As part of my Lenten vow, I’ve been satisfying my fiction cravings by reading in Indonesian. I’ve read some decent books so far—a few English novels in translation, one Egyptian novel in translation, and then, in an even bolder move, a few contemporary Indonesian works. One of them, They Say I’m a Monkey, a collection of short stories, was great, which is saying a lot because I usually don’t like short stories. Quality aside, though, the book was hard to read, at times, because the stories had a strong element of fantasy—pet leeches that turn into snakes when attached to the top of a character’s head are strange enough in your own language, but downright confusing in a foreign one. I had to look up the word “lintah” in about three different dictionaries before I finally had to accept that yes, the main character’s mother really is cuddling with a leech.
Even more confusing, though, at least in a literary context, is the fact that Indonesian doesn’t distinguish gender in pronouns, even the third person, which means that “he” and “she” are the same word. I started one of the stories, in which the main character was only referred to with the third-person pronoun, assuming that said character was a man; after all, he smoked cigarettes, wore sneakers, and rode in taxis by himself. So when a man across the hotel bar buys a drink for the main character, I thought, “oh, interesting, a glimpse into
Then, finally, the main character, wearing the gown, with a pair of high heels replacing the sneakers, returns to the hotel bar to take the stage as the bar singer. I was floored, my thoughts racing: “I mean, I know
So, apparently, I am sexist: women can smoke cigarettes and wear sneakers too. They can even ride taxis by themselves! And they certainly look a lot better in high heels and slinky black gowns. Who knew?