Zen Hae on cross-pollination, imitation and innovation in Indonesian Peranakan literature

The pattern of hybridity, imitation and innovation we talk about under the label “combinatorial innovation” isn’t limited to cars and computers – it’s central to (and has been discussed for far longer) in literature and the arts. In a paper from the Jakarta International Literary Festival 2019, Zen Hae unpacks the example of Indonesian-language writing by Peranakan* writers as a disruptive force in pre-Independence Indonesia.

Karya-karya mereka digolongkan sebagai “bacaan liar” oleh lembaga penerbitan kolonial Balai Pustaka. Mereka menerima novel atau roman sebagai buah modernitas bukan hanya dari Barat, tapi juga dari Cina Daratan. Dengan penuh semangat mereka menerjemahkan, cerita silat, roman sejarah, juga kitab-kitab keagamaan dan ajaran moral Konfusianisme dari negeri leluhur mereka. Pada tahap berikutnya mereka bukan lagi menerjemahkan, tetapi menyadur, kemudian lagi membikin karya asli, baik tentang kehidupan di Cina Daratan maupun di Nusantara – yang terakhir ini kerap terjadi dalam genre cerita silat. Bersama pengarang-pengarang nasionalis-Kiri di sisi lain, mereka menggunakan Bahasa Melayu Rendah secara politis untuk menandingi dominasi Bahasa Melayu Tinggi yang diinisiasi oleh linguis kolonia…

Zen Hae – Perihal Pagar dan Siasat Para Pengarang dalam Menafsir (Kembali) Batas, Jakarta International Literary Festival 2019

Their works were classified as “wild literature” by the colonial publishing house, Balai Pustaka. They received novels and stories as the fruit of modernity not only from the West, but also from Mainland China. They eagerly translated the silat (martial art) stories, historical romances, and also religious books and the moral teachings of Confucianism from the land of their ancestors. In the next stage they were no longer translators but adaptors, and later creators of original works about life in China or in [what would become] Indonesia – this last seen frequently in the genre of Silat stories. Along with nationalists of the left, they used Low Malay to challenge the domination of the High Malay used by colonial linguists…

Zen Hae – On the Fences and Strategies of Authors in (Re)Defining Borders, Jakarta International Literary Festival 2019

*Broadly speaking, ‘Peranakan’ means people of Chinese descent who have assimilated to varying degrees into the local cultures of the Malay Peninsula or the Indonesian archipelago. More here.

Canon: fences and trampolines

I’ve just spent a thoroughly enjoyable day at the first Jakarta International Literary Festival. I sat in on two Symposiums*: The Southern Common Themes Dilemma, moderated by Nukila Aman and featuring Legodile Seganabeng, Sharlene Teo, Intan Paramaditha, and Nukila Aman; and The Need for a Southern Canon, moderated by Stephanos Stephanides and featuring Ramon Guillermo, Hilmar Farid and Adania Shibli.

The atmosphere was friendly and inclusive, even if the themes were challenging, and the presentations were rich and thought-provoking.

Whose canon?

The idea of canon – the body of texts regarded as ‘core’ or ‘important’ – was central to the discussion:

  • Is a Southern Canon (in opposition to the Western one) even possible?
  • If possible, is it desirable?
  • Who shapes the canon?
  • Who gains from the canon, and who loses out?
  • What does a canon enable?
  • What are its dangers, and who might it exclude?

Who sets up the library of world literature?

Intan Paramaditha

Canon as emergent network

Ramon Guillermo shared some interesting research about networks of production and reception of South-East Asian literature between major cities, and I think this idea is fruitful with respect to the canon itself: canon as a dynamic network of texts and readers. Books gain prominence (‘become more canonical’) in the network through connection to readers and other books. Readers and writers draw themselves into the conversation by latching onto books, pulling themselves in and re-configuring the network as they go by drawing new connections between books and readers – often by the simple act of saying “you should read this – it’s great.”

No-one makes the canon. We can take a snapshot of it in time, but we can’t freeze it or control it (though people have tried, even succeeded – for a while).

Canon as fence

From the edge of the network, the canon looks like a fence. Connections – or rather, connections involving you – are few and tentative. It’s hard to be heard. There may even be influential voices talking over you, directing attention elsewhere, unpicking your connections.

There isn’t a way to ‘fix’ these voices – the very fact of their being so wrong from where we’re standing means that they don’t matter. The answer to being on the edge of the network is to strengthen the parts of the network that matter to you – your conversations, your books… talk to the people who get it, and not worry about the rest. If your contribution resonates – if it speaks to enough books and people in the net – it will route itself around points of resistance (like packet-switched data), tie you closer into the network and – either quickly, or slowly (it may be that someone else makes the connections for you after you’ve died in obscurity) – you’ll find yourself somewhere in the canon.** Other people may not like you being there, but that’s fine – it’s not for them (and they’re probably not for you).

It’s not for you.

Seth Godin***

Canon as trampoline

If the canon is simply the most visible part of the network of readers and books (and writers), its existence is inevitable for as long as we read and talk about books.

Stephanos Stephanides suggested that the advantage of a canon is that it gives us something to point at – a way of seeing the network, of drawing attention to how it operates that allows us to critique and deconstruct it.

He’s right: this is canon as trampoline, a net(of)work we jump on and push against, launching ourselves to places we wouldn’t – couldn’t – go in its absence. The harder we jump – diving head-first into what we love, stomping two-footed on what we object to – the further we fly.

Foundation. Launchpad. Cannon.

*The plural for this may be symposia, but it sounds ridiculous

**It’s worth remembering, though, that the canon excludes almost everyone – including most of those at the center

***Seth Godin has a lot of good stuff to say about getting books and ideas into the world.

Seth Godin on listening to feedback

The most important thing to remember now a simple sentence: “It’s not for you.”

So you run an Indian restaurant on 6th Street in New York and you have a $24 spicy vindaloo, if you finish it you get it for free, it’s that spicy.

And someone comes to the restaurant and says, “I hate spicy food,” it’s really obvious what you should do, and it’s not take it off the menu.

It’s saying to that person “Vaselka, Ukrainian food, is two blocks away, nothing in the restaurant is spicy, here’s their phone number, thanks for stopping by.”

“What I sell is not for you.”

Being able to do that is hugely powerful.

So I look at the 100 most loved books ever written, all of them have more one-star reviews on Amazon than any book I’ve ever written – all of them. Because if you’re going to write To Kill A Mockingbird or Harry Potter a lot people are going to read it, and if a lot of people are going to read it, some of them are going to need to say, “It’s not for me.” And the way they do that is by writing a one-star review.
But Harper Lee shouldn’t have read her one-star reviews because it’s not going to make her a better writer tomorrow. All it says is “I don’t like spicy food.”

Seth Godin on The Jordan Harbinger Show Ep 234.

A balancing act for leaders (1)

Some types of work that leaders do:

Foundational and Directional Work

This is the vision and values stuff – identifying needs, thinking through the “why” of the project, articulating its importance and sharing the vision and values with those both inside and outside the organisation. This is the work that keeps you and your team and partners focused and on the right track. It’s also often generative work, in the sense that it generates possibilities for your organisation and others, and also generates work for your team. (This can be good or bad depending on the work and the team’s capacity, but long term you can’t live without it.)

Strategic and Managerial work

This is getting into your organisation’s mission – making strategic decisions (or working with others to make decisions) to do with the “what” of how the vision will be achieved, with finding people who can do the technical work (including managing others) and with managing them as they do it.
Management work is also generative in the sense that it turns vision into specific work and jobs to be done (i.e. it generates work), and because good management generates capacity for the organisation. It does this because people are more productive when they are clear about the work that they need to do and supported to do it, and also because good management allows more effective and integrated specialisation, either by type of task or by project.

Executive tactical and technical work

Unless your organisation is big are big or you have a large personal staff, it’s probable that you also have a technical contribution to make: as a consultant helping your team to set up systems, or as a specialist doing a specific part of the team’s work on the ground. This might be outward focused (delivering training and working on products or selling them) or inward focused (things like recruiting, completing accounts and managing inventory in support of your outward goals). This work is executive in the sense of getting things done and shutting down possibilities. Tactical tasks can be ticked off as “done”. It’s generative to the extent that the quality of the work enables more and better work by colleagues or creates a reputation that attracts new partners to the organisation.

Horse to water

If a horse is thirsty, if they know that water will help, and if they trust you, then all you need to say is “There’s water over there,” and the rest will take care of itself.

Nothing is as important as whether people want the change you’re working for, and whether they trust that you can help it happen.

Good enough to enjoy it

Running is unpleasant until you get fit.

Swimming is the struggle to avoid drowning, until you can swim.

Writing of any kind can be a horrible sort of trudge through fog until you’ve done it enough to trust the process and it becomes an interesting trudge through fog.

Learning to play an instrument is a lot less fun than making music with other people.

You drop a lot of balls learning to juggle.

The list goes on.

Once you’ve learnt enough new things – and especially if you’ve come close to mastering a few – the struggle of learning new things takes on the glow of anticipation. You can see that you’ll get a feel for it in time. You’ve experienced the pleasure that comes as the basics become automatic, and what it’s like to be good enough at something challenging that you enjoy it.

Are there things that you do just rarely enough, or half-heartedly enough, to stay bad at them? It’s time to decide either to stop playing, or to commit the little extra it will take to allow you to start doing them well, and even to enjoy them.

Eyes. Sawdust. Planks.

 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”

Jesus of Nazareth – The Gospel of Matthew

Some ancient wisdom about the mechanics of criticism and disagreement:

  1. You’re far more aware of the shortcomings of others than you are of our own. (We spot specks a mile away, despite our blindness to our ridiculous planks).
  2. Our own shortcomings make it much harder for us to help to handle the shortcomings we see in others. (They distort our perspective, and also make us far less credible sources of help)
  3. The crucial insight I’ve been reminded of this week is that in most disagreements these mechanics of distorted-perspective work in both directions at the same time. That is, at the same time as we are prone to assume the worst and blow the shortcomings of others out of proportion, they are doing exactly the same thing to ours. We think we’re doing well by allowing for the distortion, but don’t appreciate that there’s often a double-distortion that we need to account for.

A series of questions to help think through disagreements:

  1. What do I think the problem is?
  2. How do I feel about my-idea-of-the-problem and why?
  3. Do these two things seem in alignment, or do my feelings suggest that I’ve got a different problem lurking below the surface?
  4. What does my colleague say the problem is?
  5. How do they feel about it and why?
  6. Ask question 3, but for them.

Example:

A colleague recently asked for a small extra allowance for a particular type of overtime. My logical and (to my mind) internally consistent solution was worth significantly more than they were asking – but they repeatedly stated their preference for the smaller allowance. I thought that they were really interested in the financial value of the payment – and was effectively offering more. It turned out (as I currently understand it), they were interested in feeling recognised and valued – and the smaller extra payment with the right frame spoke to this feeling in a way that my solution didn’t.

I saw “This person is always asking for more money.” They saw “This person doesn’t appreciate me.” We might both have been right – but neither of us had things in proportion.

Sawdust. Plank.

The clothesline paradox

If you take down your clothesline and buy an electric clothes dryer, the electric consumption of the nation rises slightly… If you go in the other direction and remove the electric clothes dryer and install a clothesline, the consumption of electricity drops slightly, but there is no credit given anywhere on the charts and graphs to solar energy, which is now drying the clothes.

Steve Baer – The Clothesline Paradox in Co-Evolution Weekly as quoted by Tim O’Reilly in WTF? What’s the Future and Why it’s Up to Us.

The clothesline paradox applies even more sharply to domestic labour, of course: the work of a professional cleaner or child-minder registers as economic activity, but the work we do cleaning our own homes or caring for our own families doesn’t, despite the same work getting done.

The problem is that we come to treasure what we measure, and end up creating incentives that cost us in ways we don’t expect. In the case of the clothesline being replaced by an electrical dryer, it’s pollution. In societies where the norm has become that all adults work outside the home (often incentivised by the state), there’s a cost in the quality of care and in the relational glue that keeps families and societies healthy.

The point for your organisation is there: think carefully about how you measure success. Clayton Christensen has written about how focusing on ‘return on net assets’ leads companies to damage their long-term prospects in the name of short term ‘efficiency’.

In my organisation we measure the overall cost of our program per child served, which encourages us to pay attention to efficient use of resources… but could lead us to find ways to avoid spending money on things like improving the design of our resources or upskilling our team – all of which would make us less effective down the road. (Christensen has also written well on how the wrong metrics can have similarly damaging effects on our personal lives.)

So it pays to be careful about what you’re measuring, and keep your eyes open for the unhelpful incentives that you’ll almost inevitably create. Staying focused on your organisation’s values (specifically about relationships and how you treat people) will help. You can do this by deliberately talking about them, regularly asking how you’re living up to them, and using them explicity to guide you in making decisions.