Jamie James’ book “The Glamour of Strangeness” is a global survey of exotes, artists and writers who “roam the world in search of the home they never had in the place that made them.” The book was originally intended as a dual study of Raden Saleh, the Javanese painter and social climber, and Walter Spies, the polymath, gregarious German artist. Saleh achieved rapid, short-lived fame in Europe before returning to his homeland to be ostracized by colonial society and died in near obscurity. Spies shaped European perceptions of Bali as an exotic, tropical paradise and introduced oil paints and other tools to Balinese artists. He was arrested on dubious charges of pederasty and drowned in transit when the ship transporting him was hit by a bomb and sank slowly, almost within sight of the shore.
James says that as he conducted his research, other cases presented themselves “that seemed too good to leave out”. Thus, he expanded the book to include profiles of Isabelle Eberhardt, a Russian-Swiss writer who roamed the Sahara disguised unconvincingly as an Arab man; Maya Deren, an American experimental film-maker who became an initiate of Voodoo in Haiti; Paul Gauguin, the French painter and sexual adventurer who romanticized Tahiti and its women through his art; and Victor Segalen, a doctor, poet and novelist who steeped himself in the culture of Imperial China.
The author himself has done plenty of roaming. Following trips as a young man to Maccu Piccu and Angkor Wat at a time when both were remote, dangerous, difficult destinations, James became entranced by the “romantic allure of places that had escaped time”. However, during the course of a career as critic with the New Yorker, as a travel writer, critic and general contributor for publications including Conde Naste Traveler, National Geographic, and Vanity Fair, and as a writer of a number of popular non-fiction books, James had become almost blasé regarding the constant stream of exotic destinations that his work required him to visit. He came to think that his job often involved little more than “pimping the exotic” for those disinclined or unable to make the journey themselves. Then, in 1995, he arrived in Jakarta to profile Indonesia’s most acclaimed novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, for The New Yorker.
James says that: “By the end of the week, I had fallen in love twice, with Indonesia and with my partner, Rendy. My interest in other destinations fell off drastically, and I returned to Jakarta as often and for as long a stretch as I could manage.”
His new-found love for Indonesia was balanced by an increasing disillusionment with American morality, society and politics, with James describing himself as “transfixed with disgust” at the impeachment and trial of Bill Clinton in 1999. Also, in a same sex relationship, at the time, it would have been impossible for him to sponsor his partner, Rendy, to live with him in the USA. Thus, he says: “When Rendy sent me a fax proposing that we find a house in Bali, where he intended to open a restaurant, I said yes in a New York minute.” He moved to Indonesia on April Fool’s day in 1999, where he has lived in Jakarta, Bali and Lombok ever since, albeit with frequent and sometimes extended visits elsewhere for his work.
At the Ubud Writers Festival, when I asked James about how the exotes he wrote about differ from expatriates, who also often leave their homeland and take up residence elsewhere, he sighs. “I guess an expatriate often plans on going home eventually. Maybe they are mainly motivated by the high salary and the expatriate lifestyle. They don’t necessarily immerse themselves in the local culture. But I don’t want to draw sharp, categorical distinctions. It’s a spectrum. Many expatriates are indeed deeply interested in the culture around them and do become committed to the country that they live in.”
While James’s book focuses on the lives of writers, painters, film-makers and other artists, he readily admits that people who take up residence in another country can become deeply committed to it and immersed in its culture without being artists. While he agrees that business people, development workers and journalists can all become involved in these ways, he says that he focused on artists because they generally leave a more interesting impression of their lives. “It was my book, and I’d rather explore the life of someone who was an official court musician in the Sultanate of Jogja and whose painting influenced the development of Balinese art, than of someone who sits in an office in Jakarta and produces a 700-page report for UNICEF,” he says with a shrug.
While James is a novelist and writer who has made Indonesia his home, he is wary about identifying his own situation with that of the subjects in his book. He gives a nuanced reply when asked about the degree to which he has immersed himself in the culture of the country.
“To some degree, you could say that I’ve ‘gone native’. In my personal life, I live a very Indonesian lifestyle. In Lombok, my most important social interactions are with Indonesians, particularly my partner and his family, his two nephews. But at an intellectual and aesthetic level, I’m not obsessed with Balinese or Sasak culture, I’m just as interested in Thai or Chinese culture. I’m an American author, writing primarily for an American audience. My writing assignments often take me elsewhere throughout the world. My literary and academic friends in Jakarta criticize my Indonesian language skills, but I learned the language by talking with the children in my family. I didn’t learn Indonesian to read the literature, I learned it to speak to them.”
The lives of the subjects in James’s book all end tragically, in disillusionment and with ugly deaths. James writes about the “curse of the exote: a passion is conceived for the place as the traveler imagined it to be when he discovered it, and it must never change … Just as Gauguin had warred against the Christian missionaries in Polynesia, and Spies before his death was chagrined by the cultural debasement of Bali caused by the tourist economy he had helped to create, so Hearn and Segalen saw the empires they had venerated dissolving into a mist of modernity, leaving them only with regrets.”
James admits to his own regrets regarding the changes he has witnessed during his time in Indonesia, the increasingly gridlocked traffic in Jakarta, the disappearance of the rice fields around his former house in Bali. At the same time, he says that Indonesia is not his home because of his undying love for a culture that may prove all too ephemeral, but because of his personal ties with the people around him. As he says in the final sentence of his book: “Lombok is my home not because its culture and way of life give me a sense of belonging that I never felt in the United States. Lombok is my home because I have made it so.”
Jamie James granted this interview at the Ubud Writers Festival. For more information, see http://www.ubudwritersfestival.com