Ex­otic traps for the rash for­eign writer

Beloved Land: Sto­ries, Strug­gles and Se­crets from Ti­mor-Leste

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Gil­lian Terzis

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.

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