Lessons from Grandma
On March 27, 2019 | 0 Comments

My grandmother of my father’s side, Mildred McGlynn, was a school teacher by training but after her marriage to my grandfather, John Alexander McGlynn, she spent the rest of her married life on the farm. Nonetheless, she instilled a strong love of education in their five children and, after my grandfather’s death in 1954, returned to her role of educator. This time, however, her pupils were her grandchildren, each of whom was allowed to spend a week with her during the summer at her small retirement home on the property of her daughter, my aunt, Molly Sheafor.

Grandma McGlynn was a gentle teacher who made education a delight. A summer day at her home might begin with a lesson in etiquette at the breakfast table with her teaching me how to set the table and the proper way to use a fork and knife. After breakfast, there might follow a lesson in botany or horticulture as she taught me the names of flowers and plants in the beds around her house. …And then a physical education lesson as she instructed me how to do a cart-wheel or a head stand. Lunch was a time for conversation where she taught me when to speak up and when to hold my tongue and late afternoons, my favorite time of the day, was when she would invite me to sit on her lap in her rocking chair and either tell me stories or have me read passages from books to her. Dinner was a time for one-to-one conversations where she encouraged me to speak my mind and bed-time was a time for both instruction in self-care, when she would unwind her waist-length braid of hair and have me brush her hair—at least one hundred strokes, from scalp to tip, and spiritual lessons as well when she would test me on my prayers.

Young as I was at the time, I was able to recognize that Grandma’s treatment of me was something special. When else was I given the opportunity by an adult to speak to an adult on equal ground? Through Grandma’s gentle guidance and tutelage, I was able to divulge to her thoughts and ideas I could never tell anyone else. Rarely, did she interrupt me as I spoke my mind but, on occasion, when I began to rant against this or that sibling she would always remind me of the golden rule: “If you have nothing good to say about someone, then it’s best you say nothing at all.” And if she found me complaining about not being appreciated, she would advise me to demonstrate by doing—not to rail against a perceived injustice or misguided criticism but to always be positive and hold negativity in check. I didn’t realize it then, but Grandma was teaching me an adage accredited to Cicero: “Criticize by creation, not by finding fault.”


In my life as a translator but especially since the founding of Lontar in 1987, I have spent much of my time attempting to bring into English translation enough translated texts to permit the teaching of Indonesian literature through the medium of English. I take no pride in the fact that Lontar is the only institution in the world whose primary goal is the introduction of Indonesia to the world through literary translations but that is a fact and no other organization has done as much as Lontar to shine the light on this country’s literary wealth.

Since Lontar’s founding, the Foundation has produced 200+ titles, including translations of literary work by more than 650 authors. In the process, Lontar has produced many “first-ever” landmark publications. But Lontar hasn’t devoted itself to just the written word: the Foundation has produced 40 films on Indonesian oral traditions, 24 documentary films on Indonesian authors, and, this past year, 40 short films on younger authors.

Lontar has also worked with numerous foreign literary journals and organizations to produce special editions of Indonesian literature—Words Without Borders, Manoa, Stand, Cordite Review, and Jentayu, to name a few—as well as with numerous foreign NGOs (PEN International, PEN New York, Human Rights Watch, and so on) for the purpose of defending Indonesian writers’ freedom of expression.


Because of Lontar’s leading role in the field of Indonesian literary translation, it should not be surprising, that when Indonesia was selected to become Guest of Honor Country at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair I was asked to serve as literary coordinator for that event; that when the Ministry of Education and Culture established the National Book Committee in 2016, I was asked to coordinate its translation-funding and writers-residency programs; and that, more recently, when Indonesia was chosen as Market Focus Country at the 2019 London Book Fair, I was invited to serve as coordinator for the events’ literary programs—all of which I did for minimal financial recompense.

What is surprising is that prior to the recent 2019 London Book Fair a mini-tempest arose within the insular world of Indonesian literary translation. I will not go into the details here but, the storm began when an American writer/translator posted a twitter feed that all but disparaged the validity of Lontar’s work. Thereafter, a Jakarta journalist (and an American citizen as well) accused me of harboring “a simplistic white gaze, “while adding, “It’s about time that we give Indonesian writers their power over how the world interprets their literature.” And then, to top it off, the one Indonesian author who has most benefited from the translation-funding program I helped to establish jumped on the band wagon by remarking, on line, that I was a “colonizer” (whatever that means). Thereafter, followed a spate of on-line vitriol by others, the tone of which I found to be both racist and xenophobic.

In quick succession, I seemed to undergo the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. In the end, however, what saved me from depression were the memories of childhood I recounted above and the lessons I had learned from my grandmother.

John McGlynn

(Caption for photograph: A 1949 photograph of my grandmother in her rocking chair with my sister, Maureen, on her lap).