Zoë McLaughlin is the South and Southeast Asia librarian at Michigan State University. She was a Shansi fellow in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and a Darmasiswa scholar at the Indonesian Institute of Arts Surakarta, where she studied Javanese classical dance. Her research interests include innovation within traditional Javanese performance. She also translates Indonesian fiction and poetry. She received her MA from CSEAS in 2016 and from the School of Information in 2018. She penned a reflection about her CSEAS-related education and travels, practice of gamelan dance, and her present profession as librarian.
I started considering graduate programs in Southeast Asian studies with the singular goal of improving my Indonesian language skills. After a few years living in Indonesia, I was frustrated that I could communicate easily but still struggled to read formal texts. I decided that I needed a more structured way to study and started looking into graduate programs with the hazy goal of becoming a competent translator of Indonesian literature. I also made it a point to look for universities that had a Javanese gamelan, because I had started learning classical Javanese dance while in Indonesia and wanted to continue to dance.
During my time at U-M, I was lucky enough to be able to bounce around from topic to topic. My MA thesis focused on the portrayal of Chinese ethnicity in two Indonesian short stories and also included translations of both stories, but I was also able to pursue research in performance studies and to expand my geographic area of focus to the broader Malay world and eventually to Thailand as well.
Part of the reason I was able to follow all of my varied interests during my time in graduate school was that I eventually decided to work toward a degree focused on library and information science. With the new goal of finding work as a Southeast Asia librarian, it made sense to broaden my focus, to ensure that I really felt comfortable covering all of Southeast Asia. Plus, the library degree also gave me a good reason to explore Javanese literature and indigenous libraries, another area of study that was fascinating and rewarding.
My dance background lies completely in ballet—I began learning when I was three and a half years old and I still take lessons and teach at a local studio. When I went to Java, I started learning Javanese dance (and, after realizing it would help with dance [more generally], gamelan as well) in a university student group. The group had excellent teachers, to whom I am completely indebted for putting up with my poor Indonesian and many blunders, but what really struck me was the way that more experienced members of the group would also take on a teaching role. I learned almost as much from my friends as from my teachers, and eventually found myself helping teach dances to new members. It’s easy to say that this setup exemplifies collectivist societies, but I think it does make sense to learn Javanese arts in this manner. More teachers in a gamelan classroom mean that each teacher can monitor a few instruments and step in when students need help. Indeed, when I eventually began taking classes at Institut Seni Indonesia Surakarta, there were several teachers for each class, both dance and gamelan.
The other thing that I think about often is how, while gender roles are often strictly defined in Javanese culture and within traditional performing arts, I also see ways within the arts that people are crossing gender lines and carving out their own spaces with regard to gender and gender expression. It’s easy to see traditional performing arts as a static representation of a culture, but I also want to emphasize that even traditional arts change over time and reflect complexities within society.
During my time at U-M, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Southeast Asia on multiple occasions to attend numerous dance performances, take lessons, interview dance teachers, and reconnect with one of the [Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistants] from whom I studied Indonesian (and who also very graciously answered all my questions about confusing grammar points). Also, after starting library school, I was able to both study Javanese in Central Java and to intern with the Library of Congress’s field office in Jakarta. Over the course of one summer, I handled old manuscripts in indigenously established and maintained libraries; met with librarians, archivists, and publishers in Java; and went in search of books to purchase in Thailand. Just seeing the manuscripts was an amazing experience, but actually being able to read them (once I deciphered the handwriting) was extremely rewarding. I also really appreciated learning from Indonesians who have been doing the work of communicating and meeting with various stakeholders in the publishing and library world in Indonesia, and I learned so much about how to communicate about libraries and their work in Indonesian. Finally, after plans with a librarian who specialized in Thailand fell through, another librarian and I (decidedly not Thailand specialists, at least in terms of language) found ourselves in the north of the country, with no direction. Suddenly, I not only had ample opportunity to practice my burgeoning Thai, I also learned just how much purchasing you can do even when you are mostly illiterate. And I learned how to navigate the post office all on my own.
Though I’d lived and traveled in Southeast Asia prior to beginning CSEAS’s MA program, it was during my graduate studies that I really began to see how I could connect the skillset I’d begun building to a potential career. Everything that I learned during my time at U-M supports my current work as a South and Southeast Asia librarian at Michigan State University. The language classes I took every semester not only allowed me to interact with materials from a variety of regions, but also provided a foundation onto which I continue to build language acquisition. I am currently taking Hindi language classes and, after having started to learn Thai from scratch in a classroom setting at U-M, I draw upon strategies that I know worked well for me in the past.
The broad net that I cast at U-M, in terms of topics that I explored, has also served me well. As an area studies librarian, I work with faculty and students from a variety of disciplines, so being comfortable with the idea of interdisciplinary research allows me to easily move between contexts. My eclectic interests also mean that I’m happy to focus my attention on one topic and then another, with the specific intention of improving how I choose which materials to purchase. It’s impossible to eliminate bias completely, but I do like to think that studying a variety of subjects has helped me select more broadly when purchasing library materials.
I’m also lucky enough to have found a position that allows me to continue to be eclectic. Some weeks I’m translating an Indonesian short story, others I’m preparing to lead a Javanese dance workshop, and still others I’m writing about decolonization within area studies librarianship. And all the while, I’m able to interact deeply with materials from Southeast Asia and help to build a collection that researchers will hopefully draw upon for years to come.