Tag Archives: colonialism

The Buru Quartet (Tetralogi Buru)

Content warning: colonialism, racism

This series was given to me as a 21st birthday present by some family friends, and I must admit that was a very long time ago. They were no longer banned in Indonesia, and although I was nevertheless a little nervous about it, I decided to take them with me when I studied in Java for a year. I definitely finished the first book and had at the very least begun the second, but while I was over there, my third book went missing. It took some time of scouring op shops and the Lifeline Book Fair before I finally found another copy in this set. It’s a beautiful set, and it’s been gathering dust on my shelf far too long. Some relevance to research I’ve been doing recently and the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge finally encouraged me to give this series another go. I also found out that last year the first book was adapted into a really great and well-cast film which is currently on Netflix.

“The Buru Quartet” by Pramoedya Ananta Toer and translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Max Lane is a series of four historical novels called “This Earth of Mankind” (Manusia Bumi), “Child of All Nations” (Anak Semua Bangsa), “Footsteps” (Jejak Langkah) and “House of Glass” (Rumah Kaca). The series is largely about Minke, a young Native Javanese man of significant family standing who, at the end of the 19th century, is permitted to study at the HBS – a secondary school typically reserved for students of Dutch or Eurasian (Indo) heritage. One day, an Indo classmate invites him to visit another Indo friend at his family’s home. Despite being on of the most educated Natives in Java, Minke is struck by the impressive Nyai Ontosoroh, a Javanese woman who is both concubine to a Dutch man and single-handedly managing his estate and business without ever having been formally educated. Minke is also struck by Nyai’s beautiful Indo daughter Anneleis. Growing close to this unusual family sets Minke on a new path of enlightenment and understanding about the true nature of colonialism. Already a published writer, Minke begins to write about his observations of inequality under colonial rule. When he experiences an unthinkable tragedy, he focuses his attention on how to wake a sleepy Java and navigate the subtleties of class and culture to bring a national awareness to his readers.

I cannot stress enough how excellent this series is. In it’s own right, it is a masterpiece of historical fiction combining meticulous research, characterisation (my absolute favourite character was Darsam the bodyguard) and political insight. However, I cannot write about this series without mentioning the circumstances around how it came to be published. Not unlike the historical figure Tirto Adhi Soerjo upon which his books are based upon, Toer was imprisoned under the Suharto regime and forbidden from having any writing materials on an island called Buru which became the novels’ namesake. Toer, who had spent many years researching this story before his personal library was burned, recited the story of Minke to his fellow prisoners and was eventually able to write it down. After release, Toer published his books himself where they were subsequently banned for nearly 20 years in Indonesia despite being available to great acclaim around the world. The fact that they exist at all is a veritable miracle and it is a privilege to be able to read them in Lane’s well-considered and nuanced translation.

There are so many things that I could write about these books, but I think that I’ll limit it to two key things: it’s brilliance as a piece of historical fiction, and how well it has stood up to the test of time. If this is the result of a narrated story after a library’s worth of research was destroyed, I cannot fathom what this book would have been like had Toer not gone through so much hardship in writing it. The book is crammed full of cultural references from the Dutch East Indies at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s. Toer refers heavily to literature, art and music of the times, Native and European alike, bringing the story alive with context and colour. Toer helps the reader to understand the extremely complicated social hierarchies made up of traditional Javanese feudalism, white supremacy imported by the Dutch, emerging roles for educated and elite Javanese within the colonial bureaucracy and the uncertain position of Indos and Chinese people. Language is extremely political, and Toer introduces the reader to the concept of Malay as an egalitarian language through Minke’s initial internalised prejudices about Dutch and reluctance to write in his native Javanese. I was fascinated by the way in which Toer leads Minke to nationalistic ideas by referring to news of political movements in the Philippines and China through conversations with Dutch friends because news in the Indies was so suppressed by the colonial regime. Lane did an admirable job of capturing this nuance and providing informative yet unobtrusive notes, commentary and a dictionary in each book to help readers to understand some of this cultural context.

I think one of the most delightful and surprising things about this series is its progressiveness given it was published in the 1980s. Toer is without a doubt a feminist and the women in his books are fierce, intelligent and determined. A cornerstone of these novels is the lack of rights over children and property under Dutch colonial law that nyai have as compared with their Dutch masters. Minke is a lover of women and throughout the novels has a number of wives and lovers of all ethnicities. Each is adroit, beautiful, capable and brave and unlike his compatriots, Minke refuses to have more than one wife at a time. However, it is the issue of racism that is at the heart of this book. Minke, whose nickname is itself a distortion of a racial slur, observes racial inequality in the home, in the street and in the courts. His own education is limited by both his race and the availability of further education in the Indies and his only option is a medical school though his heart lies in writing. He observes stolen land, debt bondage and Javanese women traded to Dutch men for position and money. He observes the hierarchical nature of traditional Javanese society and how that hierarchy was exploited by the Dutch to place themselves firmly at the top. He observes how the riches of the Indies are extracted and exported with no financial benefit to his people. Eventually, Minke’s observations begin to be published and people begin to listen.

There is so much more I could write about this series, including the emergence of organisations, Toer’s handling of mental illness and the troubled policeman Pangemanann. However, I’ll stop here and just say that there is only one thing I regret about reading it which is that I didn’t read it sooner. I hope one day I can read it again in Bahasa Indonesia.

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The Philosopher’s Daughters

Historical fiction about two English sisters drawn to the outback

Content warning: racism, colonialism, sexual assault

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I previously reviewed one of her books which I quite enjoyed, so I was looking forward to seeing her work in another genre.

“The Philosopher’s Daughters” by Alison Booth is a historical fiction novel about two sisters, Harriet and Sarah, who are brought up by their father in London in the late 1800s. Musical Sarah accompanies her father to a meeting about women’s suffrage where she meets Henry, a friend of a friend, who has returned from working in New South Wales. When they marry and move overseas to the colony on an extended honeymoon, artistic Harriet remains to assist their father with his work. However, when the unthinkable happens, Harriet finds herself adrift, she decides to join her sister and see if she can capture the light Sarah keeps writing about on canvas.

This is a gentle, flowing novel that carries the reader from a relatively privileged, intellectual life in London to a rather idyllic, if physically demanding, experience in the Northern Territory. Despite being raised in the same household, Sarah and Harriet have quite different takes on women’s empowerment and Booth uses the sisters to examine how there is no one correct way to practise feminism. While Harriet is practical and a fierce advocate in her own right, it is Sarah who finds adjusting to horse riding, hot weather and even wielding a revolver. However, although independent and forthright, the sisters are not invincible and I thought that Booth was convincing and sensitive in the way that she handled the aftermath of a sexual assault.

I enjoyed Booth’s use of art and music to help forge connections between the characters, and how the change in lifestyle, climate and landscape necessitates flexibility in new instruments and artistic styles. Booth also does not shy away from examining some of the violent and racist practices and policies of the colonies, tackling issues from forcing Aboriginal sportsmen to play cricket with sticks all the way to massacres. Stockman Mick was an interesting character whose education and experience set him apart from the other Aboriginal characters in the book, and through Mick, Booth explores questions of legal identity, stereotypes and even stigma around interracial relationships.

I think a lot of white Australians, who did not learn about the realities of the Terra Nullius myth, the Frontier Wars and the Stolen Generation until recently, are currently finding themselves having to grapple with their ancestors’ history and participation in colonialism. This novel is a good example of trying to make sense of what happened and write about early allies to feminism and racial equality in the beginnings of a colonised Australia. This was a really interesting book to read having recently read “Talkin’ Up to the White Woman“, a thesis on Indigenous women and feminism, especially because this book is very concerned with the beginnings of feminism as we know it.

Reading this novel with Moreton-Robinson’s words in my mind, I think there were two things missing from Booth’s book. The first is a critical assessment of Sarah and Harriet’s role as white women perpetuating the subjugation of Aboriginal women, including Bella and Daisy. There is no real explanation in this book of how the two women become housemaids, whether they are paid wages and how their land has been appropriated for white profit. I felt that there was less nuance in Bella and Daisy’s characters than, for example, Mick’s. I think this could have been rectified by the second thing which was missing: consultation with Aboriginal people.

While Booth’s book is very well-researched, using a number of contemporary sources, family history and observations from her own travels around the Northern Territory, one thing conspicuously absent from the acknowledgements section are any Aboriginal academics or writers. There is no shortage of Aboriginal academics, and I think that given what we know about bias, erasure and self-serving lies in colonial texts, it is critical that when we write about Aboriginal people, we include Aboriginal perspectives.

Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable, easy read that will appeal to historical fiction buffs.

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Pachinko

Historical family saga novel about Japanese occupation of Korea

Content warning: suicide, HIV

I have heard a lot about this book and so when a copy made its way to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation’s Great Book Swap I hosted at work last year (go team Yirrikipayi!), I snaffled it up. This year is the 10 year anniversary of this incredible fundraising event, so make sure you sign up (using appropriate social distancing, of course). This is another book that has waited patiently on my shelf for a while, and ticks the box for two reading challenges I’m doing this year: the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge and #StartOnYourShelfathon.

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“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee is a historical family saga novel that spans from 1910 to 1989 in what is now known as South Korea and Japan. The book begins with the birth of Hoomie, a stoic, sensible man with two visible disabilities in a south-eastern seaside village in Japanese-occupied Korea. As the story progresses, the focus shifts to his young, pragmatic wife Yangjin and their beloved daughter Sunja. Seduced by an older, wealthy man, when Sunja discovers he is married, she is determined to forget him and raise their child alone. However, when a young Christian minister called Isak boarding at their home offers a solution, she travels with him to Osaka, Japan to start a new life. There, the reader meets Isak’s brother and sister-in-law, and we watch Sunja, her children and her children’s children unfurl in a country that, decades on, looks down on ethnic Koreans.

This book is a very compelling read and particularly in the beginning hooks you in. Lee has done exceptional research and the settings and era are fully realised, particularly through food, clothing and cultural norms. I have never been to Korea (and sadly had to cancel my honeymoon to Japan), but I had a number of Korean friends and classmates when I was in high school. A beautiful and unbelievably sweet Korean friend who only studied with us for a year had a similar facial difference to Hoomie. Lee’s exploration of how stigma associated with visible disability, intellectual disability and mental illness impacts not only the individual concerned, but their parents, children and even grandchildren, especially in relation to marriage prospects, gave me so much more understanding of what my friend must have gone through growing up.

I had another classmate who people used to say was part Japanese, was in gangs and had connections with yakuza. Reading this book really unpacked some of the meaning in this kind of talk for me, and how precarious the position was for Koreans who stayed in Japan after the war and ingrained racism became for these people who were no longer as Korean as the people left behind, but also not Japanese enough to be recognised as citizens. Disadvantage is something that marks Sunja’s family – evolving from poverty to racial discrimination. Even after Sunja’s children and grandchildren manage to claw their way to success, they are still marred by their ethnicity and for some, the knowledge that they will never be Japanese is too heavy a cross to bear.

I think one of the most interesting things about this book is it is only the second book I have ever read about a non-Western nation colonising another. I think these stories are incredibly important because it is a Eurocentric idea that the only examples of colonialism were Western examples, and because these themes of power imbalances, direct discrimination, stereotypes and structural inequality are universal themes that still play out around the world today. The title of this book, pachinko, was absolutely perfect. It references a key industry for several of the characters, but it also captures the struggle of trying everyday to win success in life when so much is left to chance and overnight someone tampers with the machine in such a succinct metaphor.

However, there were a few things about this book that I wasn’t completely supportive of. Lee introduces an ensemble cast, and the story skips from one character to another, highlighting a lot of the various social issues they are exposed to. As is tempting in a book of this magnitude, I think there were times where Lee tried to include too many things. Some of the stories As strong a proponent I am for inclusion, the parts of the book that deal with same-sex attraction felt gratuitous and lacking in the depth accorded to their heterosexual counterparts. I felt that while Lee very convincingly describes the situations her characters found themselves, I would have liked a little more development of the reasons¬†why her characters found themselves there. Lee writes about suicides, and perhaps this is me showing some ignorance about the significance of cultural belonging in Japan, but I felt that the reasons weren’t expounded upon enough.

Anyway, a gripping book about a very important part of history in which it was occasionally a little difficult to see the forest for the proverbial trees.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight

This is a borrowed book from my bestie who has been telling me I should read it for absolute yonks. The way she described it to me made it sound a bit like Mad Max – a wild, lawless society. It had mosied its way to the top of my reading pile, and finally I decided to give it a crack.

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“Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” is a memoir by Alexandra “Bobo” Fuller of her childhood growing up in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia. Her English heritage parents scrape a living managing tobacco farm after tobacco farm, moving frequently both by choice and by force as war and political climates in post-colonial Africa dictates. Raised amid rampant drinking, smoking, guns, violence, disease and hunger, it’s not the safest upbringing for Bobo and her sister Vanessa and the family’s feral lifestyle ultimately takes a big toll. Nevertheless, Bobo falls in love with Africa’s adventures, smells, landscape, wildlife, freedom and, finally, her people.

Fuller is an incredibly vivid writer and as someone who has never visited the African continent, this was an incredibly immersive book. She paints a stark picture of war-torn countries, abject poverty and unrepentant racism interspersed with humour and appreciation for beauty. While in the beginning her book has a white film over it, in line with the uncritical thinking of a child, as the cracks appear in her parents’ lifestyle and the white stronghold on ruling African nations, so too do they appear in what Bobo has been taught about white superiority. I think my main criticism of this book is that it did feel like she didn’t go far enough with her critique of either her family or the society she lived in. A lot of the things she wrote jarred against the eyes of someone reading in 2017, and I do appreciate that it’s a fifteen year old memoir about Africa in the 1970s, but I felt like the criticism should have been a bit more pointed.

An unparalleled and eye-opening insight into crumbling colonialism and the effects of neglect and mental illness on families, this is would be a great start for someone who wanted to learn more about Africa’s tumultuous history and the rise and decline of white settlers.

 

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