Worlds-Within-Worlds: A Testimonial

Indonesia Editor-at-Large Tiffany Tsao on Indonesian writing—and how Asymptote fits in a new, more nuanced "World Literature"

Asymptote’s mission is to introduce not only literary voices from a wide range of countries, but a greater number of voices from within each country. That’s where our twenty over editors-at-large, from Cuba to China, come in. Their goal? To seek out the worlds nestled within worlds that may be invisible from the outside. With their fingers on the pulse of their regions’ literary scenes, our editors-at-large act as extra eyes and ears for our section editors, ensuring a stream of the freshest content from the world over. Often this work is commissioned from scratch (see Mui Poopoksakul on Contemporary Thai Fiction or Yardenne Greenspan on Contemporary Israeli Literature). Editors-at-large also organize outreach events, partner with local journals, and send us literary dispatches for the blog. Our Indonesian editor-at-large, Tiffany Tsao, who gave us this dispatch from the 2014 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, wrote the following blog post to commemorate our fourth birthday.

—Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-Chief

World literature is a loaded word with a lot at stake. The term makes a grand promise: access to literatures, in foreign tongues, about unfamiliar peoples, in far-flung places. “World Literature” promises to reveal the astounding diversity of the globe through letters.

But its execution risks the exact opposite effect: in place of diversification, simplification; in place of multiplication, diminishment. A handful of writers behave as spokespeople for an entire nation, ethnic group, even continent; a single novel purports to function as representative of a variegated and ever-varying literary and popular culture of any given context. This prospect of oversimplification alarms both skeptics and advocates of world literature alike, and (unfortunately) even the most good-intentioned of attempts to avoid this plight may count for naught.

Indonesian literature is particularly susceptible to simplification in the global narrative, especially since it receives relatively little attention on the world literary scene in the first place—though this may change with this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, at which Indonesia will be the guest of honor.

But even those who pride themselves on their global literary aptitude are hard-pressed to name any Indonesian writers besides Pramoedya Ananta Toer. And this is a major problem when dealing with a nation that is not only the fourth most populous in the world—but one that also only began to consider itself a single nation (rather than several hundred disparate peoples spread across several thousand islands) as late as the early twentieth century.

Take into account, furthermore, the simple fact that diversity is not restricted to language and ethnicity alone. Identity and expression are reliant on the intersection of countless other factors—social status, economic circumstances, religion, sexual orientation, gender, political convictions, and so on—and we find Pramoedya to be just one consciousness among many others: no less influential, granted, but no more the summation of Indonesian literature than one blazing star is of an entire galaxy.

Perhaps it was only fitting, then, that a poem starring Eve (and devoid of Adam) be one of the first Indonesian-language works to appear in Asymptote (in our April 2013 issue).

Avianti Armand’s poem locates us in an Eden invisible in the account as written in Genesis—an Eden in which “the woman exists / and the snake exists and the garden of Eden exists” (another possible translation could read: “the woman is present / and the snake is present / and the garden of Eden is present”), but in which the man is, well, missing. He’s around here somewhere (an angel reports sightings of him in different locations busily naming things), but within the parameters of the poem he is “nowhere to be seen”—at least, not by the woman or the reader. Supposedly, it is Eve who “doesn’t exist. As one that is newly made, / she’s still unnamed.”

But the poet does name her—“Eve”—and by this same logic erases the man, or the conventional bestower of names, from existence: to her, and to us, it is he who remains unnamed for the entirety of the poem. Excerpted from a collection of poetic recastings of women from the Old Testament, Women Whose Names Were Erased, “Eve” reminds us that other realities exist even when untranslated into words. We can only become cognizant of those realities once they are translated for us.

It’s a brand-new year, and Asymptote continues to bring its readership new insights into the many worlds within Indonesian literature. For our January 2015 issue, it was my great pleasure to work with the brilliant and versatile writer Laksmi Pamuntjak in translating her essay on Nh. Dini—a novelist whose unabashed and controversial treatments of female sexuality and ambition have helped pave the way for the bold literary experiments of Indonesia’s new generation of women writers.

Like Avianti Armand’s “Eve,” Nh. Dini’s fiction confronts the experience of being a woman. But as Laksmi Pamuntjak observes, its immense self-absorption leads the reader into an even smaller, narrower world: one so reliant on and confined to the author’s immediate personal experiences that Indonesia itself disappears from view. A garden absent of man within a man’s garden, a consciousness blind to Indonesia within the Indonesian literary canon: there’s no telling what unexpected wonders and paradoxes we may uncover on foot. And as Asymptote heads into our fifth year, it is our birthday wish that we will continue to cover even more ground and to cover it well.

Our international setup couldn’t be more ideal for a journal of world literature, but it also cuts us off from a lot of funding options. Help us continue to keep bringing you the best world literature has to offer by donating to our fundraising campaign today.


Tiffany Tsao is Asymptote’s Indonesian editor-at-large. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Transnational LiteratureLontar, and the collection Contemporary Asian-Australian Poets (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013). She is currently writing a novel set between Indonesia and California, and a book on contemporary literature from East Kalimantan. She holds a PhD in English from UC Berkeley.