Archive for November, 2013

Giving thanks for Doris Lessing

November 28, 2013

When giving thanks this holiday weekend, have a good thought for the long life of Doris Lessing, the marvelous writer who died on November 17 at age 94. Assessments of Lessing often label her a feminist. Lessing herself rejected that label even before renouncing all “isms.” No doubt Lessing’s life and her signature work, The Golden Notebook extended the boundaries for women, but her writing bagged far bigger game.

Lessing was the great chronicler of how the human mind processes emotion. She explained psychology far better than any textbook through case studies of her hundreds of characters. As I glided through her Children of Violence series on colonial life in Africa and repatriation – Martha Quest (the heroine’s fabulously apt name), A Proper Marriage, A Ripple From the Storm, Landlocked and The Four-Gated City – I’d sigh after reading a passage that delved into a character’s feelings, thinking, “I wish I could write like that.”

Whether the subject was human connections, as in Love, Again, or politics and violence, as in The Good Terrorist, her characters’ situations became the reader’s own here and now as they struggled to plot a course that was true to their own moral compass, however buffeted by their own times it may be.

The selection committee righted a great wrong when it awarded Lessing the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007. It’s too late to do justice to John Updike, whose Rabbit Angstrom books tell the tale of postwar America better than any history book, and who could simply write the heck out of any subject. But it’s not too late for Philip Roth. The Ghost Writer is, along with The Great Gatsby, the best American novel you can read in a day. The Human Stain is the best thing I’ve read this century.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

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Ask not what’s happened to America since JFK

November 22, 2013

I’d just walked into my second grade classroom after going home for lunch. Oddly, a radio was on a table at the front of the room, with a voice saying, “…and we pray for the health of our president.” I wondered, why are we praying for that? What could happen to President Kennedy? Then I heard what had happened.

The assassination of John F Kennedy has become a great dividing line in the America of my lifetime. It was the nation’s first great television event, profoundly sad black and white images shared by every American live: the caisson carrying the president’s casket down Pennsylvania Avenue, the riderless horse with the boots upside down in the stirrups, John-John’s salute, Oswald’s surreal shooting in the Dallas Police Headquarters basement. Then, in living color, came Vietnam, the riots in cities across America, the killings of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy that made us all question what kind of country we were living in, questions that only deepened with escalation of the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal.

Yes, much of the Kennedy presidency and legacy is about image, not substance. (The highs and lows of the Kennedy years are well chronicled in Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis and The Best and the Brightest.) In the early 1980s, I was waiting for rush tickets at New York’s Public Theater. As the curtain was about to rise and our chances for tickets evaporate, in walked Jacqueline Kennedy on the arm of her post-Onassis companion Maurice Tempelsman. I was struck by how tiny and fragile she looked, short and so thin, the quintessential “social x-ray” of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. She wore the facial expression of someone whose shoes were too tight.

Or maybe it was her just profound disappointment at where America had gone since the heady days of Camelot and where it was going. The clarion call of JFK’s inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” would be ridiculed in today’s toxic political atmosphere. Ask yourself, is this the America you want?

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Chefs without borders

November 17, 2013

Researching an Asia Times article on issues between Malaysia and Indonesia gave me an opportunity to talk food with culinary masters from each country and sample their work at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.

William Wongso is a scholar of Indonesian cooking as well as an author, chef, restaurateur and founder of ACMI – Aku Cinta Masakan Indonesia (I Love Indonesian Cooking), dedicated to preserving traditional recipes and spreading the good eating.

I sampled a fish stew and vegetables from the Batak group near Lake Toba in Northern Sumatra, prepared at The Kitchen, an addition to the Ubud festival that gives cookbook authors an opportunity to showcase and share their craft. The dishes used local spices to add a fresh tang, following Wongso’s edict, “Go back to our roots.”

One of his pet peeves is the modern obsession with presentation, also known as plating. “There are two things that matter: do the right thing in cooking; and use the right ingredients,” Wongso declared. “Wherever they talk about presentation, I ask, what is the benchmark? In Indonesian food it’s nasi campur,” a lump of rice surrounded by dollops of three or more vegetable, meat, chicken or fish items.

Chef Wan, Tourism Malaysia’s food ambassador, whipped up a version of laksa, a Malaysian standard. Born Redzuawan Ismail with Malaysian, Indonesian, Chinese and Japanese ancestry, Chef Wan noted how the region’s cooking draws from the groups that have visited over the centuries on the spice and silk routes. “Food to me is about diversity of culture and my family tree,” the famous television cooking show host and cookbook author said. “I encourage people to travel and learn about each other, marry each other.”

Turning to growing of intolerance in Malaysia, Indonesia and beyond, Chef Wan said, “Just because we have a different religion doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. I hate it when people don’t use their brain. It’s only a bunch of people who don’t understand others, who think they’re better than other people, that cause trouble.”

“I have a long relationship with Chef Wan,” Wongso said. “We don’t talk about politics because politics makes enemies. Food makes friends.” To paraphrase Robert Frost, sharing good food makes good neighbors.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Ubud encounters: Pamuntjak, Lewis live dangerously in novels on 1965 turmoil

November 9, 2013

The September 1965 upheaval in Jakarta depicted in The Year of Living Dangerously was only the beginning of the story. In the three years that followed, up to 3 million people were killed and thousands more imprisoned in a purge of alleged Communists as General Suharto consolidated his power and replaced President Sukarno.

Suharto’s New Order covered up the massacres. Even 15 years after reformasi rid the nation of Suharto and began the vast archipelago’s transformation into the world’s third largest democracy, it’s a period of which few in Indonesia dare speak.

At last month’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, authors Laksmi Pamuntjak and Richard E Lewis launched novels that dare to tell the long hidden tale from remarkably different perspectives.

Pamuntjak’s The Question of Red reinterprets the pan-Asian Mahabharata legend in the context of the 1965 purge and subsequent captivity in a purpose-built political prison on remote Buru Island. “I was part of the generation that was indoctrinated to believe a certain version of history, so I felt an obligation to more about it,” Pamuntjak, born in 1971, said

“I want The Question of Red not to find out who the masterminds [of the purges] were. All the novel can do is find new ways to tell the story. I was conscious of writing through the memory of others. I knew I could never reach the depth of feeling of the people who were there in Suharto’s prison. I felt inadequate.”

Readers seem to disagree: the Indonesian version of the novel, Amba, had four printings within four months of its release last year.

“The best I could do was to try to tell the stories of people whose stories were not told through history with a big H,” Pamuntjak, who first gained international recognition for her poetry and is an accomplished translator, said.

She recounted the difficulties of portraying the suffering of others. “Your totally take on the lives of your characters, and it saps your being,” Pamuntjak, Indonesia’s entrant in last year’s Poetry Parnassus staged in conjunction with the London Olympics, said. “Like love and [other] relationships in your life, it’s equal parts love and pain. But it’s totally worth it.”

Richard Lewis didn’t have to imagine the killings of 1965. “We looked into our own graves in the backyard,” Lewis, then nine years old, the son of American missionary parents in rural Bali, recalled. “Some guy had come to our house and said he wanted to work as our gardener, He dug a big hole in our garden that we thought was for trash. We were on the list for elimination. I don’t know why we were spared.”

While Bones of the Dark Moon is a novel, “This is not fiction,” Lewis declared of his depiction of the destruction he witnessed. “As a nine year old, you don’t have the ability to comprehend those events, but it was vivid.”

He recalled a story told by a commander of the army’s elite Red Beret unit. “The officer met a boy who said, ‘Sir, you’ve killed my parents, would you please kill me?’ ‘So I took out my gun and shot him,’ the officer said.” A journalist who had been to the shore where bodies were being dumped and told Lewis’ family about watching sharks feed on them. “Many of the boys I played with just vanished.”

Bones of the Dark Moon, Lewis’ fifth novel, is written in the present time, framed within the discovery of bones in excavations for a new villa, even though it depicts events nearly half a century ago. “I knew I would write it in the present because that time is still a stain on Bali. People who were alive still have vivid memories. Wounds still linger and fester about what happened.”

Lewis, who attended university in the US but still lives in Bali, believes the wounds remain fresh due to the absence of legitimate answers about what really happened in 1965, starting with the alleged failed Communist coup that provided the pretext for the Suharto’s takeover and unleashed the wave of killing. “Was there a coup? Was it the CIA? Was it Suharto, the master dalang, [puppeteer]?”

Pamuntjak and Lewis’ books, both from Indonesian publishers, add impetus to the search for answers.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Ubud encounters: Goenawan Mohamad names, reserves judgment on Indonesia’s ‘next president’

November 4, 2013

Indonesia’s renowned author and foremost man of letters Goenawan Mohamad said he expected Joko Widodo to be the country’s next president. That’s not an uncommon sentiment, even though the Jakarta governor, commonly known as Jokowi, has yet to declare his candidacy,

Unlike many people predicting Jokowi’s election, though, Mohamad didn’t offer an endorsement. “I like Jokowi, I’m watching him,” Mohamad said, but wasn’t convinced he’d vote for him. In an Asia Times article based on a series of interviews and discussions at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, Mohamad also contends that the next president will have limited impact on Indonesia.

Mohamad praised several of Jokowi’s policies enacted during his just completed first year as governor of the nation’s capital and commercial hub. Mohamad said Jokowi and his team had done a good job of dealing with the notorious preman, thugs, who have controlled Jakarta’s Tanah Abang market and other key areas.

Mohamad drew a bright line between premanism and the rampant corruption that infects government and society at every level. “Organized crime is alarming. Premanism is small compared with organized crime behind the scenes. Maybe we are like Sicily a little bit,” Mohamad, founding editor of newsweekly Tempo, observed. “The violence in 1965 [when a million or more people were killed in a purge supposedly aimed at Communists in the wake of the military ouster of President Sukarno that brought General Suharto to power until 1998] was a horrifying example of what happens when gangsters have a free hand.”

Mohamad, dubbed the conscience of his nation, sighed, “I don’t have any answers for this.”

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.


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