INTERVIEW by Veronica Popp

NWR Issue 108

Timothy L Marsh

Timothy's docu-journal, ‘Banjar Dalung’ was highly commended in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2015, judged by Mark Cocker & Gwen Davies. An extract from this essay is published in the inaugural issue of our New Welsh Reader, #108, summer 2015.

NWR:Your work shows a fascination with the grotesque, present in images of dead, rotted, previously mating dogs. Do you think that when one writes about nature, discussing the grotesque is necessary for the exploration of truth?

TLM: I grew up in a place where you didn’t see nature shitting, copulating or starving in the street. Then I moved to a rural settlement where that was all nature was doing. One day it was dogs, next cats or rodents and finally, farm animals. When I sat down to write about these events I wasn’t concerned with the grotesque or its connection to truth and the natural world. I have learned a lot about nature without the aid of its ugly and aberrant aspects. I do know that writers are part of their environment before they are writers. When we encounter something beyond our experience or upbringing, we intuitively react to it, which often means we render it. If such a discussion is necessary, it is only necessary after the rendering is done. At the point of creation, everything is instinctive, not explorative.

NWR: Your writing juxtaposes religious imagery and currency, deities morphing into superheroes for the sake of rupiah. What are your thoughts about the exploitation of culture in favour of capitalism in Bali? Do you think tourists destroy Balinese nature and culture or is this a result of the emerging global market?

TLM: For most Balinese, their exploitation is so inextricably tied to their livelihood that it is hard to definitively tag capitalism as a culturally destructive force. In my own Banjar, western encroachment never upset the Balinese as much as it did other westerners. Unless it threatened to occur on sacred land or obstruct sacred tradition, most Balinese accepted commercial development. The question is whether you can regulate the effects of tourism without impairing a culture’s economic and social growth. Most tropical islands are paradise until you get a few miles inland. Then there are shantytowns, water shortages and malnourishment. Capitalism is a big lifeboat. Prosperous countries grow because they transform environments to accommodate their industries. Every current dominating civilization does it. It is hard to tell an aspiring civilization that they shouldn’t, even if we scientifically know that they should. You can throw all the stats and scientific data at a poor and jobless man, but the only thing he’s going to see is his hungry family. It is our human beauty and the earth’s tragedy. We put our loved ones before anything.

NWR: What do you think about the Eastern perspective on family in Bali?

TLM: It isn’t wildly different from the average western perspective. Bali was the first place I knew where nepotism wasn’t a social negative but rather the appropriate way things were done. If you were in a position to provide an opportunity to a relative, you were expected to do so regardless of qualification. The right person for the job was the person in the family who needed the job. Adding to that was the treatment of elders. There were no retirement homes or senior living centres. Elders, even those enfeebled, remained in the household until they no longer remained in the world. Their influence was significant, not symbolic. Major decisions about land, money, marriage and illness went through them. It wasn’t like my home in the States, where advanced age meant progressive irrelevance and segregation. Grandparents weren’t moved to active living communities or put into human storage until they were retrieved for Christmas dinner. To think that one’s parents would end their days in the care of strangers in a strange place, away from the home where they’d spent their lives with the children they’d brought into the world: that would be incredible to my Balinese friends. They considered the idea morally sick.

NWR: Your piece on Fanny, British slang for vagina, and her thirst for passports is an interesting comment on the rise of sex tourism and exploitation in Bali. Do you consider yourself a pessimistic writer or merely a reporter on events?

Fanny Yulianora has never seen the world. She tends to date white men who have. All the flowering village girls want to know what it’s like. How do bules kiss, Fanny? How do they smell? What do they talk about? In regards to these matters white guys are no better or worse than Indonesian guys, says Fanny. The only special thing about bules is what’s in their trousers. Those big, thick, beautiful passports.

TLM: I don’t think I have ever objectively reported a personal event in my life. I definitely wouldn’t call myself a pessimist. I don’t create with the belief that reality is essentially depraved or that sorrow overbalances happiness in life. With this piece, there was an inclination to emphasize the adverse because that was the condition of my environment. Having said that, I’m not sure how a literary writer could ever be a mere reporter of events, especially when the content is autobiographical. Whenever I’m moved enough to write about an experience, those emotions inevitably seep into the material and become its style and nature.

NWR: Why did you undertake this piece? Did you have any major writing influences before you began?

TLM: There was never a conscious choice to write the essay. I don’t remember outright thinking, ‘You know, this whole experience would look great in a magazine’ or ‘The world really needs to know about native life in Bali.’ Naturally, it was a conscious choice to revise what I had drafted and send it out for publication and consideration in the Awards. I’d go for walks around the village, get to know my neighbours, learn about one situation or another and sometimes while I was doing this the ‘spirit’ would strike and I’d jot down my thoughts or observations. Eventually there were enough of these jottings to depict a community. The essay structure borrows from Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘The Eatonville Anthology’ and William H Gass’ ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country’. Both short stories deal with rural life and use a thread of character portraits to portray their communities.

Veronica Popp is a writer, teacher, scholar and editor, she has a BA from Elmhurst College in English and History and an MA in Creative Writing from Aberystwyth University. Popp teaches composition and research at Elmhurst College.


previous interview: Philippa Holloway
next interview: Ellie Rees


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