Monday, March 05, 2007

Waiting For the Other Heel to Drop

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 Jakarta’s underground gay scene.” When the main character reminisces about a former lover, Glen, missing his sweet words and the heat of his body, I thought, “well, I knew this book was progressive in its attitudes to sex, but wow! A homosexual hero! That is daring!” When the main character pulls out a long black gown, open in the back, that was a gift from Glen, I thought, “Amazing! A cross-dressing homosexual main character! Who would have thought?”

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 Indonesia is relatively liberal about homosexuality, especially for a Muslim country, but still! What a daring move on the part of this writer, to center a story around a gay, cross-dressing, bar-singing hero…or, wait. Wait a second. Heroine. This character’s a woman. Duh.”

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?


Edgy said...

Ahh . . . But have you seen Master Fob in high heels and a slinky black gown? I didn't think so.

Anonymous said...


Um, I agree. Women look better in female clothes.

Call me sexist.

Grandma Jan said...

Cuddling with a leech? And you kept on reading? More power to you, my dear!

Th. said...


Let that be a lesson to us all.

Melyngoch said...

I completely disagree. Women are completely incapable of wearing sneakers.

mysh said...

Cuddling with a leech isn't all that unusual, especially around this time of year: I know plenty of catholics who do so as part of their lintahn vows.