Monday 11 May 2020

Talented Writer & Translator Tiffany Tsao Chats With Elaine Chiew About The Majesties

Book cover design by James Iacobelli
and artwork by Joseph Lee
Tiffany Tsao is a writer and literary translator. She is the author of The Majesties, as well as the Oddfits fantasy series (to date: The Oddfits and The More Known World). Her translations of Indonesian authors include Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, Paper Boats by Dee Lestari, and The Birdwoman’s Palate by Laksmi Pamuntjak. 

 Gwendolyn and Estella have always been as close as sisters can be. Growing up in a wealthy, eminent, and sometimes deceitful family, they’ve relied on each other for support and confidence. But now Gwendolyn is lying in a coma, the sole survivor of Estella’s poisoning of their whole clan.

As Gwendolyn struggles to regain consciousness, she desperately retraces her memories, trying to uncover the moment that led to this shocking and brutal act. Was it their aunt’s mysterious death at sea? Estella’s unhappy marriage to a dangerously brutish man? Or were the shifting loyalties and unspoken resentments at the heart of their opulent world too much to bear? Can Gwendolyn, at last, confront the carefully buried mysteries in their family’s past and the truth about who she and her sister really are?

Traveling from the luxurious world of the rich and powerful in Indonesia to the most spectacular shows at Paris Fashion Week, from the sunny coasts of California to the melting pot of Melbourne’s university scene, The Majesties is a haunting and deeply evocative novel about the dark secrets that can build a family empire—and also bring it crashing down.

EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Tiffany. Congratulations on The Majesties, an absorbing, brilliantly-structured read. The writing is sublime. The book begins with a huge bang – a rich young Chinese-Indonesian murders all three hundred of her relatives and friends at her grandfather’s birthday bash. What inspired this novel, and how long did it take to write?

TT:  At the time, I was thinking a lot about secrecy: in the context I grew up in, not bringing something hurtful or unpleasant to light is not necessarily always a malicious act, but rather, an act of consideration and maintaining harmony—an act of love, if you will. (Lulu Wang has expressed this well in The Farewell.) Yet at the same time, secrecy is something that, personally, I struggle to understand. I’m by nature a frank person, and until that point in time, right before I began conceptualizing The Majesties, I perceived it as very black and white: secrecy was bad, laying everything bare was good. 

But I had begun dwelling more on the strange mercy in keeping the bad things secret: overlooking the egregious is, in a way, how we continue to love the people nearest to us, and how we love ourselves. I’m not saying that secrecy is morally admirable, per se, but I wanted to explore how secrecy functions as a survival mechanism—for coping with the flaws and sins of others, and the small and large crimes we ourselves commit everyday. 

I also wanted to write a novel set in the wealthy Chinese-Indonesian circles with which I have some personal familiarity. Anti-Chinese sentiment continues to be widespread in Indonesia, but I feel that attempts to counter it often overlook the fact that there are a handful of families who conform to stereotypes about wealthy, insular Chinese. In doing so, they overlook the fact that the “insular Chinese tycoon” is actually a real phenomenon, a creation of the colonial Dutch and Suharto administrations to develop and exploit the Chinese as “economic animals” (to use a term deployed by the Chinese-Indonesian historian Ong Hok Ham). I wanted the novel to critique the corruption that can accompany wealth, and also to critique the racism that encourages individuals to ruthlessly accumulate wealth to insulate themselves against such discrimination.

When I look back on how long it took to write The Majesties, I realize it was a very drawn-out process, though it certainly felt frantic in the moment. I began sketching it out in November 2013 (during the Singapore Writers’ Festival, actually!) but only began really working on it in earnest in the middle of 2014. And when I found out I was pregnant, I quickened my pace, because I wanted to complete a manuscript I was happy with before the baby was born. And then, after the manuscript found its initial publisher, Penguin Random House Australia, in 2017, I spent several months doing heavy revisions in response to feedback from my editor, Cate Blake. 

Author photo by Leah Diprose. 

EC: The story is told from the perspective of the lone survivor – the murderer's sister Gwendolyn. How did you settle on this perspective, and did you experiment with others? 

TT: The perspective was a core component of the novel from the start. I’ve always been fascinated by unreliable narrators in fiction—or more specifically, narrators able to delude themselves even as they narrate in such a way that we as readers realize what they do not themselves know. Kazuo Ishiguro’s narrators were a big influence, as was Charlotte Brontë’s narrator in Villette. A person whose own consciousness was bent on hiding truths from itself seemed to be the natural choice for telling a story that was structured around secrets being excavated, one after another, after another.

I should say, however: in the draft, there was more incorporation at one point of Leonard’s perspective, as well as the perspective of the character, Jono. My editor proposed I make Gwendolyn’s voice dominant throughout, and I’m very pleased that I acted on this suggestion.

EC:  The analogy of these crazy, rich Chinese Indonesians to insects (mushy bodies underneath, a hard carapace externally) is deliberate, but I found the analogy to butterflies – the Majesties (of the title) – especially poignant, especially in the section pertaining to the Asian Financial Crisis, how they migrated just like monarchs to alight somewhere else. The different insects – the creepy-crawlies Estella and Gwendolyn were fond of collecting during childhood, the silkworms that form part of their business, the monarch butterflies – all of them brilliantly fulfil different functions as to metaphor, plot and characterisation in the novel. Can you talk through the process of structuring the interweaving of these different intentions through the use of insects, and the symbolism of the insects themselves?  

TT: It started out as simply wanting to incorporate insects into the novel. Insects fascinate me, and if I hadn’t pursued English literature, I would have probably gone into entomology. So I find it natural to write about them. But I think the extent of their incorporation occurred as seamlessly as it did because they ended up being a perfect vehicle for thinking about a concept that is vital to the novel—the individual not as autonomous, but as a product of external forces. The monarch butterflies’ instinct for mass-migration; the insects of Bagatelle, controlled by a parasitic fungus; the silkworms bred for death—they provide parallels for Estella’s and Gwendolyn’s inability to escape their circumstances, and their family’s inability to escape the stereotypes concerning villainous, rich Chinese.  

EC: The novel takes up two heavy-duty thematic preoccupations: the role of patriarchy in rich Chinese-Indonesian families, and the blending of race with class, pitching this novel into the realm of sharp-edged social dissection. Are these thematic preoccupations those you have always been interested in or are they specific to the subject matter of this novel – the class of super-rich Chinese-Indonesian family conglomerates? 

TT: Haha. These are certainly thematic preoccupations of the novel that is my everyday life, but I suppose my choice of subject matter allowed me to deal with these through my fiction as well. I certainly take up issues of race, and to some extent, class, in my fantasy novels, The Oddfits and The More Known World, but not to the same extent as I have in The Majesties.

EC: Your translation of Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s amazing poetry collection, Sergius Seeks Bacchus, won the English PEN Presents and English PEN Translates awards. Given your versatility in Indonesian and English, would you ever consider writing a novel in Indonesian? 

TT: I don’t think my language skills are good enough to write in Indonesian. And the more I translate, the more I am convinced of how insufficient my abilities are. It’s funny, with Indonesian: because I grew up hearing it spoken around me and using it a bit, there are certain Indonesian words and phrases that come very naturally and automatically to me, that spring to mind instantly when I respond to a particular situation. But it’s also limited—beyond a certain point, the path stops, and I have to consciously and laboriously find the words to lay down in order to finish trying to express the whole of what I want to say. I’m content to have my work be translated by others. Norman Erikson Pasaribu is translating The Majesties into Indonesian, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

EC:  How has the pandemic affected you either in (1) book promotions or (2) your daily writing practice or career, and what ways are you finding to cope? 

TT: The pandemic has definitely affected my daily writing practice. I’ve had to put my writing on pause because there’s not enough time or mental energy now that we’re trying to drag our kindergartener through online lessons from home, not to mention keep him entertained. But I’ve been able to keep on with my translation projects, which I regard as equally important as my writing. It’s an honour to be trusted with making other writers accessible to the English-speaking public, and I’m glad I can give them full focus during this time.

NB: The Majesties can be purchased in most bookstores worldwide and from online retailers, and will be forthcoming soon in the UK, all at local prices.