a breezy, entertaining journey through Indonesia – a review of Pisani’s book Indonesia, Etc.

indonesia etcIndonesia is the fourth most populated nation in the world, and it’s the fifteenth largest in land area. More than 700 languages are spoken there. It has the largest Muslim population the world, ahead of India and Pakistan. And yet, until now, I know almost nothing about it. Elizabeth Pisani’s recent book — Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation — helped to close that gap. Pisani has written an entertaining mix of travelogue, history, and current affairs. Years ago, Pisani worked in Indonesia as a journalist and then later returned as an epidemiologist. Most recently, she spent a year traveling between Jakarta to remote villages across Indonesia’s jungles and coasts. In this book, she brings it all together. It reminds me of the book I might write if I were traveling around Indonesia and sending weekly emails home to friends. The history and the current affairs are mixed in with funny anecdotes and observations, with the result being a not-too-structured approach. But in addition to all the enjoyable, colorful anecdotes, I definitely learned about the history, for example, about early colonization by the Dutch and major differences between the first two presidents, Sukarno and Suharto.

Pisani writes in a deeply familiar and affectionate tone, but I never felt that she condescended. To give you a sense, here is a line on Sukarno, who was “a demagogue whose political recipe was one part populism and three parts theatre, seasoned with mischief and served with a large glass of charisma” and “always better at vision than delivery.” Later, she talks about Indonesia poor showing in international student assessments: “The dismal results are a result of dismal teaching, and that is in turn the result of patronage. A teaching job is the easiest way to squeeze into the coveted beige uniform of the civil servant; local politicians give jobs in schools to their political supporters all the time. That means the schools are rammed with people whose goal is to be a bureaucrat, not an educator. And they behave just other bureaucrats in Indonesia: they see working hours as a movable feast and take time off more or less at will.” And later, students describe the challenge of being taught in English: “The teachers, they cannot speak English too.”

In some accounts, the researcher seeks to be an invisible observer. Pisani doesn’t hide her role as participant, always discussing her interactions with the people around her and often reflecting on people’s perceptions of her: “The possibilities for a short-haired white woman with a face battered by months of boat travel, dressed in long-sleeved cottons, sensible shoes and a black photographer’s waistcoat, a woman who spoke with a Jakarta accent and was always scribbling in a notebook were: in Sumba, a researcher on a malaria study; in Tanimbar and Kei, an anthropologist. In Flores, a nun (!) When I got over to post-tsunami, pre-ballot Aceh, I was either an aid worker or an election monitor. In Kalimantan, I must be from an environmental NGO. In the smaller regions of Indonesia, an English teacher. Here in Weda they assumed I was an engineer.”

For those of us who know little about this giant of a nation, Pisani provides a deeply accessible introduction. I listened to and enjoyed the unabridged audiobook, narrated by Jan Cramer.

I looked at 8 other reviews (below), and only the New York Times comes away with a negative take on the book.
  • Misha Glenny, The Guardian: “Although Pisani cannot really explain all of Indonesia’s et ceteras, she does project a more optimistic and warmer picture of a fascinating country than most outside commentators. For anyone about to visit the place, her book is an essential companion.”
  • Joshua Kurlantzick, The New York Times: “For the most part, [Pisani] remains content to drift back into anecdotes rather than pull them together…. Pisani falls back on easy clichés about Jakarta, reform, and the population itself…. Another opportunity to know the unknown giant is lost.”
  • Ashlee Betteridge, DevPolicy blog: “Part adventurous travelogue, part investigation into nationbuilding, Indonesia Etc. is easy and entertaining to read. For those who have spent some time in the country, you will likely find yourself nodding along with the author’s observations and experiences. For those who know little of our neighbour, it’s a worthy and engaging overview.”
  • The Economist: “There are very few good books in English to help the general reader to understand it. Ms Pisani’s is probably the best. Into a beautifully written, richly entertaining account of a year spent travelling around the archipelago, she weaves a deep knowledge of the country acquired first as a reporter there, and then as an epidemiologist.”
  • Ben Bland, Financial Times: “Occasionally, she overreaches in her pursuit of the colourful phrase (she describes a town on the island of Flores as smelling of “stale sex” after the meat from a whale hunt is hung out to dry) and her insistence on “just saying yes” to new experiences can give her the air of a worthier-than-thou backpacker. But her regular comic mishaps, punchy insights and journalist’s eye for the telling detail more than compensate.”
  • Pallavi Aiyar, L.A. Review of Books: “A rollicking good adventure that knits together a complex of stories and insights, in a feat that rivals the knitting together of the sprawling nation it describes…. To read Indonesia, Etc. is to grow rather fond of both author and country.”
  • Jim Della-Giacoma, New Mandala: “Pisani has produced a book on Indonesia that is as fresh for the novice as for those who have a lifetime of experience in the country.”
  • Kirkus Reviews: “A brave, lively writer opens up a wondrous, changing nation.”
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Walking in the world with a visible hurt — Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

“The story of my body is not a story of triumph.” So begins the second chapter of Roxane Gay’s haunting, mesmerizing memoir. Gay has been, as she describes it, “super morbidly obese,” reaching 577 pounds. (“I am still very fat, but I weigh about 150 pounds less than that.”) This is the story of the horrible sexual violence that began Gay’s quest to hide in her size. This is the story of a thousand daily indignities faced by overweight people in a “fat-phobic world.”

This is a story of contradictions, of being a “victim” and a “survivor” and many other things, all at once. This is a story of feeling like efforts to change are “futile.” This is a story of sharing a trauma experience and fearing the reaction, almost any reaction: “I don’t want to be defined by the worst thing that has happened to me. I don’t want my personality to be consumed in that way. … If I must share my story, I want to do so on my terms, without the attention that inevitably follows. I do not want pity or appreciation or advice.” This is a story of reality television and visits to the doctor’s office and embarrassing interactions with flight attendants and families that both love and judge us.

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Gay. Her prose is beautiful. Her story is powerful. I couldn’t stop listening.

Here are a few other reviews…

POSITIVE
Kate Kellaway, The Guardian: “Fat is more than a feminist issue – as this extraordinary memoir by novelist and essayist Roxane Gay reveals.”

Carina Chocano, New York Times: At its simplest, it’s a memoir about being fat — Gay’s preferred term — in a hostile, fat-phobic world. At its most symphonic, it’s an intellectually rigorous and deeply moving exploration of the ways in which trauma, stories, desire, language and metaphor shape our experiences and construct our reality.”

Lucy Scholes, The Independent: “The tender beauty of this memoir – testament to her bravery and resilience – has much to teach us about kindness and compassion.”

Cathleen Schine, The New York Review of Books: “Is Hunger an angry polemic? Is it an apologia? Is it a confession? It is social commentary? TV criticism? A collection of magazine pieces? Self-help musings? A tell-all by a literary celebrity? A memoir of sexual abuse? Hunger is none of those things and a little bit of all of those things, but mostly it is true.”

MIXED
Clifford Thompson, The Los Angeles Times: “The great strength of Hunger is in Gay’s unflinching look at herself and her life. … The great weakness of Hunger is that what might have made a knockout 40-page essay is instead a 307-page book.”

Doreen St. Félix, The New Yorker: “There are a few moments when Gay gives us a glimpse of the deeper account that “Hunger” might have been—one in which she pursues, rather than merely dispatches with, the contradictions that have so painfully defined her life.”

What books to read on Rwanda?

rwanda booksRwanda is an exciting country with a tragic history. Before a recent work trip there, I asked the Twitterverse for book recommendations about the land of a thousand hills. Here is what I heard back, along with a few of my own. (Asterisks are on the ones I’ve actually read.)

On Rwanda today

On the genocide

Many thanks to Adolfo Avalos-Lozano, Sarah Baird, Danielle Beswick, Erika Edwards Decaster, Alice EvansAndrew Gerard, Seva Gunitsky, Mike Holmes, Robert MartenJonathan Mazumdar, Gaby Saade, for Elisabeth Turner for suggestions.

[Updated 8/23/2017 at 2:30pm]

A history of Liberia’s women? A review of Helene Cooper’s Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

madame presidentIn 2005, Liberia elected its first woman president. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was also Africa’s first elected woman president. (Guinea-Bissau and Burundi both briefly had women as acting presidents.)

In Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Helene Cooper recounts the story of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s life: from precocious child to teen mom to victim of domestic violence to Harvard graduate to international financier and — ultimately — to head of state.

But of course, any such biography also gives a history of the country, and here Cooper does something special. As she tells individual stories to make broader movements more concrete, she chooses stories of women. She tells the stories of
  • “Josephine, who cooked every day for the Taylor soldiers who raped her,” and
  • “a terrified Mary Warner [who] strapped her four-year-old son on her back and ran from place to place, finally pressed up against a gate outside the United Nations compound, desperately seeking shelter,” and
  • Louise Yarsiah, who was leading a group of women in prayers for peace when Charles Taylor’s security chief showed up. Yeaten’s soldiers drew their guns, and Yarsiah’s women kept praying. Ultimately, the soldiers stood down.

Cooper also demonstrates how women organizing women brought about Sirleaf’s election and then re-election. She tells of other powerful women within Sirleaf’s government, like Mary Broh, mayor of Monrovia. This is not just the extraordinary journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, but also the story of thousands of other extraordinary Liberian women. Cooper imagines how Liberia’s brutal history grew a generation of women activists: “Little girls do not come out of the womb vowing to become activists for female power. They don’t spend their childhood thinking about how they will repair the indignities, large and small, that bleed women daily. It’s a series of things that multiply and turn ordinary women into movements of female determination.”

As Johnson Sirleaf achieves gains in the country over the course of her presidency, I couldn’t help but feel a growing dread, knowing that the devastating Ebola epidemic of 2014-2015 was on its way. I actually met the author, Helene Cooper, during the Ebola epidemic, when we appeared on the same news program after she had returned from a trip to Liberia and I had worked on estimates of the potential economic impact of the epidemic. She was deeply knowledgeable, and it shows in her reporting here.

This is a sympathetic biography; Jina Moore wrote in the New York Times that it “valorizes Johnson Sirleaf rather than complicates her.” But Cooper also doesn’t whitewash: Johnson Sirleaf’s supporters aren’t above buying voter cards from their opponent’s supporters for booze money in the run-up to an election, and Johnson Sirleaf appoints her own son to a key government position.

I listened to the audiobook, wonderfully narrated by the author’s sister Marlene Cooper Vasilic. As Audiofile puts it, the narration makes the story “all the more powerful. … Vasilic’s facility with pidgin makes the few direct quotes come alive.”

Is it possible to travel by bus from Washington, DC, to Antarctica? Nearly.

black penguinOn January 1, 2010, Andrew Evans boarded a city bus in Washington, DC. His goal was to travel by bus all the way to Ushuaia, Chile, where he would board a ship to Antarctica — if he made it in time! No tickets were purchased in advance, and the route was laid out only vaguely. In The Black Penguin, Evans tells his story, and what a ride it is! As Publishers Weekly puts it, “Sketchy border guards, close calls with violence and natural disasters, and intriguing characters fill vignettes that range from hair-raising to hilarious.” Evans engages the people around him consistently and introduces us to a steady stream of wonderful friends, along with a few foes. His trip across the Americas is interwoven with memories of growing up gay in a conservative faith (Mormon) and the strain that placed on him in middle America, in his church, and with his family.

Here’s a taste of Evans’s preparation, demonstrating his mastery of the fake wallet technique familiar to travelers:

I dressed carefully, stashing fifty dollars in the bottom of one shoe, then a hundred dollars folded tightly into a removable waistband under my pants, and then another fifty in my shirt pocket. Then I packed an old wallet with cancelled credit cards, old student IDs, and a wad of five-rupee notes from India sandwiched between two twenty-dollar bills. If anyone did steal my wallet, they would truly steal trash. I had been mugged once before — in Kiev — and the thieves walked away with about a million dollars of defunct Zimbabwean currency.

And here’s a bit of drama in Bolivia:

It happened in slow motion — the stove-size chunk of granite dropping right down in front of us, crushing the truck in the opposite lane and toppling it over, followed by a rush of rocks and debris. The hard brake jerked us forward, stopping at the pile of rocks. Our bus driver leapt down from the bus and began kicking at the windshield of the wrecked truck, turning the glass opaque with stars. Gripping the rubber lining with his bare hands, the driver peeled away the entire windshield, then reach inside and yanked the keys out of the ignition.

I’ve ridden a number of buses in my time (from Provo to Boston, from Nairobi to Dar es

Andrew Evans's journey to Antarctica
Andrew Evans’s journey

Salaam, from Busia to Kampala, from Maceió to Recife), and Andrew’s vivid descriptions took me back to my own bus rides. I remember riding a matatu in rural western Kenya: When the bus got a flat tire, there was no jack, so the conductor asked all the male passengers to lift the minibus while he and the driver changed the tire. Evans writes: “To travel is to know the unfairness of the world, time and time again.” It’s true, and yet traveling by bus also — for a brief period — brings people from a wide range of social groups into contact. Evans spins that into a compelling, moving narrative. I wouldn’t miss this travel memoir.

Full disclosure: Andrew Evans is my cousin and dear friend. I even show up briefly in the book: After Andrew hitches a ride on a milk truck in Costa Rica, the driver offers him a beverage: “Though I had broken the rule about accepting rides from strangers, I was still not accepting drinks from strangers. That’s exactly how my cousin got drugged and robbed on a bus in Uganda.” That’s me!