16 February 2013

Book Review: The Gay Archipelago

Tom Boellstorff is an American professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. This books is the culmination of much anthropological research in Indonesia among "gay" and "lesbi" communities (but not really bissu or waria individuals).

First I just want to throw this out there: if you want to read The Gay Archipelago translated into bahasa Indonesia, it is freely available online to read, click here.

Okay. Well. I have to admit that anyone doing serious work in Philippines Studies or LGBT studies ought to read this book. Boellstorff's working through of nationalism, nationhood, desire and the meaningful life struck deep cords in me. When I consider the benefits of post-structuralism as a form of critical analysis, he presents us with precisely the kind of work that is useful.

It sometimes gets a little heady, but it is quite thoughtful and is used to try to understand how people make meaning in their life and give an explanation and account of gay and lesbi lives as they experience it.

There is so much about this book that is awesome and I can only hope that anthropologists studying any Austronesian area including the Philippines, Polynesia, Malaysia, etc., would consider his methodology in their own studies. How he understandings Indonesian nation-making and the tensions of that with the ethnolinguistic groups is something that is experienced throughout the Austronesian world.

It's funny how unexceptional the experiences of Indonesian gay and lesbia are compared with the Philippines, Malaysia, and the various urbanized areas of Polynesia. I mean, how unexceptional the experience of gay and lesbian identities are throughout Austronesia. It sort of flushes all of these bombastic, ostentatious claims to Filipino national exceptionalism down the toilet, really.

So that this can be a real book review and not just my emotional response to the book, I will leave you with a beautiful passage about how a gay in Surabaya came to be with his former boyfriend:
I met him at the mosque. I was actually interested in his younger brother; he was very cute and I thought "he might be like me," judging from the way he held himself when he prayed and walked around. So I went up to him and talked to him, and eventually got invited to his house. But when I went to his house it was his other brother who opened the door! He introduced himself and we talked for a while and became friends. He was very handsome and masculine, so I thought to myself, 'He's a real man, he can't possibly be homo." We started spending lots of time together ... eventually we went to a drumming competition one night, and it was the first of two days of the competition, so we told me, "Don't go home; just stay with me tonight at my grandmother's house which is near here." So we went there and slept together in one bed. I still didn't have any idea, I just couldn't believe he would be interested in men. We were in bed and he said, "Hey, there's no pillow here, can I use you as a pillow?" I said "yes," and he threw his leg over me. Oh my! My heart started pounding and racing; it felt like it'd jumped into my throat. I just sat there ... then he said, "Hey there's no blanket here, can I use you as a blanket?: I said "yes," and he came toward me and kissed me. We started kissing and making love. I couldn't believe it! He was interested in me! So from that time on we became lovers.

The version I read was a 320 paperback published by Princeton University Press  (October 17, 2005), ISBN-13:978-0691123349. It is written in English. The lowest price I found online was used at abebooks.com and amazon.com. The bahasa Indonesia version is available free online, click here.

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