The Sunday that I heard the news of Ben’s passing, I was with five hundred other people at the inaugural Southeast Asian Studies in Asia (SEASIA, pronounced “see-Asia”) Conference in Kyoto. The conference had brought together young and senior scholars from all ten ASEAN countries plus Timor Leste, and fifteen other countries in the Asia-Pacific region and Europe. Among the participants were a number of friends and colleagues who had also been fellow Cornell alumni such as Jojo Abinales, Jun Aguilar, Rey Ileto, Doming Caouette, Tesa Tadem, Barbara and Leonard Andaya, Jeff Hadler, Kaja McGowan, Mike Montesano, Tyrell Haberkorn, Tony Milner, and Tong Chee-Kiong. Also present were Ben’s good friends like Bomen Guillermo, Jafar Suryomenggolo, and Loh Kah Seng.
The SEASIA conference, as Jeff Hadler later reminded me in his e-mail, became an impromptu wake, a place where we grieved individually and together, comforted each other, and celebrated Ben’s life. That final day of the conference brought together a small number of people whose lives have been touched in one way or another by Ben. We are mere nodes in a larger network that now spans continents as Ben’s students have found jobs in–and in some cases headed–institutions of area studies and discipline-based fields. That network also includes Ben’s loved ones, colleagues, friends, and acquaintances from all walks of life, and parts of that network will come together in the memorials in Surabaya, Bangkok, Manila, Ithaca, London, and other places that trace the wide arc of Ben’s journeys across time and space.
The Ben network we are part of is also an imagined community because it includes students, scholars, teachers, activists, and workers in Asia, America, Europe, and other places, a number of whom may not have ever met Ben or each other but had either been trained by Ben’s students or, in far larger numbers, had read Ben’s writings on Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, and other regions.
Ben’s Imagined Communities is one of the most widely cited social-science and humanities academic work in the English language, with 61,991 citations in Google Scholar, far more than Edward Said’s Orientalism, Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, and Karl Marx’s Das Capital (though we know that Marx’s reach and influence extended well beyond academia).
There will be time enough to celebrate Ben the scholar in the years to come. I want, instead, to remember Ben the teacher and friend. He was the teacher I hope to be. The classes he taught were not conducive to note-taking, let alone rote memorization and regurgitation. Ben was more interested in teaching his “kids” (as he called us) how to think, how to look at the world differently. Ben was unfailingly generous with his time and attention. No matter how busy he was, and he was always very busy, he always found the time to read and give detailed comments on all the papers and manuscripts that his students and colleagues and friends asked him to look at. The comments he sent could be quite tough; but they were very helpful in pushing one to correct an error, think through an issue, argue a point, re-examine sources, and question the language and translation as well as the framework and assumptions. When I was working on The Chinese Question, Ben sent me 23 pages of single-spaced comments. It was Ben, too, who patiently translated Rizal’s letters in German for me, who urged me to doublecheck the original texts and undertake my own translation of Rizal from the Spanish, and who asked the trademark unsettling questions–the most memorable of which for me was “Where does the laughter of the Noli come from?” — that made me rethink the Rizal that I thought I knew so well.
Ben’s integrity made him leery of careerism and contemptuous of the American academic star system: he stayed in Cornell his entire academic life and refused to move to better-paying jobs in other Ivy League universities, he never demanded business-class tickets as a condition of his attending a conference nor negotiated for a higher honorarium (in fact, he often lectured pro bono and did not ask for royalties for his books that were published and translated in Southeast Asia), he was happy to accept invitations to lecture from young scholars and activists and found special joy in talking to and learning from them. It was Ben who backed my decision to write for a Filipino audience and publish in the Philippines instead of the U.S., Ben who encouraged me to think about the wider historical framing for my literary studies, and to study Bahasa Indonesia so that in understanding our Southeast Asian neighbors, we Filipinos may better understand ourselves. Ben’s American home was in the village of Freeville, in Tompkins County, New York, population 520; I cannot think of a more apt symbol for the freeing of minds that regularly happened under his watch.
I would have wanted to talk about my friend Ben, but this has proven to be the hardest thing to do because the more I remember his myriad acts of kindness and generosity, his bearhugs and deep soft rumbling voice, his piercing wit, his chatty e-mails ending with “Labs, B” and “Hugzz, B” with many zzz’s, his presence in Kyoto, Manila, Bangkok, and New York (the places I have been fortunate to encounter him in), the harder it is for me to put into writing all that he has meant to me.
What comes back to me now are a series of snapshots, of Ben in his office, surrounded by piles of papers and books; Ben taking a tray of delicious broiled spareribs out of the oven of his yellow-bright kitchen in Freeville; Ben walking down the streets of Manila Chinatown as I showed him my childhood haunts; Ben under a layer of powder (the studio make-up girl remarking to both of us: “You’re not the sort who wear make-up”) explaining Carlos Bulosan’s All the Conspirators to the Channel 5 TV host; Ben in Aguinaldo Cave, Biak-na-Bato, Bulacan; Ben attending Ishmael Bernal’s wake at the U.P. Film Center because he loved Bernal’s films; Ben visiting the house in Pasig after I gave birth to my daughter; Ben stopping by Kyoto on his way to the onsen, which he loved.
It is usual for obituaries to end with the sentence “He is survived by next of kin.” Ben is survived by the many people who admired and loved him and by the “kids” who can now be found in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Japan, America, United Kingdom and other corners of the world.
Labs at hugzzzz, B.!