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?