Reflections on Ubud

Writers from left to right: Chua Guat Eng, Debra Yatim, Minae Mizumura, Tash Aw

From UWRF 2014, writers from left to right: Chua Guat Eng, Debra Yatim, Minae Mizumura, Tash Aw

Within the past twelve months, I’ve had the opportunity to attend three writing festivals: the Singapore Writers Festival (last November), the Sydney Writers’ Festival (earlier this year), and most recently, the slightly more cumbersomely named Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, held earlier this month. Except for Ubud, believe it or not, the festivals have happened to coincide with me being in town: I have family I visit regularly in Singapore and I happen to live in Sydney. Ubud, I must confess, was a way of me treating myself after the rather traumatic experience of academia and I breaking up last semester. (Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten that I’m going to tell you what happened at some point. It’ll come, and probably be anticlimactic as the result of all this waiting!)

I wrote some notes on Ubud (or as it’s also known, UWRF) for Asymptote‘s blog, which you can find here. Here’s a brief excerpt:

“…The fact that so many writers desired to read their work in the original languages—and in several cases spoke of the importance of language to their craft—pointed at the lingering sense of inadequacy, the “not quite,” that still haunts translation: the sense that even as translation offers us a window into other worlds, we see through a glass, darkly….”

Two newish publications to report! My review of Jee Leong Koh’s The Pillow Book came out in Mascara last month. (Click here to read it.) And my translation of some poems by the Indonesian poet Nala Arung was published on Asymptote‘s blog a little under a week ago as their Translation Tuesday feature! (You can find it here.) Efpei I'm in LoveThe collection from which these poems (and part of the preface) are excerpted proclaims itself to be a kitab puisi norak – a book of “tasteless” poetry. The most enjoyable part about translating these pieces was finding a way to replicate the clever wordplay and the *wink wink nudge nudge* moments that peppered the poems. I never thought I’d ever get to use the word “willy” in anything I wrote (it really should be trotted out more often…literarily, not necessarily literally), but “willy” and “will” captured the closeness of the original kemaluan (genitals) and kemauan (desire) in the poem, “The Lamentation of a Single Poet.”


Kumpul kebo from the preface also proved tricky to translate: this phrase means “living together without being married,” and while the kebo actually originates from the Dutch word gebouw (“building”), it also is the Javanese word for “water buffalo.” The preface mock-innocently plays on both possible meanings of kumpul kebo: “living together” and “a group of water buffaloes.” The challenge was finding an English phrase for living together that also seemed to make reference to water buffaloes, but that ideally wasn’t actually a reference to water buffaloes at all. To do this, I ended up substituting water buffaloes with cows. Hence the following translation: “Even cows need company. That’s probably where that phrase for lovers shacking up together came from—’moo-ving in together.'”



A few weeks ago, I took advantage of the university mid-semester break to seize an opportunity and respond to a recruitment call. And I’m happy to report that it was seized successfully. I’m now Editor-at-Large of Indonesia at Asymptote – a literary journal that (to use its own words) is “dedicated to literary translation and bringing together in one place the best in contemporary writing.”


I would have blogged about it earlier, but I didn’t – and this, you think to yourself, is unsurprising, because you have already gathered that I lack the lightning-quick processing power that a person who uses social media to keep people updated about her goings-on should have. But I think my slowness, in this case, was partly because I was so excited about getting this position that I was afraid something would happen that would cause me to immediately lose it. It’s happened before. So I thought it best to wait and make sure it had actually happened, which it has!

Why is this so exciting? Three main reasons come to mind.

1. Asymptote‘s cause is one near and dear to my heart. I find it strange that there is so much interesting and amazing stuff in other languages besides English that completely escapes the attention of the English-speaking world because only a small fraction of it is translated. And it’s often easy to forget that these linguistic barriers exist. To those of us who are privileged enough to have internet and the other tools that grant us access to so many parts of the world, it often seems as if we do have all knowledge within fingertips’ reach, when we really don’t. I feel that Asymptote works in its own modest way toward making this illusion less of an illusion.

2. This  marks the start of a new stage in my professional life. If I were still committed to being in academia for the long haul, I would not have considered applying for a position on Asymptote‘s staff, even though it is a part-time and volunteer position. I would have looked longingly at it, entertaining its possibility, its potential. And then, like the overly disciplined person I tend to be (less so with each year as I realize that it’s foolish to live one’s entire life delaying gratification), I would have told myself, “But you have to focus on your academic career. Focus on getting the academic book out. Focus on peer-reviewed publications in highly regarded academic journals. Focus on doing all this while teaching large volumes of students whom you do like to teach, but forget you like to teach when their essays descend upon you at intervals in terrifying swarms that blot out the sun.”

If I had been someone else, I might not have been compelled to make a choice. Facebook reminds me hourly that I have superhuman friends who are capable of doing everything and anything. They do so much that there’s really not that much left to do on Earth’s to-do list. They raise adorable children, make their own cheeses, keep themselves up-to-date about politics, and enjoy rereading Wittgenstein’s complete works for the second time this semi-annum while watching all the must-see TV dramas. Sadly, I’m not one of these brilliant and talented multi-tasking people of whom I am constantly in awe. I’ve found it really difficult during the past few years to write creative pieces or do “literary” things while keeping up my academic output. My brain is simply too tired after the latter to think about doing the former. And often, when I’ve told mentors or senior colleagues in the academic world that I do write ‘literary’ (as opposed to academic) work, they seem to think it a distraction rather than a serious pursuit. I think that what I’ve really liked about working at Asymptote so far: my interests and direct involvement in the literary aren’t distractions anymore; they’re good things I bring with me that help me to do my job.

3. I get to put my interest in Indonesian literature to use. Who knew? As Editor-at-Large for Indonesia, my job is to keep tabs on the Indonesian literary scene, suggest new untranslated works for inclusion in the journal, and to help out with other miscellaneous tasks (like proofreading, journal housekeeping, and contributing to the Asymptote blog).  My PhD is in English literature, but during graduate school, my attraction to Indonesian literature grew stronger and stronger. (Canonical English works felt so…well-trammeled. There seemed to be so much more left to say about Indonesian literary works.) English and Indonesian literature. It was surprisingly hard to convince people they went together – especially (I suspected) people who were eyeing my suitability for jobs in English departments. And now, here it is, being valued for what it is!

If you aren’t already familiar with Asymptote, do check out the latest issue! (Two of my favourites are Yousef el Qedra’s “It was Concealed in Interpretation” and Herta Müller’s “The Space between Languages”.)















Good news, everyone!

LONTAR has just published its latest issue and contained therein is my short story, “What is Being Erased.” LONTAR mainly deals in speculative fiction and poetry (i.e. fiction and poetry with fantastical elements) set in Southeast Asia. When I first found out about it, I was very excited for the same reason my friend Carl Olsen mentions in his thoughtful critique of the issue: namely, that LONTAR provides space for speculative fiction about a part of the world that such works aren’t usually written about. (Carl notes especially the exciting possibilities this opens up for fantasy and reviews Eliza Chan‘s “The Floating Market” as an example of this.)

The inspiration for the story came from one of those periods of despair that have punctuated my career as an academic thus far – a career that I’m now almost completely sure I’m going to transition out of. (I sound wishy-washy because I’m trying to heed the advice of my more cautious half. “Don’t burn bridges,” my spouse always warns me, knowing that reaching for the gasoline can and lighter is always my first impulse.) I wrote the story fueled by despair about the growing corporatization of universities, the conditions under which some of the best and brightest and kindest people I know have had to labor in order to stay in the industry, and the increasing sense that these conditions simply aren’t worth the sacrifices that are demanded of us. In this sense, Singapore (where I spent 8 years of my childhood, and where much of my family still resides) served as an ideal setting for thinking about how all these developments might play out when carried to their logical, efficient, authoritarian end.

Here’s an excerpt from the story’s opening:

The day I received my Scholar’s tweeds was the proudest day of my life. Even after all these years, the event has remained as fresh and crisp in my mind as a spring day. Or so I infer from what I’ve read about spring days in books.

Our tweeding ceremony was held at 11am on a Saturday morning in the auditorium of the Ivory Tower. We six initiates were only allowed to invite two people each, so our audience was small: twelve friends and family members, extant Scholars, the Tower Authorities, and two Government officials. After making a brief speech, the reigning Head of Tower awarded us our blazers one by one. And at a nod from him, we slipped them on. We did so eagerly. The chilly air in the auditorium confirmed the Tower’s reputation for having the most powerful air-conditioning on the island, and the goosebumps on my arms were on the verge of taking wing to seek warmer climes. As I pulled the sleeves over my arms, adjusted the collar, and watched my peers do the same, it suddenly struck me that these were the garments we would wear every day for the rest of our lives. They were beautiful: made of the finest quality Harris tweed, close-woven, moss brown in color, and heavy—made even heavier with the weight of responsibility and honor that had just been bestowed upon us.

You can purchase an electronic copy of the entire issue from Weightless Books here for only $2.99. Carl has reviewed the piece in-depth here, but be warned: he has been wonderfully biased and the review is entirely reflective of his superhuman warmth and generosity.

Two new articles I’ve written have been published! One of them actually came out a while ago (at the end of last year), but because the journal’s website hadn’t updated the information on their ‘latest issue’ page, I just assumed that the issue hadn’t come out yet. The other one just came out this month! Below are abstracts and links to sites where you can download them.


Remember that blog entry I posted a while ago about “Orangutans and/or Babies”? It was based on this article:

Tsao, Tiffany. “Humanity in the Orangutan Adoption Accounts of Alfred Russel Wallace and William Temple Hornaday.” Clio: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History 43.1 (2013): 1-31.

In 1855 and 1878, respectively, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace and the American naturalist William Temple Hornaday adopted orangutan infants during their collecting expeditions in British Borneo. In the accounts that they produced about their respective experiences, they compared their infants, as well as the mothers and other orangutans whom they shot and skinned, to a wide variety of human beings. This article shows how these different comparisons reveal much about the decline of the “human” as a meaningful concept among European and North American scientists for assessing an individual being’s inherent worth, and the increasing use of other attributes to assess the relative superiority and inferiority of different members of the human race.

Download this article here.


The second article was actually accepted by Comparative Literature more than a year ago. This month, it emerges in all its splendor like a terribly long-metamorphosing butterfly.

Tsao, Tiffany. “Postcolonial Life and Death: A Process-Based Comparison of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Ayu Utami’s Saman.” Comparative Literature 66.1 (2014): 95-112.

This comparative study of Wuthering Heights (a mid-nineteenth-century British novel by Emily Brontë) and Saman (a late-twentieth-century Indonesian novel by Ayu Utami) examines the two novels’ respective treatments of internal colonization — a shared thematic concern that only becomes apparent with critical attention to the similarities between scenes found in each work. Read together, the two texts expose the limitations that a unilinear model of the colonization process may impose on life for the colonized subject. Whereas Wuthering Heights figures pre-colonial and colonial modes of life as existing on a single chronological continuum, casting the former as an irretrievable thing of the past, Saman conceives of the two co-existing parallel to each other, the former continuing to exist despite the introduction of colonial culture. By proposing and deploying a process-based model of literary comparison that alternately analyzes the similarities and differences between texts rather than attempting to maintain a balanced view of both at once, this essay also hopes to contribute to recent discussions within the field of comparative literature on how to treat textual convergences and divergences.

Download this article here.


These articles are good news, and may be taken as evidence that all is going well career-wise for old Tiff. Unfortunately, that is not necessarily the case. I actually received a piece of news a few weeks ago that is making me reconsider, rather seriously, whether I want to continue pursuing a career as an academic. I’d rather not talk about it now. It’s still a little too raw, and I don’t think I trust myself to blog about it yet. I definitely will at some point. But not right now. If you are a regular reader of this blog, I know that you are, if nothing else, a patient person. And for this, I thank you.

My husband and I recently hooked basic access cable up to our TV, which we had previously been using to watch DVDs or videos on our laptops connected by wires to said TV. So now, we have the luxury of doing our work (there is no rest for the weary academic, much less two weary academics) as we bask in the warm glow of quality shows like Border Security and scintillating sci-fi movies like Sharknado. We have, however, begun to notice a line that characters say a lot: one that pops up whenever one character asks others to feast their peepers on something really important – say, a mutilated body, a deadly new strain of virus under a microscope, or an armada of scary-looking alien spaceships about to attack the planet. “Come here,” they’ll say. “You’ve got to see this.”

Sometimes, the individual will even take the trouble to walk into the next room to get the attention of the person whom they wish to alert. “What is it?” the pre-alerted person asks. “I can’t explain,” the alerter answers. “You have to see this for yourself.”

Of course, it’s not like Justin and I watch shows or movies for their plausibility. But this line, or variations thereof, is something we have definitely started noticing more. Sometimes we wonder why the person has to see it for him or herself? Why can’t the character just give the other character just a little indication of what’s to come – like a teaser or an abstract? “What is it?” “A dead body. But you might want to take a look anyway.” More often, we wonder how such an important piece of news can wait. The fact that an armada of rapacious aliens is poised for attack seems like something that you should bring yourself to convey with all due rapidity and perhaps as loudly as possible, even if your hasty descriptions won’t do sufficient justice to the cunning designs of their mounted death-ray cannons.

Receiving replies about things one has applied for, at least in academia, bears certain similarities. This year, like every year, has been a year of rejections. Rejections mingled with some successes, of course, but nonetheless, many rejections. As I have noted in past posts, being open about one’s failures is something that I think we instinctively shy away from – nobody likes a loser – but I do think it’s important. Hence I’ll share two (out of several) of mine with you here. I applied for a visiting research scholar fellowship at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. My application was unsuccessful, but they sent the news by post and it took a while for the physical letter to reach me. In the meantime, since the date by which they said they would inform all applicants had come and gone, I decided to write to them. A week later, I received  a reply:

Dear Dr. Tiffany Tsao,

We are sorry for our late reply. Our letter was  dispatched to you on Oct.25 so we believe it already reached or will soon rearch you.


  CSEAS Fellowship
  Center for Southeast Asian Studies
  Kyoto University

Never mind that the letter contains a typo. To harp on something like that would be petty. The more pressing question (at least to my anxious self) was: why didn’t they just tell me what the answer was? They knew what it was. But I had to see it. For myself. “Dear Dr. Tiffany Tsao,” they were telling me, “You’ve got to see this.” Of course, at this stage, I already suspected the answer, and when the letter arrived, I found my suspicions were right. (In case anyone didn’t see it coming, the answer was no.) But why not just tell me and put me out of my misery? To be fair there might have been culturally specific conventions regarding etiquette that I don’t know about. And I have directly contacted other institutions about the status of job or fellowship applications before and received direct answers (as far as I can remember, always “No”). But I don’t think it’s just a Japanese thing. When receiving replies about article submissions to journals, the subject-heading, similarly, never gives anything away.

One of my more recent article rejections – from the journal Indonesia - was sent via an email message titled “Local Color, Environmentalist Discourse, and Dayaks.” This is, more or less, the subject about which I wrote my article (though if they wanted to be even more detailed so as to better jog my memory, they might have included something relating to literature or the literary somewhere in there). What did it contain, I asked myself as I stared at it sitting in my inbox, my whole being tingling with suspense. An acceptance? A revise and resubmit? What? It turned out it contained a desk rejection, which was rather demoralizing to say the least. It really is a bummer when you’re told by a journal that publishes on all things related to Indonesia that the editors have decided flat-out that your article (on Indonesian literature) couldn’t even potentially make a sufficiently valuable contribution regarding knowledge of the country.

I speak jokingly of the matter now, even though this made me pretty depressed for a long time. After I had bucked up a bit though, I did some editing and submitted it to another journal – one for literary studies, the conventions regarding which I’m far more comfortable with anyway. So far, the news has been favorable. This journal puts submissions through a two-stage process. In the first stage, submissions are sent out to two reviewers who send their assessments and recommendations back to the editorial staff. Fortunate articles are then sent to the editorial board who apparently reject more than half of the articles that have made it to them. The message contained news telling me that I had made it past the first stage with two favorable recommendations: a “publish” and a “publish after minor revisions.” I now have the opportunity to make my revisions before it goes off to the editorial board.

So in short, good news! But the email message had an amazing poker face. Titled so neutrally even the most enthusiastic of close-reading undergraduate lit majors wouldn’t have been able to glean anything from it, it read: “Re: Your [journal name] submission.” Or “You’ve got to see this.”

Gasp. I opened it. The body of the message informed me that an electronic copy of the letter they had sent to me in Australia was attached. Nothing more. You’ve got to see this.

Gasp. I clicked on the attachment, which is actually highly unusual behavior for me if I receive a message like this in the evening. Having been fool enough to open such messages before – ones that have contained more disappointing news – I have enough experience to know that such bad news will simply make me so agitated that I can’t sleep. But for some reason, this evening, the evening of December 31st 2013, the eve of the New Year, I opened the attachment. And finally saw it with my own eyes. It was nice to have something to celebrate in addition to the passing of 2013, but I think I would have been okay with a little less drama in the unveiling.

Good news, everyone! I finally finished the first draft of a short story that I’ve wanted to write since 2004. That’s nine years. I have friends who have children who have been experiencing conscious existence for less than a third of that amount of time. That’s one year short of ten years, which is a decade. Decades are the units of measurement by which we categorize whole swathes of our recent past: the music of the ’80s, the fashion of the ’70s, the zeitgeist of the ’60s. Admittedly, the story’s incubation period still falls short of that of the 17-Year Cicada, but it outstrips the 9 months of a human baby by 99 months. And since we’re approaching 2014, it’s actually been in incubation for longer.


I don’t know why it took me so long to write. To be fair to me and to the story, I didn’t work at it continuously. I made an initial attempt in 2004, wrote down the first scene and basic premise in a Microsoft Word 2003 document, then gave up. I didn’t have what it took to write it. I didn’t know what it would take to write it, but whatever it was, I didn’t have it. So I decided to let it age. Ripen, if you will. Its icon resided in an icon of a folder labelled ‘Play’ (as opposed to ‘Work’) that was doggedly transferred through successive computers via floppy disk, then USB memory sticks, then a fancy shiny sleek external hard drive.

Early this year, I felt compelled to open ‘er up and see what was there. All of it had to be scrapped, except the essential core. That was good, still good after all these years. And I tried to see what I could do about trying to make it work once again. This time I sought inspiration from other sources: I needed to describe opulence. So I re-read The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, which was lovely, but incapacitating. It took months for me to stop doing terrible imitations of F. Scott Fitzgerald and to write the story how it needed to be written.

It’s been very satisfying to finally have the story done after all this time, and done in a way that I’m happy with. But it’s also been a bit frustrating because I feel as if it confirms what I’ve long suspected: that I’m a slow writer. And by nature, I’m extremely impatient. So together, it’s really the worst combination. One half of my brain is already envisioning my self taking gargantuan leaps and bounds over the pesky mountain range that has dared to interpose itself between me and the horizon of my inevitable success. It is yanked back abruptly by its other half, who has stooped down to tie its left shoelace very calmly and slowly and with painstaking care, and to examine its other shoelace and retie it also very slowly and with maddening precision. Deep down, I know this other half is probably the better half. The half who cares about quality and craftsmanship. But I often believe this only halfheartedly and envy all the speedy geniuses gamboling happily in the fields beyond the stupid mountain range standing in my stupid way.

The story’s working title is “The Ballad of Tiny and Sammy.”