A chat with Tiffany Tsao

Every year Desperate Literature runs a prize for short fiction, aiming both to celebrate the best of new short fiction and to give winners the most visibility possible for their writing. We offer two residencies, cash prizes, agency meetings, publishing and manuscript assessment.

We sat down with judge Tiffany Tsao to talk about her work, having won the PEN Translation Prize (!!), and what she looks for in a short story.

Interviewer – Emily Westmoreland, prize coordinator

“There’s a whole art in [the short story],
the art of restraint”

Firstly I wanted to say thank you for joining me. Today I wanted to talk to you about your role as a judge for the Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize. But before I even ask you any questions, I wanted to say, “congratulations!” because since you came on board as a judge you’ve won a prize yourself: the PEN Translation Prize for People from Bloomington, so congratulations!

Thank you!

I feel like it’s a great jumping point to ask you, what do literary prizes mean for people working in this world?

I think they’re useful. I mean, I hate to use that word. It sounds so utilitarian or practical. But sometimes even if the prize, and there aren’t a lot of prizes that come with a lot of money, I think prizes act as a little flag—not a red flag!—a good flag. A little flag on the top of your head that says, “Look at me!” Then, you get second looks from publishers if you’re working in the translation industry or if you’re writing. You get another look. People all of a sudden want to do things with you, or ask you to do things for gigs or jobs. That can be useful. I would say that I’m always a bit—well, I shouldn’t say this as a prize judge—but sometimes I’m skeptical… 

I think the person who wins the prize is always good, but at some point I know that there always reaches a point in judging a prize where you’re judging several very, very good things, and that it becomes increasingly difficult to choose the final winner or the finalists in all of that. So I am a bit wary about using them entirely as a very distinctive marker quality, because at some point you just have a lot of very good entries. The judges have to end up just picking one.

Yeah. Sometimes, it’s about what hits the zeitgeist in the moment rather than the calibre of the writing.

Hopefully it’s not not about calibre. Hopefully it’s not what this prize will be about.

No, that’s why the whole shortlist gets a prize. Talking about publicity and people noticing you and your work, I have been following you for a long time because I know that you’ve been a real activist for translators in this space, fighting for royalties for translators and having translator’s names published on the front covers of books and things like this. I just wanted to know how this process started for you and where you feel like we’re at with that journey as an industry.

I’m very cognisant and I try to campaign for translators’ rights where I can, but sometimes I feel like I’m more passive compared to some translators who are being more vocal. But when I do say something, it  comes out of a  desire for justice or fairness. As a translator you work so hard and in many ways you absorb and spend so much time on translating someone else’s words, gestating someone else’s words. It just seems to make sense to heed that. And, also, as a translator, the more you work, the more you realize how much of an art there is, a craft, and that every time you’re working you’re continuing to hone it further and further. It’s a bit like writing. And so that art needs to be recognised in some way. I think it’s a shame when it isn’t. 

You know, having said that, I also think that it’s actually quite complicated because sometimes there’s also a risk, where if the translator happens to be more privileged or maybe from a European or English-speaking background, they sometimes might get more coverage than the original writer, or all of the success is attributed to the translator and not the writer. I don’t think that’s quite fair either, because then you’re replicating a problem. Especially since translation has a history of being a colonial act. So I think it’s actually quite complicated. When people do reduce it to a “name the translator” debate, I mean, naming the translator is important, of course, but I think it’s also difficult to just reduce it to that. There are a lot of factors that come into play when you consider what is right or fair or good. When campaigning for translators’ rights in balance with authors’ rights, thinking about who the author is and are they privileged?, or who is more privileged between the author and the translator? is important. Things like that.

I love the nuance. Nuance is really important.

[laughs] I feel like the person who’s like, “Yeah, but…”

Does this inform your practice as a translator? Do you aim to work collaboratively with the writer at all stages?

I have tended to. My authors have all been in a position to comment on the English translation. They’ve all had a reasonably good grasp of English. I will often pester them a lot. I think perhaps I’m more uncertain than one would think, because I have a tendency to be anxious over these very small wording choices or details and I’ll get really hung up and think, “Oh, I need to ask the author,” but then I don’t want to bother the author too much. So I try to reach a middle ground and I let my questions sit for a while before I compile them and decide that I do need to ask the author. But I love asking the author because you get so much feedback and…


It can be enlightening. They have great ideas. So I work very collaboratively with Norman Erikson Pasaribu, for example. That’s probably my most collaborative author-translator relationship. They will comment on something or suggest something and I feel like of course we need to incorporate it because they’re the author! And they are able to comment on the English editions, so it makes complete sense. Also, they are queer, and the point is to amplify queer voices through the translation, not just squash them and ignore their suggestions.

Exactly. And speaking about Happy Stories, Mostly, specifically, do you feel like your act of translation was almost political in the sense that Norman writes queer stories in a place where LGBTQI rights are being stripped? Was that ever an element of your collaboration?

Yeah, I think so, because there are many things that you do because they’re the right thing to do and they’re inherently political. That was definitely the case. I remember coming across Norman’s poetry and Norman’s self-translations of poetry—that’s actually how I found them first—and I remember thinking it would be cool to translate a queer voice from Indonesia. And of course, it goes without saying that I was attracted to Norman’s poems.

So the last two… I don’t know if they’re the last two projects you’ve worked on, but the last two published projects that you’ve worked on have both been short story collections. I wondered if this is your preferred form? What do you look for in a short story?

I don’t think I have a preference regarding form. I do tend to gravitate towards prose rather than poetry, but that’s just my tendency. But for short stories, these were just lovely to work with, and both of them I just found so captivating to work on as a translator. What do I look for in a short story? I think it just has to be impactful. It’s a bit like poetry, right? It’s so condensed, much more than a novel. For a novel, you can… I don’t want to say “get away with,” but you don’t necessarily have to have so much richness or denseness to it. But I feel like for a short story it’s quite important. I also am just a big fan in general of structure, innovative structure is very fascinating to me, in a novel as well as on a short story level. I find that you can do quite cool things with how you structure a narrative, points of view, chronology, all of that, in ways that are equally as masterful and important as paying attention to the nature of the language or the prose itself.

Do you write short stories yourself, or just novels?

I used to write short stories. I think I’ve written, like, three, and I don’t think they were as good as my novel. I am actually a huge admirer of people who can write short stories, because my tendency is towards longer, flabby things. I write essays, but not short stories anymore, and it’s because whenever I start writing a short story, I tend to want to make everything longer, flesh it out. But it’s just so brilliant how a short story knows where to stop. It doesn’t just go on, it doesn’t fill it out, it knows where to stop. It’s almost like you don’t need much to write a short story. There’s a whole art in that, the art of restraint.

How does your art of translation inform your own novel writing practice?

I think it gives me ideas. For example, I didn’t pay nearly as much attention to rhythm, the rhythm of words until I started translating. That made a big difference with my own writing because I noticed the rhythm more when I translated. There is a pace that you want in prose, and I began to be able to identify: this sentence feels too short, or this sentence feels too long. That was a big thing. There’s just something about getting into the inner workings of how another writer is using style, using language, that maybe you have to pay more attention to as a translator. I try to read widely, also, in order to get ideas or inspiration with my own writing. But with translation you’re almost forced to do it, because that’s what you’re replicating or doing justice to.

Is there anything that hasn’t made it to the anglosphere for Indonesian literature that you have your eye on, that you wish to catapult into the world?

Well, I’ve recently started on a co-translation project with Norman Erikson Pasaribu, author of Happy Stories, Mostly. It looks like we will be co-translating a sample, at first. We won the English PEN Presents competition to translate a sample of Ziggy Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie’s novel. The working title is So Long, Noisy Lane. In Indonesian it’s Kita Pergi Hari Ini. And that is a very interesting novel. It starts out kind of like Mary Poppins, and then you realize partway through that it’s much, much darker.

I love this! Final questions. What are you looking forward to most about judging the Desperate Literature Prize this year?

I’m just very excited to get to read a bunch of really cool short stories. That’s probably the first thing. I guess the other thing is that I’ve only ever been on a judging panel once before, so I’m very excited about being able to have this conversation with my fellow judges, Ottessa and Mariana. That’s very exciting.

Finally, what are you reading at the moment?

I am reading a few things. I’m reading this [holds up book]: this is a scholarly book that I’m using for research for my novel. It’s called Migration in a Time of Revolution: China, Indonesia, and the Cold War by Taomo Zhou. I’m also reading Isabel Waidner’s We Are Made of Diamond Stuff.

One of the bookstores that we work with in London for the Prize published that!

Oh, cool! I’m reading that, and I’m reading this one [holds up another book], which is Indonesian. It’s a translation by Jennifer Lindsay, and it’s by an Indonesian writer called Ashadi Siregar. The title is Rejection, but in Indonesian, the title is Menolak Ayah, which kind of means “rejecting father.” So that’s interesting as well. And I just finished Human Acts, which is by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith. It’s so good! That one just took my breath away. I’m trying to take some inspiration from that.

Then you’ll have to write a short novel!

Oh no, this is not going to be short [laughing]. But you know, that’s just the way it goes. Well, I don’t know actually. Maybe it will be short. I’ve written it all longhand, because that’s the only way I can write novels now. And then I have to type it all up. So usually by that stage I realize how short it is and it ends up getting a bit longer.

Wow, what an amazing way to write a novel! I didn’t think anyone was still handwriting.

Some people do! And I got the idea from the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival. I think this was before any of my work had been published. I was at a panel and it had Minae Mizumura on it and also Tash Aw, and they both said that they wrote the drafts of their novels longhand because it’s just very difficult for them to type. When they type, they just tend to go back and revise all the time. And I thought to myself, “Maybe I should try that.” Because I had been having that same problem. I had been stuck on chapter three or something of the draft I was working on forever, and then I began to write, and I was like, “Oh, this is terrible writing, it’s absolutely terrible, but it’s working! I’m moving forward.” It helps me develop the skeleton. As I’m writing, I’ll realize, “Oh, this is not something I want. I’ll have to change this detail later,” and things like that, but then you just keep writing until the end, and you can change it all afterwards. Since then, after  my first  novel, I’ve started writing my fiction  longhand.

That’s amazing!

Yeah, it’s fun.