A Preview of Oddfits 3: a.k.a. The Disordered Spring

Good day to you, handful of readers of this blog! I would like to present, proudly, an excerpt of the manuscript of Book 3 of the Oddfits trilogy…all of which is still looking for its new home. (Long story. I’m a bit tired of recounting it. But I have to say, I am still so proud of all three books, for which I hope my agent will find a home someday!)

The following is from a chapter early on in the book. Please enjoy! (said Tiff, trying not to feel secretly despairing that it’s been almost a year since she finished the manuscript for this third book and is still seeking a home for the whole trilogy, even though she is a published author so one would think this would be easier, and even though she’s a prize-winning translator, so, really, her ego should be wonderfully plump, but there you have it.)

From Chapter 5 of The Disordered Spring (forthcoming, I’m sure)

Murgatroyd couldn’t afford most things these days, so the one thing he genuinely couldn’t afford was to be late for work. Especially since he was planning to ask his new boss for more hours. He sprinted past Melt My Butter Café, rounded The Fattened Calf steakhouse on the corner, and shot up the stairs two at a time, before scurrying quietly past his former place of employment—The Obese Mouse—into his new one, Pasteural. The professional hedge-trimmers that saw to the semi-weekly upkeep of the topiary signage out front were just finishing up. Murgatroyd smiled awkwardly at them as he slowed to a trot and, panting, parted the dense entrance fronds and stepped into the interior.

Preparations for the lunchtime crowd were already in full swing. The dining room floor had just been mown, and the air was heavy with the fragrance of freshly cut grass. The tables and chairs had already been draped in new lawn coverings, and the place settings—wooden dishes, cutlery, and cups of a delicate rough-hewn appearance—were being laid out by Murgatroyd’s co-workers, all of whom he barely knew because he’d only started working there last week.

Murgatroyd had just made it across the main dining room to the staff area in order to change into his waiter’s caftan when a loud gurgling sound made him jump. He turned to see the small pond in the middle of the dining area filling up with blue water. He recalled what Mr. Harry had told him last week when giving him an orientation: the pond water was turned on at 11:30am. Which meant he was half an hour late.

“You’re half an hour late,” confirmed an American-accented voice behind him.

Murgatroyd yelped and turned. It was Harry Jones, the owner of Pasteural, shaking his head in disapproval. If it were possible, his carefully trimmed stubble and rumpled flannel shirt seemed to only augment his severe demeanour.

“Sorry, Mr. Harry,” blurted Murgatroyd. “I promise it won’t happen again.”

Harry stared coldly at Murgatroyd. “Yes, please see that it doesn’t. Not for my sake, but that of our guests. How can you care for them as they deserve if you don’t even arrive on time?”

“Erh, I…can’t?” ventured Murgatroyd timidly. Leaving rhetorical questions unanswered had never been his strong point.

Harry exhaled impatiently. “And another thing. It’s not ‘Mister Harry.’ Just call me Harry. I insist on being approachable.”

“Ah, yes. Sorry. Sorry, Mr. Harry. I mean, Mr. Jones. I mean, Harry. Yes, Harry, sir.”

With a look of withering contempt, Harry waved Murgatroyd away.

In the staff bathroom, as Murgatroyd changed out his T-shirt and Bermuda shorts, he gazed at the toilet bowl and somehow felt it reminded him of his life. The excitement of that morning had afforded him some respite, but now his misery was back—not just a feature of his existence, but the very stuff of which it was made. After all, hadn’t this been what he’d been doing twelve years ago, when Ann had found him and invited him to join the Quest: waiting tables at a fancy restaurant for a not-very-nice boss? And when you thought about it, wasn’t it worse now? Back then, he hadn’t known he was miserable, and therefore, he had believed himself to be content. Back then, he had at least clung to that promise: Something stupendous is waiting for me. Now he was on the other side of that stupendous something—he’d had it and held it. Then it had melted away. There was nothing to hope for anymore, nothing better to look forward to. How he missed exploring. And how he missed Nutmeg and Tremble most of all.

 As he slid his head into the noose of the caftan’s neck, and his arms into its sleeves, he felt a familiar sensation take hold of him, rolling back his shoulders, straightening his spine. It was the transformation that used to come over him every night when he waited tables at L’Abattoir in the Known World. It had been the one thing he had been good at. Truly, nothing had changed.

He strapped on his leather sandals, stowed his clothes and flip-flops in his employee cubbyhole, and glided out to the dining area to join the rest of the staff, newly clad not just in caftan, but elegance and poise. The artificial lake was now full, the tables were all laid, and the daily staff briefing was about to begin.

One of the other waiters tapped Murgatroyd on the shoulder.

“How did you do that?” she whispered enviously.

“Do what?”

“You know. Become not you.”

Harry cleared his throat and his employees fell silent. Murgatroyd remembered what Harry had said to him while hiring him last week: Pasteural is not just a restaurant. It is a life path. It is a religion. I only ask that you serve it with all your heart and soul. Do you think you can do that—give it your whole heart and soul?

Freshly fired from the restaurant next door and bereft of other options, Murgatroyd had had little choice that day but to say yes.

“Good day to you, my fellow shepherds,” Harry began. And here, he stretched out his arms as if he had read somewhere that this was a gesture of warm camaraderie. “Today is a truly momentous occasion for we members of the Pasteural community. Today, Pasteural officially turns nine months old.”

This was greeting by a smattering of obligatory applause and some light woohooing.

“To mark the occasion, Chef Brian has prepared some specials for today’s lunch menu. Chef Brian?”

Chef Brian—an enthusiastic-looking man with dark circles under his eyes—stepped to the fore.  

“Thank you, Mr.—I mean, Harry! Yes, in honour of this momentous occasion, we have a special birthday starter. It’s a pasteurized, virtually uncooked take on chawanmushi, served in a nest of lightly wilted romaine. It’s called, ‘Sans chawan sans mushi.’”

Here, Harry interrupted. “The egg symbolizes birth! Don’t you just adore it?”

Everyone attempted to look enthusiastic as they nodded in response.

“Our special birthday main,” Chef Brian continued, “is a slab of pink chicken-breast ‘sashimi’ coated in a blanched-almond tandoori-spiced crust and drizzled with a mint-yoghurt sauce—pasteurized yogurt, of course.”

Harry frowned. “So, where’s the birthday element? I thought we discussed this.”

A look of panic crossed Chef Brian’s face. “I thought we agreed that an obvious birthday element would be too gauche.”

“Did we? I thought we agreed the opposite.”

There was a long pause. “I…can drizzle the yoghurt sauce in the shape of a figure nine,” Chef Brian offered.

Harry pressed his palms together and raised his fingers to his lips in concern. “Do you think that’s enough?”

 “I…can add a birthday candle.”

Though Harry didn’t smile, he nodded. “Not as subtly symbolic as the birthday starter, but yes, I think that will be sufficient.”

Chef Brian gave a silent sigh of relief.

“Needless to say,” said Harry addressing all the waitstaff, “make sure you know these specials by heart so you can recite them to our guests in an organic, unstudied fashion. And I’ve noticed that some of you have become lax about directing our non-regulars to the informative welcome page in our menu. Please don’t forget. It communicates our ethos, so they can fully understand and appreciate what a truly life-changing experience we’re creating here. Got it?”

Once again, everyone nodded.

“Good. We open in three minutes. Shepherds to your stations!”

Everyone scurried to take their places, except for Harry, who opened the menu to the welcome page and lovingly reread for the umpteenth time the text he himself had so artfully composed to convey his restaurant’s vision:

Welcome to Pasteural!

In the depths of our name, you will find the seed of our ethos, which, like a real seed, is dense and nutrient-rich. Our name is derived from the French word, “pasteur,” which means “shepherd.” It is etymologically related to the English words, “pastor,” pastoral,” “pasture,” all of which derive from the Latin word meaning, “to feed.”

Indeed, we at Pasteural see ourselves as your shepherds—caring for you, tending to you, nurturing you, nourishing you, providing you with the lush green pastures of unique cuisine on which you can graze. You’ve started a new life in the relatively unspoilt natural surroundings of the More Known World. You deserve the food to go with it.

Our name is also inspired by the surname of Louis Pasteur, the father of the modern food sterilization technique known as pasteurization, in which foods are heated at the lowest temperature required to eliminate harmful pathogens without affecting the quality or flavour of the food itself. Here at Pasteural, we use exclusive, state-of-the-art pasteurization technology and techniques (not found anywhere else) to ensure our dishes are safe to consume, yet for all intents and purposes, raw in appearance and taste.

In short, we are pleased to bring you Nature, but without the danger. Bon appétit from my spirit to yours.


Harry Jones

Founder of Pasteural

Harry smiled and retired to his office so he could enjoy surveilling the dining area and kitchen on his security-camera screens. These past few days, he had been especially gratified to watch the new hire at work. The transformation of whatshisname from awkward, uncoordinated individual to dignified, graceful waiter was truly a testament to the naturally nurturing work environment that he, Harry, had created, which no doubt brought out the best in all his employees.

Murgatroyd, on the other hand, knew better. As he draped serviettes across laps and filled wooden goblets with sparkling water, as he rattled off the day’s specials with greater fluency than he ever spoke otherwise, he knew that what he was experiencing was merely an automatic reversion to a slavish state—a time when he had sought hard to please his employer, his best friend, his parents, everyone but himself. But there was nothing to do now, but endure it and collect his desperately needed pay.

“Psst. Mr. Floyd.”

Murgatroyd turned around to see the bespectacled Settlemore employee who had approached them in the tea tent and escorted them to Winston’s office.

“Oh! Erh, hello. Can I—can I help you?” Murgatroyd stammered, thrown momentarily off-balance by the coincidence.

“Yes, if you don’t mind. May I know…is the sparkling water free?”

Murgatroyd shook his head.

At this news, the man winced. “Ah, I should have asked first,” he sighed, peering with new reverence at his goblet.

“Erh…sorry,” said Murgatroyd, not knowing what else to say.

“It’s okay. It’s okay,” said the man, though he sounded as if he were reassuring himself rather than Murgatroyd. “I’m supposed to be splurging. This is my special birthday treat to myself!”

“Oh! Happy birthday…”

“Choon Yong.”

“Ah. Happy birthday, Choon Yong.”

“Thank you!” replied Choon Yong. He proceeded to look expectant, waiting to be asked the obvious follow-up question.

Murgatroyd obliged. “How old are you?”

“Forty!” declared Choon Yong proudly, before his face turned suddenly aghast. Announcing the figure seemed to have unexpectedly deflated his birthday joy.   

“Erh, it’s Pasteural’s birthday too,” said Murgatroyd.

“Really? How old?” asked Choon Yong, attempting to perk up.           

“Nine months.”

Choon Yong frowned. “So…the restaurant celebrates its birthday every month? That doesn’t make sense.”

Murgatroyd shrugged neutrally, even though he had to admit Choon Yong had a point.

“So, Mr. Floyd, if I may ask, what would you recommend as the best dish on the menu? The most worth it, I mean.”

“Do you like sashimi? Our birthday special main course is a chicken-breast sashimi.”

Choon Yong stared at him in horror.

“Or…our practically-steak-tartare is popular.”

“How come ‘practically’?”

“Steak tartare is raw beef and raw egg. But we cook it at a low temperature so that it kills all the germs, but looks and tastes raw.”

Choon Yong repeated his horrified stare. “Is there anything you serve that is more… cooked?”

Murgatroyd felt very sorry for Choon Yong, who had obviously not done sufficient research on his birthday restaurant of choice. “You could try the phaux phở,” he said pointing to the corresponding entry on the menu. “It’s almost like real phở, except there are no noodles. Only blanched bean sprouts. And we serve it lukewarm so you can appreciate the slimy—erh, silky texture of the meat. But the broth is quite good!”

Choon Yong tried to smile. “To be honest, I was hoping for something more…exotic,” he said. “French or something. You know, since it’s my birthday.”

He stared at the menu for several seconds more.

“What about these?” he asked, pointing at the description of the bratwurst. “Do these taste cooked?”

When Murgatroyd shook his head, Choon Yong sighed. “Okay, I will have the faux phở,” he said, passing Murgatroyd his menu, trying his best to smile.

Murgatroyd decided to refrain from asking the question that he might have asked another diner at this juncture—Would you care to order something to start as well? As he went off to the kitchen to convey the order, he couldn’t help but sneak a backward glance. He watched as Choon Yong straightened his back, looked around, and took a deep breath, as if attempting to inhale into his very bones the expensive birthday experience he had decided to gift himself. He observed as Choon Yong took a deliberate sip of sparkling water, and, as if he were tasting a fine wine, swished it around his mouth before swallowing. And his heart sank a little when Choon Yong gazed at the young, attractive, well-dressed couple to his left, clinking flutes of champagne and laughing elegantly. The birthday boy turned his gaze down at his own self, as if freshly and painfully aware that his was a table for one.

As Murgatroyd forced himself to turn away again, something stirred inside him, though he didn’t even register it. And even if he had, he would have mistaken it for sympathy, or pity, or simply one of the many sadnesses that drifted inside him and stung him with their tentacles every now and then. Who could blame him, really? How can someone in constant pain all over be expected to detect the appearance of a new discomfort? No, Murgatroyd was not at fault. Not now, and not the several times prior to this, when what was about to occur had occurred.

And neither was he to blame for the next steps he took, which only exacerbated the problem. He asked the waiter technically assigned to Choon Yong’s table if she wouldn’t mind swapping. When serving Choon Yong one of Pasteural’s signature par-baked dough balls, he selected the most done-looking one in the basket. And when he set the faux phở before Choon Yong, he provided a detailed explanation of how special each ingredient was and how unique Chef Brian’s pasteurization techniques were—to make Choon Yong feel better about spending the equivalent of ten food court meals on a tiny mound of bean sprouts and technically-not-raw meat in tepid broth.

Murgatroyd continued to lavish his waiterly prowess—his only prowess—on Choon Yong, checking up on him more than usual, making conversation, listening to the tragic tale of how Choon Yong’s fiancée had died thirteen years ago, two days before their wedding, and how he had never been “lucky in love” since. He learned that Choon Yong had decided to take a job with Settlemore and relocate to the More Known World after the death of his parents because Singapore was too expensive and he thought he might as well try something new. He learned that Choon Yong now regretting trying something new because the More Known World was turning out to be very expensive as well, but he didn’t have the energy to quit Settlemore and attempt resettling in Singapore again, plus he had used all his savings to pay off his late mother’s gambling debts.

And all the while, Murgatroyd remained unaware of the intensifying chemical reaction that was taking place inside him—or at least, it would have been called “chemical” if it had been within chemistry’s scope to document and describe what was happening. It was perhaps most akin to the experience that an Oddfit underwent when discovering and accessing a new Territory—a sudden tug, followed by a slackening of a string and the contents spilling out; a neatly stacked deck of cards collapsing and spreading outward; a melting of ice.

The other times Murgatroyd had accidentally unfolded someone, the only one who’d seen what he’d done had been him. The first incident had been many years ago—an isolated event, and over time, he had grown to disbelieve it had happened, dismissing it as a fear-induced hallucination. But then, a few years ago, when he’d started waiting tables again to earn money, it had happened again, out of nowhere. He’d set down a plate of wonton noodles in front of a woman, and the next thing he knew, there were two dozen of her, at various ages, asking him for a saucer of pickled green chillies. Again, no one else had noticed, but because he had screamed in terror and called for help in putting her back together, he’d been fired on the spot.

Several months later, it happened again, and Murgatroyd had reacted in the same way. Again, he’d been fired.

The next time, he had tried to pretend that nothing was wrong, but couldn’t help trying to walk around the multiple iterations of the person he had unfolded. He had spilled scalding hot soup all over another diner, which not only got him fired, but resulted in him having to pay the doctor’s bills for the treatment of the resulting burns.

The two times after that had occurred in quick succession, with him successfully pretending that nothing was wrong in the slightest—that is, if staring into space, silent and frozen, could be considered “successful.” This was what had happened at The Obese Mouse, and when Murgatroyd had been called into his boss’s office to be let go, he had also been given a lecture on the ruinous effects of taking drugs.

And now, less than a week later… Not again, thought Murgatroyd, armpits suddenly drenched in sweat. He concentrated on keeping his hands steady as he placed the small steam-pasteurized whole-almond “birthday mound” on the table. He had coaxed the pastry chef to assemble it, saying it was a treat for a friend. The plate landed safely in front of Choon Yong. The candle’s flame flickered, but didn’t go out. Murgatroyd began taking quick deep breaths.

“Wah, thank you, Mr. Floyd,” breathed Choon Yong, his voice trembly, his edges shaky, all his features blurring. Then a baby arm popped out above his left shoulder and he grew an extra head—a teenage one with an acne-studded forehead. Both heads suddenly looked alarmed.

“Erh…sorry to ask, but is it free?” they chorused.

A third head appeared, equally anxious-looking.

“Yes, yes, free,” squeaked Murgatroyd, breathing even faster. He took a step back. “Erh, please enjoy. I’m just going to…erh…the toilet.”

And then something happened that had never happened before. As Choon Yong unfolded, shooting out into an enormous unwieldy dragon’s tail of Choon Yongs, he sent his table flying into the artificial lake, along with Murgatroyd.

“What’s happening???!?” cried the Choon Yongs in unison, swinging across the restaurant floor, flinging chairs and tables and screaming diners in all directions.

Harry came running out of his office just as the Choon Yongs turned to Murgatroyd. “What did you do to me, Mr. Floyd??!?” they exclaimed.

“Murgatroyd, you did this??” yelled Harry.

“You—you can see it too?” sputtered Murgatroyd from the lake.

“Of course, I can see it! It’s destroying the whole restaurant!”

Harry yelped as a Choon Yong in his twenties sideswiped him, sending him sprawling.

“Stop it now!” cried Harry, raising himself on his elbows.

“I can’t!” cried Murgatroyd, trying to scramble out of the lake to the safety of kitchen doorway.

It was then that the ground began to shake.

The screams were deafening. The Choon Yongs, too, began shrieking in terror, a chorus of fear. Murgatroyd crawled under the nearest upright table and squinched his eyes shut.

And then, it was all over. Murgatroyd opened his eyes to see other people slowly emerging from where they had taken shelter. Choon Yong had returned to his singular self and was patting his body, as if to make absolutely sure he was back in one piece. Harry was sitting up, speechless and stunned.

Murgatroyd ran over to him. “A-are you okay, Mr. Har—I mean, Harry?”

Harry turned. He saw that it was Murgatroyd. “Get out,” he shouted.

“I promise it won’t happen again, I’m sor—”

“I said, GET OUT!” Unsteadily, Harry tried to rise to his feet. “And if insurance doesn’t cover this, you will!” he mumbled. “Do I make myself clear?”

Murgatroyd turned paler than he already was. “But I don’t have enough money,” he squeaked.

“I don’t care!” thundered Harry, now fully recovered and wholly irate. “Get out and don’t you ever come back!”

“Yes, sir. I mean, Harry. I’m so sorry. Forgive me,” babbled Murgatroyd before exiting the restaurant.

He ran back inside. “Just getting my things!” he apologised, trotting to the kitchen where he retrieved his clothes and flip flops before heading back out. He changed near the topiary signage amidst the hedges, folded his work uniform and sandals, and left them in a neat little pile. Murgatroyd’s intention was to head straight back to his flat—for where else was he to go?—but just as he was about to leave the mall, standing there, at the threshold between the visibly artificial and the artificially invisible, his legs suddenly developed a wobble, lowering his entire body to the floor. He crawled over to one of the potted plastic plants flanking the exit. Under the shelter of its synthetic leaves, he hugged his knees to his chest and let the magnitude of what had just occurred sink in. He had not only unfolded someone yet again—this time it hadn’t just happened in his head. Everyone had seen it. Everyone had felt it and almost been hurt by it. Furthermore, he had caused an earthquake. He stared down at himself in horror. What’s wrong with me? What have I done? He began to shiver uncontrollably.

Something landed on his shoulders. Something soft. He looked up. To his astonishment, it was Choon Yong—just one of him, no more. He had just draped a navy-blue cardigan over Murgatroyd’s shoulders.

“Sorry, you looked cold,” said Choon Yong, awkwardly, kneeling next to Murgatroyd. “I hope you don’t mind. It’s mine. I wear it at work. The AC is very strong in Settlemore Tower.”

Too astonished to speak, Murgatroyd put his arms through the sleeves and wrapped it around his chest. He stopped shaking. The pair of them remained silent for a while.

“Are…are you okay, Mr. Floyd?” asked Choon Yong at last.

Murgatroyd couldn’t say yes, but he felt bad about saying no. What right did he have not to be okay? If anyone wasn’t okay, it should be the person whose being he had just spread across an entire room—yet who was here, crouching beside him, comforting him instead of vice-versa.

Choon Yong cleared his throat and spoke again. “Erh, Mr. Floyd. If I may, I’d like to say thank you.”

Murgatroyd stared. The words finally came: “Thank you? For what??”

A look of confusion came over Choon Yong’s face. “I’m not sure exactly,” he stammered, “but I feel a lot better now. After you…did that thing.”

Murgatroyd stared even harder. “Come again?”

Choon Yong turned red. “I don’t know why I feel better, but I do,” he insisted, trying to articulate his experience the best he could. “I mean, you were being so kind to me during lunch, and that was nice. But after you…erh…stretched me out and put me back together…” (here his embarrassed blush suddenly bloomed into a joyful flush) “I just feel better. Much better! So, thank you!”

Upon uttering these words, Choon Yong seemed embarrassed anew. “I’ll go now,” he said quickly. “I should get back to work.”

Murgatroyd began to take off the cardigan, but Choon Yong stopped him.

“Please, Mr. Floyd. Keep it. I have another one in my desk drawer.”

Then, Choon Yong hurried away, leaving Murgatroyd even more astonished and confused about what in the worlds he had just done and how.

If only he had known that the answer to “how” was tucked inside his wallet, on a scrap of paper. He had been carrying it around with him for years, that tail-end of a longer missive never found, cherished for sentimental reasons, scrawled by Uncle Yusuf himself as he had drawn his final breath. What he didn’t know was that it was the whole message—an instruction for Murgatroyd to do what he did best:

Love,Uncle Yusuf

oddfits 3 update, recent excellent events, and a new essay

It has been on my to-figure-out list for years, but I finally found out how find out (repetition intended) how many subscribers I have to this highly irregular blog of mine. I have 26! Which is actually more than I expected, so now I feel like I should post more often, but not so often that it irritates people enough to unsubscribe.

Even if this blog begins to bleed subscribers, it’s okay. I am continuing to try to operate more independently of social media, so if that means keeping a blog that makes me sound alternately like a curmudgeon and a quirky elderly person because that is apparently what my diary voice is like, then so be it.

To my great regret, I have not shared the following earth-shattering piece of news here yet: I have finished writing the manuscript for the third and final book of the Oddfits trilogy, a.k.a. The Disordered Spring. I actually finished it mid-year last year. I think I was hoping to be able to announce who the Brand New Publisher of the Oddfits Trilogy in Its Entirety would be, but my wonderful agent tells me to be patient and assures me ‘All in good time’ and that I probably won’t need to self-publish them. Have no fear, I stand at the ready to self-publish them at a discouraging email’s notice. I love the trilogy too much to not unleash it on the general public and loyal Oddfans.

For my next post, I will share an excerpt from the unpublished manuscript, just so you don’t think I’ve been stringing you along falsely all this time. I even made a graphic to commemorate the occasion, so I definitely can’t be lying about it.

In other news. Norman Erikson Pasaribu and I and our UK publisher (Tilted Axis Press) won the 2022 Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses – for my translation of Norman’s short story collection Happy Stories, Mostly! It is a really cool prize. For only the very coolest of kids. So, yeah, turns out we are cool.

Happy Stories, Mostly was also longlisted for the International Booker Prize! Hold on to your socks, US of A, it is coming out with The Feminist Press on June 6th, 2023. So, my dear Americans, you may want to pre-order because, you know, it will fly off the shelves just like magic and you will be left HappyStories,Mostly-less. Behold the US cover in all its toothy, flaming glory.

My translation of Budi Darma’s short story collection People from Bloomington came out with Penguin Classics in April last year. As you know from a previous blog entry, Budi Darma passed away before the release of the English edition of his collection and it was a great tragedy. Some good news in this area too, however: People from Bloomington has been longlisted for the 2023 PEN Translation Prize.

People from Bloomington by Budi Darma, translated by Tiffany Tsao

And most recently, and with impeccable timing because of this good news about People from Bloomington: I wrote an essay about translating Budi Darma’s People from Bloomington. The English version is now online at the Sydney Review of Books.

Actually, I was invited to write this essay by the Malaysian journal Svara, for publication in Malay/Indonesian translation. But the English version happens to have come out first. The Indonesian-language version, translated by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, will be coming out in Svara‘s next issue. The essay is called ‘When We Became the People from Bloomington’. Here are a few lines of it:

Every day, I immersed myself in Budi Darma’s short story collection: in the mornings during my allotted working time, during any other hours of the day I could sneak in, and at night after the kids had gone to bed. It became the cave into which I retreated in order to escape reality. But soon it became apparent that the stories weren’t a retreat at all, but a mirror, reflecting, even magnifying, what was going wrong with the real world.

Read on.

resilience fatigue & happy stories, mostly

In case you haven’t heard….Sydney is OUT OF LOCKDOWN! AND…the ban on overseas travel for Australian citizens and permanent residents HAS BEEN LIFTED! It is truly exciting. I have spent the last few weeks indulging in luxuries such as WORKING IN CAFES and DROPPING MY KID OFF AT SCHOOL and going places BEYOND A FIVE KM RADIUS OF OUR APARTMENT! And we are going to Singapore to see my family and my 95-year-old grandmother who has dementia while she still remembers who I am.

And I am no longer waking up at 5ish anymore to write. Because now I can write during the day because I am not dragging my poor six year old through school on zoom and then taking him for outings to get some sort of exercise. This whole experience has cemented it for me: I am really not a morning person. (I am not a night person either, inconveniently enough.)

Two bits of recent news: an essay I wrote expressing fatigue with narrow definitions of “resilience” was published a week ago by Writing NSW. It was a commissioned piece for an entire essay series on writing and resilience. I was contacted in March to write something for a very nice sum of money and I actually turned it down at first because what I really wanted to say was “F*** resilience.” But then the commissioning editor wrote back saying that I could submit as late as the end of October if I wanted. And I thought, Surely I can write something by October, and said yes, and then spent the next six months regretting I had said yes because I really did feel that all I wanted to write was “F*** resilience,” but was pretty sure that they were not going to pay me the 900 bucks if that was all I wrote.

In the last few weeks, inspiration did strike. And I managed to write something honest and that I wouldn’t hate myself for writing or hate reading. It ended up being about how, when you’re a writer, and many of your friends and acquaintances are writers, “resilience” ends up being reduced to “are you writing?” and “how much are you writing?” and “when is your next book coming out?” So please read it if you like. Here is a short excerpt:

Back to the thing I want to say: apart from the fact that you might not want to hear it, I feel that it borders on taboo — in the writing world at least. It’s up there with I don’t like books and when I feel there’s too much repetition in my writing, I just replace words with unfamiliar synonyms I find in the thesaurus.

But I’ll say it anyway. Here it is:

It’s okay not to write.

And I don’t mean, it’s okay, but obviously, it would be better if you did write. Nor do I mean, the trick is to pretend that it’s okay not to write and this will be sure to get you writing. I mean it’s perfectly fine if you’re not writing at the moment and if you don’t write anything ever again.

In other enormous news (hmm…that phrase sounds parodically erotic), the UK edition of my translation of Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s short story collection Happy Stories, Mostly is coming out in early December! Above is the cover, which has just been revealed on social media. (It’s like a gender reveal party! Surprise! It’s nonbinary!) The artwork is by Soraya Gillani Viljoen, who does all of Tilted Axis Press’s covers. You can pre-order the collection on the Tilted Axis website. As I write this, it is on sale for 7.99 GBP instead of 9.99 GBP!

We have an Australian edition coming out in March with Giramondo. More news on that front to come 😉

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 tinted with 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 stand next 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 pembicara 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!

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?