February 4, 2015
‘Indonesia, etc.: Exploring the improbable nation’ by Elizabeth Pisani.
Pisani was a correspondent in Indonesia in the late 1980’s, returned a decade later as a medical researcher, and for a third time in 2011 to spend a year travelling the country. In her words “to look through the eyes of enough people in enough places…to piece the fragments together in to a portrait of the nation as a whole, to understand better the threads that tied the glorious disparity together”. To achieve this goal, Pisani committed to follow only one rule, to ‘Just say yes’. ‘Yes’ to invitations to tea with the Sultan, to sleep under a tree with a family of nomads, to join a wedding procession, etc.. And, as she says “because Indonesians are the among the most hospitable people on earth, this made for a lot of yesses…”. The result is a slice of Indonesia, the complex mix of islands, languages and ethnicities that makes up this improbable entity.
The book is written in a very engaging style, with fun and fascinating stories to keep things light while exploring themes of politics, change, globalisation and culture. Pisani’s humour, humility and genuine respect for the many cultures of Indonesia, and her fondness for the people she meets shines through in every chapter. I’d put it on top of my list. But don’t just take my word for it, the Wall St Journal cite it as one of their ten best books of the year, The Economist also chose it as one of the nine best books on politics and current affairs.
‘From Vienna to Yogyakarta: the life of Herb Feith’ by Jemma Purdey
What a fascinating man, and what a full life. Herb Feith has been a significant contributor to the Australia – Indonesia relationship. Herb’s family were WWII Austrian Jewish migrants to Australia, and the experience of his family contributed to his ongoing commitment to human rights and peace building. Herb first studied Bahasa Indonesia as a student in Melbourne in the early 1950’s and through a lifetime of academic work and commitment became one of Australia’s leading academics in the field of Asian studies and political science.
Herb worked tirelessly to further people-to-people relationships between Australia and Indonesia. He was the first Australian Volunteer to Indonesia, and a founding member of Australian Volunteers International, also being called upon to advise on the establishment of the Peace Corps in the United States.
The unsung hero in Herb’s life who really shines in the book is his wife Betty. The book is a fascinating look at the evolution and ebbs and flows of Indonesian studies in Australia. At 576 pages long it is lengthy, however an essential read for anyone seeking to understand the Australia-Indonesia relationship.
‘Wrong about Japan’ by Peter Carey
This is by no means a new publication, published in 2004, however a recent discovery on my behalf. Carey travels to Japan with his teenage son, Charley to explore the worlds of anime and manga. He meets leading filmmakers and experts in Japan, and attempts to delve into the deeper motivations and themes within the genre. Carey also writes of the connection his son, an avid fan of manga has with a Japanese friend Takashi.
Carey, due to his fame, was able to access many of the leading players in the realm of anime and manga. Unfortunately he simply didn’t have the cultural, linguistic or interpersonal capabilities to make the most of these opportunities, in one interview explaining
“Mr Kitakubo responded to my written questions in the same style as every other damn Japanese I’d questioned. That is, he made it clear that nothing in this country was as I thought it was My misunderstandings were very interesting, he said.” ( p112)
Having travelled in Japan with my daughters recently, and visited Studio Ghibli which is featured, little of the magic was conveyed in this book. His exploration of his son’s connections and understanding of the genre and teenage friendship with Takashi are more insightful.
While it is one of Carey’s lesser-known and lighter works, this piece of writing provides a classic insight into the blunders, miscommunication, confusion and lack of understanding of Westerners in Japan.