Interview: Tiffany Tsao

Birthplace: U.S.A.

Grew up in: Singapore; Jakarta, Indonesia; U.S.A.

Currently living: Sydney, Australia

Age: 36

Find her: Website | Twitter | Instagram | The Electric Lit essay | Intersastra

Quick things: Tiffany Tsao is a writer and translator based in Sydney, Australia. The U.S. version of her latest novel, called “The Majesties,” is coming January 2020 from Atria Books. Her translation works, from Indonesian to English, cover poetry and prose, including Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s “Sergius Seeks Bacchus” and Dee Lestari’s “Paper Boats.”

(Photo courtesy of Leah Diprose Photography via Tiffany Tsao)

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: How did you start thinking of yourself as someone of Indonesian heritage?

Both sides of my family are Chinese-Indonesian — my dad’s side is Chinese-Indonesian from Jakarta; my maternal grandmother is from Bangka, which is a small tin mining island near Sumatra; my grandfather was born in Padang and grew up in Medan. So it should’ve been very clear that Indonesia was very much a part of my heritage. But for reasons that have become clearer to me as I’ve gotten older, they decided to emphasize the Chinese aspect of my identity and my heritage. I suspect it had partly to do with the rhetoric during the Suharto era — you know, “you can’t be Chinese and Indonesian. In some respect, you have to choose.” And I think it also had to do with my maternal grandparents moving to Singapore right after World War II. In any case, my family always emphasized that I was Chinese above everything.

I was encouraged to take Mandarin lessons, not lessons in Indonesian, and it was only as I got older that I realized oh, OK, there’s actually this other side to my identity. It’s not like they hid it, but it’s not like they emphasized it a lot. They were never like, “Get in touch with your Indonesian heritage.”

When I got to graduate school in Berkeley, previously I’d identified more as Chinese-American-Singaporean, because I’d lived in Singapore for eight years, but then I began shifting more toward Indonesian. As part of the Ph.D. program, we were required to study other languages … so I thought I’d do Indonesian. I had very basic Indonesian already; it would be easier, and I could finish my Ph.D. quicker. I did that, then as I did, something woke up within me and I began reading Indonesian fiction, and I felt like, oh, this is a part of my heritage.

Q: What drew you to translation?

A variety of factors. One was that I wasn’t particularly happy with existing translations. The only writer most people knew was Pramoedya (Ananta Toer). People knew Pram and maybe Chairil Anwar, but that was about it. I thought to myself, like, come on, there must be so much more going on. And I was a bit frustrated, too, because living abroad, it’s very hard to access what’s going on in the contemporary Indonesian lit scene, even when you go to Indonesia. You’re always a bit clueless. It’d be really cool if there was more Indonesian literature in translation, more authors being translated, and wider diversity and better quality.

Q: What kind of stories did you have growing up? What stories did your family share?

My family actually never told me about ghost stories, and they never told me about old legends. I did a radio interview last year for my latest novel, which is partly-mostly set in Indonesia, and it was so funny because they said, “Tell me about the Chinese and Indonesian myths and legends that may have inspired your novel.” And I was like, “They didn’t.” Partly, that question kind of annoyed me because I feel it assumes that for writers of color, our heritage has to be in the past. It always has to be some ancient mythology.

However, my maternal grandparents used to share a lot of stories about their childhood growing up, so we heard a lot about my grandmother growing up on Bangka, especially during the Japanese occupation. The stories involved a lot of fleeing into the woods. She was a tomboy, so a lot of beating boys up. My grandfather, as a child, he sold chickens and eggs, and his mother would bake cakes, so he would sell those too to supplement the family income.

Q: What drew you into writing and being a part of the lit. world?

I’ve always written. Even when I was little, I was always writing stories. Before I became an academic, I wanted to be a journalist. Then, during my first year of undergrad, I thought, oh, I love literature, I’ll just be an academic and I’ll be immersed in literature all the time. I didn’t know how difficult, competitive, exploitative academia is, as an industry. I’m glad I left.

Q: What are some lessons you’ve learned being in the world of literature, especially as a woman of color?

If I had to give advice, maybe, I think of this line from the Bible: “Don’t cast your pearls before swine.” Treat your experiences as pearls. And if you know it will upset you to give them to someone who won’t value them, then don’t bring them up at all, and that’s not you being weak. That’s you being strategic about how you want your stories to be received and shared.

I would also say be mindful of your personal boundaries and your personal sanctity. I don’t think we need to sacrifice ourselves as people of color to educate others, even when they say they want to be educated but they’re not actually listening or being receptive, and they get defensive. That’s their trick: They put the onus on us, but actually, it shouldn’t be our burden. It should be OK for us to say, “I am not going to pick up this burden right now. I am too tired.” And in walking away and saying that’s fine, I’m not betraying myself. I’m just protecting myself and setting a boundary.

Q: Tell me more about your partnership with Norman (Erikson Pasaribu). I read that you connected via Twitter DMs.

We connected via Twitter when I was volunteering as the Indonesia editor at Asymptote (Journal). I was looking for exciting new Indonesian content that I could pitch to the section editors. I found Norman’s poetry, and I asked him if I could translate, and it grew from there.

He’s very involved in the translation process. Trust built up over time, and I began to thaw — as a translator, I’d been in positions before when my boundaries had been crossed. Now, it’s a partnership that’s a very close friendship. I think we find it really rewarding and inspiring to work together. Over time, I’ve gotten a much better sense of his tone and what he’s going for. And now, he’s translating my latest novel into Indonesian, and I’m translating his short story collection into English. It’s an ongoing partnership.

Q: You wrote this really great essay for Electric Lit and mention the gatekeeping that can happen with Indonesian literature abroad. I know you mentioned that it was born from a Twitter thread, but tell me more about how you thought about this issue.

When I began translating, I saw more and more what the Indonesian literary translation world was like: what “made it in” and what didn’t, what got translated (to my mind, mediocrely) and then poorly distributed — and I became quite shocked and quite depressed. It all came to a head in the lead-up to the London Book Fair, where Indonesia was the guest of honor. Because I knew Norman and a few other of the writers, I had insight into which Indonesian writers were grouped together to be marketed and framed in a certain way, which Indonesian writers got opportunities and which didn’t, and whether they had any say in it or not. It was such a curation process. And it made me so upset because there’s so much more. The Electric Lit essay was something that the editor-in-chief contacted me about, asking if I wanted to do a formal essay follow-up to the Twitter thread. I don’t think I would’ve done it otherwise, because the thread was so exhausting.

I realize that curation fulfills a practical function. Publishers are like, “OK, I don’t want to do lots of research myself in a language I don’t know, so it would be so much more convenient if I just go to the National Book Committee (Komite Buku Nasional), or the Lontar Foundation — and we can ask them, and they’ll just give us writers.” But this method doesn’t take into account the politics on other end, the biases of those who have power on the literary scene, and who gets access to what.

Read the full essay here. 

Q: How have you seen improvements in who is getting translated or not?

I think it’s a bit early to say. I think a lot changed since Eka Kurniawan got nominated for the Man Booker for “Man Tiger,” and got a lot of favorable press. I think that’s opened up much more interest. But that didn’t come from a government initiative or from Lontar. Eka’s represented by an agent, and the agent managed to place his novels, so that was an independent affair. The same with Intan Paramaditha’s collection, which came out with Brow Books in Australia and Harvill Secker in the U.K. So maybe that’s what we’re starting to see more: independent initiatives bearing more fruit.

The biggest problem I anticipate will be a lack of translators translating from Indonesian to English. That’s why I’m helping out as translator editor for Intersastra’s Unrepressed series. Intersastra is an Indonesian literary and artistic initiative which, among their many activities, translates Indonesian literary works into English, and vice versa. The founder, Eliza Vitri Handayani, who’s a writer as well, and I were talking and we asked ourselves, “What do we want to accomplish with this series?” We thought, “Let’s make it so we’re training emerging translators, too. We really need to grow the translator pool. Because translators are really important in sourcing work that they love, connecting authors with publishers, and if we train them well, the sky’s the limit. Then translated Indonesian literature doesn’t have to go through one body or one organization that holds all of the funding.”

Q: What advice do you have for people interested in becoming translators and/or writers?

Just start translating and writing! If you want to write, write and start submitting. If you want to translate, practice translating on your own and get feedback on them, and when you think you’re ready, then do research to check whether translations already exist of the author you want to translate (it’s good etiquette to respect and acknowledge the labor of a work’s previous translator), and make contact with the author you like.

The wonderful thing with Indonesia is I think it’s comparatively easy to make contact with people. People work across all social media platforms, and people are very willing to make connections. So reach out to a writer, if you see that their work isn’t available in translation, and you’d like to translate it. Come to an understanding about how to proceed from there (how to split fees, where to submit the translations, etc.), establish a relationship of mutual trust and respect, and start translating. And make sure your translations are good! Please make sure! You have a responsibility to your writer to do their work the best justice possible!

Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?

It’s so hard because it’s like saying, well, what does being you mean to you? It just is, and the state itself generates meaning. I think the melancholy part of connecting more with the Indonesian side of my heritage has been dealing with what this means in relation to my Chinese ethnicity. You can find quite a lot of anti-Chinese rhetoric around still. And I am from a materially privileged background, so in many ways, my family has been sheltered from the full effects! But it is sort of strange to have this yearning to connect with a country where I see “anti-my-ethnicity” rhetoric around. Sometimes I think, maybe I should’ve just gone the full Chinese like my dad wanted. But, at the same time, I know that “all Chinese” isn’t me either — it’s a longing for something that doesn’t exist; I mean, how many generations are we removed from the mainland now? So, I guess that it’s been bittersweet.

But I’ve been really touched that so many people in the Indonesian literary community — Norman, and Eliza, and Intan, for example — have welcomed me readily and said, “You’re with us.” But seeing the hate rhetoric — not just ethnicity-wise but also religion-wise — in contemporary Indonesia now, and feeling like, wow, I want to reconnect but I’m not the demographic that they want to have as part of Indonesia. That’s been a bit hard.

Q: Can you talk about any future projects in the works?

My latest novel, “Under Your Wings,” is actually going to be released in the U.S. under a new title. It’s coming out as “The Majesties” from Atria Books in January 2020. So, be on the lookout for that. It has a really awesome cover. And it’s set between Indonesia and California.

I’m working on three translation projects now. One is a fantasy novel by Dee Lestari, and I’m also translating Budi Darma’s short story collection “Orang-Orang Bloomington” (“The People of Bloomington”). And, of course, I’m translating Norman’s short story collection, name to be revealed. Be on the lookout for those!