Who Are the Real Villains in “The Majesties”?
Tiffany Tsao on Western gatekeeping and the future of Indonesian literature
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The opening of Tiffany Tsao’s The Majesties does not let you get away with murder: “When your sister murders three hundred people, you can’t help but wonder why – especially if you were one of the intended victims.” Dying in a hospital bed, Gwendolyn Sulinado recounts how her sister Estella enters the hotel kitchen in her gorgeous cheongsam to poison their whole family. One can imagine mystery and a femme fatale with a chignon, but the novel, despite being a page-turner and longlisted for the Australian Ned Kelly Award for Crime Fiction, transcends the boundaries of genre (“crime”/ “thriller”) or category (“Asian family drama”).
First published in Australia as Under Your Wings, The Majesties is a journey to unearth past events that led to Estrella’s monstrous act, a haunted world filled with secrets, deceits, destruction, and family bonds thicker than blood, prompting us to question: Who are the real monsters? As we track the sisters’ footprints from California to Melbourne, we uncover more layers, including a tale of two sisters and gender expectations in a morbid family web as well as the complex position of the Chinese elites within Indonesia’s violent history.
Born in San Diego and raised in Jakarta and Singapore, Sydney-based writer and literary translator Tiffany Tsao brings reflections on her cosmopolitan background and Indonesian heritage into the dark, rich story of the Sulinado family. The theme of in-between-ness was explored in her previous The Oddfits novels, a fantasy series set in Singapore about a boy who does not fit in. In the international sphere of global publishing and literary translation, Tsao is known as a staunch supporter of underrepresented voices in literature. When I first met her in Sydney in 2016, she was the Indonesia-Editor-at-Large at Asymptote, actively seeking and promoting writers from Indonesia, a country that is relatively marginal at the global literary stage and a home she has been increasingly attached to. Since then she has been involved in various translation and curatorial projects, including A World with a Thousand Doors, an Asymptote Translation Tuesday series showcasing Indonesian writing, and Intersastra Unrepressed series, which presents translations of works that are often sidelined or suppressed. Her translation of Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s poetry collection, Sergius Seeks Bacchus was the winner of the English PEN Presents and English PEN Translates awards.
Prior to the publication of The Majesties in the U.S., we conversed about the themes of family secrets, monstrosity, and history, why she chose to portray the wealthy Chinese Indonesian family as villains instead of victims of anti-Chinese prejudice, the problems of the Anglophone literary standards and what we can do to disrupt power structures.
Intan Paramaditha: The Majesties is a gothic family drama, a thrilling page turner, and a cultural and political critique. Tell me a little bit where the idea came from.
Tiffany Tsao: Wow, where do I start? My first book, The Oddfits, was set in Singapore, where I spent a lot of my childhood. But for my second novel, I wanted to draw on the Chinese Indonesian side of my identity, which I really only began to recognize and connect with quite late in life, in my early twenties.
Interestingly enough, in the very initial stages of writing, I intended to use wealthy Chinese Indonesian society simply as a backdrop. My desire was to focus mainly on the issue of familial secrecy—whether keeping unpleasant facts hidden might in fact be kinder than exposing everything and everyone for what they really are. But as I began fleshing out the novel’s thematic concerns and narrative structure, I rapidly realized that it was impossible to ignore the social and political issues influencing the characters I wanted to write. After all, the domestic sphere is an extension of the political and social and economic realm—what happens outside the home directly affects what happens inside it.
So while the novel is certainly about a family’s dark secrets, it is also about how this particular family’s dark deeds are partly an outgrowth of the darkness that surrounds them—corruption, anti-Chinese prejudice, and conditions that have given rise to an immense divide between society’s richest and the poorest.
The Indonesian historian Ong Hok Ham once observed that the anti-Chinese policies of the Dutch colonizers and New Order government were responsible for molding the ethnic Chinese into “economic animals.” To draw a parallel example from fiction, Frankenstein’s monster becomes monstrous because of the monstrous conditions he is subjected to. Similarly, the rich characters of The Majesties end up conforming to the most monstrous stereotypes of the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia—insular, money-minded, suspicious of pribumi (“native”) Indonesians—partly because of the measures they take to ensure their wellbeing in the face of discrimination.
IP: Some of the most important discourse about contemporary Indonesian history is about the traumatic racial violence against the ethnic Chinese minority in May 1998. Since the ‘98 political reform, Indonesian artists and activists have tried to address this history of violence through books, films, or performing arts. How do you see your work in dialogue with this discourse?
TT: I’m glad you asked this question because while writing the novel I found myself asking: To what extent is it even possible for a work about anti-Chinese hostility in Indonesia not to focus on the events of May 1998? After all, there are extremely good reasons why May 1998 has been so critical to discussions of prejudice against the Chinese: the targeted attacks on the ethnic Chinese were utterly horrific, and it has taken years and years of hard work from activists, artists, and courageous survivors to get any acknowledgement from the government and general public that these attacks were in fact organized—and that the military itself was involved.
Nevertheless, I personally didn’t feel comfortable with making May 1998 the focal point of this work. I was one of the fortunate and moneyed individuals who boarded a plane and left the country on the morning the violence broke out. My mother, siblings, and I watched the events reported live on CNN and BBC from Singapore, much like the Sulinado and Angsono families do in the novel. (Although my father remained in Jakarta, as did my paternal grandparents who lived near Glodok, where most of the violence occurred.) I feel an immense guilt about this—about having been able to leave when so many people simply couldn’t. How could I write in any meaningful way about May 1998 when my privileged circumstances enabled me to avoid it all together?
And so rather than being about ethnic Chinese suffering, The Majesties is about what it takes to avoid such suffering. Or to put it another way, instead of foregrounding Chinese Indonesian characters who are the victims of anti-Chinese prejudice, the novel is about a Chinese Indonesian family that accrues wealth and takes drastic measures so they do not have to be victims—with the result that they turn villain instead. So even as the novel is a critique of the dysfunction that accompanies wealth, it is by extent a critique of the racism that encourages individuals to ruthlessly accumulate wealth in order to ensure safety for themselves and their own.
IP: Since the May ‘98 riots, there has been a tendency to romanticize the Chinese heritage in Indonesian popular culture, which ironically co-exists with ongoing prejudice and discrimination. How does your writing about a wealthy Chinese Indonesian family respond to this?
TT: I do understand the logic behind this romanticization: what more obvious way to counter negative stereotypes and encourage the inclusion of the ethnic Chinese in Indonesian society than to affirm Chinese culture as worth celebrating? And I think it’s easy for both Chinese and non-Chinese people pushing for more inclusivity for Chinese Indonesians to fall into this trap. But in my opinion, romanticization only encourages a very superficial acceptance of Chinese culture—or what people end up thinking constitutes “Chinese culture.” Furthermore, I worry it bolsters perceptions of the Chinese population as a monolithic mass whose members all operate in standard and static “Chinese” ways.
The Sulinado family in the novel, as well as the Angsono family, offer examples of how it’s possible to identify and be identified as ethnic Chinese, yet practically speaking not be very “Chinese” at all. To quote an early chapter, the affinity they feel for their “ancestral land” is marked by “both solidarity and distance,” and at one point the narrator makes a snide remark about how the notion that the family is 100% pure ethnic Chinese is simply delusional—“as if no drop of native pribumi blood coursed through our own veins.” The family is also fairly Westernized in many respects: the goods they consume as members of high society include luxury goods from Paris, college degrees from Australia, holiday homes in California, aristocrat husbands from Europe, and the globalized charismatic Christian subculture that originated in the US.
IP: The Australian title of The Majesties is Under Your Wings, which is a biblical allusion. To what extent does the novel respond to the concepts and rhetoric of Christianity?
TT: To quite a large extent. The novel’s Australian title comes from the novel’s epigraph, which is a passage from Psalm 17, where the poet pleads to God, “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.” I am by nature a very frank person, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to see that there is a mercy and kindness in not subjecting people to certain truths, to keeping them in the shadows, so to speak. (I suppose there’s a similar message in the Lulu Wang film The Farewell.) I think you find traces of this here and there in the Bible: divine mercy depicted as refuge from the sun alongside the more common associations of divinity with sunlight, with revelation and the exposure of truth. If you think about it, Jesus dying in the place of sinful humankind is a merciful deception—a switcheroo on a cosmic scale.
Apart from drawing on my own personal theological ponderings to write The Majesties, I desired no less for the novel to offer insight into the sociocultural phenomenon of Christianity within the Chinese Indonesian community. Due to various historical reasons (including the Suharto regime’s discouragement of “Chinese” cultural, and by extension, religious practices), a significant percentage of Chinese Indonesians now identify as Christian. And particular strains of charismatic Christianity (think megachurches, televangelists, and prosperity theology) have become immensely popular. Many members of my own family became “born-again” Christians following the events of 1998—like many of the characters in the novel.
Even as The Majesties is deeply skeptical of the mass religious revival and conversion that swept through the Chinese Indonesian community in the late 1990s and 2000s, I didn’t mean it to be wholly condemnatory either. Characters like Nikki, even Leonard, are genuinely, desperately searching for something genuinely good and true to dedicate themselves to in the midst of the superficiality and decadence of the society into which they’ve been born.
IP: The Majesties also calls into question the expectations and stereotypes of Asians in the Western world. How was this critique shaped by your own cosmopolitan background as someone born and educated in the U.S. and currently living in Australia? What kind of intervention do you wish to make in conversations around Chinese cosmopolitanism and diaspora?
TT: My experiences moving around have definitely prompted me to think about the differences between being Asian in a Western context and being Asian in Asia. More specifically, I’ve had cause to think a lot about the different expectations and subcultures surrounding Chineseness in a Western context, versus in Singapore, versus in Indonesia.
I was born in the U.S., so I have a U.S. passport, which technically made me Chinese American, even though my family moved back to Southeast Asia when I was 3. In fact, my mother would often tell friends that I was ABC—“American-Born Chinese”—and so until my early teens, I assumed that I was Chinese American. But then I began reading books by Chinese American authors like Lawrence Yep and Amy Tan, and interacting with actual Chinese Americans, and I realized there was a whole sub-culture associated with Chinese Americannness that actually didn’t apply to my own experiences: certain tropes, jokes, cultural signifiers. Moving to the US for college cemented it: I was Chinese American on paper and my accent was more or less American-sounding (thanks to my attending international schools), but that was about it.
And it’s not just about being ethnic Chinese in a Western context versus in an Asian context either. In Singapore, if you’re Chinese, you’re in the majority, you’re in power, which isn’t the case in Indonesia. And in Singapore, whether you’re Chinese Singaporean or recently emigrated from mainland China matters too—there’s discrimination against the latter. And in Indonesia, whether your family is peranakan or totok—less or more culturally Chinese—can play a factor as well. And of course, class matters a lot, needless to say. Growing up in a wealthy family meant that I was insulated from racism’s effects—money buys you sanctuary from a lot of bad things.
I’m not sure I expect The Majesties to make any groundbreaking interventions, but I hope it continues to nudge conversations in the direction of more sensitivity to context. Asian American notions of what is “Asian” and Chinese American notions of what is “Chinese” aren’t necessarily universal.
IP: As a writer and translator, you are deeply engaged in cultural activism. You have written articles on the problems of Anglophone standards in literature and national/ global literary gatekeeping that promote certain works while rendering others invisible. Why do these issues matter to you? What changes do you wish to see?
TT: I think these issues matter to me because I am so disillusioned now. Five years ago, back when I didn’t know what I know now about the publishing industry, when I had barely dipped a toe into the lake that is literary translation, I naively believed in the soundness of these standards. I believed that when books in different languages did get translated, did get glowing reviews, did get stocked in major bookstores, it meant that those books were “the best” in some way.
But as I gained more experience in the literary translation industry, and saw more of what was happening on the Indonesian literary translation scene, I realized that which works were considered “appealing” enough to present to publishers for their consideration, or to eventually publish and support publicity-wise, was contingent not only on whether a work was sufficiently “Indonesian” enough in content, but whether it conformed to certain “literary” aesthetic standards that could actually be quite culturally subjective. For example, a poem that is praised for being moving and tender might be dismissed as “cheesy” or “melodramatic.” Or a story that isn’t set in Indonesia or overtly (exotically) “Indonesian” in content might receive a lot less interest from publishers.
In short, I see now just how broken The System is—that no, the cream won’t always rise to the top because the Anglophone world has very specific ideas about what kind of foreign cream it likes to consume. Therefore, more than ever before, I think it’s important to challenge The System’s standards. To at least get people to realize that what should be the most open-minded branch of the publishing industry—literature in translation—can actually be very close-minded as well.
What changes do I wish to see? I want us all to shed our preconceived notions of what books from country X or Y should look like. I want publishers to challenge their own reading tastes and that of their readers. I want Anglophone publishers’ lists to be overwhelmingly international, so that works in translation won’t have to compete with each other for a meager few slots. I also want a griffin. But griffins aren’t real, so grant me my other wishes, please!
IP: As a former Indonesia-at-large editor for Asymptote, you have played an important role in introducing Indonesian literature to the wider public. For instance, with Norman Erikson Pasaribu, you co-curated the Translation Tuesday series showcasing Indonesian writing, and most of the authors featured were women. Curating, editing, and programming are, of course, exercises of power. How do we develop curatorial strategies that challenge power structures?
TT: Phew. Big question. I think a good general “rule of thumb” might be to aim for maximum redistribution of power. So, perhaps, we should try, perpetually, to think beyond obvious or easy choices when it comes to choosing which authors to select for publications or awards, and which people we ask to act as curators and judges.
Also, maybe the fame that certain writers possess could be deployed to make space for still more writers—I know this was partly the rationale behind Norman’s and my decision to kick off the Translation Tuesday series with two female authors who are very well-known in Indonesia. We hoped that harnessing their “star power” would heighten visibility for the series as a whole, so that the following writers would benefit from a bigger readership. (If you want to read the series, you can start here and work your way backward via the links.) I do think that once you become more well-known as an author, you should think about how you might use the attention to shed more light on authors who deserve more recognition.
IP: It is exciting to see The Majesties travel the world and the novel is currently being translated into Indonesian. Is it even important for international readers to know Indonesian literature? Which literary works and initiatives should be heard?
TT: You have no idea how happy I am that Norman is translating The Majesties into Indonesian. It’s been an absolute pleasure and honor to translate Norman’s work, and I’m pleased and honored that he is translating mine.
And that first question—what a question! Of course it’s important for international audiences to know Indonesian literature! And that second question—also, what a question! Especially since we’ve just spoken about subjective standards and gatekeeping. To avoid this clever trap you’ve laid for me, I’m going to follow the example you’ve set with your own stellar list for Lit Hub and observe first that this tiny list reflects my own biases and politics, not to mention ignorance.
A few months ago, I read Ruhaeni Intan’s novella Arapaima and it made me super excited. Its depiction of life as a young working-class woman is powerfully bleak and dark, and I’m looking forward to reading more from her. I hope to see her work translated some day. I’d also like to see the novel Api Awan Asap by the late Benuaq Dayak writer Korrie Layun Rampan in English as well. When it comes to ethnic minority and First-Nations literary representation within Indonesia, Korrie Layun Rampan was a pioneer.
In terms of what is available in English: one of my favorite “classic” works is Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk by Ahmad Tohari, which is set in a Javanese village before and during the anti-Communist purges of 1965. It’s about a woman who is, essentially, destroyed by the patriarchy. It’s been published in English as The Dancer. People know about Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet, but my favorite work of his is Bukan Pasar Malam (It’s Not An All Night Fair). And with all my heart, Intan, let me recommend your spine-tingling feminist short-story collection Apple and Knife, as well as your upcoming novel The Wandering, which is groundbreaking and rich and sly.
Some Indonesian authors write in English or self-translate their works. Poetry by Madina Malahayati Chumaera and Khairani Barokka spring to mind, as well as Eliza Vitri Handayani’s novel, From Now On Everything Will be Different. I read Theodora Sarah Abigail’s essay collection In the Hands of a Mischievous God last year, and it was raw and blue and made me very melancholy for a while.
It’s my happy duty to endorse the authors I translate: Dee Lestari’s Paper Boats and Laksmi Pamuntjak’s The Birdwoman’s Palate were the first two books I translated, and I enjoyed the process of rendering them into English. I solemnly swear that Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s heartbreaking and heartening poetry collection Sergius Seeks Bacchus will change your life. Also, stay tuned for my translations-in-progress, which are still in search of a publisher: Norman’s queer and fantastic Happy Stories, Mostly (that’s the working title); Budi Darma’s wickedly humorous and strange collection, The People of Bloomington; and Dee Lestari’s awesome fantasy novel about scent, ambition, and a power-hungry plant, Aroma Karsa.
Regarding initiatives: I encourage everyone to support the Indonesian arts organization, InterSastra. I’m the translation editor for their most recent literature series, Unrepressed. The series’ purpose is to highlight literary works that tackle controversial topics, and also to provide publishing and training opportunities for emerging writers and translators. Another very cool recent initiative, spearheaded by Khairani Barokka for Modern Poetry in Translation, is this digital pamphlet My Body Is Stone, My House Is the Moon. It was produced in conjunction with Lakoat.Kujawas—a social enterprise and community organization based in Mollo, Timor and founded by the Indonesian writer Dicky Senda. I’d also love for Dalang Publishing to receive more recognition than it has so far. They’re a small California-based press dedicated to publishing Indonesian writers in English.