Fifty years ago, I moved to western Borneo.
With a degree in English Literature fresh in my hands and with little money of my own, I figured the Peace Corps was a good way to travel, something I had almost never done. I’ve often thought that the experience of growing up as I did in the hills above Oakland, California was like living in East Berlin before the fall of The Wall…only without the stazi. Oakland was gray, inexpressive and leaden. Going to university at Berkeley did provide me with a measure of exoticism, but even I knew that beer busts and hanging out on Telegraph Avenue provided only limited experience. Europe lay out there. South America, too. And especially Southeast Asia.
So I signed up with the Peace Corps, my mother drove me to the airport in San Francisco, and I was gone!
At the time, a war was going on between Malaysia (a former British colony) and Indonesia (a former Dutch colony), both just-formed nations in the post-colonial new world order. There are many reasons for the war that are still being debated, but for me the reality was that it was being fought along the border between the two countries that runs the length of Borneo from north to south, in the mountainous interior of that vast forested island. I was posted to a couple of different teaching assignments in primary schools on the Malaysia side, far downriver from any war activity. This kept me safe from armies and various bands of terrorists wreaking havoc in the deep forests. The jungle and heat more or less did me in, however, my basically Irish skin growing mottled and scaled with sweat-related embarrassments in places impossible to keep dry. I almost made it through the entire two years of my commitment. But finally, my skin became so enflamed that my idealism faltered badly. I allowed the Peace Corps to come rescue me, and they flew me home to Oakland.
Now I have published several books of fiction, and two of the early ones used my Borneo experiences as their raw material. I didn’t start writing those books until two decades after my return to the United States. By then, the last great post-colonial war — that would be the one in Vietnam — had been lost by the post-colonials, and the countries of Southeast Asia were more or less entirely on their own. So already I was writing about a fast-disappearing colonial culture. Graying British foreign service officers are major characters in those two fictions of mine, as they still were in fact when I lived there.
Recently I met a thirty year-old Hewlett Packard software engineer named Q., who is Chinese from Sibu in Sarawak, Borneo. I frequented that town many times when I was there, and remember fondly its sagging tin-roofed wharves on the bank of the Rajang River, the palm trees everywhere, its Chinese bazaar and Malay kampongs, the Somerset Maugham-esque desperate quiet of the place for those unhappy colonialists who still remained. It was impossible to get a message to anyone from Sibu, since the only communication was through government-operated radio-telephones with very spotty reception. You had to yell on them to be understood.The principal industries (besides the repair of rusted, stained and slow Chinese cargo boats plying the river) were rice and rubber. Entertainment was provided by short-wave radio (Radio Hanoi carried the best of American rock ‘n roll) and the rite-of-passage festivals of the local tribes.
I recently re-read my two Borneo books, and was surprised to learn that I had written something that has such distance from contemporary life. So much has happened in Southeast Asia between then and now that I feel the books describe a place and an ambiance that have grown antique and humorously colorful. I read of a long-ago disappeared cultural experience whose only importance now may be to obscurity-ridden historians.
In the same way that I read Oliver Twist and learned of the troubles of starving, orphaned, pickpocket children in an otherwise unrecognizable London, someone who comes across my books The Day Nothing Happened and The King of Rumah Nadai will read about an American/British experience in a distant jungle, the romantic settings of which are part of a very exciting — and near forgotten — past.
When I told Q. about this, he laughed, and explained that Sibu is now well on its way to becoming the Silicon Valley of Malaysia.
Luckily, my main character in both books, an American State Department official, is a thoughtful man whose experiences of isolation, loneliness and real personal danger still give his troubled walk through this place a real measure of contemporary importance. Americans working for non-governmental organizations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other places doubtless suffer from anxieties similar to his. So, the furniture in my books may be old and quaint, but the person sitting on that furniture is thoroughly involved in a form of emotional isolation and peril quite recognizable today.
The Day Nothing Happened and The King of Rumah Nadai are available as used books. They are being re-edited now for re-publication as ebooks later this year. Terry’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published this February.