When 2014 began, my professional life looked very different than it does now at the beginning of 2015. In January last year, I was working as a lecturer in English at the University of Newcastle (the one in Australia, not the one in the UK). I was writing an academic book. I was preparing for an incredibly busy teaching semester. And I was optimistic about staying an academic and succeeding at being one for the rest of my working life. It was shortly after this period that something happened, dislodging me from the professional trajectory I had been hell-bent on pursuing.

I’ve been mysterious about the particularities on this blog (though when people have asked me directly about it, I haven’t held back any details). And I’m sure that the mystery of it all has been further heightened by the fact that I keep saying I will write about it while not writing about it at all. I haven’t meant to tease; it’s just that before this, I felt I was unable to write about it without descending into bitterness, pettiness, incoherence, or blind anger. Also, there’s the matter of perspective: when one has just emerged from what one experiences as a crisis, every small detail, every sensation, every wrinkle and fold of recent horribleness seems overwhelmingly important and in need of recounting. It is only well after, once the wounds are healing and the memory is more distant, that one can write in a more detached way about the pain. Don’t get me wrong: detachment does not make the recounting of an event any more or any less true. But a detached telling is less painful, I think, both for the recounter and recountee.

And so now, with the pain dulled by time, I can sum up in one sentence what, several months before, would have taken several incoherent paragraphs to relate: I applied for a job I thought I had a good chance of getting and lost it to someone else.

Admittedly, it’s not quite that simple, even if that is what it boils down to. I’ll go into a few specifics: In 2011, I was hired at Newcastle as a lecturer in English on a one-year contract. I was doing a good job and they still needed the extra person, so they extended my contract by another year. Then the English & Writing Discipline (“discipline” being roughly equivalent to “department” at other universities) put in a bid to create a new continuing (read “tenure track”) English Lecturer position and I was strongly encouraged to apply for it. I think I can say that I was informally considered the inside candidate for the job, and many of my colleagues expressed the belief that this extra process was merely a formality, since they were really impressed by my work (both in teaching and research) and liked me and wanted to keep me around. I applied for the job. I made it to the final interview stage. And then they hired someone else. Someone else who deserved the position wholly (it’s the story of the humanities academic job market: too many qualified people, too few jobs), but someone else nonetheless. And I was humiliated and crushed. That’s all there is to it. If you’re still curious, the rest of this post relates my thoughts on the whole ordeal. But if this has sated your curiosity and you’re not interested in reading yet another tortured reflection on the whole “academic” thing (there are many of them circulating the web nowadays), then it’s all right: you can stop reading here.

The entire experience was especially mortifying for two reasons. First, I’d compromised myself morally. I had strong ethical qualms about being the inside candidate from the start (even if it did turn out that I wasn’t the inside candidate at all). Although the head of school and the discipline convener (read: department head) had been cautious in not making any promises, in the lead up to the application due date, they said they were very happy with my work thus far and seemed to be providing genuine encouragement and support regarding my prospects. Many of my colleagues, both tenure-track and adjunct, believed circumstances were very much in my favor and expressed optimism. I couldn’t help but feel optimistic myself, and as a result, rather happy. Finally, I thought to myself, all the late hours and weekends of writing and research and teaching and grading and tedious course-administration will be rewarded. Finally all the toil will bear fruit. Finally, my longstanding dream of being a tenure-track academic will become reality. But I also felt dirty. This was wrong. All wrong. I’d been on the outside before: I’d applied for jobs and been disappointed and heard rumors of a mysterious “inside candidate” who had it in the bag all along and wasted everyone else’s time. I thought guiltily about the other applicants who would painstakingly craft the wording of each paragraph in their cover letters, who would spend hours researching the university and the English & Writing Discipline on the web in order to throw in that important and personalized detail that might impress the selection committee, who would send the application off and feel a little shiver of hope run up their spines – I have a good shot at this! I put my heart and soul into this application! This is the one! I can feel it! – all the while not realizing that there was already someone (me!) who had it sewn up all along.

I’d been there. But to my shame, I played along anyway because that other part of me – the part desperate to see a dream deferred fulfilled – crowed over the fact that, for once, the odds were in my favor, that I was the one who would finally have the unfair advantage over everyone else. The end result, ironically, was that I compromised myself by participating in what I still believe was a not entirely open job search, but without reaping the material benefits of doing so (perhaps this was only fair). And to those still on the market, I can only offer an inadequate apology for doing so.

The second reason why the whole experience was so mortifying had to do with consenting to go along with my exploitation in the lead-up to applying for the job. Since starting the position, my teaching load had increased considerably, though by increments. I agreed to a rather heavy teaching load for what would turn out to be my final semester (January to May 2014) because I thought that being accommodating would give me a better chance of getting the job I was applying for. (My contract did not specify a certain number of courses or students; rather, “workload” was calculated by a point system which the administration admitted was flawed in its method of calculation, but which nevertheless was used because there was no other system in place yet.) The result: in my last semester, I taught 12 hours of class per week for the first 5 weeks of the semester and 10 hours of class per week for the last 7 weeks. I taught and graded the essays of 196 students total (though, thankfully, partway through the semester I was given some assistance with grading the introductory English essays). I would have had to design and teach an online version of the introductory English course I was assigned as well, but even my hunger for the possible job couldn’t make me risk my sanity, even when a senior colleague acting as the deputy head of teaching and learning at the time urged me multiple times during a discipline-wide meeting to take on the responsibility, and even when she approached me in the hallway after the meeting, urging me to reconsider and to take into account the fact that it would reflect favorably on me as an applicant applying for the job.

In hindsight, I wish I had set even clearer boundaries. But the fact I was applying for the job clouded my judgment: even though I thought I was the inside candidate, I didn’t want to risk it. Better safe than sorry. And I hoped that even though I refused to create and teach the online version of the course, that my willingness to teach all the rest of it would be enough. But then, when the news hit, I had to keep calm and carry on working there for a whole semester knowing that I wouldn’t be there the semester after. In some ways, I think it actually had a positive impact on my teaching. My students rallied around me and were incredibly supportive and kind. And I was able to teach with vulnerability and honesty and openness and humanness because I knew it was my last semester teaching (ever) and, with ambition shattered, all I had left to keep me going was the desire that my students, my lovely human students, get something meaningful out of the literature we were reading. (Though you should have seen me try to lead the discussion of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” the week after I’d been told I didn’t get the job. I had to apologize for being a bit of a wreck: The art of losing isn’t hard to master. Things got better from there.) In any case, I felt foolish for not putting my foot down when it came to taking on such a heavy teaching load. (Though I do know that such teaching loads, and heavier, are the norm for many, many academics…too many.)

So the upshot of all this is that I have made the decision to leave academia. I will not say that academia is terrible and unjust because it isn’t for everybody, though it certainly is broken. (This is more than apparent, and the number of commentaries being penned about its brokenness – click here, here, and here, for a teeny sample – is disturbingly high.) Nor will I counsel everyone to leave academia because I am genuinely happy for those who are willing to pursue it, who succeed at it, who simply like doing it, and who still do it even if their working conditions are sub-par because they genuinely love it at its kernel. I also realize that, for those who do well, it affords the opportunity for a potentially wonderful and rewarding and enriching life. But after the entire debacle related above, I decided, for the following reasons (many of which you’ll have heard before), that it was best for me to leave:

1.  My life as an academic was not the life I thought I would have as an academic. I was overworked and felt pressured to publish and teach in quantities that compromised the quality of my work.

2. Related to number 1: my brain was so tired. So tired of working at full tilt all the time. This was also affecting the quality of my writing and my teaching.

3. I was tired of doing adjunct lecturing. And I was unwilling to apply for jobs elsewhere and live apart from my spouse (who has done a much better job of being a successful academic and is working at the University of Sydney).

4. I was tired of being treated poorly despite my abilities and having no job security.

What am I doing now? If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that I’ve been taking a few months to recuperate and slowly transition into writing, editing, and publishing, which is not exactly busting with jobs and money ripe for the picking either. Still, I love words so much, I want to give it a shot. I’ve just finished the first draft of the manuscript for my second novel (the first is still under representation with my literary agent). I’ve taken on freelance editing jobs. I volunteer as an editor at Asymptote and Inside Indonesia. And over the next few months, I’ll be scheduling informational interviews with people in the publishing industry. ( So if you happen to have any leads for good people to talk to, in Sydney or Australia especially, but elsewhere as well, let me know in the comments section for this post!)

I should acknowledge that having the time to undertake this transition is only something I can do because I am in the privileged position of being able to rely on financial support from my spouse. I think I must acknowledge this, as I realize that there are many who cling to the hem of humanities academia because they need to make rent every month and/or have a family to support and really do not have the time or funds to stop working as an academic so they can find themselves in a more fulfilling career. I know that this was pretty much the situation of two non-tenure-track colleagues whom I worked alongside at the University of Newcastle. About this, I don’t know what to say except I wish it were not so, and I know that saying this is utterly inadequate.

A few days ago, when my spouse and I were visiting my in-laws, I had dinner with a former teacher of mine. He taught me in my undergraduate days in Massachusetts at the liberal arts college I attended, and I learned a lot from him. In fact, it was he who inspired me to pursue graduate studies with a mind to becoming a college professor just like him. I did not realize at the time that he was not only in a non-tenure-track position, but also that his working circumstances were less than ideal at the institution he worked for and I was a student at, how hard it must have been for him, and how professional he was in not letting this affect his teaching of us. He now teaches at a different institution. He’s still non-tenure-track, but his position is much better: he says he has decent job security despite not being tenured or tenure-track, that he has say over what he teaches and how, and that his working conditions are good. I recounted to him what I’d just been through. And he recalled a conversation he had with one of his colleagues many years back (who turned out to be the lovely non-tenure-track professoressa who taught my beginning Italian class) – how she told him that both of them were complicit in their own exploitation. I think perhaps it might make sense to add a fifth reason to the list above on why I’ve decided to leave academia. Again, it’s not true for everyone, but I don’t want to be complicit with a system that pressures people into being complicit in their own undoing. I’m probably idealistic. I’ll probably find out that this is exactly what happens in the editing and publishing world as well, not to mention the world as a whole. But I want to say no just this once, just at this point in time, and believe it might mean something. So I will.


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.