I hesitated for a few weeks before reading The Island of Bali Is Littered With Prayers (Amazon) by Jeremy Grimshaw (which is now out in paperback). I already knew Jeremy could write, and, in fact, I have tried to recruit him to AMV over the years. I knew that we shared a certain sensibility that could perhaps be described as a interest in melding, or at least co-locating, the core of Mormon praxis with the avant garde, post-whatever, and insistently yet calmly artistic. And I knew that I very much liked the excerpt I had posted at AMV when the limited edition hard bound copy of the book was published late last year by Mormon Artists Group (also see my interview with Jeremy about the book).
But all that somehow fades when faced with the book itself, the slim paperback volume with the vibrant red cover that arrived with a handwritten return address. What if it isn’t good? What if it is good, but I have nothing to say about it? Silly considerations, of course, especially when you get the book for free without committing to a formal review. And once the hesitation slid away, all there was to do was just read the thing. Which I did.
So here’s the deal: The Island of Bali Is Littered With Prayers is a marvelous case study in how to capture in a piece of creative nonfiction a meaningful cross-cultural experience. It’s also a lovely book to read.
There are a few reasons for that:
1. The goal of the experience itself was not manufactured for the purpose of writing the book. Jeremy goes to Bali because he has been charged with starting a gamelan group at BYU. That goal supplies the narrative with a forward movement, which then frees him from the need to indulge in travelogue and chronology. Although the book does proceed roughly chronologically, Jeremy loops back and forth in places to explain what needs to be explained or to share an anecdote that needs to be shared and it doesn’t seem like digression because it’s all serving the larger narrative.
2. Jeremy is less of a tourist and more of a student, but as a student he’s both a novice (at gamelan) and an expert (a PhD-ed musicologist), which means that he can approach his writing with authority, but also wonder and humility. That leads to a very pleasant tone to the prose. Unlike many travel writes he is not preening or pretentiously keening or trying to chock full us with insights and breathy observations derived from the exotic.
3. There is a lightness yet sincerity to the cultural observations fueled by the genuine camraderie of the endevaor. And yet, for all the felicitious coming together over the joy of music and performance, Jeremy doesn’t gloss over the points where the cross-cultural joy turns foreign, even puzzling. This is the importance of the chapter that relates the funeral and cremation of the King of Ubud.
4. Jeremy writes well about music — about sound, instruments, rehearsal, performance — and does so in a way that helps readers sink in to both the theoretical and metaphorical explorations of sound (and the physics of it) and the physicality that goes in to the actions that create music. Add in the socio-cultural dynamics of both acquiring the skills to lead a gamelan group and then the actual starting of one at BYU and it’s obvious that there’s a real command there of writing about music. I very much look forward to his forthcoming book on La Monte Young.
5. Finally, I very much enjoyed the deft touch Jeremy takes with the cross-cultural Bali/Mormon moments. He doesn’t lay it on too thick. He doesn’t try to extrapolate out any grand conclusions (although he does have moments where he tries to explain to the reader and himself how the Balinese really understand art as it relates to ways of living). The focus really is on creating a Wasatch Front-based gamelan. That there are a few felicitous moments of Mormon intrusion in to the endeavor is almost incidental, but also enriches the whole thing. Good stuff.
FTC Note: this review is based on a gratis review copy of the paperback sent to me by the author.