In memory of Budi Darma; a snippet of correspondence about old people and old age

I received terrible news on Saturday. Budi Darma, the Indonesian author whose short story collection I recently translated, had passed away. He had been battling with covid for weeks. I had been receiving updates from someone at his publisher (Noura Books) about his condition and had been hopeful because one of the more recent updates said that he was showing some progress, though still had a persistent cough. Then on Saturday morning, I received news that his blood pressure had plummeted and he was unconscious. Worried, I texted an Indonesian writer friend. A few seconds later, she received a text from her own editor at another publisher that Budi Darma was gone. I received further confirmation from someone else that it was true.

The news of his death travelled at lightning speed, as death news does in Indonesia. Within minutes of his passing, official publisher accounts had made posts in his memory. People were sharing tributes on social media. I received a text request from a newspaper reporter for quotes for his obituary. I received another request that I write an obituary, which I turned down, saying sorry, I was too sad. My husband and I had been in the process of driving our kids to a nearby park. He took the kids to the playground and let me sit in the car and grieve. I couldn’t believe the news.

I still can’t. Still in my head were, are, the conversations that we had over email and WhatsApp about my translation of his short-story collection, Orang-orang Bloomington / People From Bloomington. And also the conversational parts of those conversations: his memories from his time in Bloomington, how he was adapting to teaching his students online, the interest he took in my own writing and history (my departure from academia, how I ended up in Australia). Something that gnaws at me in particular was his initial disappointment that the English edition was only coming out in April 2022, not this year. Why so long, he asked over text in April earlier this year. I said Penguin Classics probably wanted to have more time to prepare good marketing and publicity. At the back of both our minds, I believe, were fears of what bad things might happen in the span of twelve months. Budi Darma was just about to turn 84.

There is one conversation we had in particular that has been haunting me – mainly because it was about growing old. And accepting old age and its frailty. And death. I’d like to share it with you.

I also hope that, since our exchange had to do with the elderly characters of People from Bloomington/Orang-orang Bloomington, it will be of interest to those who have read or will read the collection.

The original Indonesian-language exchange follows the English-language version. Excuse both my flawed Indonesian and my hasty English translation.

(Note on the image above: this illustration accompanied the story “Mrs. Elberhart” [“Ny. Elberhart”] in the original 1980 edition of People from Bloomington [Orang-orang Bloomington]. The artist is Susthanto.

From my letter to Budi Darma, on 13 August 2020

. . . Pak Budi, may I ask a question that tends a bit more toward the personal regarding PFB [People from Bloomington]? Apologies in advance if you find it offensive. This isn’t my intent, and if you don’t feel comfortable responding, hopefully you can just forget I asked at all. But, if I may ask: there are many old characters in the stories of PFB: Mrs. Elberhart, Charles Lebourne, Mrs. Ellison, the three old women in The Old Man With No Name, and of course, the eponymous Old Man himself. These days, you aren’t as young as you used to be (this is the case with us all, of course), and not as young as when you wrote the short story collection. What has it been like to re-read the elderly characters you created when you were younger? Sorry again if this is an impolite question. Feel free to ignore it if you don’t feel like answering it.

Warm regards,


From Budi Darma’s reply on 14 August 2020

. . . This is an excellent question and not offensive at all.

Why so many old people in PFB? Because when I was in Bloomington, I enjoyed taking walks, to the point where I had all the streets memorised, including the alleys. Whenever I went walking, I would almost always cross paths with old people. Of these many old people, some were friendly, some were proud, and some didn’t care about me at all, a.k.a. give a damn. There were even old people who would “chase” me to tell me stories. One of them told me that in his younger days he had been a sheriff. With a note of pride, he showed me his sheriff’s badge. There was also someone who told me that in his youth, he was part of a band and had toured various states with his fellow band members. He told me that, one by one, all his friends had died (apologies, Kak Tiffany. If you had met him yourself, you probably would have been struck by the extent to which his story was dyed in shades of morbidity).

I’ve probably already told you about the old people who would shop and such to kill time. They would drive to the supermarket just to buy a single item, go home to rest, then go to another supermarket to buy something else. After resting, they would go out again to yet another supermarket to buy yet another item.

I had the impression that they were torn between wanting to guard their privacy on one hand and feeling lonely on the other.

You used to live in Boston, didn’t you, though perhaps not in the city itself? It seems to me that old people in Boston are similar to old people in Bloomington, except their loneliness mightn’t be as “dire,” perhaps because Boston is such a busy city. But precisely because Boston is a busy city and, as a result, has a higher crime rate, the elderly people of Boston are sometimes “a little suspicious” of people whom they don’t know well.

Now, why are there so many sick people in PFB? One of the reasons is because my host parent was a surgeon. He would invite me over for dinner and tell many stories about his past trips to Indonesia. Before I left for Bloomington, a number of my friends in Indonesia had said, if you ever meet a doctor don’t bring up your health (unless you’re their patient); most doctors won’t like it.

But by coincidence, he offered his services if I ever felt unwell, saying I should call. I did call him, eventually, and he told me to go to the hospital the next day for a check up. The results were fine.

Then, when any of my friends were sick, they would usually ask me to visit them in the hospital. Once, I witnessed a very sorrowful sight indeed. A young woman was checking into the hospital, I don’t know why. The person attending her had prepared a room (what the room number was I don’t recall). The woman tottered, and she began to cry, refusing to take the room because that was the room where “my dad died.”

How do I feel now? I used to think that 70 was sooo old, and now, 70 seems sooo young. I attended a seminar once, in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, if I’m not mistaken. Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana (the writer of the novel Layar Terkembang) was one of the keynote speakers. Pak Takdir was 70 years old. I thought, wow, Pak Takdir is sooo old.

Then came Pak Takdir’s turn to approach the podium. His body swayed as he spoke. Many people in the audience held their breath. A few began to whisper that someone should attend to him. Luckily, he was able to finish the presentation of his brilliant thoughts.

It’s like this, Kak Tiffany. To me, ageing is only natural, and as such should be greeted with wholehearted acceptance. I once took a friend older than me to an opthamologist named Dr. Herschel Smith for an eye exam. No one can prevent old age, the doctor said. This doctor passed away a long time ago, but it seems that his polyclinic has grown under the care of his colleagues (you can find pictures of it on the internet).

As such, Kak Tiffany, I seek to accept everything with the appropriate grace. Heh heh.



Cuplikan surat saya kepada Pak Budi pada 13 Agustus 2020

. . . Pak Budi, boleh saya tanya satu pertanyaan yang lebih ke arah “personal” tentang OOB. Maaf sebelumnya kalau Pak Budi merasa tersinggung. Ini bukan maskud saya, dan kalau Pak Budi tidak nyaman menjawab, mudah-mudahan pertanyaan ini bisa lenyap saja dari ingatan Pak Budi. Tapi, boleh saya tanya: ada banyak tokoh tua di cerita-cerita OOB – Ny. Elberhart, Charles Lebourne, Ny. Ellison, ketiga perempuan tua di Laki-Laki Tua Tanpa Nama, dan tentu saja, si Laki-Laki Tua sendiri. Sekarang, Pak Budi tidak semuda dulu (sama dengan kita semua sih), dan tidak semuda sewaktu menulis kumcer OOB. Bagaimana pengalaman Pak Budi jika membaca ulang tokoh-tokoh tua yang diciptakan Pak Budi pada waktu Pak Budi lebih muda. Maaf sekali lagi, Pak, kalau pertanyaan ini kurang sopan. Diabaikan saja kalau Pak Budi kurang sudi jawab ya. 

Salam hangat,


Dari balasan Budi Darma pada 14 Agustus 2020

. . . Pertanyaan ini sangat bagus dan sama sekali tidak menyinggung perasaan.

Mengapa banyak orang tua dalam OOB? Karena waktu itu saya mempunyai hobi jalan-jalan, sampai akhirnya saya hapal hampir semua sudut jalan, termasuk gang-gang tikusnya. Selama saya berjalan-jalan, hampir selamanya saya bertemu dengan orang-orang tua. Di antara sekian banyak orang tua itu ada yang ramah, ada yang sombong, ada juga yang tidak pedulian alias cuek. Bahkan, ada juga orang tua yang “mengejar” saya untuk berbagi cerita. Satu di antaranya bercerita bahwa pada masa mudanya dia adalah sheriff. Dengan nada bangga dia tunjukkan bintang sheriffnya. Lalu ada juga yang bercerita bahwa ketika masih muda dulu, dia mempunyai band, dan dengan anggota bandnya mereka merantau ke berbagai negara bagian. Dia bercerita, bahwa satu persatu temannya meninggal (maaf, Kak Tiffany, mungkin Kak Tiffany sangat terpukau kalau bisa bertemu dengan orang ini, sebab ceritanya  diwarnai oleh unsur morbidity).

Mungkin saya sudah bercerita kepada Kak Tiffany mengenai orang-orang tua yang berbelanja antara lain untuk membunuh waktu. Mereka naik mobil ke sebuah supermarket hanya untuk membeli satu item, pulang untuk beristirahat, lalu pergi ke supermarket lain untuk membeli item lain. Setelah beristirahat, mereka keluar lagi ke super market lain untuk membeli item lain.

Ada kesan, bahwa mereka itu “terjepit” antara menjaga privacy di satu pihak, dan rasa kesepian di pihak lain.

Kak Tiffany kan pernah tinggal di Boston, meskipun mungkin tidak di kotanya. Tampaknya orang-orang tua di Boston mirip dengan orang-orang tua di Bloomington, tapi rasa kesepian orang orang tua di Boston tidak “separah” orang-orsng tua di Bloomington, mungkin karena Boston kota yang sangat sibuk. Tetapi, justru karena Boston kota sibuk dassnn karena itu mungkin angka kriminalitasnya lebih tinggi, maka orang-orang tua di Boston kadang-kadang “agak curiga” dengan orang yang belum dikenalnya dengan baik.

Lalu, mengapa dalam OOB banyak orang sakit? Antara lain karena host family saya seorang dokter bedah. Dia pernah mengundang makan malam, dan banyak bercerita mengenai pengalaman kunjungannya ke Indonesia.  Beberapa teman di Indonesia, sebelum saya ke Bloomington, pernah berkata, kalau bertemu dengan dokter janganlah berbicara mengenai kesehatan (kecuali kalau jadi pasiennya), sebab kebanyakan dokter merasa tidak senang.

Tetapi kebetulan, dia menawarkan diri kalau saya merasa tidak enak badan, saya diminta untuk menilpunnya. Akhirnya memang saya menilpun, saya diminta untuk ke rumah sakit keesokan harinya, check kesehatan, hasilnya baik.

Lalu, kalau ada teman sakit, biasanya teman-teman mengajak saya menengok ke rumah sakit. Saya pernah menyaksikan pemandangan yang memancing rasa iba. Ada seorang perempuan muda yang akan masuk ke rumah sakit, entah karena apa. Oleh petugas dia disediakan sebuah kamar (entah nomor berapa). Perempuan ini badannya beroyang-goyang, menangis, menolak keras diberi kamar itu, karena “my dad died” di kamar itu

Bagaimana perasaan saya sekarang? Dulu saya merasa usia 70 tahun itu tuaaa sekali, sekarang, umur 70 tahun rasanya mudaaa sekali. Pada suatu hari ada sebuah seminar, kalau tidak salah ingat di Bukittinggi, Sumatra Barat, Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana (penulis novel Layar Terkembang) menjadi salah satu pembicata kunci. Usia Pak Takdir 70 tahun. Saya pikir, wah, Pak Takdir ini sudah tuaaa sekali.

Tibalah giliran Pak Takdir untuk menuju ke podium. Waktu Pak Takdir berbicara, tubuhnya bergoyang-goyang. Hadirin banyak yang menahan nafas. Beberapa orang  berbisik-bisik supaya Pak Takdir didampingi. Untunglah, Pak Takdir bisa memaparkan pikirannya yang cemerlang sampai tuntas.

Begini, Kak Tiffany, saya menganggap menjadi tua adalah alamiah, dan karena itu diterima saja dengan ikhlas. Saya pernah mengantar teman yang lebih tua daripada saya untuk memeriksakan matanya ke ophthalmologist, Dr. Herschel Smith. Dokter ini bilang, tidak satu orang pun yang bisa mencegah ketuaan. Sudah lama dokter ini meninggal, tapi tampaknya oleh teman-temannya, poliklinik ini dikembangkan menjadi lebih besar (bisa ditengok di internet)

Dengan demikian, Kak Tiffany, semuanya saya terima secara wajar, hehehe



Meet the People from Bloomington! They’ll be arriving in English in April!

People from Bloomington by Budi Darma, translated with an introduction by Tiffany Tsao; foreword by Intan Paramaditha

Many of you know that I spent the majority of 2020 – the Year of Our Pandemic’s Debut – translating this short story collection, which I love very much.

The collection is by the Indonesian author Budi Darma, and was first published in 1980, and its Indonesian-language title is Orang-orang Bloomington. Set in Bloomington, Indiana, and written when the author was doing his Ph.D. in English literature at the university there, the stories aren’t what a foreign reader might expect of an ‘Indonesian’ literary work. Also, except for one passing mention in a story that its narrator is a ‘foreign student’, the stories feature an all-American cast.

I first came across information about Orang-orang Bloomington while doing academic research about Indonesian regional and local-colour literature from 2012 to 2014. It sounded incredibly interesting. I put it on my ‘to-request-from-the-library-stacks-and-read’ list and left it at that for a long time. As it happened, in 2016, the Indonesian publisher Noura Books published a new, third edition of the collection. I saw this edition in a bookstore in Jakarta while visiting my father and couldn’t believe my good fortune. I snatched up a copy right away.

As I made my way through the stories of the collection, I was overcome by a restlessness. It’s a very specific restlessness I get whenever I am reading something not just that I like, but that I like very, very, very much. I get so restless, in fact, I can barely sit down for excitement at how happy the thing I am reading is making me. Sometimes I have to put it down and walk around. Or put it down and hop.

I couldn’t believe it when I found out that the stories hadn’t been translated. There is a non-profit foundation devoted to publishing Indonesian literature that has translated and published a great many famous Indonesian literary works. I pretty much assumed that they would have published an English edition of this collection, and perhaps it had gone out of print or was difficult to find. I contacted the foundation directly to ask and discovered that they had published a volume of several stories by Budi Darma (Conversations by Budi Darma, translated by Andy Fuller), and they had published a translation by Margaret R. Agusta of one of the stories (‘Orez’) in their now out-of-print journal Menagerie, but the rest of the stories had never been published in English before.

When I asked, out of curiosity, why the publisher hadn’t published the stories in English, I received a very interesting answer: ‘They’re fine, even humorous, in Indonesian but they ring false in translation.’ And it occurred to me with a chill that one of the features I loved and found fascinating about the collection might not be perceived by a western reader as something loveable or fascinating at all, but rather (could it be?) a fault. An Indonesian writer writing stories set in the US of A? An Indonesian writer not writing about Indonesia, which is (presumably, according to the logic of certain persons) what their natural subject matter is. The more I thought about the answer, the more quietly upset I felt.

I felt a burning desire to translate the collection and get it published somewhere cool.

I spent the next two or so years talking a great deal about how much I wanted to translate Orang-orang Bloomington some day to anyone who would listen. My close friend and one of the writers I translate, Norman Erikson Pasaribu, was excited about this as well, and gave me a tremendous nudge by arranging for us to meet Budi Darma in person in his home city of Surabaya to propose the project and ask him permission in person.

Here is a photo of Budi Darma and me, kindly photographed by Norman. It was taken on 18 July 2019:

It’s hard to believe that this project has reached this stage: a contract with Penguin Classics, a cover by the Tom Gauld, a publication date: April 2022. In this time of so much uncertainty and death, part of me wonders if it is really true. I suppose we’ll see. To quote the epigraph of the collection, which quotes Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’: If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Waking Up Unpleasantly Early to Write

Sydney has been in lockdown for a while. It started at the beginning of the term break and we were hoping it would end before the third term of our 6 year old’s school started. But it didn’t, and it was announced that school was moving online. My husband and I knew from our experience with online school last year that this simply meant not being able to do as much of our own work during the day. And back then, it meant that I ended up putting off any writing of the third Oddfits book entirely – I simply didn’t have the uninterrupted concentration or time required for the task.

This time round, I’m determined not to lose momentum again. I’ve finished the first draft, typed it all out, started revising, and am genuinely excited about finishing it. So instead of trying to work on it frustratedly during the day in between helping my 6 year old do schoolwork, taking him outdoors for exercise, and entertaining him because being cooped up in an apartment with no friends is getting rather old, I’ve made the unpleasant decision to wake up at 5:15am every weekday morning to write. It gives me about an hour and a half of uninterrupted time to focus. But, I must say, I really dislike it. I’ve been at it for about a week and a half now. Every morning when my eyes fly open in the dark at the beeping of my alarm clock, I think about how I really am not an early morning person and how maybe, only for today, I’ll just go back to sleep. Surprisingly, I’ve never gone back to sleep yet. Instead, I lie there for a bit, crawl out of bed, wash my face and change, make myself a cup of coffee, and start writing. It’s going slowly, but steadily – the momentum of a ball on a flat surface being nudged daily, but moving!

Nonetheless, this new schedule really isn’t ideal.

The Disordered Spring, or Oddfits 3

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated my news. A looooooooong time. I’m so sorry. I’m hoping to change this because I’m trying to decrease my reliance on Twitter and Instagram, and instead have a separate way of keeping people updated (and keeping track of my own news myself)! In short, I’m hoping to return to regular old-school updates via this news blog. Especially since there are a few big developments coming up….

The biggest one of which is: believe or not, I finished the first (extremely rough) draft of Oddfits 3! Which now has a title that I truly adore: The Disordered Spring. I hereby announce a prize to the first person who either knows or does a search for what this title is a reference to. The prize is a free signed set of the entire complete Oddfits trilogy, including The Disordered Spring…when some lucky publisher out there realises their luck and snaps up all three books. As you know, the Oddfits books are now seeking a new publisher, but my agent has held off making a real push because she thinks it will be more effective if we have the third book to dangle as the proverbial carrot. I think she may be right. Anyway….if you know the answer and you’re the first person, send me an email!

Also, I’m so excited about how The Disordered Spring is shaping up, it isn’t even funny. My last novel was mesmerising to work on, but in a completely different way. With The Disordered Spring, as with previous two Oddfits novels, I feel positively gleeful when I’m writing. Y’know, happy. As opposed to feeling submerged in a dark sea of emotion. The draft contains a total of 18 chapters plus a coda. Just so you know where I am in drafting round 2: I’m in the middle of revising Chapter 6.

Other recent news include:

  • I spent 2020 translating a really amazing short-story collection by the Indonesian author Budi Darma. It will be coming out with Penguin Classics in Spring 2022 under the title People from Bloomington.
  • I’m currently in the editing process for another short-story collection I’ve translated, by Norman Erikson Pasaribu. This one will be coming out in November this year from Tilted Axis Press as Happy Stories, Mostly.

The Majesties is launching on January 21st!

I know I should probably be making this announcement on the actual day of publication as opposed to five days before. But I mean, when have I ever been practical. Plus, I know that if I don’t make an announcement now, I will most likely forget.

Sooo….yes! The Majesties will be coming out on January 21st, 2020 in the US. It is actually the US edition of my novel, Under Your Wings, which was published by Viking in Australia. But thanks to the weirdness that is territorial rights in the publishing industry, I can experience the thrill of a new novel coming out without having to finish one. (Still hammering happily away on the third Oddfits book!)

Excitingly, The Majesties has made it onto several “most anticipated books of 2020” lists at Salon, The Millions, and CrimeReads, not to mention this very cool reading challenge list of books by 52 women of color to read in 52 weeks.

It’s gotten some really good pre-publication reviews so far too! Here are a few from Publishers Weekly, Smithsonian Book Dragon (for Shelf Awareness), and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.

And I’ve been really grateful for all the Instagram love from the book blogging community. A huge shout out to them and their passionate bookishness!

For those wondering about the gorgeous book jacket, all praise goes to the cover designer James Iacobelli and artist Joseph Lee. (Hip hip hooray! Hip hip hooray! Hip hip hooray!)

That’s all for now! On the actual day of, my current celebration plan is to treat myself to a slice of rose and earl grey chiffon cake from the cafe round the corner from my apartment.