GABY RUSLI WRITES (in a series of reviews on Indonesian classics) — Is it not ironic to witness a person of faith advocating for love and understanding yet punishing a man for loving another man? For Indonesian author Norman Erikson Pasaribu, growing up as a gay man of Batak descent (an ethnic group typically known for their strong religious values and rigidity) had unique challenges. However, this arduous experience has given his award-winning work, Sergius Seeks Bacchus (2019), a deeply personalized voice that every queer person out there can take comfort in.
Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Norman Erikson Pasaribu is a compilation of thirty-three poems depicting the anguish, joy, and alienation of queer people in metropolitan Jakarta. In a poem titled “Erratum,” Pasaribu paints the coming-out story of an unidentified male in front of his Batak family. The man gets disowned by his father and called a common slur for gay men. In another poem titled “Poetry,” Pasaribu portrays a man’s heavy guilt as he tries to come clean to his wife for having lived a double life— pretending to be a straight family man while spending nights at cheap hotels with lovers of the same sex.
Not much is known about Pasaribu. He studied Accounting in university and wrote several short stories before winning awards for his work, Sergius Seeks Bacchus, in 2016. He later worked with translator Tiffany Tsao to publish his work in English under the Australian publishing house Tilted Axis Press. Tsao wrote in the afterword of Sergius Seeks Bacchus about her struggles to translate the Indonesian third-person pronoun “ia” and “dia” into gendered English pronouns that automatically outed a character’s previously ambiguous gender identity. Pasaribu pointed out to Tsao that due to her upbringing where English is her first language, she interprets the poems as straight, whereas Pasaribu perceived the same poems as queer.
Sergius Seeks Bacchus is a strong and undisguised reassertion of LGBTQ+ individuals in an otherwise non-inclusive Indonesia. Pasaribu amalgamates many queer people and their experiences as they navigate their own personal challenges and journeys to embrace who they truly are. His poems all share a realistic tone, reminding the reader that queer people are in fact people — they have bills to pay and goals to achieve. By doing so, Pasaribu appeals to a larger audience, ending the mystery of queerness and fostering acceptance initiated by gaining insight into previously unknown territory. Additionally, Sergius Seeks Bacchus does not just recount the coming-out of a queer person to their strict and religious family. Instead, it focuses on the most essential component of a queer person’s journey: self-love.
In the earlier part of his book, Pasaribu used the three stages of the afterlife (Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise) drawn from the legendary Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy to portray his own complicated relationship with God and religion. For Pasaribu, religion was not forced upon him but was woven into the intricate quilt of his identity. He struggled to choose between being loved by his God and loving himself. He went on to have a metamorphosis, feeling hardened and rejected at first (symbolized by his poem titled “Inferno”) before realizing that being gay and having a relationship with God is not mutually exclusive. Pasaribu saw that queerness and living his truth merely followed God’s plan for him. One hopes that Sergius Seeks Bacchus will inspire many other talented and queer Indonesian writers to share their truth and bring Indonesia to a new realm of love and acceptance. It certainly is about time.
New Book Reviewer, Gaby Rusli, is an International Relations graduate and environmentalist who is passionate about Indonesian and Southeast Asian political affairs.
Edited by book review editor-in-chief, Ella Kelleher.