Stepping Out: On Joining Asymptote

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”.)















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