Place: Indonesia

All of What It Could Be: In Conversation with Tiffany Tsao

To ignore his work’s vision, not to mention its cultural context, seems violent to me—a form of suppression.

When reading a new book in translation, I usually begin by reading the translator’s note. Although it is customary to print the translator’s note at the end of any translated work, I find it enriches my reading to know in advance how the translator approached and connected with the text, to understand their particular choices and challenges. But while translator’s notes often reveal a profound intimacy with the original text, I have rarely read a translator’s note as unapologetically impassioned and moving as the paean Tiffany Tsao wrote for Norman Pasaribu’s award-winning collection of poems, Sergius Seeks Bacchus. Tsao’s translator’s note calls Pasaribu and the collection a “miracle” and describes how working on the translation of Sergius Seeks Bacchus was transformative for both translator and author. “Norman’s poems,” Tsao writes, “have become a part of and spring from me as well,” adding, “I don’t think that I can ever go back to be being the person that I was before.” 

Through the translation of Sergius Seeks Bacchus from the Indonesian, Tsao and Pasaribu have forged a partnership that is intellectually energizing and dripping with creative charisma.  After reading Pasaribu’s vibrant poems, Tsao’s exceptional translator’s note, and following the two on social media as they successfully toured the UK, I was raring to speak with former Asymptote Editor-at-large, Tiffany Tsao. Amongst other things, Tsao was generous enough to share more about the “mutually nurturing” relationship she has developed with Pasaribu, and how Sergius Seeks Bacchus, published in the UK by Tilted Axis Press and forthcoming in Australia from Giramondo, has come to belong to both of them.

-Sarah Timmer Harvey, April 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): Congratulations on the publication of Sergius Seeks Bacchus. Can you tell me about the collection and how it was received in Indonesia?

Tiffany Tsao (TT): After spending three years working with Norman on the translation, I almost feel I’m too close to speak coherently about it! It’s like being asked to describe someone you know intimately: you’re aware of all their facets, of them in different situations and at various points in time. Still, I’ll try my best. Sergius Seeks Bacchus is about contemporary queer life in Indonesia—as he and others have experienced it, but also and importantly, as all of what it could be. Hence the Christian, Batak, and speculative dimensions of many of the poems. Some of them depict realities for queer individuals that Indonesia’s present-day circumstances deny: strolling the streets of Heaven hand-in-hand; strolling the streets of post-alien-invasion Earth hand-in-hand; being celebrated by one’s family via the traditions of one’s culture; getting married (and divorced); having children; being happy; growing old. The poems range in tone too, from melancholy, darkly humorous, wistful, playful, tragic, to tragicomic. Perhaps this variegation is also what makes Norman’s collection so difficult to sum up.

The collection’s reception in Indonesia was bifurcated in the extreme. On the one hand, it won a major national literary award, placing first in the 2015 Jakarta Arts Council Poetry Manuscript competition. On the other hand, because the poems of Sergius Mencari Bacchus were overtly queer, Norman experienced a tremendous amount of online bullying afterward, which plunged him into severe depression.

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Close Approximations: In Conversation with Poetry Winner Daniel Owen

It's like an exorcism and a prayer for long life in one breath.

This year’s winner of the Poetry category in Asymptote’s fourth annual Close Approximations Translation Contest was Daniel Owen. Poetry judge Eugene Ostashevsky called Alfizal Malna’s text “intellectual poetry of the highest caliber,” praising Owen for his “elegant, reserved English,” and for offering readers “a beautiful thing of clear obscurity” in his translations of Malna’s Document Shredding Museum.

We recently caught up with Yogyakarta-based Daniel to learn more about his work with the legendary Afrizal Malna, the process of “unsomeoneification,” and what he has been up to since winning the Close Approximations contest in January.

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): I found your translations of Document Shredding Museum to be incredibly beautiful and inviting; no easy feat given the complexity of Malna’s writing. How did you first come to Afrizal Malna and his work?

Daniel Owen (DO): I met Afrizal at Kampung Buku Jogja, an annual literary event in Yogyakarta with a book fair, readings, and discussions. I had just come to stay awhile in Jogja to intensively study Indonesian language and to read and subsequently translate Indonesian literature. While my Indonesian was okay when we first met, I hadn’t yet read much and was quite ignorant of the literary landscape. We were introduced by my friends, the writers and small press publishers Lelaki Budiman and Tiaswening Maharsi, after Afrizal’s discussion on theater and poetry with Gunawan Maryanto. I bought a copy of his new book of short stories, Pagi Yang Miring Ke Kanan (Nyala, 2017) and we chatted a bit. Following our initial meeting, I started reading Afrizal’s work pretty intensely, the short stories along with poems I found on the internet, and then his book of essays Sesuatu Indonesia. I found myself entranced by the poems; it was like encountering something extremely familiar yet at the same time novel. That kind of tickling of the sensibilities that’s both troubling and pleasurable, takes you, as a reader, outside yourself while making you feel more yourself. I started translating these poems which I’d found online, primarily to see what would happen and to share them with non-Indonesian-speaking friends who asked about what I was reading, thinking about, engaging with. And then I borrowed Museum Penghancur Dokumen from Budiman, read the whole thing and started translating it.

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Translation Tuesday: Three Poems by Cyntha Hariadi (UWRF Feature)

you materialize an ocean / and I, a fish inside.

Welcome to the seventh and final installment of A World with a Thousand Doors—a multi-part collaboration with the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival to showcase previously untranslated contemporary Indonesian writing. This week, we feature three poems by award-winning Indonesian writer Cyntha Hariadi, translated by Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Indonesia, Norman Erikson Pasaribu.

We suggest reading installments onetwothreefourfive, and six of the series if you haven’t already. We also recommend the final reflection by Festival attendees Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Tiffany Tsao, Asymptote‘s Editor-at-Large for Australia.

Hands

they used to paw the sky, squeeze the clouds

they fought the wild crows, bargained with the gatekeeper of heaven

 

these hands—they took down the moon, put it here to light this bedroom

they tickled the sun, so it shone longer, brighter

 

now, they cave in every time I raise them up

they squeal in pain at the mere task of tying up my hair

 

sewn-up to this chest, they can only wait

for the saviour to stop its never-ending sob READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: Mirror Beach by Dewi Kharisma Michellia (UWRF Feature)

Everyone is drowned in the sea of the universe. Jostling about, fighting the waves.

Ubud Writers and Readers Festival may have concluded last month, but our series, A World with A Thousand Doors hasn’t! In our penultimate installment of the series, we are proud to present a short story by Dewi Kharisma Michellia. 

“Dad, have you found the keys?”

I often hear grateful people say that each day in life has its own blessing.

“Son, put in the luggage in the trunk. Why do I have to tell you this? Where is your brother?”

If those people really admire the mystery of time, then it’s only fair if they extend the same admiration to space.

“If we leave now, will we still be able to see the sunrise, Dad?”

Each place has its own value, which can only be felt by those attached to that place.

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What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

Delve into the latest literary news from our ever-industrious Asymptote crew!

Apart from working hard on the Fall 2018 Issue, Asymptote staff have also been busy making waves in the literary world. Join us in celebrating their achievements!

Poetry Editor Aditi Machado published a chapbook, Prologue Emporium, with Garden-Door Press. She also discussed her editorial work at Asymptote and her translation of Farid Tali’s Prosopopoeia with the Wash U Translators Collective.

Communications Manager Alexander Dickow reviewed From the Files of the Immanent Foundation by Norman Finkelstein for Rain Taxi.

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Reflections from Ubud Writers and Readers Festival

As Asymptote's partnership with this year's UWRF winds down, join our Editors-at-Large as they reflect on all that happened in Ubud.

On the night of October 28, the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF) wrapped up after four consecutive jam-packed days. Mornings, afternoons, and evenings were filled with stimulating conversations and lively panel discussions, film screenings and book launches, poetry slams and musical performances, all set in the culturally fertile town of Ubud in Bali, Indonesia. Australia Editor-at-Large Tiffany Tsao and Indonesia Editor-at-Large Norman Erikson Pasaribu were invited to speak in their capacities as writers. In this retrospective dispatch, each of them reflects candidly on their experiences at this year’s UWRF.

One Brain, Multiple Selves (Tiffany Tsao)

There was so much about participating in UWRF that was wonderful and exhilarating, but as I (Tiffany) write this, I’m realizing how exhausted I am! It’s mostly a good exhaustion—the kind that one experiences after being exposed to so many interesting ideas, books, and people. My head and heart are still abuzz, and the festival concluded several days ago!

There’s certainly some physical exhaustion thrown into the mix as well: I brought along my 10-month-old son, Azure. The festival was immensely supportive and bought him an infant plane ticket and made sure there was a crib in the room. Plus, my heroic father flew from Jakarta to babysit while I was busy participating in events and meeting people. Unfortunately, Azure slept fitfully during the nights before deciding at around 5:00 am each morning that it was time to rise and shine, which meant that I gained a new appreciation and appetite for coffee. Glorious, glorious coffee.

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Translation Tuesday: Funeral Home by Ratih Kumala (UWRF Feature)

I don’t know where she got the news, but suddenly here she is, standing outside the hospital room.

Welcome to the sixth installment of A World with a Thousand Doors—a multi-part showcase of hitherto untranslated contemporary Indonesian writing. Curated by Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Tiffany Tsao, this series is a joint initiative between Asymptote and the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. This week, Ratih Kumala, author of Cigarette Girl, spins a story in two voices—one belonging to a grieving widow and the other to her late husband’s grieving mistress. New to this series? Then do read installments one, two, three, four, and five. Stay tuned for more.

The first thought that entered my head when my husband gave up what remained of his ghost was how that woman might actually have felt more grief than me, his wife. At that moment, the clock hands shifted. It was three in the morning. My daughter sobbed, crying out for her Papa, her heartrending shrieks echoing down the hospital corridor. I wept quietly, while my son went very mute and cold.

I don’t know where she got the news, but suddenly here she is, standing outside the hospital room. Her face is darkened with grief. She attempts to enter, to approach my husband’s body, but I don’t let her in.

“Please. Have some respect for our family as we mourn,” I hiss. She stops short and looks at me for a while. Then she turns and walks away, probably crying as she goes.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week, our Editors-At-Large from Nigeria and Indonesia tell us more about the latest in literary news.

 Join our Editors-at-Large as they reflect on this week’s most important literary news—and look ahead to exciting upcoming events! From Nigeria, Olufunke Ogundimu reports on festivals in Lagos and beyond. Norman Erikson Pasaribu, writing from Indonesia, discusses a renowned Toba Batak author and a promising young translator.

Olufunke Ogundimu, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Nigeria:

Autumn is the season of literary festivals in Nigeria, beginning in September with the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival, which aims to celebrate and increase access to arts and literature in northern Nigeria. October ushers in the Aké Arts and Book Festival and the Lagos International Poetry Festival, and the season ends in November with the Lagos Book and Arts Festival.

The theme of this year’s Aké Arts and Book Festival was “Fantastical Futures.” From October 25-28, visitors attended events, exhibitions, and conversations that focused largely on a re-imagined African future. The first two days of the festival were devoted to Project Inspire, an initiative that involved featured authors visiting schools to read to pupils and talk to them about books, reading, and careers in writing. The festival also hosted two panels in Yoruba and Igbo languages for the first time; in the past, panels were held in English only. The “Divinity and Spirituality in Igbo Tradition” panel discussed the demonization and criminalization of traditional practices in Igboland, while the Yoruba panel focused on “Entertainment, Education and Technology in the Mother Tongue.”

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Translation Tuesday: The Last Smokol by Nukila Amal (UWRF Feature)

Although wet, Batara’s eyes now gazed fiercely at the nation, whose far corners the Brunch Fairy never visited.

Welcome to the fifth installment of A World with a Thousand Doors, a showcase of contemporary Indonesian literature brought to you in partnership with the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. This week it gives us great pleasure to present a story by the award-winning author Nukila Amal, translated by internationally published writer, InterSastra founder, and past Asymptote contributor Eliza Vitri Handayani.

If you’ve just discovered A World with a Thousand Doors, you can find an introduction and the first installment here. And we invite you to read the second, third, and fourth works in the series as well.   

Batara—or Bunny Battery to his pals—likes to hold a festive and meticulously prepared smokol (a.k.a. brunch) once or twice a month, depending on how often the Brunch Fairy has graced him with her visits.

According to Batara, this Manadonese fairy is the ruler and protector of brunches, brunch cookers (like Batara), and brunch fanatics (like Batara’s pals Syam, and the twins Anya and Ale). However, his three pals suspect that this fairy is really Batara’s own invention. All Ale can report after actually visiting Manado is that the locals do indeed eat brunches, which consist of tinutuan, a kind of porridge, accompanied by banana fritters and fried anchovies dipped into dabu-dabu, a chili paste so hot that it makes their eyes weep, their ears ring, and, if prone, their minds hallucinate.

To Batara, however, brunches aren’t that simple. With surplus imagination and a passion for perfection, Batara comes up with odd themes and dishes for his brunches. His three pals can never guess what will appear on his table.

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News from Ubud Writers and Readers Festival

In this post, news hot off the press from Ubud, Indonesia.

Greetings from the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF), which has just concluded its second day. Heres a bit of historical background: founded in response to the 2002 Bali bombings, the festival celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this year. Since then, UWRF has successfully surmounted several challenges: In 2015, the local government censored festival discussions of the 1965 mass killings in Indonesia; last year, volcanic activity took a toll on festival participation, with many attendees and speakers canceling their flights. This year, we (Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Tiffany Tsao) were both invited to speak at the festival in our capacity as writers, and we thought we would share some of our impressions so far.

On Wednesday, the festival held a press call immediately before the festival’s official opening gala event. The press call featured festival founders Janet DeNeefe and Ketut Suardana, as well as some of the festival’s speakers, including Hanif Kureishi, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Avianti Armand, and Norman Erikson Pasaribu (hooray!). Ketut Suardana spoke about how they coined this year’s theme, Jagadhita – the world we create, and how we should live life according to dharma (goodness) and strive to attain ultimate happiness. When Norman was asked what he expected his writing to achieve, took the opportunity to observe that perhaps “goodness” and “happiness” shouldn’t be so universalized. Quoting a line from Marianne Katoppo, that “language is where theology begins,” he noted how we rarely refer to either concept in plural form. Such language places limitations on what it means to be happy and good, pressuring queer communities in Indonesia to conform to society and engage in self-erasure. Reni, when asked what advice she had for Indonesian feminists, humbly answered that she isn’t in a position to suggest anything to them without listening to them first since their experiences are very culturally specific and very different from hers as a British-Nigerian woman.

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Translation Tuesday: Madwoman in the Kitchen by Ugoran Prasad (UWRF Feature)

As far as I’m concerned, though, being poisoned alive is much more gruesome.

In this fourth installment of A World with a Thousand Doors, our collaboration with the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Indonesian writer Ugoran Prasad takes us into a kitchen where an unsavory secret is on the boil. The festival starts tomorrow, so if you’ve just decided on the spur of the moment that you’ll be heading to Bali, you’re in luck! Asymptote readers can save a 20% on a 4-day pass by entering the promo code MPAS at the online checkout.

Shortly before his death, Wak Haji Mail grew delirious. At first, no one caught what he was saying. I don’t think it’s because no one could. It’s just that no one would. Once I was allowed to hear, I myself immediately digested, not words, but fragments of a name repeated between gasps for breath. Saodah.

Two weeks after the hospital gave up and returned Wak Haji Mail to his home, he had yet to be met by Izrail, the angel of death. The fourteen children from his three marriages found it more and more difficult to muffle their anxiety. They took turns keeping vigil outside the room, ready to rebel at an unjust distribution of inheritance. But the distribution couldn’t possibly be just.

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Translation Tuesday: Three Poems by Gratiagusti Chananya Rompas (UWRF Feature)

Breaking News. / outside, the universe is dark. it is Real.

Welcome to the third installment of A World with a Thousand Doors—our Translation Tuesday series showcasing Indonesian literature, brought to you in partnership with the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. This week’s feature: poetry by festival guest Gratiagusti Chananya Rompas, translated by past Asymptote contributor Mikael Johani. If you are joining these amazing writers and translators, don’t forget that you can save 20% on the 4-Day Pass by entering the code MPAS at the online checkout!

 

soap bubbles float in the air explode

on the tip of my toes

a scavenger collects rubbish from tiny barrels crams them into oversized

plastic hessian bags

washes his hands with water from a half-empty mineral

water bottle

 

mums run around, carry hello kitty backpacks, ben ten water bottles,

an extra change of clothes, a tiny towel

kids scream and shriek they want to buy baby turtles kept in colourful transparent

plastic boxes

a tourist photographer presses the shutter on his camera

ten thousand rupiahs per photo

 

and always you forget to smile

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Translation Tuesdays: An Excerpt from Nayla by Djenar Maesa Ayu (UWRF Feature)

Nayla saw that her mother was no different than a monster.

Excerpted from the novel Nayla by award-winning Indonesian writer Djenar Maesa Ayu, this piece continues our series, A World with a Thousand Doors—a showcase of contemporary Indonesian writing. This showcase is brought to you in partnership with this year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, where Djenar will be appearing as a guest. For more on the ethos behind A World with a Thousand Doors, read our preface to the series, and stay tuned for further installments.

Choosing the Perfect Safety Pin

Nayla looked closely at the safety pins neatly arranged on the table in front of her.

In the past, whenever Nayla saw these sharp objects, her body would tremble in fear. She would remain quiet for a long time until her mother eventually forced her to pick one. Her frequent hesitations led her mother to reach out and slap her hard across the face to force her to choose.

In the past, whenever Nayla saw her mother strike a match, her body would shake in terror. Her mother would take Nayla’s chosen safety pin—obviously the smallest one—and burn it long enough to rid it of bacteria. Once Mother was satisfied that the pin was sufficiently sterilized, she would plunge it into Nayla’s groin. Nayla would squirm and squeeze her thighs as tightly as she could, attempting to minimize the pain. She would cry. She would struggle against her mother’s actions, which made Mother even more furious.

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In Conversation: Clarissa Goenawan (Ubud Writers and Readers Festival Feature)

Meet Clarissa Goenawan in person at UWRF! Asymptote readers enjoy 20% off on a 4-day pass, just enter 'MPAS' at the online checkout.

Continuing our collaboration with the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, Asymptote is pleased to present this interview with Bath-Novel-Award-winning writer Clarissa Goenawan. Her novel, Rainbirds, released earlier this year with Soho Press, has garnered much praise from readers and critics alike. It has already been translated into several languages, including Indonesian, French, and Hebrew. Set in Akakawa, a fictional town near Tokyo, Rainbirds follows Ren Ishida as he retraces the life of his recently deceased sister. Navigating between sudden drizzles, cram school, and a strange arrangement between his late sister and a local politician, he attempts to make sense of her life and death.

Asymptote‘s Editor-at-Large for Indonesia, Norman Erikson Pasaribu, had the opportunity to converse with Clarissa Goenawan before her appearance at this year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. In the following interview, we discuss how Clarissa has moved between languages and places, her Indonesian-Singaporean background, and her choice to set the novel in Japan.

Norman Erikson Pasaribu (NEP): Rainbirds is about the relationship of two Japanese siblings and how one discovers the other post-mortem. What inspired you to write about it?

Clarissa Goenawan (CG): The idea for Rainbirds started from a simple thought: “What if someone I cared about unexpectedly passed away, and I realized too late I never got to know them well?” The question left a deep impression, and I knew I had to tell this story.

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