Literature

'I'm a Third-Culture Kid, So I'm Always Nowhere'

We spoke with Mikael Johani about the re-issue of his poetry anthology "We Are Nowhere and It's Wow."

by Syarafina Vidyadhana
14 August 2017, 11:15am

Photo by Teddy W. Kusuma

Who would've ever thought that the bitchy critic/ essayist Mikael Johani was such a poet? Not me, that's for sure. I was already pretty familiar with Mikael's essays when his poetry anthology We Are Nowhere and It's Wow came across my desk. I'm not going to lie, his poems gave me all kinds of warm fuzzies. The book, republished by POST Press in late July, offered readers a peek into his early life in Australia, as well as thoughtful ruminations on identity, art, and modern Indonesia.

As a child, Mikael was constantly on the move. He left Madiun for Yogyakarta, and then Jogja for Jakarta before eventually moving overseas to Australia. We Are Nowhere and It's Wow spends a lot of time on these feelings of rootlessness and newness. He describes his attempts at making sense of his surroundings, of himself, and his eventual embrace of an ever-changing concept of roots and reality.

He originally published the book back in 2008. But with this latest edition, Mikael is older and wiser, not to mention so much more sincere, and this modified editions shines as a result.

VICE spoke with Mikael about life, self-criticism, and what it's like to be a writer married to a poet.

VICE: What does it mean to be 'nowhere' and what's so 'wow' about it?
Mikael Johani:
I'm a third-culture kid, so I'm always 'nowhere.' I live in a bubble filled with scenes of my favorite movies, riffs from my favorite songs, and passages from my favorite books and comics. I never feel like I'm in the 'here and now.' I'm almost run over by a bajaj on a daily basis. I need that bubble to survive in new places. I move around a lot. It helps me still the turbulence in my head.

That doesn't sound so WOW, does it? But you can read the 'wow' in the title any which way. An excited wow, a nonchalant wow, a morose wow, an annoyed wow, a whiney wow, it's up to you. I'm a 90s kid, so irony comes naturally to me. I really wanna know how people would read and react to that wow at the end, what tone they'd read it in. Guess I'll find out soon.

By the way, the title is also a pretty obvious pun on an early 2000s emo-indie near-hit.

Why did you choose to write the poems entirely in English? Was it ever a choice for you?
Sometimes I don't remember or realize what language I'm speaking in. It happens plenty of times. People ask me for an article or a poem about blah and I say yeah I've got something like that, I'll send it to ya. And then when I look for it I find out it was written in English when the person was asking for something in Indonesian, or vice versa.

I like writing in Indonesian too and I consider myself pretty adept in both languages. I don't feel uncomfortable speaking or writing in either. I use both in equal amounts every day. I code-switch a lot, something not readily apparent in Wow though, because a lot of it was written either in Australia or when I had just moved back to Indonesia, when I was terrified I was going to lose my Aussie English so I wrote in that vernacular.

But that's retrospectively speaking, when I was writing Wow I didn't think too much about it. I'm a bit instinctive when I write poems and can be stubborn about keeping all the norak-ness in. Unlike in my essays and reviews where everything is finely tuned (to piss people off). So I guess it wasn't so much a choice as it just happened.

What was your life like in Australia? How did it become your home in the book?
I moved there when I was sixteen. I went straight from reading Stephen King to reading Macbeth (ended up watching the Polanski film on VHS, Lady Macbeth = bae). Australia was lonely.

Goenawan Mohamad obviously doesn't know jack shit about Australia since he said, 'In Australia there are only camels and happiness.' I never saw any camels. I used to go to bars and watch local grindcore bands (Disembowelment... classic) alone and go to the movies alone. I saw Salò when I was 16 and everyone else walked out even before the poop bain-marie gets wheeled out of the kitchen, so I was left alone in the cinema watching people eating shit. It was great though. I love Pasolini. I slowly made friends who became my surrogate family in the end. Some have become estranged and refuse to talk to me. Some I still talk on Facebook, riffing on 90s indie rock, GBV, Royal Trux, Smudge, all the Flying Nun bands and stuff.

The 'home' chapter in Wow is half-ironic. Australia was going to be home for the rest of my life but I left it (in a huff). But as much as I feel home in Jakarta now, I always feel like in that line from Laurie Duggan (an Aussie poet who migrated to the UK) that I made into the epigraph for my book: 'I belong to a space that nobody here will recognize.'

So yeah, sometimes, here, I do wonder if Australia was home. And yet that chapter in the book is filled with my reservations about the place. The Australian obsession about being the best place on Earth, for example. Aussies forgot that when Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country, he meant it ironically. It was a piss-take. Read their papers and they are always articles declaring 'Australia: officially the best luckiest bloody country in the world,' 'Some hipster café in Glebe makes the most delectable flat white in the world' or 'Melbourne: city with biggest population of hipster beards in the world,' or something. The whole nation is so fucking insecure.

Photo by Anya Rompas

In many of your poems but especially in 'Parc' you refer to a specific era where the cool kids had the Firman haircuts, the DJs spinned burned CDs, and Friendster was very popular. It feels like that was a long time ago—I think I was still in junior high during all that—but now fast forward to 2017, what do you see have changed in the "skena anak muda," and what remains the same?
Well, Jakarta is another big theme in the book, how I see it, how it makes me feel, how my perceptions of the city are either deepened or clouded by the distance I experience with the place — me being an alienated third culture kid and all. "Parc" is one of many attempts in this book to record all that. I was in my Imagistic phase when I wrote it, so what I wanted to do was to present visual and also sound images from my memory of this beloved/hated indie club as precisely as possible. Which is, you know, hard, since the images and sounds I have retained in my head of that place were probably/definitely captured under the influence of something or other. :p

I was talking about changes in the "skena anak muda", as you put it, the other day with a friend of mine—another 90s gadun—and we were thinking, at least in music, today's music lacks real hardness, real pissed-off heaviness, so when something as run-o-the-mill rawkish or heavyish like Barasuara or Senyawa comes along people get unnecessarily blown away. Weak.

Which brings me to my next question. You're also a book critic who's famously known for your blatant and unfiltered comments. So how would you critique your own poems?
I'm not gonna slag off my own book! I'm trying to sell all ten copies!

Alright then (*calling inner Paglia*), the poems in this book are the more narrative and lyrical from my arsenal. It's heavily influenced by the Modernists, especially Williams, the Confessional poets, especially Lowell, gay New York School coterie poet Frank O'Hara (<3), and proto alt-poets like David Berman (of Silver Jews fame). My Pound obsession had not started. Or my Oulipo phase.

Some of you might know a very different, limited version of this book was released in 2008. When POST Press offered to re-release it, I took the opportunity to, Lowell-like, throw away poems I thought were dishonest, mod others which were almost honest, and add in new ones that were more raw, more true, but also, as it so happens, more irreverent (maybe 'cause I'm an ersatz Aussie after all).

This version of Wow is more free, less straitjacket-fit, and more heartfelt. Just like the new cover. The old cover, it was way cool, but in a way it was bogged down in historical allusions. The new one just looks like a big bad bruise. I love it.

I heard you're going on a book/poetry tour with your poet wife Anya Rompas and the tour is called #RelationshipGoals, what's all that about?
We just wanna cement our place as the "Hughes and Plath of Indo poetry." Wkwkwk. She just put out a book as well, called Non-Spesifik. It's a great book, so raw and harrowing emotionally, and since we're both alienated third-culture poets, it kinda makes sense (financially as well) to go on a book tour together. I was asked this question before and apparently my answer was: 'The two books are written by Western-educated aesthetes united in matrimony because no one else understands the specific and non-specific suffering they face.' Hehehe, don't worry, IRL I'm even more annoying than that!

First stop in our #RelationshipGoals tour is Kineruku in Bandung on August 19. Come along kids, there will be magic! (literally, Kineruku hired us a magician!) Next will be Jogja and Solo, and Surabaya if people haven't got sick of us banging on about how cool we are.

Full disclosure and all of that: I am affiliated with the publisher, so, you know, take my words with a grain of salt, I guess. But honestly, I would love this book either way.

Two excerpts from from We Are Nowhere and It's Wow:

The cars that ate Paris
your country is forever seeking
its own story in the old stories
told retold reinterpreted reinvented
of the missing tiger-dog
the evil do-gooder with the funny hat
the time when dreams replaced people
readers who read and re-read the stories now
to find the spine of the land
and find it missing.

your country is probably not you either

Parc
2nite: it's Anytown, Indierock
Orientals of the world, unite!
pins on lapels
cheap beers "best served with friends"
Firman haircuts
neat
hair washed, teased, blow dried, hair-sticked, hair-sprayed
Senen Garfield tee on Jimi Danger, 4st 7lbs
sleeves rolled-up
«Ils sont Les Jadugars»
Casio Exilims' flash
passing joints at the bar
generous Absolut in the cranberry
a couple kissing at the bar
open microphones
a couple kissing at the bar
DavTar hides the labels on his records
passing joints at the bar
Edophilia spins burned CDs
with tracklists sticky-taped outside
couples kissing at the bar
kids make requests for James, latest Franz Ferdinand's 7"s
amorous indie rock 'n' roll