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People from Bloomington: A Short Story Collection from Indonesia

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Alex Chambers:  While she was translating a collection of Indonesian short stories called People From Bloomington, Tiffany was also reaching out to publishers. 

Tiffany Tsao:  One prominent publisher of Indonesian literature and translation, said that you know to him he felt, that the stories were fine in Indonesian, even humorous, but they rang false in English. I guess there's any number of ways to interpret that, but it seems sort of like, oh why is he writing about Americans, right. 

Alex Chambers:  She realized even people who published translations of Indonesian literature, assume it's only interesting if it's about Indonesia. This week on Inner States, we talk with Tiffany Tsao about her translation of the great Indonesian writer Budi Darma's book, People from Bloomington, if you haven't already guessed, it does not take place in Indonesia. Then Adriane Pontecorvo reviews a new release of a concert put on by Bluesman "Son" House at Wabash College in 1964. That's all coming up right after this. 

Alex Chambers:  Welcome to Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana, I'm Alex Chambers. When I was a freshman in college, I toyed for a minute with the idea of majoring in Philosophy, I really liked thinking about big ideas. But then I took note of how philosophers wrote, kind of boring, so I decided to major in English, so I could think about big ideas with interesting characters and plot. Later on I realized I was also interested in society and culture, and my Intro Philosophy class was mainly focused on whether a boat, was still the same boat if you replaced every piece of wood it was made of. So I was an English major, I graduated with a degree in English, having read a lot of poetry and novels written in England and the US. Literature written in English, maybe I could have predicted that. Not knocking my college but for a 19 year old, who wanted to learn about the world through literature, maybe it would have been nice if the English department hadn't left the rest of the world to comp lit. 

Alex Chambers:  I'm not sure when I started to notice the gaps in my literary education, definitely by a decade later, when I was starting a PHD in American Studies. You might be surprised to hear, it was in American Studies that I really started to be exposed to literature, from countries other than England and the US. Quick plug for American Studies here, it turns out the field is interested in the US in relation to the world, the US as an empire, what it means to imagine yourself as part of a nation. It's also interested in the Americas in general, which of course goes way beyond The United States. Anyway the point is, even if you can't read five or six other languages, you can still read literature from around the world through the magic of translation. It's worth it, translated literatures is worth reading. I know some people think it's a second rate version of the original, but Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, One Hundred Years of Solitude might have been better in English. And imagine reading a collection of short stories about your small Midwestern city, that was originally written in Indonesian in 1980, and only translated into English 42 years later. If you're from Bloomington now is your chance. 

Alex Chambers:  The Indonesian writer Budi Darma came to Bloomington in 1974, like so many others he was here for school. He was already an established literary figure in Indonesia, as a writer of absurdest short stories, he came here to get a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and then a PHD in Literature. His dissertation was on Jane Austen, if you're curious about that kind of thing. But more importantly while he was here, he started writing stories inspired by the people around him. He finished the stories in Europe, on his way back to Indonesia and he published it in 1980, it was called fittingly "People From Bloomington". But in spite of the fact that the whole thing takes place in Bloomington, in the heart of the American Midwest, People from Bloomington was never translated into English, until now. The book came out on April 12th, and I'm excited to talk with the translator Tiffany Tsao. Tiffany has translated five books from Indonesian into English, and her translations have been shortlisted for or won a number of prizes. She also writes her own books, she has a novel called The Majesties and so far two thirds of The Oddfits Trilogy, a fantasy series. 

Alex Chambers:  Like Budi Darma, Tiffany has a PHD in Literature from an American University, UC Berkeley in her case. She lives in Sydney, Australia, where it is getting into the night, as opposed to pretty early in the morning here in Bloomington. Tiffany Tsao welcome to Inner States. 

Tiffany Tsao:  Oh thanks Alex glad to be here. 

Alex Chambers:  Glad to have you here. And congratulations on this new translation. 

Tiffany Tsao:  Oh thank you. 

Alex Chambers:  So I want to start by talking about the stories themselves. They're all in the first person, told by a single relative, young men. All these narrators seem really lonely, they want to connect with other people, but they're also fragile, so they're ultimately more interested in punishing people who think they've wronged them. Darma wrote in his introduction that the narrators of all these stories are portraits of torment. He wrote, "whether he's trying to do good, acting differently or behave madly, he's tormented just the same. These narrators become victims of their own self absorption, another way to put it is that they're sad and lonely and they puncture a lot of other people's car tires." There was a lot of that in the book. So I'm wondering if you could just talk about, what drew you to these stories? 

Tiffany Tsao:  Oh yeah, so I first came across The Collection in 2016. So I was back in Indonesia visiting my father and I happened to come across the reprint, the third edition that had just come out, that year in 2016. And before in my literary research as an academic, I had come across Budi Darma's name and mention of The Collection, but I thought, oh I'll look it up one day and I'll read it, it sounds very interesting. And it happened there to be there in the book store on the display table, and I thought, yes I'm going to get a copy. And I read it and it was just so exciting I couldn't put it down, the characters were so eerie and creepy, and they were so funny the stories as well. And I was just drawn to them immediately for all of those reasons. 

Tiffany Tsao:  Then I spent the next two years talking to people about how it would be so cool, if this collection was translated and thinking, oh maybe one day I will translate it, who knows, or try to translate it. But for a long time I was convinced that there must have been some translation out there, that I didn't know about. So I went hunting and it turns out there was no translation yet. And so then, another author who I translate and a friend as well, his name is Norman Erikson Pasaribu. He asked me one day, oh do you want to be introduced to Budi Darma, because you said you wanted to translate his collection. And I said, yes that would be great. And so then, Norman was kind enough to arrange a meeting, so we ended up going to Surabaya, so I could meet Budi Darma and get permission in person. And then Budi Darma had to ask his publisher of the original edition, and then it went from there. 

Alex Chambers:  And what was it like spending time with these characters? 

Tiffany Tsao:  I think The Collection has a way of sucking people in, because you get into the head of the narrator, and the narrator himself in all of the stories tends to be quite lonely but also a bit misanthropic. And all the narrators often spend a lot of time indoors staring at the world outside, or on the streets staring in at other people. And so there is a way that, the stories themselves pull you in, but also because I was translating the bulk of this collection during the pandemic, during lockdowns and time where you really couldn't go out that much, or were advised not to go out that much. I think that was when I really got sucked into The Collection. So I usually try and write and translate at the same time, but during the pandemic I ended up working almost exclusively on Budi Darma's collection, just because I have small children too, and online school was just a complete disaster, and the only time space I had to do any work was on The Collection. 

Tiffany Tsao:  So I began translating one story after another and yes I began almost seeing myself in our world reflected in the stories, which I think even in non pandemic situations that probably would have happened, but it was just completely exacerbated by the lockdowns we were experiencing, and the whole pandemic, where you yearn for human contact, yet deeply feared human contact. And that's in the book as well, the narrators loathe people but also just are so lonely, they can't bear to be without people, so they come into contact with people, and they're like, why am I in contact with this person, they're probably going to give me some disease. So yeah it all came together in this big bowl. 

Alex Chambers:  Do you remember any particular moments, when the two worlds got completely enmeshed? 

Tiffany Tsao:  Yes and then this is a bit of a sad moment I guess, because Budi Darma actually passed away of covid in August last year. And I even remember at the start of the pandemic and no-one knew what was going on with Covid, exactly how to best prevent it. And I remember sending Budi Darma a text message on Whatsapp saying, oh just be careful, just take these precautions. He said, oh yes don't worry, taking care of ourselves, him and his wife. And there was a point when I was translating the short story, Mrs Elberhart. In that story the narrator becomes friends with an elderly lady, and the elderly lady passes away. But then the narrator becomes convinced that the elderly lady's wish would have been to be remembered for posterity. And so he thinks, what is the best way to do this and then he starts thinking, oh maybe I'll write a poem and I'll submit it under her name, and that way everyone will know Mrs Elberhart for posterity. 

Tiffany Tsao:  And then it got to the point where Budi Darma got really ill and then I was like, oh no we're like in the story, it's not exactly the same but I'm translating his words, and then his words will be under his name for posterity in the English speaking world. And that just felt like very weird in the novel. The story ends on a bit of a dark note, so then yes that was sad. 

Alex Chambers:  I mean it is really sad, but also kind of creepy, because yes the story is creepy. And the dark note that it ends on. 

Tiffany Tsao:  Yeah but it felt like something out of a Budi Darma short story. Because the stories are, I think on one hand sad, on the one hand funny, but funny in a very black way. So I think it was that kind of thing, it was almost like you could have zoomed out and then we were in a Budi Darma story about it. 

Alex Chambers:  I want to get more of a sense of Budi Darma in a minute, but I have another question about the experience of translating versus writing, especially as you're spending time with these characters. I've never written a novel but I've heard from other novel writers, that as you're writing a novel, you really are spending time getting to know the characters and things like that. Is it a similar feeling or is it distinct, to be translating someone else's work, and getting into the head of the characters? 

Tiffany Tsao:  Yeah I feel like it's a bit different, because writing I feel, yeah you're starting completely from scratch, you have to imagine and create everything again. So create the characters and even when you're revising, you think oh that's not quite right, I'd better change that, I feel like that's not what the character would do, or I feel like this aspect should be different. So you can change a lot of those things, but I feel in translation it's set. There is a distinct impression that you've gotten from the book or the story, and that's what you want to convey that impression, after reading the story multiple times, and then you end up reading that multiple times, and you end up re-reading your translation multiple times. So yeah it's almost like it's already there for you, you just have to go according to what is already there. There's more structure involved, I feel it's more free flowing, free range in writing. 

Alex Chambers:  So I'm interested in thinking about some of the bigger ideas that this book brings up as well. One of the things I was intrigued by and kind of excited by, was the way it reverses the colonial gaze, having this great Indonesian writer publishing stories about white men in the American Midwest. But there's kind of a tension there too I think, in one of the introductory essays, Intan Paramaditha talks about how Darma is creating a distorted reflection of western society, with a mirror held up by a third world author. But at the same time, Darma himself writes, and you also reiterate this in your introduction. That for him the setting was not really that important, it seems like. That it was some what coincidental if he'd been in Paris or New York or whatever, it would have been people from Paris or New York. I'm curious how you think about the tension between the universal drive in these stories. 

Tiffany Tsao:  Versus the specific? 

Alex Chambers:  Yeah. 

Tiffany Tsao:  Okay, so versus the location specific aspect. First of all I guess it would be good to place it in the broader context of Budi Darma's work. So Budi Darma was quite well known before this short story collection, he is very famous for his short stories which were all set in Indonesia, but primarily absurdest and very abstract, so not very specific with location. So I would say that yes, people from Bloomington and then the novel Olenka, were the first location specific ones. But that seemed to have initiated a shift in his writing, because after that he did write a novel Rafilus. Which was actually very much set in Surabaya. So in that case it was very location specific. So it does seem that Budi Darma depending on where he was, would actually shift locations depending, and so in that respect, I think it is true to that idea. 

Tiffany Tsao:  He happened to be surrounded by Bloomingtonians I guess, and that was just what he ended up writing about at the time. So I don't necessarily see it as attention, especially when you think about it in that sense. That you can see that shift depending on which location he was living in, and which environments inspired him. Because after that period, he never wrote any Bloomington set work again. And there was one short story actually, called My Friend Bruce, which is set in Hawaii, and that was when he happened to be in Hawaii for a short stint in their year long graduate program of some sort. 

Alex Chambers:  Also related to this, in terms of thinking about these bigger issues. You wrote that you hoped this translation would prove useful in ongoing debates, concerning the ethicality of writers, making use of subject matter and experiences that are not theres. And I wonder if you could talk about how, you hope that this book will be a part of those conversations and debates. 

Tiffany Tsao:  Yeah well I mean, primarily the issue with those claims that white or western authors make, is they say, the literary imagination is free to roam, wherever it wants, because people are all the same everywhere. And I can completely imagine myself in someone of a different cultural backgrounds shoes. That's in theory but practically what we see in the Anglophone world at least is, mostly that just goes in one direction. So we have lots of colonial novels set in India and set in Africa, because that's just the way the power flow has gone. So I just think it's interesting to then throw into the mix, something by a non western or non white writer, writing something about the west and about Americans in the Midwest. 

Tiffany Tsao:  And say like well, if the literary imagination is actually free, then in some sense this needs to be also a valid portrayal as well, and a portrayal that's interesting also, to these same people who claim that, the imagination should be free to go wherever it wants. And I say this because I and the agent who represented this book, did receive some negative feedback regarding whether the book would ever find a publisher. So one prominent publisher of Indonesian literature and translation, said that to him, he felt that the stories were fine in Indonesian even humorous, but they rang false in English. I guess there's any number of ways to interpret that, but it seems like, oh why is he writing about Americans? And then the feedback that my agent received from one publisher was, you will never sell this book, and I think party it's because, when people think of a book by an Indonesian author, what do they think of? It should be about Indonesia. It should tell us about Indonesia, maybe there should be some palm trees. I don't know but I think that was the very strong message. 

Tiffany Tsao:  So I think it's just nice to show people in the English speaking world, look Indonesian authors can actually write about lots of different things, and they've had lots of different experiences too. Budi Darma was in Bloomington, Indiana, it's not like he's just making this up out of his head, he just spent six years there, basically mostly right. So yeah. 

Alex Chambers:  I think that's a really useful way of thinking about it, and kind of wild to hear the responses, especially from a publisher of Indonesian literature in translation. 

Tiffany Tsao:  Yes. That was surprising to me. That was disappointing to me. 

Alex Chambers:  But not necessarily surprising? 

Tiffany Tsao:  I don't know. I was a little bit surprised that the opinion would be expressed so frankly, but I guess it's not surprising because that's often why people publish Indonesian literature, because people want to know about Indonesia. That's the only reason why a person would pick up a book about Indonesian right? So we pick up French books for what they have to say about the human condition or greater philosophical insights, but we don't think that about Indonesia, why? 

Alex Chambers:  It's time to take a short break, when we come back, Tiffany talks about a Twitter thread about Indonesian literature that she wrote in a notebook. This is Inner States, we'll be right back. 

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. Tiffany Tsao is a writer and translator, her most recent translation is a book of short stories by Indonesian writer Budi Darma set in Bloomington, Indiana. A few years ago, she noticed that even when Indonesian literature gets a spotlight, it focuses on just a few writers, which leaves a lot in the shadows. So she had that thought and then decided the best way to address it was on Twitter. 

Tiffany Tsao:  Basically what happened was that it was the London Book Fair which is a big publishing industry thing and I forget the particular term for it, it's not the guest of honor, but the spotlight country that year was Indonesia. And it was just frustrating because all of a sudden, there seemed to be big stakes riding on it. It's exciting when a country gets to be spotlighted at these kinds of events, and there was an essay that, it turned out was republished under a different name. So it's an old essay and was supposed to be on a very specific series of Indonesian books and translation, but it ended up being republished, and I think the center who had republished it, decided to call it, "where are all the Indonesian authors" or something like that. But then the essay ended up being, because it was an essay that they dug up, it was actually on a very specific set, but it looked like the essay was just saying, this is all the Indonesian literature and translation that's out there. So what happened was that, I was for some reason just becoming increasingly agitated and I think that's what Twitter does to people. 

Tiffany Tsao:  But then all of a sudden I was like, oh no this is awful, people are just going to think that this is all the Indonesian literature and translation there is, when actually there's a lot of different things that are out there. So then because I'm 39 now, and I wasn't very good at Twitter back then, I composed an entire Tweet thread in a notebook. And then I proceeded to haul my small child to a indoor play area and then go back and forth between tending to them, and typing out each successive Tweet on my laptop. And then I was just like, okay now I've gotten that out of my system. But then all of a sudden it blew up and I was like, oh dear. And then I found out that the essay had been repub-- that was the origin story for the essay, and it actually had a different title to begin with. But then they decided to make this other title, that I felt was very misleading. 

Tiffany Tsao:  And then I feel like a lot of people are mad at me, and then I felt, that was very stressful, I don't know if I want to do that again. But then again I was so agitated and it's true, they shouldn't have published the essay under that title, it was a very misleading title. So anyway there we go. That was a very long story Alex, I can't believe you made me tell the whole thing. 

Alex Chambers:  I thin it's a good story actually, and it is funny. Now this is coming from someone whose also not good at Twitter, I haven't tried to compose an essay, basically an essay and post it on Twitter. And it's a totally legitimate thing to do, I think there's some people do a really good job, and I thought yours was really interesting too. But it was funny because at one point halfway through, then it ends up starting with a new thread or something. 

Tiffany Tsao:  Oh yeah, because then the thread got cut and then I was like, oh I have to link to the new thread, because I was posting them one at a time while dealing with my screaming, I forget how old he was, it was 20 and, oh I forget. 

Alex Chambers:  I think it was 2018. Does that sound right? 

Tiffany Tsao:  No LBF was 2019. 

Alex Chambers:  Okay. 

Tiffany Tsao:  2019. 

Alex Chambers:  So three years ago. 

Tiffany Tsao:  Yeah, I must have been dealing with my smallest child, anyway yes. 

Alex Chambers:  That's so funny. But you were making I think an important point, about the ways that a spotlight on a particular set of Indonesian authors and translation, then erases others. 

Tiffany Tsao:  Yeah and I think the big issue has been-- sorry this might be too inside baseball but, I had issues with that same publisher of Indonesian literature and translation. I don't know if they still do, but at the time they kept insisting that they were the only organization dedicated to translating Indonesian literature. So it kind of felt like they were just sucking all of the spotlight to them, when they were like, actually lots of different initiatives, Dalang Publishing in California does Indonesian literature and translation. I volunteer for an organization called [PHONETIC: Intersustra], and we do a lot of Indonesian literature and translation as well. So it felt a bit like, oh you're basically just pretending nothing else exists, and it was just a bit bizarre. But then I found out the essay's actually on that very specific thing. But then it was so much so that I was getting stressed out, because people were like, this is great I didn't know this about Indonesian literature and translation. I'm like, no there's other things about Indonesian lit-- there's other works out there. There aren't a giant amount but there's a lot of other little things out there, and exciting things out there. 

Alex Chambers:  I would love to hear about Indonesian literature. I know it's crazy. I was thinking about asking this over the course of our conversation and it's like asking someone to talk about the breadth of American literature. There's an incredibly wide range of different kinds of things. 

Tiffany Tsao:  Well I guess I just want to say, it sounds banal if I say it like this, but I just want people to know it's very diverse. Because Indonesia is a very diverse place. Historically, Indonesian literature like any national literature has gone through certain stages and certain movements. So throw all of those into the mix and even now people are writing, just lots of different things and lots of different styles. And then add the fact that Indonesia has quite a vibrant-- I would say in comparison with the west or in comparison with modern day anglofilm publishing. Sorry it's just because my knowledge is very limited, now that I think about things. Newspapers in Indonesia would publish short stories frequently, there are lots of little magazines and lots of little journals that were out there, publishing poetry. As well as like I said, mainstream newspapers and magazines. 

Tiffany Tsao:  So there is that sense of the material literary culture being very vibrant, very vast and in some sense ephemeral. Because those kinds of things were not necessarily documented or made into a book, and I think the Indonesian literary scene transform with globalization. You see more of the emphasis on books, to be considered a quote on quote, "real author, great author". But when Budi Darma was writing in the 1970's, all of his short stories were published in newspapers, magazines, that sort of thing. And he was still considered a very prominent essayist author at the time, even before he did his graduate studies in Bloomington. Which he actually only did when he was in his 40's. 

Alex Chambers:  Yeah so actually I want to get back to that too. Can you tell me a little bit more about his career? 

Tiffany Tsao:  So he was born in 1937 and his father worked in the postal service. So he moved around to various towns in Java, and he did an undergraduate degree in English Literature at Gadjah Mada University, which is a top university in Jakarta, and then he became a university lecturer. So it works a little bit differently in Indonesia, it's often possible to become a lecturer, after having done and undergraduate degree. And then after you start working for the university in that capacity, then you can go back and do your graduate studies. So get a masters or get a PHD, and so that's what Budi Darma did. So he got funding from, I think some foreign organization, Fullbright and then a Ford Foundation Scholarship to do his masters and PHD. So that's that and then went back to Surabaya and continued teaching, at the state university there. 

Tiffany Tsao:  The problem is with Indonesia, I feel like it's hard to quantify it in the same way, because at that time you could get very famous without having published a book. He had a whole issue of a very well known literary journal devoted to his work, before going to Bloomington, Indiana. It's interesting because it makes you realize, the ways we have now of valuing literary work, in this day and age and in this geographic sphere or language sphere, not necessarily, not common sense but they're not just set in stone. 

Alex Chambers:  This is not specifically about people from Bloomington but it is about translation. I was fascinated by your essay, talking about your translation of the book Sergius Seeks Bacchus. And I wonder if you could talk about the struggles you had around gender and queerness, as you were working on that project? 

Tiffany Tsao:  Yes. So as you will have known from reading the essay, actually an Indonesian doesn't have gendered pronouns. So the third person pronoun especially is gender neutral or gender fluid, it's just a third person pronoun. So you can't tell if it's a he or she. That was one issue that came up because, at first I was just worried I was mistranslating pronouns, and so I kept asking the author and Norman Erikson Pasaribu, am I mistranslating this pronoun, is it actually a he? Is it actually a she? And Norman would say, it's actually queer, it's just the pronoun. Yeah so that was interesting and that made me realize, because I think to me I was like, oh look in English, because English has gendered pronouns, it's making these poems come out as queer. And then Norman was like, well I feel like the poems are already queer. But it's just because I was thinking with that English mindset, if that makes any sense. So it's kind of like, oh this pronoun has to be a he or a she, and we need some sort of gender-- we need to reveal the gender, is it a he or she, or they? 

Tiffany Tsao:  But yeah in Indonesian it's sort of effortless. That's not to say that obviously there's not massive homophobia in Indonesia, but yes it's like pronoun wise it's less complicated. 

Alex Chambers:  I was going to say it seems, in a way it seems freeing to have these non gendered pronouns but maybe it's not necessarily, if you still have massive homophobia. 

Tiffany Tsao:  Yeah. I don't want to represent myself as Indonesian because actually I'm just Indonesian heritage and I lived there for a long time. I identify more now, but I'm always worried that someone's going to say, oh she's passing herself off as Indonesian and technically she's not. But yeah what happens in Indonesian, is that then people just assume the pronoun. So they'll assume it's a he or a she. You know the riddles where it's like, a man and his son were driving in a car and they got hit by a train, and then the man died and the son got wheeled into the hospital. And at the sight of him the doctor turns pale and says, I can't operate on him, he's my son. How is that possible? And it's like, oh it's because the doctor is his mother, because we assume the doctor-- so the doctor in that story is the pronoun. The genderless pronoun and people just say, oh it's a he or it's a she. 

Alex Chambers:  Yeah. 

Tiffany Tsao:  In their heads. 

Alex Chambers:  So how did you ultimately deal with that in the book of poems? 

Tiffany Tsao:  I worked very closely with Norman. And yeah we just worked closely together and there's one poem where he basically just translated it on his own in a way. And I just felt like it was important because I'm not queer, to be able to have Norman express the poetry, in the words that he wanted to and the pronouns he wanted. So I just felt like it was important to be led in that situation. Yeah, so that's why we worked really closely together on that. And the same thing for his recent short story collection, Happy Stories Mostly. So that was long listed for the International Booker Prize, which was very exciting for us. But yeah, so similar issues with the pronouns, where even after the whole thing is done, dusted and published, and Norman's like, oh that last one should be a they, or that one I feel like it should be a she, or a he. And you know I was like, "ah". 

Alex Chambers:  If you're just joining us, we've been talking with translator Tiffany Tsao about translating gender neutral pronouns, Indonesian literature and her most recent translation, a book of short stories called, People From Bloomington. When we come back, Tiffany explains, why there are so many old people in the book. Stick around. 

Alex Chambers:  Inner States, Alex Chambers. When Tiffany Tsao was translating the book, People From Bloomington, she noticed the stories were peopled with a lot of old folks. She'd been talking with the author the great Indonesian writer Budi Darma, finally she decided to just ask him. 

Tiffany Tsao:  And you know he said, oh well it's because he encountered so many old people in Bloomington. And he said, that he really loved to go walking, so that's one aspect that also made it into the stories. You can see that there are lots of narrators who enjoy walking a lot, or who will walk throughout Bloomington a lot. And Budi Darma did that, and he said that, it got to the point where he had memorized every street, every alley. And he said, while he was out on these walks, he would encounter old people. And not all of them, but there were some old people who would literally chase him down, to tell him their stories. And he said, one of them showed him a sheriff's badge and talked about how he had been a sheriff, in his younger days. And another person said that, he was a member of a band and they toured The States and it was really exciting. But then proceeded to tell Budi Darma, that one by one all the band members had died, all of his friends had died, and he was the only one left. 

Tiffany Tsao:  And then he said that, he encountered people who would, go out to the supermarket buy a single item, go back home to rest, go out to the supermarket again, another supermarket to buy another item and go back home. Just because they were very lonely. Yeah so that was interesting actually, and I think you can see that loneliness and that-- I mean the old people are cantankerous but also you do feel kind of sorry for them, and I think that's definitely there in the collection. 

Alex Chambers:  Yeah I feel like they're so-- cantankerous does seem like a good word, protective of their own identity and space, and kind of set in their ways. 

Tiffany Tsao:  Yeah. 

Alex Chambers:  Yeah. I mean I guess there's the story about the couple who have the son. But otherwise it seems like mostly the stories are, these younger men and surrounded by older people living in these neighborhoods. And it sounds like some of the things he experienced, were a little bit as odd, as some of the things that happened in the stories too. 

Tiffany Tsao:  Yes. I think that must have been the case, I feel. But his earlier short stories too, the people behave in such strange ways. Maybe that just is also that as well. Yeah from his accounts, he said that he just very much enjoyed his time at Bloomington, he really just enjoyed it. 

Alex Chambers:  That's good to hear, as a Bloomingtonian. It was funny reading it and seeing all the street names, and recognizing so many of the street names. But also knowing that the geography is a little off. A number of the numbered streets, they actually run east/ west but he mentions north and south tenth or whatever. And so there was this really enjoyable experience of having this familiar place made strange. 

Tiffany Tsao:  Yeah that's right. Because at first, while I was translating I had a map of Bloomington, and I would say like, this doesn't join with that street, or this street doesn't exist. And he was like, this is fiction, I have changed some things. And I was like, ah yes okay, keep thinking that it might. 

Alex Chambers:  Yeah it took me a second also to accept that. As I'm reading I'm like, no you didn't get that right, like also this is fiction, so I can accept that. Alright well this is great Tiffany, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. 

Tiffany Tsao:  Yeah, no not at all, thanks Alex. 

Alex Chambers:  That was Tiffany Tsao, a writer and literary translator. Her English translation of Indonesian writer Budi Darma's short story collection, People From Bloomington, was just published by Penguin Classics. Up next we have a review of an old concert that's just been released as a new album. 

Adriane Pontecorvo:  In his early years "Son" House had no intention of becoming a blues-man, he hated secular music with a passion. He was born into a strictly religious family in Lyon, Mississippi in 1902, and named Eddie House Junior. By 15 years old, he was giving sermons, in his early twenties, he became a paid pastor. That job didn't last long, House started drinking and having romantic affairs, and he couldn't bring himself to preach a lifestyle he didn't practice. By 25, "Son" House had left the pulpit, that's when he turned to the blues. It was a chance encounter, House says, he was on a walk one Saturday night, when he ran across local musicians performing at a house party. One of them was playing guitar with a bottleneck and making sounds House had never heard before. 

Adriane Pontecorvo:  He was captivated and spent the next year teaching himself to play. Years of singing in church and his new found love of what he saw, as decidedly non religious music, led House to develop his own style. He layered powerful rhythmic strumming with impassioned lyrics, making for blazing acoustic sounds with a unique intensity. In just a few years, "Son" House had become a blues-mans blues-man. When the legendary Charlie Patton heard House busking, he started inviting him to recording gigs. By 1930, House was making records for Paramount. They didn't sell as well as they'd hoped, but it wasn't for lack of skill. Alan Lomax even recorded House for The Library of Congress Archives in the early 1940's. House was one of many American Americans who moved from rural communities in the south, to urban spaces in the north during The Great Migration. In 1943, he left Mississippi and headed for Rochester, New York. But Rochester wasn't a good place to make it as a blues-man, instead House got a job working in manufacturing that got him through World War Two. 

Adriane Pontecorvo:  Later, he went onto work in one of the few reliable engines of class mobility for black men at the time, he joined the Pullman company as a train porter. Decades past, it wasn't until the mid 1960's that a group of promoters tracked him down. They encouraged him to return to music, in the midst of the folk blues revival, he became a sensation playing at folk festivals across The United States and Europe for the next decade, until his second retirement. One of the early shows of this renaissance was in 1964, at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. "Son" House had just finished a series of live shows, including a set at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, when he started touring Midwestern college campuses, only the Wabash College Show was taped in full, for decades the recording state in the collection of "Son" House's manager Dick Waterman. Now they've been painstakingly remastered and released in the form of new album, Forever On My Mind, out now on Easy Eye Sound. 

Adriane Pontecorvo:  Forever On My Mind is unlike most other live albums, there's hardly a sound from the audience. Just about the only thing we here from start to finish, is "Son" House over the slightly hiss of old tape. It feels fitting, "Son" House's blues always sounds stark, and on Forever On My Mind, he's completely unadorned. As the album starts with it's title track, he plucks out single notes in a slow bare bones melody. That gradually leads him into languid chords. House's voice is as expressive as it's ever been, an appropriately bluesy balance of strong, groaning and gravelly. Even after decades of retirement, he's clearly a capable singer. In a single verse, he will glide from the main vocal line up into easy falsetto, and then ground himself with earthy grunts.  

Adriane Pontecorvo:  We get a better sense of "Son" House, as he launches into preaching blues. He picks up momentum and shows off his sense of humor. "I want to be a baptist preacher so I don't have to work" he sings. The crowd laughs, it's one of the only audience reactions on the whole album and it's a turning point for the whole show. It seems to invigorate House's performance, his vocal delivery gets stronger, his wrists get fuller. From this point forward, there's a new energy to every tune. "Son" House is back in his comfort zone. Each song spins a meaningful narrative on multiple levels, on Empire State Express, House sings about his woman leaving on a train he can't stop. His guitar picks up steady speed, his voice might not quite hit a whistle pitch but the volume is there. It's clear by the end of the song, that the train has left the station. Death Letter comes next, it's a true tragedy, as House mourns a wayward lover who has passed away and reflects on the sorrows intertwined with love. 

Adriane Pontecorvo:  Underscoring the emotion here are House's eerie dissonant chords, spaced out and beyond melancholy. The dynamics of his voice shift to reflect the many facets of grief; pain, anger, sadness, resignation. The rest of the album feels like true archetypal blues, with House singing about heartbreak and hard labor over sparse accompaniment. Every track is a poignant reminder of House's roots, transporting us to the early days of Delta Blues. It's hard to imagine what the room must have felt like, the day that "Son" House came to Wabash College, just from listening to Forever On My Mind. His resonant strings and heartrending vocals, cut through an almost overwhelming silence on every track. Maybe it's the silence of a spellbound audience, "Son" House in the 1960's was still a masterful storyteller. There's as much fire to his singing here, as on any of his early records. 

Adriane Pontecorvo:  Another point crucial to this album, is how much care the Easy Eye Sound team has taken in mastering these recordings. This isn't a surprise, Easy Eye Sound is operated by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, whose production credentials are well established. Still it's easy to overlook the work needed in both respecting and restoring archival music for a contemporary release. Here that work is masterfully subtle, House's instruments, voice and guitar alike are clear and present. The emotion that makes his voice so important comes through in spades. It's been 120 years since "Son" House was born, it's been 58, since he came to Crawfordsville, Indiana, as a master musician all but forgotten. That day he played to a fresh crowd, eager to connect with blues of the past, and he did it superbly. 

Adriane Pontecorvo:  Forever On My Mind, keeps the memory of "Son" House's Wabash College show Alive, an invaluable record of his style, for a new audience of listeners everywhere. 

Alex Chambers:  That was Adriane Pontecorvo reviewing Forever On My Mind, a new release of a 1964 concert by "Son" House, at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. One more thing about people from Bloomington, and I just mean general people from Bloomington now not the book. There's a couple of blocks on Fourth Street with restaurants from around the world. A few years ago, I was out in front of a taco truck, and I heard a theory about why... 

Martin:  I'm Martin, I'm a French native from Bloomington, Indiana. Isn't the story about like, diverse food in Bloomington because during the Cold War, I think the CIA, ask you to get all these departments about different languages. And so they had to bring families from all across the planet. So the families had to find something to do. And so they were creating all these restaurants. At least that's what the myth is about, and what I heard about. I think that's the story. Why do we have so many different languages and departments on campus, and why would we have such an international food street on Fourth Street. 

Alex Chambers:  So you're saying Fourth Street is because of the CIA? 

Martin:  Remotely speaking yeah. Is it anything about the CIA anyway? 

Alex Chambers:  You've been listening to Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. If you have a story for us, or you've got some sound we should hear. Let us know at Speaking of found sound, we've got your quick moment of slow radio coming up, but first the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me Alex Chambers, with support from Eoban Binder, Aaron Cain, Mark Chiller, Michael Paskash, Peyton Waley and Kayte Young. Our executive producer is John Bailey. Special thanks this week to Tiffany Tsao and Adriane Pontecorvo. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar, we have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. Let's listen to something. 

Alex Chambers:  You've been listening to ice cracking with traffic somewhere in Bloomington, Indiana, Winter 2022. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers, thanks for listening. 

People from Bloomington

People from Bloomington, by Budi Darma (Penguin Classics)

The Indonesian writer Budi Darma came to Bloomington, in 1974. Like so many people who come to Bloomington, he was here for school. He was already an established literary figure in Indonesia, as a writer of absurdist short stories. He came here to get a Master’s degree in creative writing, then a PhD in literature. His dissertation was on Jane Austen, if you’re curious about that kind of thing. But more importantly for our purposes: while he was here, he started writing stories inspired by the people around him. He finished the stories in Europe, on his way back to Indonesia, and he published it in 1980. It was called - fittingly - People from Bloomington.

But in spite of the fact that the whole thing takes place in Bloomington, in the heart of the American Midwest, it took 42 years for a translation of People from Bloomington to appear in English. The book came out on April 12th. This week, I talk with the translator, Tiffany Tsao.

Tiffany Tsao
Tiffany Tsao

Tiffany has translated five books from Indonesian into English, and her translations have been shortlisted or won a number of prizes. She also writes her own books. She has a novel called The Majesties, and, so far, two thirds of the Oddfits trilogy, a fantasy series. Like Budi Darma, Tiffany has a PhD in literature from an American university - UC-Berkeley in her case - and she lives in Sydney, Australia. Tiffany and I talked about Indonesian literature, translating stories about loners afraid of other people in the midst the pandemic, Twitter threads, and more.

Music Review

After my conversation with Tiffany, Adriane Pontecorvo reviews Easy Eye Sound’s new release of a 1964 concert at Wabash College by bluesman Son House, Forever On My Mind.


Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music

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