The Faculty of Loss

“I thought you were mago, inang[1],” my host chuckled as I apologized for coming home late. He smiled in relief when I explained that I was just from my informant’s home. It took five seconds for me to translate “mago” (lost, ind: tersesat) in my Indonesian register. Seeing the delay in my response to that word, he reminded me, “you know what mago means, right?” Ah, yes, yes, it means I’m lost. He laughed, “It also means you are hidden by the ancient spirits of the forest. You’re not simply lost because you forget; something makes you lost and confused.” It was 9 pm and dark already; I was not a fan of horror stories. He said mago means I’m trapped in a world of dreams in which I will lose my will to go home, and I won’t even know that I’m lost.

Incense forests (personal archive 2019)

I do not know why I think about that moment a lot, even until today when I finished my research in the villages. Probably because that day, I really did feel lost. Emma, a friend of mine, told me that the way your body reacts to research (a questionnaire for example) is a piece of data (she got this powerful wisdom from her mother). I had been around the villages for quite some time and just got back from the most exhausting interview and field observation. My head was about to explode, and WhatsApp recorded that frustration as my text to my friend shows: “Are you allowed to watch (pre-downloaded) Netflix when you’re on the field?” Not sure why the fact that I did download something required further validation. The way I keep questioning why the feelings and affects of my informants require scientific approvals, 9000+ km away from their place. Do bodily reactions matter behind the academic translucent wall?

Ethnography embalms prior hatreds within me: against cops, against patriarchy, against states, against a decaying relationship. I was just confused with all of these – piling notebooks, 23 hours of interview records, unruly maps. For what? Academic works are useless during the fieldwork, so I brought a novel to read between airports and bus terminals, The Faculty of Dreams* by Sara Stridsberg (Valerie in the American edition). It only solidified the rotten anguish but simultaneously eased my physical reaction to the data (to become the data themselves):

W. How will I find my way back in the dark?

X. Darkness. Silence. The desert does not reply.

Y. She says: follow the star. The lost highway.

Z. Follow it to the end.

(“The Narrator,” p.56).

Funny how fiction can also scold you for a methodological concern. Chekhov already wants us to be alive in the Ethnographic writing – the records presented either have to be necessary or beautiful.[2] In the dying words of Valeria Solanas, the central figure in The Faculty of Dreams:

I’ll give you some good advice if you’re sad, because the story ends here […] Stop in the subway and talk to the psychotic hookers. Don’t walk away when she starts ranting and raving about nothing. Ask where she comes from, what she needs, what you can help with, what she has in her notes, if you’re so interested in dying crack whores. […]. The world’s out there waiting for you, baby. The material is called SHE’S EVERYWHERE.

(“Bristol Hotel, April 15, 1988”, p. 124, my emphasis).

A dying feminist teaches me that empathy is a method is reading. When your ethnography is of a traumatic society, your field notes would sound like a series of fever dreams. Only, it is not a dream, but an insidious memory transforms into an ordinary affect, or in the sociological term for the aftermath of environmental destructions: the melancholia of suffering[3]. The air transforms your body and memory. Now, in Evanston, I could no longer step into grasses or even dead flowers without flinching. Patricia’s pout when I accidentally stepped on her wildly-grown tamarillo is living in my head, rent free.

Women’s bodies here are still remembering too. “The church bell still gives me a goosebump,” said Gabriela, one of my informants. During the conflict, whenever the church bell rang, it meant either something terrible happened or the villagers had an emergency meeting. The women, too, followed the bell to the end – to free their husbands and defend their land. 500 acres were taken back, thankfully. But what about the river that turned brown and grey? What about the coffee fields that produced less and less each year? The drought and the flood? Perplexed and mourning, a loss. In that sense, every woman in this village is mago, too. In the most cliché closing, the ghost is nothing but capitalism in the corporeality of a land-grabbing corporation and the patriarchal notion of indigeneity.

*a special shout out: I bought The Faculty of Dreams from Transit Bookstore in Jakarta. I just want to express my gratitude for the bookshop owners, Alien & Indra, who have been such a glimpse of joy in the city that I hate the most. I’m really honored to be one of their curators for the #Inqueery Week. Please check out and give love to their well-curated thematic bookstore. The one thing that I really love, and cherish, from an indie bookstore, is their sense of a healthy and dialectic reading community.

[1] “Inang” literally means mother in Batak Tobaness, but in this case, and its daily use, it can also refer to an endearment from the elderly to the younger women and/or girls.

[2] See Kirin Narayan, Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov UChicago Press (2012).

[3]  Elliott, Rebecca. 2018. “The Sociology of Climate Change as a Sociology of Loss.” European Journal of Sociology/Archives Européennes de Sociologie 59(3):301–337.

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