Centre for Stories

Tiffany Tsao

"It is so vital and nourishing to read texts written from the perspective of cultures and individuals that are different from what we are accustomed to."

Bincang Buku (Talking Books) is a series of interviews with authors and translators working in or writing about our close neighbour Indonesia, discussing both their writing practice and issues that matter to Indonesian literature as a whole.

Tiffany Tsao is a writer and literary translator. She is the author of the novel Under Your Wings (US edition forthcoming in early 2020 as The Majesties) and the Oddfits fantasy series. Her translations from Indonesian to English include Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s poetry collection Sergius Seeks Bacchus, Dee Lestari’s novel Paper Boats, and Laksmi Pamuntjak’s The Birdwoman’s Palate. Her translations of Norman’s poetry have won the English PEN Presents and English PEN Translates awards.


Photo of Tiffany Tsao taken by Leah Diprose

Credit: Leah Diprose

What was your early reading life like?
Voracious and undiscriminating. My reading consisted mainly of whatever I found in the school library, whatever we had in the house, and whatever I came across in the bookstores where my parents would drop me off for hours at a time while they did their own shopping. To be honest, I miss how I read as a child—I was so open and curious and willing to read anything and everything, plus I had the time and energy to do it. But then again, nostalgia is probably rose-tinting my memories.

I do think it’s true that childhood affords you the space for that voracity. You were born in California, grew up in Singapore and Indonesia, returned to America and now live in Australia. Of those places and periods, is there a particular one which has been pivotal to your writing practice?
So far, the places where I spent my childhood and adolescence—Singapore and Indonesia—seem to inform my literary imagination the most. The Oddfits, which is the first book of the Oddfits series, is set mostly in Singapore and a large portion of Under Your Wings is set in Indonesia. Maybe it’s because I grew up in these countries and imprinted onto these environments: I feel a deep and instinctive personal connection with these places that for some reason I haven’t been able to develop in quite the same way for the US or Australia even though I’ve spent my adult life in these latter countries.

This worries me a bit, to be honest—the fact that I don’t feel as if I can move on, heart-wise, from the countries and communities in which I grew up. It doesn’t feel quite right (gut-wise or ethically speaking) to set any future books in these places because I don’t live there anymore, yet at the same time I’m uncomfortable writing books set squarely in the US or Australia because I still feel myself to be a foreigner in these countries. Perhaps this is why my writing tends to have a speculative dimension, and why this dimension is becoming even more prominent as I continue to write: the only way I feel I can write genuinely about a place is if that place is either fantastical or a blend of reality and artifice.

Certainly, the bonds created and marks left during those formative years can be enduring influences. Can you tell us about your latest book, Under Your Wings.
One of the main impetuses for writing the novel was a desire to confront and engage with anti-Chinese prejudice within Indonesia via a more unconventional way than I had seen done. Stereotypes of Chinese-Indonesians portray them as money-minded hoarders of wealth, as selfish and clannish with no sense of loyalty to the country. Many Indonesian writers have written sympathetic portrayals of the ethnic Chinese to prove these notions wrong, for which I am grateful.

Yet what has haunted me personally, as someone from a well-off Chinese-Indonesian background, is this: what happens in cases where certain elements of the hyper-wealthy Chinese villain stereotype do ring true? How is the problem of such prejudice complicated by the existence of rich ethnic Chinese families whose wealth depends (as most wealth in Indonesia depends, not just ethnic Chinese wealth) at least in part on being complicit with the corrupt systems by which business in the country operates? I wanted to use the material privilege of my upbringing to examine and interrogate that privilege.

In Under Your Wings, I’ve tried to show that there are a host of external factors in place that encourage the conformation to and perpetuation of such stereotypes. The accrual of wealth functions as a survival tactic to ensure protection from a hostile government and society. Unfortunately, such actions are detrimental to the ethnic Chinese population as a whole because they shore up false notions about all ethnic Chinese being rich and callous, insular and selfish. This generates further anti-Chinese sentiment, confirming the worst fears of the wealthy ethnic Chinese, which prompts them to continue operating in line with the survival strategy above, which harms ethnic Chinese individuals who are not rich, who have no material means of protecting themselves against racism and violence. The cycle reinforces itself.

There were other reasons that spurred me to write the book, but I’ll leave those for another time.

Yes, I think bringing a nuanced & critical approach is crucial when interrogating identity and any related stereotypes – not to mention courageous. Writing is one part of your practice. Can you tell us about your work as a literary translator? I’m wondering about the approach you take in terms of consultation and collaboration with the author.
I’ve translated three books from Indonesian to English, the most recent one being Sergius Seeks Bacchus, a collection of queer poetry by Norman Erikson Pasaribu. (The Australian edition has been published by Giramondo Books and the UK edition is out with Tilted Axis Press.) I’ve also translated Dee Lestari’s novel Paper Boats and Laksmi Pamuntjak’s novel The Birdwoman’s Palate, as well as several short stories by various authors such as Eka Kurniawan, Ahmad Tohari, Avianti Armand, Ratih Kumala, and Nala Arung.

Wherever possible, I try to give my authors as much input as they would like in the final product. Most of the authors I’ve translated are alive and know English extremely well, and so I have the privilege of being able to consult with them and ask them to provide feedback on my translations. In fact, Laksmi Pamuntjak, who also writes in English, made several substantial revisions to the English-language edition that only she as the author would have had the right to make. As I’ve said in the translator’s note to Sergius Seeks Bacchus, Norman and I worked so closely while translating his poetry that our respective roles as author and translator became very blurred. And it looks like Dee Lestari and I will be corresponding a fair amount while I am translating her novel Aroma Karsa.

I think, on principle, it is very important to respect the author’s wishes and instincts and to discuss until an agreement satisfactory to both author and translator is reached. I would never want to produce a translation that my author was unhappy with. And I think that the most ideal situation is when both the author and translator respect each other and can have a relationship of mutual trust.

I like your philosophy, and it seems that caring about the rapport you develop with those writers adds meaning to the process and the work you create. In terms of theories of translation, how do you go about representing those culture-specific words and concepts considered difficult to translate?
It depends. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. You have to take into account the particular passage, the genre, the tone and voice of a work, and innumerable other factors. For example, I translated the word kos as “boarding house” in Dee’s Paper Boats, but it appears simply as “kos” in the poem “What the Dead Ask from the Departed” in Norman’s Sergius Seeks Bacchus.

The most difficult culture-specific words for me to translate are honourifics, which are used a lot in Indonesian writing. Because of my upbringing, these terms of respect, each one denoting the formality and intimacy of the relationship between the speaker and the addressee sound entirely natural to me—more natural than if one were to leave them off entirely or abide by the usual conventions of English-language fiction. For example, it is not weird to me that a character should address the mother of a friend as Tante, or Aunt, and it’s jarring to me to have a younger character address or refer to an older character simply by their first name (I remember when moving to the US for university and finding it extremely difficult to address older people simply by their name and nothing more, even when they insisted). In short, what sounds “natural” for me does not align with what sounds “natural” for a readership of western background, and this often shows when I receive editor’s comments on how I’ve incorporated and translated (or not translated) honourifics.

Related thought: I’m not sure that having a text sound completely seamless is always for the best. I’m not sure it’s good to cater wholesale to what western readers will find “natural.”

It’s an interesting point, and one that ties into my next question about non-Indonesian participants in Indonesian literature. You, along with a number of Indonesian writers and translators, have written pieces recently criticising the attitudes of some western translators of Indonesian literature. What change would you like to see in the narrative regarding Indonesian literature in translation?
I’d like to see translators being more cognisant of the role they inherently have as advocates for Indonesian literature on the world literary stage—that what they say about Indonesian writers and how they treat the writers they translate can impact how a wider audience views and treats Indonesian writers and texts.

I’d love to see more narratives, period. Diverse narratives. From writers of diverse backgrounds, who write in diverse genres, and translated by diverse translators. Not just in special showcases or spotlights devoted solely to Indonesian writing, as valuable as these can be. If more translated Indonesian literature is in circulation, then perhaps we can surmount the existing problem, which is that a handful of writers are considered “representative” of Indonesian literature, when in fact Indonesian literature is so diverse that diversity is the only way to actually represent it.

It would also be wonderful if literary organisations, websites, journals, and media in general tried to seek out new voices from the margins, undiscovered or under-appreciated by the western literary world, rather than continuing to concentrate attention on writers who already have garnered interest and acclaim.

Building on that, in what ways is that international attention and recognition important to Indonesian literature and its community?
I wonder if a better question might be: “In what ways is recognising Indonesian literature and its community important to international readers?” I think readers outside Indonesia should desire to, clamour to read more Indonesian writers in the same way that I think readers from anywhere should desire and clamour to read literature from outside their particular anywhere. It is so vital and nourishing to read texts written from the perspective of cultures and individuals that are different from what we are accustomed to.

Looking forward, what does the future hold for you as an author, and translator of Indonesian literature?
I don’t know what lies beyond the immediate future, but early next year the US edition of Under Your Wings is coming out with Atria Books under a different title—The Majesties—which is rather exciting, though I’m trying to moderate my hopes so that I will be happy with however it ends up being received there. And Norman Erikson Pasaribu is translating the Indonesian edition of the novel, which I’m immensely elated about: I couldn’t ask for the book to be in more capable or caring translator hands.

Writing-wise: I’m penning the third and final novel of the Oddfits series (working title: The Sprung Histories) and outlining a dark, dystopian standalone novel. Translation-wise, I’m working on Dee Lestari’s novel Aroma Karsa and Norman’s collection of short stories, Only You Know How Much Longer I Must Wait.

Translated from Indonesian by Iven Manning.

Iven Manning is a scholar of Indonesian studies and linguistics. He is interested in language, ikat textiles, meaningful engagement between Australians and Indonesians and, last but not least, sport.