In Memoriam: Steve Adisasmito-Smith

Dr. Steve Adisasmito-Smith

By Jefferson Beavers, communication specialist, Department of English

Dr. Steve Adisasmito-Smith, a Fresno State associate professor of English, passed away on July 10. He was 57.

There will be no funeral services. A celebration of life will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 8, inside the Wahlberg Recital Hall in Fresno State’s Music Building. (Free parking with coupon code 264401.) The family encourages attendees to bring an artifact — a photo, a drawing, a poem, etc. — with a brief memory of Steve included, to be collected for a memorial scrapbook.

Condolence cards, scrapbook artifacts, and memorial gifts for the family can be mailed to Niken Adisasmito-Smith, in care of Keith Ford, 4758 E. Austin Way, Fresno, CA 93726.

Adisasmito-Smith died in an unexpected accident while on a family trip in Hawaii. According to his friend Keith Ford, who first notified the University and was with him at the time, Adisasmito-Smith drowned while trying to save their children from treacherous waters.

A specialist in world literatures, Adisasmito-Smith was an expert on mythology, folklore, and ancient Sanskrit writing in translation. He taught at Fresno State from 2003 to 2022.

According to Dr. Honora Chapman, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, Adisasmito-Smith was “a truly humane humanist” whose facility with languages such as Sanskrit made him an invaluable scholar and resource for colleagues and intrepid students. He also worked with Latin, Greek, Indonesian, Spanish, German, and French.

“We are all heartbroken,” Chapman said. “Steve’s capacious gift for sharing the beauty and wisdom in global literature stretching back millennia has helped Fresno State students see that they, in all their diversity, are part of a much larger and fascinating story of humanity.”

Dr. Lisa Weston, professor of English and former department chair, said Adisasmito-Smith was one of the most exemplary scholars at Fresno State.

“His linguistic and literary work on Sanskrit poetry, including his works of translation of under-recognized and marginalized texts, opened and continues to open the field in fundamentally revolutionary ways,” Weston said. “And Steve’s scholarly interests extended to embrace many kinds of contemporary postcolonial literary texts. We will also miss his ideas on science fiction and fantasy, especially as written outside the Anglo-American core of the genres.”

More importantly, Weston said, Adisasmito-Smith was “one of the kindest and most caring teachers on campus.”

“As a teacher and mentor, he touched many, many lives,” Weston said. “He was a rigorous, painstaking, and inspiring reader of M.A. thesis projects. He led student after student to breakthroughs they could hardly have foreseen. He cared deeply and passionately about teaching and about how education affected his students’ intellectual and emotional lives.”

In addition to teaching, Adisasmito-Smith served as the English Department’s assistant chair; chaired the department’s curriculum and scholarship committees; and served as an advisor in the B.A. English Studies program, formerly known as English Education, often working with undergraduates in their final year before starting their teaching careers.

More than 100 students, alumni, and colleagues responded on English Department social media to news of Adisasmito-Smith’s death, sharing emotional tributes to “Dr. Steve,” a professor who took a deep interest in their lives and growth, both personally and professionally.

Hector Tapía, an English lecturer and recent M.A. alumnus, said Adisasmito-Smith “radiated goodness and a warm quirkiness” in the classroom. Tapía said when he was an undergraduate, Adisasmito-Smith pushed him to present his research at a conference, but on one condition: his teacher would be there in support.

Adisasmito-Smith kept his word. As Tapía presented his first paper, he saw Dr. Steve in the audience typing notes onto his MacBook and giving nods of approval. Afterward, Tapía said, his mentor lauded his presentation as “incisive” and said he would someday make a fantastic Ph.D. candidate.

“This single utterance changed the way I viewed myself. Steve saw a serious academic in someone like me, from a small ‘cow-town’ in the Central Valley,” said Tapía, who grew up in Mendota. “From that moment on, I no longer saw myself as just an English major. For the first time, I saw myself as a scholar.”

With Adisasmito-Smith serving as his thesis chair, Tapía won the College of Arts and Humanities’ 2021 Outstanding Thesis Award for his manuscript “Lust in Translation: Rethinking Why the Hyena Laughs in Aelian, Aesop, Aristotle, and Others.”

This summer, Tapía landed a residency with leading Aesop scholar Dr. Laura Gibbs, working on a “proverb recipes” project, with the goal to create a multilingual proverbs book for Latin, Spanish, and English learners. Adisasmito-Smith urged Tapía to connect with Gibbs, giving him a copy of her book and urging him “to do great things with it.” That gift led directly to his award-winning thesis and the residency.

“All of my successes in academia would not have been possible without Steve,” Tapía said. “He is, and will always be, my hero in academia.”

Dr. Samina Najmi, a professor of English, said Adisasmito-Smith was a gem of a colleague, “principled, hyper-conscientious, and utterly devoid of self-indulgence,” the kind of colleague “who reached out to you in your troubles,” who showed up for the department and, above all, its students.

According to English Department syllabi and records, Adisasmito-Smith’s research explored bio-cultural approaches to literature, combining eco-criticism with evo-criticism and gender studies with performance studies. A long-standing focus was to draw attention to the ways in which legend and myth both illuminated and tightly connected with the natural world. He was also a feminist. Some of his recent work focused on translating women poets who wrote in Classical Sanskrit, such as Vijjaka and Shila-bhattarika, to bring their voices to wider attention. He regularly taught “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu, and the poetry of Sappho and Enheduanna.

Najmi said she will cherish the memory of what was likely Adisasmito-Smith’s last in-person scholarly presentation in January 2020 at the South Asian Literary Association conference in Seattle. Alongside author SJ Sindu, they presented together on a panel called “The Diverse Desi: Readings by Three Creative Writers.”

“There was Steve in his trademark Nehru kurta, presenting his translation of the Sanskrit poems of Vijjaka, a fascinating 8th-century woman writer from Karnataka, whom most of us had never heard of,” Najmi said. “He floored the audience with his presentation, and many sought him out after the panel for further conversation, and some to take photos with him.”

Here’s how Adisasmito-Smith described his presentation:

“Steve will read from his translations of Vijjaka, a poet from 8th century Karnataka. As a translator, Steve is drawn to Vijjaka’s poetic persona — a name, a style, and an attitude — that emerges vibrantly in her poems. In an era when most male authorities taught that women should adhere to Dharma (social morality) and remain in seclusion in their homes, under their husband’s power, Vijjaka celebrates moving freely, escaping moral constraints, and playfully enjoying pleasure, desire, and sexuality (Kama) in luxuriant natural settings or during the stormy monsoons.”

In December 2018, Adisasmito-Smith presented the keynote address at the Students of English Studies Association symposium on campus. His talk was titled: “Humanities and the World: An Evolving Hope.

Steve Adisasmito-Smith, right, presents his research at the 2020 South Asian Literary Association conference, alongside fellow scholars Samina Najmi, left, and SJ Sindu. (Credit: Samina Najmi)
Steve Adisasmito-Smith, right, presents his research at the 2020 South Asian Literary Association conference, alongside fellow scholars Samina Najmi, left, and SJ Sindu. (Credit: Samina Najmi)

Steven Eric Smith was born in 1964 in Fairbury, Illinois. He was raised by his mother, Barbara Brunskill, who taught English in the Illinois and Florida correctional systems.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His doctoral work focused on Sanskrit and Latin literature, as well as English literature from Britain, the U.S., and India.

He married Niken Adisasmito in 1995 and they took each other’s surnames. According to Niken, the decision to share their names was both a commitment to each other and a commitment to combating gender norms, which was a constant and quiet goal of Steve’s.

Steve and Niken came to Fresno in 2003. Steve joined the faculty in the English Department, and Niken — also an acclaimed scholar — joined the faculty in the Linguistics Department. Their offices are down the hall from one another, on the same floor inside the Peters Business building.

Steve and Niken would frequently discuss scholarship and research approaches. In Niken’s background in linguistics, Steve found a reassuringly data-driven approach to the study of language. This shared commitment to language studies showed through Steve’s teaching and grading. According to Niken, “He was always guiding students back to the texts, back to the words on the page.”

Steve Adisasmito-Smith taught a range of courses at Fresno State, from broad surveys of world literature and folklore to graduate-level topics seminars such as “Mimesis, Violence, and Ethics,” “Ecology, Evolution, and World Epics,” and “Women Weaving Wor(l)ds.”

Prior to coming to Fresno State, his early work, which drew on hermeneutics and postcolonial studies, won the 1998 Horst Frenz Prize from the American Comparative Literature Association. In 1999, he studied The Mahabharata — the longest epic poem ever written — and Sanskrit poetics in Pune, India. Publications included translations and interpretations of Sanskrit texts by British orientalists, American transcendentalists, and Indian nationalists in journals such as the Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature, Nineteenth-Century Prose, and the South Asian Review. 

Adisasmito-Smith was an avid world traveler who loved to fish, hike, and camp, according to Keith Ford, a Fresno State alumnus and his close friend. He also loved to diligently prepare for these adventures, Ford said, studying the mythologies and traditions of the places he was preparing to visit, and sharing those stories with fellow travelers.

Adisasmito-Smith once described his own interests in a faculty bio:

“When not teaching, Steve travels with wife and two sons to visit family in Indonesia and friends in other parts. When possible, he heads to the wild to explore nature. He has rappelled into a cave, swam in an underground lake, scrambled up a mountain overlooking Paradise, ridden a horse up to a volcano, and returned alive from the Irish underworld.”

Like so many alumni, Ford credits Adisasmito-Smith for deeply impacting his life.

“Academically, were it not for him, I would still probably have what Steve defined, in an office hours meeting, as ‘a particular antipathy for mankind,’” said Ford, who now teaches English at Fresno City College. “I would not have gone to grad school; I would not have taken interest in comparative literature; I would not have striven to learn languages and work in original texts; I would not be a college instructor.”

Ford said Adisasmito-Smith was a tough teacher, but he balanced high expectations with an equal intensity of interest, “which said that he would work and give every bit as much as his students would to see them succeed.”

“Were it not for Steve,” Ford said, “I would not have known it was possible to have faith in people because — not in spite — of their flaws. I would not have gained a brother and a second set of siblings for my kids. My life would have been poorer in every way.”

Steve Adisasmito-Smith is survived by his wife of 27 years, Niken Adisasmito-Smith; their children, Narayana and Krishnananda Adisasmito-Smith; mother Barbara Brunskill; brother Michael Smith; and sister Teresa Mack.

3 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Steve Adisasmito-Smith

  1. As an undergrad I wrote a paper analyzing Li Bo’s work. He said in his notes my work contained “soaring prose.” It was the highest compliment I’ve ever received about my writing scholarly or creatively. I wish I told him how much I loved writing that paper. It was the first time I ever got to write about the poetic legacy of East Asians–MY people. Not Yeats. Not Wordsworth. Not Frost or Whitman. It’s been over a decade. Of the hundreds of pages I’ve written in my academic career, that paper and his praise remain with me, in the drawer where I keep the things I need to remind me why anyone, let alone me in my mediocrity, dares to write and tell stories.

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  2. I went to grade school and high school with Steve, even at this young age He introduced me to many different authors and so many great books that I have always cherished the memory of my friend Steve a great deal. We played Dungeons and Dragons and exchanged books and I have always been grateful that Steve was my friend. I also have very many fond memories of His Family and I wish them peace and for them to know that I am praying for them. Steve was a great friend and I cherish my time with Him.

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