“He was a translator”

Letters from Benedict Anderson


THE SCHOLAR BENEDICT ANDERSON died on 13 December 2015, in the Indonesian city of Malang, in eastern Java. Anderson lived a peripatetic existence. Born in 1936 in China, of Anglo-Irish parentage, he studied in the United Kingdom and the United States, and taught for much of his life at Cornell University, in the state of New York. But he was always drawn, by inclination, back to Asia—particularly to South East Asia. Over decades of studying the region, Anderson learnt Indonesian, Javanese, Tagalog and Thai, and authored numerous works of history, political science, and social and cultural analysis. Indonesia exerted the greatest pull on his interest and affection: Anderson devoted more scholarship to it than to any other country, and adopted two Indonesian sons. It was the closest thing he had to a home.

In Indonesia, Anderson is remembered primarily for his scholarship on the country, just as he is remembered in South East Asia for his work on the region. But elsewhere, his lifelong engagement with this part of the world remains largely unknown, and, perhaps understandably, is overshadowed by his scholarship in Imagined Communities, a pioneering examination of nationalism first published in 1983 and now counted among our era’s most influential texts of political thought.

Beginning in 2009, Anderson maintained an occasional correspondence with Naveen Kishore, the head of Seagull Books, a publishing house headquartered in Kolkata. Their exchanges—conducted, excepting a few handwritten letters, over email—quickly took on a spirit of warm familiarity and freewheeling exploration. They provided ideal opportunities for Anderson’s rich erudition and multifaceted personal history to shine through.

Benedict Anderson was a professor emeritus of international studies at Cornell University. He is best known for Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. His others books include The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World, Debating World Literature and Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination.

Naveen Kishore is a lighting designer and photographer, and the publisher of Seagull Books.

Keywords: Benedict Anderson Letters South East Asia Naveen Kishore Seagull Books