Lontar is a Bahasa Indonesia word that means bound paper-leaf manuscript, and is, according to founding editor Jason Erik Lundberg, “the perfect symbol for the curation of Southeast Asian speculative fiction: it is an early technology that revolutionised the dissemination of knowledge…”
Born and raised in the U.S., Jason moved to Singapore in 2007, and since then has been a well-respected and recognized writer and editor in the local literary scene. Not only does he hold down a day job as the Literary Fiction Editor at Epigram Books (where he edited the Singapore Literature Prize winning novel, Ministry of Moral Panic), he’s currently working on his very own science fiction novella—all this in addition to manning the helm at LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, of course.
Why did you feel the need to start a Southeast Asian journal for speculative fiction?
Primarily because nothing like it existed in the world already. When most people think of speculative fiction, they default to authors from the USA or UK, sometimes Australia or India. Translated works out of Europe and Japan have become more common, but are still small in number. However, Southeast Asia has been almost totally ignored, which is crazy, considering the size of the region. So I made it my mission to promote fantastical stories from and about Southeast Asia, and get them into as many readers’ hands as possible.Why do you think speculative fiction writing (in English) hasn’t quite taken off in Southeast Asia (excepting perhaps the Philippines where there is a growing number of writers and comic creators who are tackling science fiction and fantasy)?
It’s a good question, and I honestly don’t know. I’m definitely trying to change that.
Is there a substantial volume of yet-to-be-translated Southeast or East Asian speculative fiction works being written/published in their original languages? If so, what are the barriers that prevent them from being translated into English?
Again, that’s hard for me to know, because I only read in English. And the authors that have broken through, so to speak, are such a small number that it’s difficult to see how representative they are. In Western publishing, translation accounts for a tiny percentage of what is released each year, so I have to assume that much more is being written, but is just not translated yet. And the biggest barriers to this seem to be 1) quality translators (who are artists in their own right), and 2) the cost of translation, which can be prohibitively expensive.
Although I had originally not planned to include translations, I have taken two for LONTAR: Setting Up Home by Taiwanese author Sabrina Huang (translated by Jeremy Tiang) for issue #3, and Caronang by Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan (translated by Tiffany Tsao) for issue #6. I look forward to seeing even more.
How do you think translated speculative fiction differs from those written in English by American or British authors?
You’re always getting a second-hand account of the text, rather than the author’s own vision, so there’s a sense of distance that comes with reading the story. This is unfortunate, but is the fundamental nature of any translated work, not just speculative fiction. However, a good translator will understand both intent and nuance, and present an experience as close to the original as possible. Most of the world speaks English, because it is the lingua franca of business if nothing else, but the number of non-Anglophone writers out there is enormous, and their voices deserve to be heard just as much as anyone else.
I leave this definition largely up to my poetry editor, Kristine Ong Muslim, but as with speculative fiction, it must utilise a fantastical element that is essential to the poem.
LONTAR has started accepting comics—why this move? Also, tell us a little bit more about your first soon-to-be published comic story.
I’ve been wanting to publish short comics in LONTAR from the very start; there has always been a category for sequential art in our submissions portal. But up until now, I did not have the time to chase down comics creators to get them to send me something. Thankfully, Adan Jimenez has recently come aboard as comics editor, and has hit the ground running. The first comic he acquired is called We Still Need to Makan by Benjamin Chee, and combines an examination of the price of technological hubris with a hopefulness about human survival, in a very unique way.
Who is on your author/illustrator wish list that you would like to see published in LONTAR?
You know, I’ve been extremely lucky in the authors I’ve gotten to publish over five issues of the journal so far. Some widely recognised award-winning writers, but many others just starting out in their careers. That said, I would love to see work from Aliette de Bodard, Nghi Vo, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Isabel Yap, and Kenneth Yu. And I’ve been bugging Sonny Liew and Drewscape for comics since before we launched issue #1. But in all honesty, the best part of this job is discovering new voices whom I never would have seen otherwise, who surprise me with gems of prose.
What are some of the challenges you face as the editor of LONTAR?
Time and funding. We publish twice a year, but curating each issue is a huge undertaking; thankfully I have Kristine and Adan to help with the burden, but it never seems like I have enough time to properly devote to the journal. In addition, we also rely on funding through grants from the National Arts Council to publish at all, and each grant cycle is a nail-biting, nerve-wracking period of anxiety until we get confirmation from NAC; I’m now looking at alternate forms of funding that could directly involve readers, something like Patreon, so that we’re able to be solvent on a regular basis.
That said, LONTAR is and always has been a labour of love, and I would find a way to put it out there even if all the money dried up. It’s an important project worth doing, and hopefully it will continue for many years to come.
You can find more information about LONTAR here: http://lontarjournal.com/