Interview: Tiffany Tsao - “Indonesian literature is less well known”
The author of The Majesties talks about the Chinese community in Indonesia, and about translating Indonesian authors like Budi Darma and Norman Erikson Pasaribu
Writing or translating – what feels more rewarding?
With writing, you get to share your own words. With translating, you get to share others’ words with those who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to access them. I love doing both.
Tell us about the Chinese community living in Indonesia and the stereotypes attached to them in the 1990s.
The Chinese community living in Indonesia, like the Chinese living in India, was and is actually very diverse. There are communities in many different parts of Indonesia and they come from a variety of religious and socioeconomic backgrounds and have emigrated from China at a variety of times: some have been in Indonesia for several generations, some for one or two generations. However, there are certain stereotypes about the Chinese that persist and have been encouraged by the state – stereotypes about the ethnic Chinese being hoarders of wealth, being financially cunning and duplicitous, being insular and untrustworthy as Indonesian citizens because they maintain ties to China. I wanted to examine this stereotype in The Majesties by looking at a family that has been shaped by society to conform to stereotype, and consider the problems and dysfunctions it causes.
What was it like to translate Budi Darma’s People from Bloomington?
I read Budi Darma’s Orang-Orang Bloomington in the original Indonesian and the stories haunted me. I was shocked to find it hadn’t yet been translated into English. It was a dream project for a long time, until my friend and one of the authors I translate – Norman Erikson Pasaribu – asked me out of the blue one day if I was still interested in translating the collection and offered to put me in touch with Budi Darma. I obtained Budi Darma’s permission and things rolled on from there.
Do you feel Indonesian literature is still undiscovered as compared to Korean or Japanese literature?
I do feel that, compared to Korean and Japanese literature, translated Indonesian literature is less well known on the global stage. I also think the expectations that readers have of Indonesian literature are different. I think people still think of reading Indonesian literature as a means of learning about Indonesian history, culture, etc., whereas there is room for Korean and Japanese literature to be appreciated for their artistic merits, not as cultural guidebooks.
What was it like to work with and translate Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s works.
Norman and I correspond very closely on all my translations of their works. Our partnership is equal: Norman is currently translating my novel The Majesties into Indonesian, and they have translated a forthcoming essay I’ve written about Budi Darma as well. Working with and translating Norman’s works has changed my life and for that I am grateful.
What are your recommendations for some must-read authors in Indonesian literature?
I’ll speak of the ones that have been translated into English and that haven’t been receiving as much recent attention. Pramoedya Ananta Toer is the obvious choice: although his Buru quartet is the most famous, my personal favourite is It’s Not an All Night Fair (though I haven’t read it in English translation).
Sitor Situmorang is also a must-read. I would also highly recommend checking out the anthology Deviant Disciples, which is an anthology of Indonesian women poets from Tilted Axis Press. I’m part of a literary translators’ collective called The Seams, and we’ve put together a database of South East Asian literary works translated into English that may be useful for those hunting for Indonesian and other South East Asian works.
Arunima Mazumdar is an independent writer. She is @sermoninstone on Twitter and @sermonsinstone on Instagram.