“May it be erased from the earth before foreigners imagine it”: unbearable loss in Java


This is a story about a young man, his grandfather, the very small house he lost, and the unbearable hole this loss left in the universe.

Acep Aprilyana  is a young Indonesian writer from West Java, living far from home in Nunukan, an island town near the Malaysian border. He recently left Burma, where he had found temporary work in a jungle plantation. Thousands of people have arrived in Nunukan looking for work over the past several years.

Like millions and millions of other people,  Mr. Aprilyana lives in a country that was çreated when a European nation forcibly occupied a region of the world and drew lines on a map to create a colony.

Acep is Electrica in the Desert’s oldest supporter life’s greatest heart, and justice’s favorite brother.

Many readers are already familiar with Acep’s work, both because he has allowed me to feature it several times, and because his own blog, Sundanese in Actions, has plenty of  fans.



Acep Aprilyana is the last member of a family whose roots in Indonesia had extended beyond human memory far before it was brutally occupied by the Dutch over 400 years ago

Like most Sundanese people, Acep is from Java, whose people dated their origins  back to the Creation centuries before establishing a Muslim culture in the 1400s. The village Acep describes below is practically as much a part of its small, steep mountain as are the narrow stairways, roads, and rice terraces carved into the face of the rock by his ancestors – about as far back as most human conceptions of time retain coherence.


Although presented as fiction,  what follows is the first part of an essay-length autobiographical account of the small village of traditional rice farmers in which Acep was raised by his grandfather. The  narrative is infused with a particular significance by its time frame: the childhood he describes appears practically ancient – until one recalls with a jolt that Acep did not achieve full majority until 2006 !*

Fer 400 years, it has been attacked in every way a culture can be attacked, enduring every  imaginable form of rupture.

But what it preserved throughout those centuries, to pass down to Acep in the 1990s ( as a wave of violence swept Indonesia ) was a lived experience of continuity, a meaningful interpretation of the colonial catastrophe, and a collective memory so powerful as to leave me on my knees.



By Acep Aprilyana

Balonggandu is just a small village. When it was isolated, wilderness was its blanket and peace was its pulse. Foreigners who imagined it just once from a great distance thought a thousand times about Balonggandu. 

 When they had walked the land with both feet,  over time their hearts followed, drawn by the friendliness of the villagers, and by the sincerity and peace of their lives.  The village’s spirit is unity, its breathing is harmony, its soul is truth.

Its dress is simplicity.  Its robe is resignation.

Its friend is patience.

It would have been better if Balonggandu had not been worthy of mention or had disposed of  its memory so that the mind did not expect to mention its name. With no decent story to tell and no news of interest to be disclosed , Balonggandu  could have been kept off the map. This would have better for the mind,  for being erased from the earth can be a glorious destinty.

Instead,  Balonggandu remained worthy of its name, filled with beauty and charm and  interesting to every generation.  So the generation that preceded it gave messages,  advice, and warnings about how one should live life, weaving the light of love and longing into its blanket, and truth and holiness into its clothes.


Fate has been spinning and embroidering threads, thereby setting in Balonggandu the life of a family consisting only of a kid and his grandfather. They lived in the smallest house, the house facing north at the tip of the village and closest to the forest. Most of the walls at the bottom were made of boards, while the top was made of woven bamboo. The roof was dull, although it still looked solid and some of the tiles in back were cracked.  In fact,  the ground floor was wet with every rain.

A rear door connected the house to the hills behind it, and the courtyard was decorated with cut grass and neatly arranged  flowers. Some would look at the house and see an old shack, but in this old shack a story begins.

If it had not been inhabited by Abie and his grandfather, the little house might have been destroyed. Even so, a light brighter than sunlight shone from within. It was the light that emanated from Abie.

The stars seemed to give Abie his smile. It was a smile that made the moon flush.

This hut has remained the same since Abie was born. His grandfather was reluctant to fix it: other than financial factors, the little house is a form of memory. It is better to keep the memories in this form than to remember them in other ways, for other ways will only bring pain and sorrow. The house holds the  pain of two Deaths.

The first death is the death of Ainah – beloved wife of Abie’s grandfather – and the second death is the death of Oom Romlah, Abie’s mother.

Seventeen days after she gave birth to Abie, his mother died.

And shortly after the death of his wife, Abie’s father left Abie.  He entrusted his son to his father, Abie’s grandfather. and he never returned.

Thus, when the trees have grown, they no longer protect Abie as they once would have.


                                                         End of Part One

Acep Aprilyana’s work is avaiable in Sundanese, Indonesian, English and Dutch, but he has decided on a fourth version, edited for standard English and available for selected posts, and has trusted me to edit with a heavy hand in service to his voice.

Acep’s English has its own beauty, one that many of his readers prefer. This is just another option for readers and a way to expand the scope of his voice.

Come back for Part Two, coming soon.


My note: when the past refuses to stay in the past, it usually heads straight for the present. There, it’s easy to spot, because it’s ususally causing a racket of some kind. If you order it back, this type of past will appear to comply, but it never departs in good faith. As soon as you’re sure it’s finally obeyed, it will show up somewhere else, claiming to be the present.

Maybe it is throwing rocks at a tank in Palestine. Maybe it is an old Jewish man, lighting a candle in Warsaw. Maybe it is a pirate in the Sudan. Maybe it is sneaking across the Mexican border. Maybe it is a 16-year-old gang member aiming a gun at a 15-year-old drug dealer in southwest Chicago.

Or maybe it is a broken heart in Indonesia.


11 thoughts on ““May it be erased from the earth before foreigners imagine it”: unbearable loss in Java

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