On a rather warm May night I was sleeping when I woke up to the sound of my e-mail notification. When I opened it there was a message of Yuska Lutfi Tuanakotta who wanted to ask me, after reading my ‘Gender and Sexuality in Indonesia’ blogs, if I wanted to review his upcoming book. I was very excited that he was the very first person to email me after reading my blogs, flattered that he asked me to write a review and after reading his description of the book I was intrigued. So, now that the book officially has been published and available to purchase here is my review of Gentlemen Prefer Asians: Tales of Gay Indonesians and Green Card Marriages.
Yuska Lutfi Tuanakotta is an Indonesian writer based in Los Angeles and graduated from Saint Mary’s College of California with two MFA’s in fiction and nonfiction writing. In the book he describes his journey from Jakarta, Indonesia to Berkely, The United States to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. The opportunity to learn American Tribal Style belly dance, which originates in San Francisco, might also have been a complementary factor for him to study in Berkely. He is also a professional photographer.
His debut nonfiction book is a pleasure to read and Tuanakotta’s energetic and honest writing style draws you into the lives of three gay Indonesians living in the United States. All three of them are married to an American. What is amusing is his use of nicknames for the husbands and (ex)lovers of the main characters. This leaves the reader with an imaginative image of ‘The Sculptor’, ‘The Baker’, ‘The Musician’ and more. (The author told me he did this to hide their actual identities).
The 63 short chapters are stories about love, family, friends and the ups & downs of life while exploring issues of gender and sexual identity, immigration, intercultural relations and belonging. The chapters are memories, essays on LGBTQ developments in Indonesia and the US, and very openhearted self-reflections of the author.
What Tuanakotta does really cleverly is that he reflects the recollected memories to events that have happened in Indonesia relating to the LGBTQ community. He writes about how religion, Islam and Christianity, plays a big part in the way Indonesian society perceives LGBTQ people in the archipelago.
He illuminates the reader on the Indonesian meaning of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’. In five chapters (11, 16, 26, 47 and 53) he writes critical essays reflecting on the (bigot) religious and political views on LGBTQ. He calls the people who embody these views “the demons of Indonesia”. The recurrence of “the demons” throughout the book could be seen as symbolic for the always present (possibility of) discrimination LGBTQ people face in Indonesia (and the rest of the world). While he writes various times about queer rights and even reflects on his own activism, I miss a deeper exploration of positive inquiries in Indonesia. There is a positive note on the “blooming hope that we’re witnessing Indonesia’s queer revolution” in the epilogue (Tuanakotta 2016: 219-220). However, the very little presence of positive notes on LGBTQ activism in Indonesia suggests, or even highlights that such organizations may not be very visible or accessible in the archipelago.
I was moved by the way he beautifully describes his relationship and memories of his parents, especially his mother, for whom her son’s happiness means more to her than her own.
She will tell the son how much she loves him and she wishes him the best, even though it means they won’t celebrate his birthdays together, or her birthdays together (Tuanakotta 2016: 57).
I was also pleasantly surprised that in the last chapter he includes his parents’ experience of having a son who is gay in a country where being gay is still not accepted and the people who are gay are being dehumanized. The chapter provides the reader with an emotional insight of the complexity parents of LGBTQ people face in a country where bigotry is still very dominant.
The woman and the man are glad their son is not there to witness this, to witness his own people condemning him, calling him a criminal, forcing him to follow their god and their prophet, doubting his humanity and his sanity, dissecting him, chewing him and spitting him out (Tuanakotta 2016: 215).
Tuanakotta also touches on sexual health and the scares and fears of being tested HIV positive. In four interrelated and very intimate chapters (54, 55, 56 and 57), the reader is enabled to connect to the characters on an emotional level, but is also confronted with the million different thoughts of hearing you or your friend is infected with the Virus.
“Please don’t cry. It’s not AIDS,” he said (Tuanakotta 2016: 190).
I was especially moved by chapter 58, which is entitled Ghosts. In this chapter Tuanakotta stresses that the LGBTQ-community is acknowledged in Indonesia , but not recognized. Therefore they are not being fully accepted for, or allowed to be, who they really are.
The fact that this is still a don’t ask don’t tell situation is because some of us fear every single day that if we do bring up this sleeper issue, we’ll face a backlash so bad that we’ll end up destroying whatever shred of tolerance of queers is left in Indonesia. As humans, we too are capable of love and we long to be with the one we love, the one who also loves us. […] Every creature has the right to love and to live without fear, but those rights are denied from us. We are not recognized. We are merely ghosts, floating and coasting by, acknowledged but invisible. […] We just want to be considered humans. (Tuanakotta 2016: 198-199)
In my opinion Tuanakotta’s mixture of memoir and literary journalism gives an intimate glimpse at what it’s like growing up gay in Indonesia, the hassels of green card marriages and the translocality of moving between different cultural worlds. Reading the book feels like talking to a good friend who shares his most vulnerable, cherished and unfiltered thoughts. I can’t wait to read more of Tuanakotta’s work in the future (I am really hoping he is going to publish some of his research on drag queens in Indonesia wich he referred to several times in Gentlemen Prefer Asians).
Moreover, the book shows the reader that he, and all gay, lesbian, trans and queer persons are human with emotions, everyday experiences, dilemmas and have the right to love and be loved.
Gentlemen Prefer Asians: Tales of Gay Indonesians and Green Card Marriages is published by Stone Bridge Press and is available as eBook and paperback.