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AIDS: Whose virus is this, anyway?

It’s hard to really remember how frightened we all were of AIDS back in the 1980’s, when the existence of the disease was first widely acknowledged. You could compare it to the fear evoked by Swine Flu more recently, I suppose, except that unlike the much more democratic Swine Flu, AIDS was still the disease of junkies, poofs and hookers. It was their disease, the disease of deviants, freaks and shirt lifters, but instead of having the good grace to keep their disgusting ailments to themselves, they threatened to leak it out into the broader community. Their disgusting habits were going to kill us all.

In 1984, in my extended social group consisting of Melbourne Uni students and drop outs, radical activists, and dope smoking hedonists, heroin use spread like a minor plague. For most of those who tried it, with Velvet Underground blaring in the background, it was more about taboo breaking and experimentation than a desperate need for oblivion. A lot of people snorted it or smoked it a few times and then got on with their lives. But a few people used needles. And a few kept on using. Read more »

Strange conversations in the village where everyone speaks deaf talk

For the Invisible People project, my first trip was to visit a rural community with a very high rate of profound, prelingual hereditary deafness in Bengkala in North Bali. Around the village, both the deaf and the hearing use a totally indigenous sign language that has developed here without reference to any other sign language in the world.

Kolok Getar, describing the death of his son in a motorbike accident. Photograph by Irfan Kortschak. Copyright 2010 Irfan Kortschak / PNPM Peduli

I made contact with Ketut Kanta, the volunteer school teacher who taught the deaf children of the village using sign languages, through Connie de Vos, a researcher in Linguistics. I first meet Connie when she came around to my old house in the kampung in Ben Hil late one night with Tom, a good friend of mine and a linguist who worked for the Max Plank Institute in some sort of embedded capacity at Indonesia’s first postgraduate applied linguistics program at the Atma Jaya University. Tom explained that Connie was passing through Jakarta on her way to do field research into a sign language used by the deaf community in Bengkala, a small village in an arid section of North Bali far from the touristic resort towns of the south coast.

Connie looked slightly defensive in a resigned kind of way, as though used to expressions of bewilderment, ignorance and scorn at her choice of a field of research. Later, she told me that even amongst some linguists with whom she had worked had looked down their noses at this choice in a way that they would never have dared to do at a language spoken by, say, two of the last remaining elderly Native American speakers of Serrano. Even in the field of obscure endangered languages, sign languages are sometimes considered not quite a serious business. So, Connie looked relieved and even slightly amazed that I’d heard of the place, having read about it in that now defunct experimental literary-cum-anthropological magazine, Latitudes. Read more »

Blogging about Blogging: Stories behind the stories

Last week, I was building the framework for this blog. I wanted to build a platform to display and promote some of the writing projects that I’ve been involved with. In particular, I wanted to create online versions of two books that I wrote, Nineteen and Invisible People. They are both collections of stories by ordinary Indonesians. Nineteen was a collection of stories about street traders in Jakarta, Invisible People contained stories of people from marginal, stigmatized groups in society.

But I didn’t want just to create a static website that contains the same materials as do the printed books themselves. I wanted to use a blog to tell people about the stories behind the stories. In the books themselves, I kept a very low profile: I wanted the stories of the people I was interviewing to stand out, and staying out of the way myself helped make that work. But I often found myself thinking that it would be fun to tell some of the stories behind the stories that we published. I could use a blog to explain how I met the people I interviewed, how I contacted them, who introduced them to me.

I’d also like to use as a platform to discuss other projects that I am involved in now and hope to become involved with in the future. And for writings and reflections on life in Indonesia as seen by a foreigner who has lived here for almost twenty years. Even after that time, I often feel like an alien outsider, looking in from outside and trying to makes sense of it all.

Maybe that’s a good reason for having a blog: as a tool to try to understand the strange place that I live in.

Since I’ve just spent some time creating the online version of Invisible People, I’m going to spend some time over the next few weeks writing up the stories behind the stories in that book.