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Five Minutes with Sarah Tiffin February 10, 2017 09:00

When Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles published his landmark book The History of Java in 1817, ruins were far more than the architectural detritus of a former age. Images of ruins reminded people of the transience of human achievements, and stimulated broader philosophical enquiries into the rise and decline of entire empires. In this edition of Five Minutes with ..., we speak with Sarah Tiffin, author of Southeast Asia in Ruins: Art and Empire in the Early 19th Century, who shares with us how art history has become a useful source to understanding colonialism and why portrayals of the "Other" will continue to pique public imaginations.

Colonial art seems undervalued/understudied as a resource that could potentially yield insights into colonial perspectives and preoccupations; why do you think this is so?

Actually, I think a great deal of really interesting and thought provoking work has been done on colonial art, particularly by art historians responding to the ideas initially raised by Edward Said and the ensuing debates surrounding his work. Certainly, their work has had an influence on my own. But I think that in the area I am interested in the work of British artists in Southeast Asiathere is room for a great deal more scholarship. So often in discussions of British art and empire, the work of British artists in Southeast Asia is overlooked. I think the dominance of India in British imperial thinking and experience has had a big part in this, and it is understandable given the huge quantity of materials that were produced as a result of British rule in India. But there is also a wealth of fascinating material relating to the British in Southeast Asia that could generate some really interesting new scholarship.

A painting by William Daniell titled, ‘The large temple at Brambánan’, from T.S. Raffles, The History of Java, Vol. 2 (London: 1817)
(Image courtesy of The Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library)

Your previous book was about the depiction of Chinese poets by a Japanese artist in the seventeenth century. Have you always been intrigued by the politics of representation behind the portrayals of a culture by others?

Do you know, I hadn’t really thought about that connection before as the starting points for my books were very different. My first book was produced for a small art exhibition that was based around a pair of Japanese screens—it explored the iconography of the screens within the context of 17th century Japan. Southeast Asia in Ruins, on the other hand, grew out of a doctoral dissertation and my studies in Southeast Asian history as well as my interest in British art. What I am particularly interested in is socio-political context, in how art reflects the society in which it is created and at the same time, it also influences that society. 

In Southeast Asia in Ruins, you explore how the British saw the ruined candi as evidence of a cultural, and indeed civilisational, decline of Southeast Asian peoples. Did the British apply this line of thinking to their other colonies, or were such notions particular to the Southeast Asian region?

The linking ruins, or images of ruins, with ideas about cultural decline was an essential part of late 18th and early 19th century ruin appreciation. The remains of the past allowed people to derive a melancholic pleasure from contemplating the transience of even the most grandiose of humankind’s deeds and designs, including the demise of entire empires. For British ruin enthusiasts, the fall of civilisation was most throughly associated with Rome—most famously in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—but this thinking was also extended to the remains of past civilisations in other parts of the world. The British response to Southeast Asia’s ruins, then, was not a unique one, but part of a wider expression of ruin sentiment.

A painting by William Daniell titled ‘Prome, from the heights occupied by His Majesty’s 13th Light Infantry’, from James Kershaw, Views in the Burman Empire (London, 1831)
(Image courtesy of The Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

What piqued your interest in images of Southeast Asian ruins that were idealised popular colonial British imagination?

When I first looked at Raffles’ The History of Java, I was struck by the beauty of Daniell’s aquatint ruin plates. I was familiar with the images of Indian architecture he and his uncle Thomas had created for the superb Oriental Scenery, but I had not seen his images of the Javanese remains before and I felt they really deserved more attention. Similarly, the engraved vignettes by a number of British printmakers that are scattered throughout Raffles’s text are really lovely and very fascinating, yet I found very little had been published on them, or on the wealth of archaeological drawings now held in the collections of the British Library, the British Museum and the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. It has been something of a labour of love, and I hope it might encourage other people to look at these wonderful collections for their own research projects. 

William Daniell, A Javan in the court dress (plate from The History of Java by Thomas Stamford Raffles, London : 1817, vol. 1), coloured antiquint
(Image courtesy of the Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library)

What is your next project? Will you return to the museum/gallery scene?

I am currently working on a study of Southeast Asia in 17th century English poetry, prose, pageantry and drama, looking at how authors responded to the aspirations and experiences of English merchants then active in the region, and the changing political and economic imperatives at home and abroad. I’m keen to keep working on this project over the next couple of years, but apart from that, I’m not sure what the future holds! 

Sarah Tiffin
(Image provided by Dr Tiffin)


International Translation Day: Five Minutes with Frank Palmos September 30, 2016 09:20

Why does translation matter?

The rise of works being translated into English in recent years seems to have made that question a rhetorical one, and it is clear that English readers are becoming more interested in literary and non-fiction works that have been written in different languages.

The rousing reception towards translated non-fiction work, like Thomas Piketty’s bestseller, Capital in the 21st Century (translated by Arthur Goldhammer), and literary works like this year’s Man Booker International winner, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith), shows that translators are set to take on a more major role in the world of publishing.

To celebrate International Translation Day, which falls on 30 September every year, we caught up with Frank Palmos, the acclaimed journalist, historian, and translator of works such as Bao Ninh’s award-winning The Sorrow of War, and more recently, Revolution in the City of Heroes, a first-hand account of Indonesian nationalists’ efforts to gain independence from the Dutch in Surabaya in 1945. Here, Dr Palmos shares his experience of translating and why translations are important for the preservation of memory and history.

Translators have been said to be literary activists, given that they play such a strong role in facilitating the travel of stories across borders of language. Can you tell us more about your experience in translating fiction (The Sorrow of War) and non-fiction (Revolution in the City of Heroes)?

The “borders” my languages had to cross borders were very local indeed. I was born in a tiny timber town in Central Victoria and schooled in a tiny one-roomed, six-class school of rarely more than 35 pupils, which was rated a hardship post for teachers, resulting in a rapid turnover of teachers and accents, from harsh Australian to middle-England or Northern Ireland. 

My Irish-descended Australian-born mother, who spoke faultless, wonderfully clear English, married a Greek born man who never did master English (so he spoke with a Greek accent), and I learnt to both imitate and understand at a very early age. My neighbours were Scot-born, tough country folk whose harsh accents were also a good training for me. By the time I was ten years of age, I could entertain my classmates and certain adults by imitating all these accents.

The two books that you have translated deal with very heavy topics such as ideological battles and wars of independence. What draws you to translate stories like this?

I won a United Nations (UN) sponsored Fellowship in Djakarta (as it was known then) in 1961, administered by the Indonesian Foreign Office. Part of the reward was being able to live with Indonesian families of my choosing, which helped me learn about Indonesian people and their habits from early morning until late at night. I soon discovered almost every Indonesian spoke a regional language and Bahasa Indonesia, the national language. Hence I began to speak and mentally translate Sundanese as well as Indonesian when with my first family in Bandung. 

I enjoyed listening to President Sukarno speak so much that I studied hard to attain a level that gave me confidence to request a position as an unofficial translator of President Sukarno’s annual August 17 Independence Day speeches. I was given the requisite passes to the Merdeka Palace and permission to hook up my headphones to an old National radio set. 

President Sukarno (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

I was placed about 25 metres behind the president, facing away from him and towards the large assembly of diplomats and foreign press. I gave a passable simultaneous translation of his 1961 Independence Day speech. I hardly
remembered a word of it, but others said I got almost one half of the speech correct, without missing any important dot points. Sukarno often repeated his main points, which helped. Years later, my UN interpreter colleagues comforted me by saying they, too, hardly remembered any of their simultaneous translations. The brain switches itself into automatic translation gear. 

I found that I liked doing that work and particularly enjoyed answering the telephone in my hosts’ Jakarta homes, successfully conversing without the callers knowing I was a foreigner, although once, Deputy Prime Minister Johannes Leimena called with a message for my host and upon ending the call, asked if my parents were Dutch. “I think I hear a little Dutch accent,” he said. 

How has your background in journalism helped in translating?

The first reason I was comfortable writing the English Version of Bao Ninh’s book was that my original translator of my 1990 book, Ridding the Devils, Madame Hao, was a very reliable technical translator. The second reason was that I did not regard The Sorrow of War as fiction, nor frankly did Bao Ninh, although he had to clothe his stories in certain make belief vignettes. Ridding the Devils was non-fiction, so I wrote Sorrow of War using the same depth of knowledge gained on 33 land, sea and air missions, as a Vietnam War correspondent.

Usually, foreign correspondents do not learn the languages of the countries they report. It is one of the great failings that still exists throughout the western world today, where publishers rarely place correspondents abroad for more than three or four years and do not interest themselves in funding language training or cultural adaptation. I funded my own fare to Indonesia in the days when a flight to Djakarta was the equivalent to AUD $5,000 return today, on a BOAC Comet. 

My interest in Indonesia began in 1961 and will continue until I die. I find no difficulty in retaining my love for Australia, Greece, France, and Singapore, for that matter, where I lived in the dramatic years during the formation (and partial break-up) of Malaysia. But as an historian, I find it my duty to repay the hospitality and friendship of the Indonesian people.

In the Sukarno years (1950–1965) research into the foundations of the Republic were not welcomed because the President felt that “nation building” was more important, and by nation building he meant that to keep the peace he did not wish to place greater credit on one ethnic group over another. The role of Surabaya and East Javanese was not accentuated, yet that was where the Republic finally won a small piece of territory for the fledgling Republic at a time when independence seemed an eventuality many years off.

I have used my research and translation skills and my past friendships with Indonesian leaders, many of whom were founders of the Republic, to write the complete history of the founding of the Republic in 1945. It was printed last week in Bahasa Indonesia, titled Surabaya 1945: Sakral Tanahku (Surabaya 1945: Sacred Territory).

Surabaya after the uprisings on 31 October 1945 (Source: Universities Kristen Petra; this photo is part of the collections at the Imperial War Museum).

However, Revolution in the City of Heroes—the Suhario Padmodiwiryo (alias "Hario Kecik") diary that is known as Student Soldiers in its original form in Bahasa Indonesia—is an important part of Indonesia’s history and of that Surabaya story. Unless I had worked with the author (General Suhario) until his death in December 2014, that history would have been lost. In years to come this generation of modern Indonesians will look back and be thankful that works like Kecik’s are in their National Archives.


Five Minutes with Nicholas Herriman September 23, 2016 15:00

If you thought witch-hunts were a thing of the 17th cenutry, think again.

In 1998, around 100 people were killed for being sorcerers in Banyuwangi, Indonesia. This figure far outnumbers the number of people who were executed during the Salem witch trials of 1692–1693, where 200 were put on trial and 20 were executed.

Nicholas Herriman, a senior lectuerer in Anthropology at La Trobe
University, set out to find out why the killings happened as part of research for his PhD thesis between 2000-2002. His findings and arguments about the Banyuwangi incident are presented in his latest book, Witch-Hunt and Conspiracy: The ‘Ninja Case’ in East Java. We caught up with Dr Herriman to talk about witch-hunts, why anthropology is an important discipline in the study of culture and society, and his interest in podcasts (and making them).

Were the sorcerer killings in Banyuwangi the first cases to pique your interest in witchcraft and magic?

Honestly, yes! Prior to learning about the killings, my interest in Indonesia had focused on cultural performance and literature. I first heard about the sorcerer killings in 1998. The killings troubled by me. I wondered, “How could there be a witch-hunt in modern times?” I also thought, “Who was behind the killings? Who benefitted from the killings?”

These questions, it turned out, were naïve and misplaced. But I asked myself these kinds of questions. Arriving in the field in 2000, I still assumed that the witch-hunt had nothing to do with magic, but was rather tied up with national political interests. While doing fieldwork (2000–2002), I began to realise that witchcraft and magic were crucial to understanding the killings. That was the first time my interest was piqued.

Map of East Java; Banyuwangi is the town closest to the Bali Strait. (Image credit: MGA73bot2, Wikipedia Commons)

In Southeast Asia today, is the belief and practice of black magic and sorcery still very common?

As far as I can tell, belief in and practice of black magic and sorcery are very common. We could qualify that statement, as academics are wont to do, by questioning what we mean by “belief”, “practice”, “magic”, and “sorcery”. Nevertheless, studies from different parts of the region report on widespread suspicions. People suspect that their neighbour, colleague, rival, or whoever it might be draws on extraordinary or unseen powers for immoral ends. The people suspected are from the heights of power to the poorest and disenfranchised.

What were the challenges you faced during your field work in Banyuwangi when you undertook the task of conducting over 100 interviews for ethnographic research?

Professionally, the fieldwork was easy. People readily admitted to killing suspected sorcerers. Indeed, in some cases, they boasted and overstated their roles! By contrast, I struggled, personally. Initially I was horrified—I had to deal with ill health and exhaustion. I kept going primarily because I thought it was crucial to get an accurate historical record this massacre; especially as press and academic reports were so misleading. I wrote Witch-hunt and Conspiracy with this objective in mind. 

This woman believed she had been ensorcelled. Her protruding stomach  is visible from the profile. Dr Herriman is in the background. (Photo courtesy of L. Indrawati)

What are your thoughts about interdisciplinary studies? Upon reading your book, one can see that the historical and political contexts are very important to explaining how local dynamics or reactions to a situation came about (I.e., In your book, the context of 1998 being a period of Reformasi was very important in explaining how locals were reacting to political and social change after the fall of the Suharto government). 

My feeling is that context is crucial in all studies of culture and society. Nevertheless, when I compare the anthropological approach with the interdisciplinary approach, I can discern differences in how to treat this context. Based on my fieldwork, the first book I wrote is called The Entangled State. I wrote this as an anthropologist. I was concerned with how the official treatment of the “problem of sorcery” in Banyuwangi could relate to anthropological theories about the state. I contended that the state was entangled in local communities. Because of this, I argued, senior bureaucrats are hamstrung in trying to contain the “problem of sorcery”.

Witch-hunt and Conspiracy is the second book I have written from my research on the sorcerer killings. I have focused closely on the killings themselves and attempted to understand them as an interplay between local dynamics and larger developments. I see this book as an interdisciplinary study in an area studies tradition. I like a diversity of approaches. The paradox of knowing the world is that each different understanding brings both insights and limitations. So I see pros and cons to both anthropological and interdisciplinary area studies.

So how did your academic background shape the way you approached the killings?

As a philosophy student I was introduced to the skepticism of David Hume and others. I was profoundly disturbed by questions about how we know what we think we know. Of course, I have no greater insight into these problems than most people. So the skeptical attitude remained with me. In research and writing Witch-hunt and Conspiracy, I continually challenged and questioned myself. In fact, after months and months of fieldwork the patterns of the killings began to seem clearer to me. I had begun to feel there was no conspiracy behind the killings. Yet I still did not trust appearances. So, for instance, when I interviewed people I would ask, “So who was behind the conspiracy?” Assuming that the truth remains hidden from me was my modus operandi in researching Witch-hunt and Conspiracy.  I wanted, as much as possible, to be sure of my findings.

You are known as the “Audible Anthropologist”, having done a podcast series about anthropological concepts. What got you thinking about doing a podcast series as a way of promoting anthropology as a field of discipline and interest? And are you thinking of doing another season of podcasts, or a new series of podcasts?

I teach anthropology at university. Some of my students coming into second year subjects are new to anthropology.  I wanted a quick and easy introduction to anthropological concepts. What I found online seemed more suitable for advanced learners. So I decided to produce a crash course myself. I asked La Trobe’s Matt Smith what to do. Matt currently produces La Trobe’s Asia Rising podcasts and other publications. Matt suggested a series of podcasts entitled “The Audible Anthropologist”. I then set myself a target of recording on a concept every workday for 25 days. This would stop me from over-complicating the content. Matt also got me studio time, told me how to record, and he edited the files. I hope that the result is a simplified introduction that even high school students could use. I got great feedback about that series, so I already have another series of podcasts on iTunesU. It’s called “Witch-hunts and Persecution”. This presents an anthropological view on past and present witch-hunts. It is part of my attempt to understand what I have presented in Witch-hunt and Conspiracy, in relation to witch-hunts internationally and throughout history.


Goenawan Mohamad at the Singapore Writers Festival 2015... November 09, 2015 15:19

It was NUS Press' pleasure to host Goenawan Mohamad in Singapore for a few days, in particular for his keynote speech at the Singapore Writers Festival special programme on Indonesia, "17,000 Islands Dreaming..."

Thanks for everyone who came along for the speech, which we thought was fascinating, and for the excellent questions from the audience.  The event was well attended, and the Straits Times gave it a fine write-up: ‘Goenawan Mohamad: "I write to liberate the language’:

"At his hour-long talk at the Singapore Writers Festival on Saturday 31st October, Goenawan, 74, charmed the 125-strong audience at The Arts House Chamber with his unwavering faith in the power of writing and his unexpected humour.

"At first glance, he is perfectly unassuming: a narrow-shouldered gentleman scholar who speaks of Plato and Russian literature with ease and authority, half-vanished under a roomy black jacket.
"But when he speaks, there is a fire to him. When the topic turns to writing in Indonesia, where language and the freedom of expression cannot shake off government scrutiny, Goenawan's first response is: 'When I write, the first urge is to liberate the language'."

A few days later, the Straits Times followed up with a book review of Faith in Writing:

"This is Goenawan's charm: grounding weighty insights into politics and power by relating them to the mundane and quotidian.

"In these short, powerfully composed essays - most are two to three pages long - his voice and force of personality ring through."
Thanks to Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh for the excellent write-up. And thanks to the Singapore Writers Festival for creating such a good platform for readers to meet writers.