It’s rainy season in Jakarta with 78 percent humidity, according to the weather forecasts, but you always wake up dehydrated. Bunda says it’s because you eat too much MSG. Or, more precisely, you keep ordering food from restaurants that clearly use MSG and other artificial flavoring. She tries to teach you how to cook tempe bacem, rendang, and tongseng so you know exactly what goes in your food.
It’s true, we eat with our eyes. But in You’re 25 and the Sinking City Doesn’t Feel So Hot, Alexandra Kumala reminds us that, before we eat with our mouths, we eat with more than our eyes: we eat with our hearts, our noses, our ears, our memories, our families, our age, and with an utter sense of place, belonging, and longing. Cheekily narrated in the second person, this short story follows “you” through various striking stages of girlhood and womanhood, leading the reader along a degustation of portraits which weave gracefully between yearning and celebration, the ultimate soft-spoken yet humorous Indonesian family epic.
From the very beginning, Kumala invites readers straight into the Indonesian kitchen. The spice of cabe rawit sends “you” into a fit of sneezing and coughing, food being the ultimate conduit and trigger for action, a mischievous narrative device that renders food absolutely vital to the story and mirroring food’s core role in family and culture.
Kumala also creates a sharp distinction and distance from Indonesian family with a small vignette set in Toronto. The pong of mouldy towels envelops the narrator with a sense of loneliness that can only be mended by a different smell, one reminiscent of childhood and rainy season. Comfort food becomes the story’s most important character, a narrative hero.
Despite the story’s focus on “you,” the persistent presence of Bunda is steady, reliable, and utterly tender. While not a focal point, Bunda is attached to every smell, every memory, permeating the story like a ghost, the ultimate mother figure who is inextricable from culture, family, and selfhood. In trying to map “yourself” over the years, you inevitably arrive at Bunda’s cooking, Bunda’s presence. Kumala’s writing, while paying such heartwarming homage to food and culture, keeps the mother-daughter relationship at the core of storytelling, a relationship that defies time and place, and survives all the shifts of girlhood.
You’re 25 and the Sinking City Doesn’t Feel So Hot is mesmerising, witty, relatable, and consumes the reader in a world of false eyelashes and bickering sisters. It is a feast of a story, leaving the reader with a bellyful of memories.
Bruna Gomes, Fiction Editor
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