Essay: Tiffany Tsaoon the reality of fiction

When We Became the People from Bloomington

In late March 2020, I sent a WhatsApp message to the Indonesian author Budi Darma asking him to be careful about the new virus spreading around the globe. I worried that if he contracted it, the consequences might be dire. By all reports, the elderly were especially susceptible, and he was about to turn 83. I apologised for causing him any alarm. Perhaps I was simply being a worrywart. Budi Darma’s reply was gracious.

‘Don’t apologize, Kak Tiffany. I’m genuinely grateful,’ he replied in Indonesian (which was what we used when speaking with each other). ‘May God protect us all.’

‘Amen, Pak Budi,’ I replied.

‘Yes, Kak Tiffany. Amen.’

Neither he nor I suspected what lay in store. But no one did at that point. The worst of it would blow over in several months, surely. By the next year, everything would be back to somewhat normal, right? In the meantime, I was partway through translating his short-story collection Orang-Orang Bloomington (or as it would be published in English, People from Bloomington). It was the reason I was communicating with him at all. In June 2019 – nine months prior – I had met Budi Darma in person in Surabaya. I had flown there to seek his permission to translate his book and he had granted it. Since then, we had been corresponding via a combination of email and WhatsApp.

During the same text conversation, he asked how my husband, children, and I were doing in Sydney. I told him my husband was now working remotely and my oldest son had just moved to doing kindergarten online. Budi Darma informed me that Universitas Negeri Surabaya had moved entirely online too and he was now teaching and supervising from home. 

‘Online.’ ‘Home.’ These would be many people’s reality for the next two years. And lockdowns. And isolation. And suspicion and depression and fear. The rain was already falling, but we were still blissfully unaware of how fierce the storm would be or how long it would last. Little did I know that, under these conditions, Budi Darma’s stories would spring to life with a vividness difficult to believe or bear. The pandemic would light up the parallels between real life and Budi Darma’s fiction like lightning flashing across the sky, turning our world into Bloomington and us into its characters.

Budi Darma wrote People from Bloomington in the late 1970s when he was completing his masters degree and PhD in Bloomington, at Indiana University. He was in his late thirties and early forties at the time and already a writer of some repute, known especially for his short stories, written in the absurdist vein. Prior to People from Bloomington, which was published in 1980, his stories were overwhelmingly set in indeterminate locations featuring often unnamed protagonists facing bizarre and often cruel or frightening situations. ‘Kafkaesque’ is an apt descriptor for these earlier stories. Indeed, in a 1974 interview conducted by fellow writer Sapardi Djoko Damono and published in the preeminent literary magazine of the day, Horison, Budi Darma remarked, ‘Many writers have influenced me, but it is Kafka who has left the deepest impression.’

People from Bloomington, as well as his novel Olenka (also set in Bloomington and written during the same period) marked a shift in Budi Darma’s style – a move away from absurdism to realist-style fiction featuring identifiable real-life places with careful attention paid to detailed descriptions of settings and people. He himself directly observed as much in his preface to the 1980 edition of the collection: ‘Before Bloomington, I wrote mostly absurdist fiction… All the stories in People from Bloomington are realist, and resist flying into the other world.’

Yet, despite this outward shift from ‘absurdism’ to ‘realism,’ one might argue that the distinction between the absurd and real – the strange and everyday – has always been blurry in Budi Darma’s fiction, whether the labels ‘absurdist’ or ‘realist’ apply. Of his early absurdist fiction, Budi Darma said he drew inspiration for his characters ‘from everyday experience,’ observing, ‘I don’t like to generalize, but my observation is that most people are, fundamentally, ‘strange’.’ Conversely, even though they are presented in ‘realist’ garb, the stories of People from Bloomington contain undeniably absurd elements: peculiar characters, bizarre situations, inexplicable incidents. The writer Joko Pinurbo went straight to the heart of the matter by titling a 1989 essay he wrote for Basis: ‘Orang-Orang Bloomington: Potret Manusia Aneh’, or ‘People from Bloomington: Portraits of Strange Human Beings’.

How much of real life is weird? How often is the supposedly bizarre simply part and parcel of reality? These are the questions raised by the strange-realist stories of Budi Darma’s short story collection. On the one hand, it was the perfect work to translate at a time when the world had become a sci-fi dystopia. On the other hand, it was too perfect a fit for our times. I watched as our reality and Budi Darma’s fictional world began to merge.

Like many people, I found it extremely difficult to work during the pandemic. Caring for small children in the face of a gamut of Covid restrictions and precautions made it difficult to muster the time and concentration needed to engage in writing or translation in any substantial way. Our five-year-old grew so frustrated with online kindergarten that if my husband or I weren’t at his side helping him, he would simply burst into angry tears. My husband would take the first shift, which gave me two and a half hours to work, after which I was responsible for the second shift, followed by fixing lunch, then helping with additional schoolwork and taking him out for exercise. 

We initially tried keeping our two-year-old out of his usual part-time childcare. In exasperation, we sent him back after a week when objects around the apartment began to go missing. He’d started hiding things like keys and spectacles, moving them to different rooms or putting them in drawers or under cushions. And one time we found all the toilet paper unspooled and piled up in the sink. On days when both kids were home, life was a blur of snack and meal preparation, breaking up squabbles, devising games, and dragging them through the neighbourhood on walks for exercise, during which they proclaimed they were ‘SO tired’ and ‘SO bored’.

Like lots of other people, my husband and I felt began to feel blue. Our days started and ended with checking the news for deaths, Covid-restriction updates, general doomscrolling, and bingeing on Reddit and Twitter, respectively. Our alcohol consumption increased, but we lost interest in eating, so we shed weight. We joked that the world was ending, but at least we were skinny. The children were the only reason I attempted to make proper meals at all. 

To cope, I pared my work down to the minimum to concentrate on finishing the translation of People from Bloomington. I stopped writing the novel I’d meant to work on that year. I took on small projects only if necessary. I didn’t have the bandwidth to do more. And every day, I immersed myself in Budi Darma’s short story collection: in the mornings during my allotted working time, during any other hours of the day I could sneak in, and at night after the kids had gone to bed. It became the cave into which I retreated in order to escape reality. But soon it became apparent that the stories weren’t a retreat at all, but a mirror, reflecting, even magnifying, what was going wrong with the real world.

The most glaring commonality, of course, was disease, which is a dominant theme in People from Bloomington. Sickness plays a role in four of the seven stories, but most prominently in ‘Joshua Karabish’ – where the narrator believes Joshua has infected him with a mysterious illness – and in ‘Mrs. Elberhart’ – where an old woman and the young male narrator strike up a friendship only to be plagued with mutual suspicion that other harbours an infectious disease.

In these two stories, the fear of contagion threatens to subsume any feelings of compassion or desire for friendship. There is a deep longing for human connection – but also a deep distrust of what maladies such connections will bring. A line from ‘Mrs. Elberhart’ describes this tension well. It is when the disease-fearing Mrs. Elberhart is lying in the hospital bed and the narrator comes to visit: ‘Though her demeanor and behavior indicated that she didn’t want me to come close, in her eyes shone a different story: she wanted to be friends – that is, if I were willing.’ 

How aptly this line summed up our reality: the terror of contagion that caused people to regard their fellow human beings with fear, yet the overwhelming loneliness suffered by people keeping their distance from each other. We missed other humans and yet we sought to protect ourselves from them. In Australia, people put teddy bears in their windows – a friendly gesture. Hello, friend! Can’t say hi in person, but hope you’re hanging in there! People also began panic-buying toilet paper and food – another kind of gesture. Me first. Screw you. 

A friend called me on the phone to complain about how she had been taking a walk and how someone coming in the opposite direction had dared to pass within a few feet of her, as opposed to crossing to the other side. 

‘It was so inconsiderate,’ she huffed. 

‘But…they were just walking past,’ I replied uncertainly, excusing the offender whom I knew could very well have been me; I would have done something like that. I also wondered why my friend hadn’t crossed to the other side herself if she’d been so afraid.

‘It’s better to be safe than sorry,’ she replied, huffing again.

I thought of how, a few days ago, I had gotten into a fight with another woman in my building for trying to ‘push ahead’ instead of waiting my turn for the lift. I had assumed, incorrectly, that there was plenty of space for both of us. I’d apologised sarcastically, which resulted in a yelling match. We’d kept yelling at each other as the doors closed and the lift took her upwards, me hearing her querulous voice grow fainter, hoping that she could hear my querulous voice too and that it would disturb her nice solitary ride. What have we become? What I have I become? I thought in horror to myself once I had caught ‘my’ lift and was back in my apartment. Could I blame her for not wanting to catch an extremely contagious and potentially deadly disease? 

I would see her again, and several times after that. If she wasn’t scolding other tenants for getting too close, she was standing in the lift in such a way that prevented anyone else from entering, even though our building management had eventually deemed the maximum Covid-safe capacity to be two individuals or one household. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

The pandemic was to blame, of course. Or was it? As I continued to steep myself in Budi Darma’s stories, I became convinced that the pandemic was simply bringing out what was inside us all along. Although the distrust of others exhibited by the characters of ‘Joshua Karabish’ and ‘Mrs. Elberhart’ is related to their fear of contracting disease, the stories imply that their fear of illness is, ironically, a symptom of another disease they already suffer: a suspicious and self-interested disposition. This disposition is one we see across all the stories, regardless of whether disease makes an appearance or not. We find it, for example, in the three elderly women described at the start of ‘The Old Man with No Name.’ And in the father in ‘Charles Lebourne.’ And in all the narrators, whom Budi Darma described in his preface to the original 1980 edition as ‘a portrait of torment…The narrator’s relationship to the world around him is based on self-interest, and is not organic. In the context of such relationships, the narrator becomes a victim…the narrator’s every thought and action becomes a calculated one.’

Had the conditions of the pandemic simply revealed people’s underlying ungenerous and self-absorbed tendencies? This was a question that echoed in my mind everyday as I immersed myself in Budi Darma’s tales. It’s sad how awful people actually are, they seemed to whisper as I peered at them through the foggy, gloomy lenses of life during Covid. Fortunately, something else intervened to counterbalance this narrow and rather bleak interpretation of the collection: my ongoing conversations with the author of the collection himself.

Initially, I felt shy about bothering Budi Darma too much about the translation process. I would try to compile any queries into as few emails as possible. I’d send these questions to him along with near-final drafts of each story for his review and feedback. But due to problems with his email and laptop, we also began corresponding via WhatsApp, for convenience’s sake, which allowed more organic, everyday conversations to take place.

In addition to talking about the stories – translation-related conundrums, the search for a publisher, etc – we spoke about other matters and updated the other on how each of us was faring. I was touched not only by Budi Darma’s willingness to chat in general, but also by the interest he showed in both my work and my life. Despite his relatively heavy workload at the university (despite being, technically speaking, mostly retired), he somehow found the time, unasked, to read my third novel and portions of my first. He would enquire about my children and husband, about my extended family, about my time at grad school in Berkeley – and afterwards, recall all the details. (He seemed particularly intrigued by the fact that I used to work part-time in a natural history store in Berkeley where one of my tasks was to clean human skulls.) I mentioned to him once that Sylvia Tiwon (whom he also knew) had mentored me in Indonesian literature at Berkeley and had been a huge influence in rerouting my research interests at the time. A few months later, he forwarded me information about an online talk she was giving. We began chatting and I ended up confessing that I hadn’t really kept in touch because I was still ashamed that I had left academia. I felt I’d failed her somehow. 

He was kind enough to provide wise counsel: ‘Momentum-wise, it’s the best time to contact her.’ In English, he added, ‘Say hello and tell her what you are doing now … All teachers/professors are happy when they know their former students are doing well.’ 

I did end up taking his advice. And when I did, it felt like a weight had been lifted from my chest.

Over time, I realised that Budi Darma’s interest in my work and life was an outgrowth of his interest and concern for other people in general. As I look back over our correspondence for the purposes of writing this essay, I am struck by how little he would speak about himself, even in the personal anecdotes he would share. In his stories about Bloomington, he spoke mainly of the friends he had made and people he had met: for example, a good friend, now dead, who had suffered from cancer – a side effect of some medicine administered to her as a baby; another person who was once a ‘good friend’ and was now a poet, but who had never returned his attempts to re-establish contact.

Perhaps the most obvious example I have in my possession of his attentiveness to and sympathy for other human beings is an email he sent in response to a question I had about the elderly characters of the collection. He described how, during the walks he would take in Bloomington:

… I would almost always cross paths with old people. Of these many old people, some were friendly, some were proud, and some didn’t care about me at all, that is, give a damn. There were even old people who would ‘chase’ me to tell me stories. One of them told me that in his younger days he had been a sheriff. With a note of pride, he showed me his sheriff’s badge. There was also someone who told me that in his youth, he was part of a band and had toured various states with his fellow band members. He told me that, one by one, all his friends had died (apologies, Kak Tiffany. If you had met him yourself, you probably would have been struck by the extent to which his story was tinted with morbidity). 

I’ve probably already told you about the old people who would shop and such to kill time. They would drive to the supermarket just to buy a single item, go home to rest, then go to another supermarket to buy something else. After resting, they would go out again to yet another supermarket to buy yet another item. 

I had the impression that they were torn between wanting to guard their privacy on one hand and feeling lonely on the other. 

I think this brief excerpt says a lot about Budi Darma: his willingness to listen to the stories of others; the detail in which he remembered these people he’d met only briefly; the compassion with which he perceived their lonely state. 

Thus, ironically, my correspondence with Budi Darma provided a steadying and reassuring influence at a time when I was inclined to interpret the despicable behaviour of people during the pandemic as a mirror image of the despicable behaviour of the characters in his book. And, significantly, our conversations kept reminding me afresh of the compassion with which he wrote these stories – something easily forgotten if one focuses too much on the ignoble and eccentric attitudes and actions of many of his characters without considering the moments that actively elicit the reader’s sympathy for these wretched souls. 

To me, these moments where the pitifulness of the characters is laid bare to the reader function like rays of sunlight peeking through a dark, overcast sky; like air holes punched in the lid of a stifling box in which the characters are trapped. The old man from ‘The Old Man Without a Name’ weeping by himself in the dark; the dislikeable narrator of ‘The Family M’ who is left all alone at the story’s end; the narrator of ‘Joshua Karabish,’ denied any outlet to make amends for the wrong he has done to his late roommate – their misery is seen by someone. Their author. And the author in turn shows them to us, invites us to feel compassion for them too, for it is not to be found within their own world.

If we, in real life, had indeed become people from Bloomington, then perhaps there was room for us to be pitied rather than completely loathed.

‘May God protect us all.’

Time rolled on. And little by little, spring cleared the winter away.

Budi Darma, ‘The Family M’.

Time rolled on. 2020 became 2021. Hope shimmered like a mirage on the horizon. Covid vaccines had been developed and were slowly rolled out. On the first of March, Budi Darma reported that he and his wife had already received the first dose of the Chinese-manufactured vaccine Sinovac, and were due to get their second shot at the month’s end. In the meantime, Penguin Classics had announced their acquisition of the English edition of People from Bloomington. However, the publication date was a year away: April 2022. 

‘Why so long? Do we know the reason?’ Budi Darma asked via WhatsApp, a few weeks before his 84th birthday.

‘Honestly, I don’t know,’ I replied. ‘But sometimes publishers need a lot of time for publicity and marketing.’ 

I couldn’t help but wonder if the fear at the back of my mind, too real and close to voice, was also at the back of his. What might happen to someone in their mid-eighties during this pandemic, even if they had already received a vaccine?

On the Indonesian literary scene, death was in the air. Budi Darma’s friend and fellow writer, the one who had interviewed him for Horison in 1974 – Sapardi Djoko Damono – had passed away the year before. (‘We often spent time together. We’d go on trips together. We’d stay in the same room. We’d work on projects together,’ Budi Darma had reminisced to me in the wake of his friend’s passing). Several weeks later, another Indonesian literary great – Toeti Heraty – would also pass from this world. 

Not long afterwards, towards the end of June, came especially alarming news: the Delta variant was spreading rapidly through Indonesia. I immediately texted Budi Darma to check on him and his wife. He assured me that they were being very careful. I attempted a joke to divert our attention from the threat at hand: ‘I suppose people will experience the launch of the English edition of People from Bloomington like PFB’s characters – from their houses, behind their windows.’ 

He replied, ‘Yes. The launch of PFB will be witnessed by people sitting beside windows 🤣🤣🤣.’

Within days, the news coming out of Indonesia was horrifying: overcrowded hospitals; oxygen shortages; a soaring death toll; squads of volunteer undertakers working around the clock to bury the glut of dead. The story ‘Mrs. Elberhart’ had been lurking in my consciousness for a while, but now it threatened to crawl out of its pages into our world. As I mention above, the story is about a friendship between a young narrator and the elderly Mrs. Elberhart. When Mrs. Elberhart passes away, the narrator takes it upon himself to ensure that her name lives on and is preserved for posterity. He decides the best way to do this is to write a poem, put her name to it, and get it published.

I didn’t want to become the narrator. I didn’t want Budi Darma to become Mrs. Elberhart. I didn’t want the collection bearing Budi Darma’s name to be released into the world as a tribute to his memory. I wanted him to be around to release it into the world himself. 

My last correspondence with Budi Darma occurred on 20 July 2021. I texted to wish him Happy Idul Adha. 

He responded with one sentence. ‘Sorry, I’m sick.’

‘“I’m sorry, I can’t attend. I’m sick”.’

Budi Darma, ‘Joshua Karabish’.

One month and one day later, I received the news that Budi Darma had passed away. I found out through WhatsApp, from a friend who had just heard it from someone else. My husband and I had been driving our kids to the park to play. I asked my husband if he could take them first so I could sit in the car for a while and cry. 

I remember telling a friend about it sometime in the days that followed. ‘The author whose book I translated died of Covid,’ I said morosely over the phone. 

‘Oh dear,’ said the friend. ‘Were you close?’

Were we close?

I had known Budi Darma for a scant two years. I had met him in person only briefly, only once. I had never met or corresponded with any of his family. During his last few weeks, I relied on emailing someone I knew at his publisher in order to get updates about his health. For all the anecdotes and stories and information he had shared, I hardly knew anything about his personal life – especially considering the 84 years he had lived. The answer was clear. No. We were not close.

And yet. The words he had written were the ones I had steeped myself in for almost a year – to the exclusion of other words and, due to Covid, in lieu of going out or travelling or venturing outdoors. The world he had created was the window I’d looked out of every day, and whose tinted glass had coloured my impression of the world we called our own. For the purposes of research, I had read biographies of his life, his earlier stories, and reviews and criticism of his work – many of which he himself had sent or asked people to send in order to help me with the accompanying essay that Penguin Classics had tasked me with writing. And we had chatted – a ray of sunshine in a dark time, at least for me. We were not close. And yet I felt as if we were close. And I felt sad and still do.

Of course, this too is a recurring theme – and tragedy – across People from Bloomington (because in the end, there is no escape from Budi Darma’s Bloomington): the narrator will know much about someone, and feel a certain connection with or sympathy for them, only to have it revealed that they do not know them at all, are capable only of attributing in hindsight such and such feeling or intent or desire to the deceased without ever knowing if that was what the deceased had truly felt or meant or wanted at all. Would Budi Darma have considered us close? I don’t know. I will never know.

When Budi Darma texted me about Sapardi Djoko Damono’s death, he included a link to one of his late friend’s most famous poems, ‘Pada Suatu Hari Nanti’ – the second stanza of which reads:

pada suatu hari nanti
suaraku tak terdengar lagi
tapi di antara larik-larik sajak ini
kau akan tetap kusiasati

there will come a day
when my voice fades away
yet within these lines
on you my gaze remains

It seems to me that although Budi Darma does not walk this earth anymore, much less the streets of Bloomington or Surabaya, he continues to perceive us, and our all-too-human nature, from within the lines of People from Bloomington. With compassion, of course.

‘May God protect us all.’

The Indonesian-language version of this essay was commissioned for publication in the Malaysian arts journal Svara. It has been translated by Norman Erikson Pasaribu.