diary. He meticulously records his meals (usually nasi putih and an egg), his humorous conversations with villagers and his growing affection for the sprawling archipelago.
Arduous hikes through thick jungle terrain provide Heyward ample opportunity for reflection, and he weaves in musings on the plight of Borneo’s orangutans, Indonesia’s entrenched culture of corruption, and spirituality, to name a few topics. His gentle touch ensures these detours are pleasantly idiosyncratic rather than a distraction from the overarching narrative.
But Heyward’s zeal in exploring the cultural distance between Indonesia and Australia can be overbearing. No one doubts different impulses and rituals animate the two countries, but he overstates what this means. In some cases, the flow of his evocative prose is ground to a halt by bien-pensant philosophising or, worse still, an egregious lack of self-awareness. He bemoans Jakarta’s gargantuan shopping complexes and prime- time soaps and suggests these are a cautionary tale against ‘‘ adopting foreign values and fashions without depth and understanding’’.
More confused is his lament that ‘‘ Javanese mysticism seems to be losing the battle with Islamic fundamentalism and Western commercialism. Will the ultimate victim be the planet itself?’’ At times, it’s almost as if Heyward is hankering for Indonesia to be preserved in a very specific form, untouched by globalisation and its discontents and unsullied by its bloody history.
The very title Crazy Little Heaven is indicative of Heyward’s gimlet-eyed vision of Indonesia as an untamed paradise. (In the epilogue, he reminisces fondly about the ‘‘ intensity of life in Indonesia; the crush of humanity . . . lunacy of Kalimantan’s dusty jungle bars. Ah, we were all gods in that crazy little heaven!’’). It’s a peculiarly airy statement, especially considering Heyward is at pains throughout the book to keep his feet firmly on the ground.
At first glance, Gordon Peake’s Beloved Land threatens to delve into similarly problematic and exoticised territory. A mixture of cultural analysis and travelogue, this memoir draws on Peake’s experiences in Timor-Leste from 2007 to 2011, five years after the country declared its independence from Indonesia.
While Peake, a research fellow at Australian National University, is certainly fond of East Timor, he is blunt about the challenges obstructing the path to progress: bureaucratic ineptitude, endemic cronyism, communal grudges and bumbling politicians. There’s also the absence of an official national language — there are 20 identifiable languages in a country ‘‘ half the size of Tasmania’’ — and the persistence of collective memory about Indonesia’s annexation.