What would it mean to be happy? It’s a question both essential and existential, one that seems so daunting, it’s best avoided. But queer Indonesian poet Norman Erikson Pasaribu has no intention of shying away from the messy nature of happiness—including its more melancholic aspects. The title of their U.S. fiction debut, Happy Stories, Mostly (Feminist Press, June 6), doesn’t say it all, but it does set the tone for the book, “a beautiful collection that refuses to shy away from the often complex and difficult queer experience,” according to our review.

Careful readers will notice how queerness is threaded through these stories in subtle ways and overt ones. Queerness affects “how we negotiate with the world we live in” and “makes our choices different from those of the hetero people in our lives,” says Pasaribu, speaking to Kirkus via Zoom from Bali. Traditional notions of sexuality and gender dominate Indonesian culture, intertwined with the majority Christian religion of the author’s Toba Batak people. Pasaribu, 33, recalls the imagery of Adam and Eve being particularly strong throughout their upbringing, and they say that strict heteronormative ideals “[make] you question yourself when you grow up.” When they are writing, their process includes “unloading all of the bias that society has imposed on me.” Being queer, says the author, is like “having a different religion.”

This pressure and bias make Pasaribu especially grateful for their friendship with Sydney-based translator Tiffany Tsao and the nonjudgmental space that Tsao provides. “As a queer, I feel like I’m not heard enough in my real life by the people around me.…When I’m working with Tiff, my opinions matter. My vision matters. She treats me like an equal.” The author says that their stories tend to contain a lot of “secret passages,” different ways the reader can encounter and understand what’s on the page, and Tsao incorporates these subtleties in her translations.

Religion is one of the collection’s recurring themes, but explorations of the subject are far from straightforward, imbued with the author’s sense of humor and an appropriate dose of cynicism. In “Ad maiorem dei gloriam,” readers meet Sister Tula, a nun who takes clandestine visits into town to escape the tedium of convent life; “Welcome to the Department of Unanswered Prayers” imagines what heaven itself might look like—and depicts it as rife with many of the same complaints and trials that plague life on Earth. The outsize influence that the idea of heaven has within Toba Batak culture provokes the author to interrogate it. “I was like, OK, let’s see how heaven is. And probably because I am quite cynical and maybe quite funny, I [thought], yeah, heaven has a clean water problem, like where I grew up.”

In “The True Story of the Story of the Giant,” two male university students, both captivated by the legend of a giant man, progress from academic rivals to unlikely friends; their friendship falters when Tunggul, who is gay, confesses unrequited feelings for Henri, who is straight. In this story, the author wanted to explore what they perceive to be a lack of positive role models for both straight and gay men as well as the pressure for queer people to excel in order to be accepted by the dominant culture. Pasaribu says that it can be difficult for them to parse the full extent of complex themes within the short story form, but they also appreciate how short stories can connect and become “greater than the sum of [their] parts. That’s a phrase I like in English.”

As for readers who may have been led by the title to expect more obvious depictions of happiness, Pasaribu says they consciously wanted to probe more complicated emotions and experiences in this work. They describe their first book of stories, published in Indonesian in 2014, as “romance fiction” that “explores queer love,” while their debut poetry collection, Sergius Seeks Bacchus, focused on “finding queer salvation in Indonesia in the context of a Batak Christian family.” With this book, they wanted “to ask the bigger questions,” having explored “the fun parts of being queer” in their previous works. Still, “I call them ‘happy stories’ because I’m happy they are written. I’m happy they are there.”

When it comes to queer literature in Indonesia, Pasaribu is mindful of the history of those who preceded them and excited about the possibilities of literature in the present. “Queer people before me have written, have struggled, have persisted, so I want to honor them. But then, I feel queerness is changing [so much] that even the word tradition doesn’t make sense, because we are all changing, evolving, transforming—so to transform itself is the tradition. I want to continue to experiment with form, style, perspective, themes. Then, by doing so, I feel I have honored all of the things that older queers have done in their lifetimes, so I can be here today.”

Nina Palattella is the editorial assistant.