Literary Review of Lisa Kusel’s RASH

Tidak apa apa.

Say it with me. Tidak apa apa. “It is okay.”

Please keep this Indonesian phrase in the forefront as you read Lisa Kusel’s memoir, Rash. You’ll need the reassurance, for her and you, that it’s all going to come out right in the end.

You don’t move to Bali on a whim. Unless you’re a writer and a mother and in desperate need of a scene change, a soul change, a room with a view. Lisa Kusel’s chronicle of her time in Bali with her husband, Victor, and their six-year-old daughter, Loy, will leave you itching for more to her story, an extended edition. Her Bali is not the Bali on the brochure. Her Bali is mold and ants and lice and angry monkeys and angry husbands and empty promises from a place that promised so much.

The decision seemed epic, to uproot their lives to move to the jungle where Victor could be instrumental in the founding of a modern marvel of a school. But, things fall apart. The center, as Yeats once prophesied, cannot hold. Kusel weaves each tiny catastrophe together so that the journey becomes one large tapestry of mayhem. Every mosquito holds the possibility of Dengue fever, every monkey a mouthful of teeth, every step in her bamboo house a maybe splinter, a maybe fall, a maybe end to what looked like such a lovely adventure. But perhaps the most harrowing step in the journey is Kusel’s own exploration of her own needs and often inability to accept the fate she has chosen, and championed, for her family.

“If we moved to Bali, I reasoned without any real reason, I would finally find true self-love and inner peace.”

This is the Eat, Pray, Love motto we all hope for when we picture an escape from the daily mundanity of life. But Kusel’s Bali is not one long yoga pose and so she is forced to wrestle with the self, herself, that was not left behind in the blue house on the hill in California. Her marriage stumbles, trips, almost falls apart. Her daughter sees it all. Her husband struggles to teach in a place that holds no principles other than self-promotion.

And yet, you will laugh. Kusel can lampoon with the best of them. You will fall in love with Seni, their housekeeper and cook and moral support. You too will be caught naked in the dark in your bamboo house. You will hide from the bossman and mis-tie sarongs and dream of air-conditioning and fight for a wall hook like it was worth your life. And because her dialogue flows so seamlessly, both fights and laughs fly fast, like a sitcom, a dark sitcom—think Seinfeld in its later years. Kusel and her husband can trade barbs and quips with the best of them. Even in their anger, they are poetic.

But the thing that drew me in to this memoir, drew me in so close that I could not let it go until their plane had landed on familiar soil, is this: the raw honesty of a woman undone. Kusel bares it all, all her neuroses and foibles and fears and failures, in a place that was to make her new. Kusel is every woman, her psyche is my psyche and yours as we try to invent and re-invent ourselves into better renditions on the same old theme.

I leave you with this:

“I’d moved us to Bali to find paradise; but now that I knew paradise wasn’t what my imagination had cracked it up to be, I could stop trying to find the new, the better, the different. I had needed to move to Bali to know that. To discover more of my own creaks and crevices, ugly and beautiful.”

May we all face this truth about ourselves and find freedom in it, as Kusel did, here and abroad.