Translation Tuesday: Poetry by Nala Arung, translated by Tiffany Tsao

"Who would have guessed that love would collide / Into the wall that is FPI."

Efpei I’m in Love by Nala Arung

The cover of Efpei I’m in Love, a poetry collection by Indonesian writer Nala Arung, announces that it is “a book of tasteless poetry.” And it is apparent from the outset that its tastelessness operates on multiple levels.

Its title is deliberately lowbrow—a take on the title of the wildly popular teenage chick-lit novel, Eiffel … I’m in Love, published in 2001 and adapted for film as a romantic comedy of the same name two years later.

The Efpei that has displaced the original Eiffel refers to the FPI, or Islamic Defenders’ Front. A hard-line Islamic vigilante organization, FPI has gained national notoriety for using violence to enforce their interpretation of Islamic law. Its members often patrol areas for signs of un-Islamic activity, destroying property and beating up offenders. The organization has also attacked religious minorities, including Buddhists, Christians, and Ahmadi Muslims, whom they consider a heretical sect. FPI is certainly no laughing matter and hardly the stuff love poems are made of—or so it would seem until one reads the titular poem “FPI, I’m in Love.”    

In these poems, published in 2011, Nala Arung deploys playfulness and humor, wordplay and double entendre, brevity and catchy rhyme in order to make the crass and cringeworthy—the downright bad—worthy of a smile, if not a chuckle. The collection’s preface provides an important clue to the rationale behind creation of such poetry. “Why does someone seek the company of others?” it asks. “So that he can communicate more widely.” Tasteless poetry, one might argue, is the poetic attempt to communicate at its most basic—undistracted by aesthetics, uninterested in profundities, and sure to elicit a response, whether in the form of a laugh, a wince, or some combination of both.


From the preface:

Sweet, Darling Members of the Assembly of the Tasteless,

Why does someone seek the company of others? So that he can communicate more widely. Because accumulated in his body is an energy that he wants to share with other people, whether he is aware of it or not. Energy is made up of experiences bitter and sweet, and it would be a shame to just bury them in the body, knowing that one day the body will also lie buried in the earth. He shares this energy, but believe me, it never runs out, for only seconds after communicating all these experiences, new experiences arise. And so the process repeats itself. For days, even years. And this phenomenon is the origin and reason why that person can’t not seek out company. Even cows need company. That’s probably where that phrase for lovers shacking up together came from—“moo-ving in together.” Birds often fly and flock together too, though who knows why there’s no equivalent term for birds. We do not know. It’s probably because they don’t want to come up with one. Or they’re too embarrassed. Ah, we do not know.

Why does someone choose to be different? Because he was born in the same way everyone else was born. It is similarity that drives a person to differentiate himself so that his own personal qualities will stand out, be recognized. This is so he won’t merely be in this world, but exist as well. The struggle to exist is far fiercer than the struggle to just be. Once, I was speeding along on my motorbike. The day had already grown dark and quiet. I felt powerful, profoundly aware of my existence, until a bat flew into my path and smacked me in the face with its wings. Man, did my face hurt. I even shed some tears—not because I was feeling sentimental, but because my face really did hurt. And in that way, the bat asserted its own existence—so I would know that it too could move at great speed and exert its power over the quiet night. So I would understand that it too had personal qualities it wanted to express.


FPI, I’m in Love

Siti Juleha was her name

On Indonesian Idol she earned her fame

Village officials, federal ones too,

Hankered to make her wife number two


Siti Juleha, karaoke star

Born in Tasik, bred in Bogor

Her body was wow, her voice was okay

To try her luck she moved to Ja-kar-tay


Enter the young Ali Rojali

An Islamic scholar from Betawi

He’d been off at a Turkish university

And flew back into town fairly recently


Aji Rojali, so young, so cool

A graduate, even, from Islamic school

He wasn’t real hot on partying

And drinking and drugs weren’t really his thing


One night in the month of June? September?

Forgive me, I really don’t remember

But Siti Juleha and Rojali

Will remember that night for eternity


That night was the night of an operation

By the FPI to sweep every location

Combing the city, their mission – to bust

Sinners at play, consummating their lusts


To put it in brief, to make short our story

Siti Juleha met Rojali

As he made his rounds, a collision of eyes

Guaranteed that upon them love fell at first sight


“As the river-bound leech from the rice paddy starts

So does love, from the eyes, descend into the heart”

Who would have guessed, who would have known

That things would have gone as the old saying goes


To see how things went was to see at a glance

Love being hindered by circumstance

Who would have guessed that love would collide

Into the wall that is FPI




A pair of vaginas peeping

out from their unzipped flies


Sorry, I don’t have enough for both of you

unless you drop the price


The Lamentation of a Single Poet


There is a willy

There is a will



There is no way


 Final Message


This is my final message to you before we break up, my love


That kid in your arms, get rid of her

I am devoted to you

But I can’t guarantee

You won’t have trouble entering paradise later


Btw, don’t throw away this message, my love

Keep it in your wallet

I don’t want to write this final message again


Nala Arung is from Tenggarong, East Kalimantan in Indonesia. His publications include the poetry collection, Efpei I’m in Love (from which these pieces are excerpted), and the short story collection, Balada Saripin & KD, published in 2008. The author’s biography in Efpei I’m in Love notes, “According to his wife, he is a vain man. But according to him, his wife is right.” 

Tiffany Tsao is a writer based in Sydney, Australia. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Transnational LiteratureLontar, and the collection Contemporary Asian-Australian Poets (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013). She is currently writing a novel set between Indonesia and California, and a book on contemporary literature from East Kalimantan. She holds a PhD in English from UC-Berkeley.