The Asianist

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Writing about South East Asia, Tash Aw explores the confusion of new personal and political freedoms, privileging emotional authenticity over exotic detail
Walter Chao dreams of being ‘superabundantly, incalculably wealthy’; author Tash Aw has no such illusions. “Most writers don’t even get to have a career. That way, I consider myself already a commercial success,” chuckles the 41-year-old Malaysian writer when I quote the protagonist from his third novel, Five Star Billionaire, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize earlier this year. A towering figure in the Asian literary landscape, Aw has been described, in a Daily Mail review of his second book Map of the Invisible World, as being just as able ‘to conjure stampeding crowds as the glow of fireflies’. In person, he comes across as charming and down- to-earth. Aw doesn’t seem to mind hanging back in dimly lit corridors to interact and share tips with those who haven’t even read his works. In conversation at the Mumbai LitFest, Aw dismisses the romanticism around writing and explains why it is just like an office-goer’s job. Excerpts:

Q What made you take up writing?

A It’s one of those things writers can never really explain. Most writers that I know—and I am certainly one of them—have always had an impulse to write right from a very [young] age. I grew up in a very normal Malaysian family. Although my parents encouraged my love of literature, they never really encouraged me to become a writer. I didn’t really know it was possible to become a writer until I moved to England and started to write my first novel. It’s a very deep-seated urge to tell stories. I think that’s where it comes from.

Q I ask because you have a very different academic and professional background. You moved to England in 1991, where you studied law for four years and then practised it for another four years. When did you reach the point where you decided to take a plunge?

A I did my training for four years. But by [that] time, I was already writing quite seriously. But you know—and this is my tip for a lot of young writers—you should never rush yourself into it. Always have a back-up plan. I knew that my early attempts as a writer were not very stable. So I just took my time. Because I had a law degree, I took a job in a law firm. I wrote at night. But at some point, there comes a time that you have to make a leap of faith, when you have to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life. At the age of 29, you can’t do a full time legal job and write at the same time. Writing was something I dreamed of but now it made sense to me. People always ask me, ‘How do you know when to make a leap of faith?’ My answer is, ‘You just do.’

Q How long did it take you to write your first novel The Harmony Silk Factory?

A While I was working, I was already writing [the] novel. By 2000, I already had about half the novel done. I realised that if I was ever going to finish it, I needed to devote all my energies to it. That’s when I quit my job. I had saved up enough money to last me a whole year. I told myself that if I didn’t finish my novel within that year, I [would] just go back and get another job. But within that year, I finished it and subsequently, I was able to sell it.

I then got lucky. The first agent I spoke to, the agent I always wanted to work with, took me on. The first publisher I spoke to took me on too. You need a bit of luck. But before that, what I had done was given myself plenty of time, a full seven years, to finish my first novel. Two or three years in the whole lifespan of a writer is not a long time. When you are 65 and hopefully at the top of your career, you are not going to notice those years you gave yourself to finish your first book.

Q Since your debut, you have steadily produced two more novels, with a gap of four years between them. How did you go about the new routine of being a full time writer?

A The life of a writer is a very inconsistent one. For that reason, I like being very regular. I write every day. Writing should be like any other job. Take people having office jobs. They wake up in the morning, they don’t feel like working but you still have to go to the job. You might not be very productive, but [you] still have to go. That’s how I treat my work. I still turn up, I still do the hours. Some days are better than others, but I still give my job that respect. A lot of younger writers need to realise that it’s not just that beautiful thing [where] you wait for inspiration to come to you. You set yourself challenges. You have to make it happen.

Q What kind of discipline do you follow? Do you set any time-bound targets?

A When I am writing very intensively, I wake up very early, about 5 or 5.30 am. Then I go straight to work. I aim to do the bulk of my writing by 10. If that doesn’t happen, I have another block until lunch. After that I do something physical, like go for a walk. I come back later in the afternoon and have a look at what I have done, to see if there are things I can tweak. Then I try to set up the next day’s work. I never work in the evenings. If I did, my brain starts ticking over and I can’t relax and sleep. That would affect my next day’s work.

I’m not a morning person. But I like the feeling of discipline and pushing myself to wake up early. Early in the morning, my brain is also very clear. This is before the phone starts ringing [and] emails start pouring in; [before] there is any traffic. So it’s the best time.

Q What is your preferred work-space?

A Sometimes, I am lucky enough to work at Writer’s Residencies. Those are usually in very quiet, beautiful places. But I like working at home. I can’t just go to a cafe and write.

Q You have set your novels in various parts of Asia—Malaysia, Indonesia, China—often in times and spaces you haven’t been a part of. Is this a conscious attempt to explore the unfamiliar?

A Yes. I am in interested in the way South-East Asia has evolved in the last 60-70 years, how our priorities, aspirations, fears and desires have changed. In the first novel, although it is about people wanting personal freedom, there is... the theatre of national freedom being played [out] in the background.

In the second, I wanted to see how we dealt with freedom once we had it. I wanted to see how personal independence is scary for some people and national freedom is confusing after long periods of having none. In the present day, after having enjoyed many decades of this freedom, has this led to a culture of absolute, over-the-top materialism? Those are the things I wanted to explore.

Q Your connection with Malaysia comes from your schooling there. What connection did you share with Indonesia and China before you started writing about them?

A With Indonesia, there are two points of connection. First, my father worked there for many years. So I have been there many times. Secondly, Malaysia and Indonesia are very closely linked—in some ways like India and Pakistan. There are commonalities in language, religion, often ethnicity. I wanted to explore this notion of broherhood that these countries share.

With Five Star Billionaire [set in China], the connection is that I am ethnically Chinese. I was intrigued by these Chinese Malaysians who are now going back to China for purely economic reasons in the same way their ancestors had come to Malaysia about 100 years ago. That’s why I lived in China for 18 months between 2009 and 2011.

Q How do you go about research?

A When I was in China, I went out a lot, listened to a lot of stories. It’s what I do normally. I read the news, ask people for their opinions. I spend a lot of time observing. For first two novels, I had to do a lot of historical research. That involves a lot of library work. For the latest, it was just about being open, seeing how people behave.

Q At the workshop you conducted at the recently concluded Mumbai Literature Festival, you said something on the lines of, ‘I’d rather be believable than authentic.’

A Yeah, I am troubled by the idea of authenticity.

I am more concerned about emotional authenticity. When you read something, it should feel truthful on an emotional level rather than whether the details are accurate. I couldn’t really give a damn about whether you were actually wearing those shoes, whether that make of Adidas or Nike was available in India in that time. That’s something my copy editor can deal with.

There is a lot of pressure on Asian writers to be authentic, in a way that they have to be the perfect spokes-people for their race or country. No one ever asks a British writer, ‘Do people in Hampstead really drink tea that way?’

Q You speak a number of languages—Malay, Mandarin, English and French. What language do you think in?

A It changes depending on where I am. In China, I often thought in Chinese. I even dreamt in Chinese. In a neutral country like India, I will think in Malay or Chinese. But I guess my main medium of writing is English. So when I am writing intensively, I will think a lot in English.

Q Which writers inspire you?

A Traditionally, it’s the writers that occupy the territory I instinctively fall into, like Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Conrad and also people like William Faulkner. There are isolated books as well. As a writer, [Herman] Melville isn’t one of my inspirations, but Moby Dick is.

Q Are these writers who inspire you today or have they stood the test of time?

A They absolutely have. They are the ones who I read in my teens. Of course, as you grow older, you are exposed to more books and they make you think in a different way. But I think the early influences are the strongest.

Q How much time do you spend with your characters before you put them to paper?

A For Five Star Billionaire, I spent a couple of years just drawing out character sketches. I drew heavily from the people I had grown up with in my teens. You only know how someone behaves if you put them in scenes. So I started out slowly, building scenes in my head.

Q So was the process of writing a novel ultimately about putting the pieces of the jigsaw together?

A Yeah, it was. But even then, when you are writing them, scenes get shifted. The chronology shifts, the system gets altered.

Q How different are your novels from how you originally conceive of them to what the final draft looks like?

A They’re quite different. But in a way, that’s good. It’s a sign that the book is taking a life of its own. Iris Murdoch said that before she started a book, she knew every single scene and line from the book. I can’t really believe that it’s true, but if it was, that would be terrible.

Q ‘Exotic’ is the go-to word for critics when they are describing the fiction and landscape of this part of the world. What does that word mean to you? Do you view your writing that way?

A For me, ‘exotic’ is snowy mountains and log cabins. It’s what for other people is perfectly dull. You see, things, cultures and people are different from one end of the world to another. Exoticising something is using those differences to keep that culture separate and ‘other’.

You are not making any attempt to bridge [the gap] and convince yourself that you have nothing in common. But within those differences, there is universality.

Things like love, ambition and desire are experienced in the same way. There is a way someone living in Jakarta can read about someone sitting in Winnipeg and understand those situations.

A lot of my work is a process of writing about people who are different. but not exotic.

Q What are you presently working on?

A I’m working on some short stories and a series of non-fiction essays on Malaysia.

Q Do you take a break after you finish a novel? What do you do during that time?

A Yeah, yeah. I think it’s very important for me to take a complete break. In this time, I read a lot, write essays that are my responses to things. I travel and write on what I see. They are not meant for publication but just for me.

Q What is your support system?

A Writing is a very solitary profession. I have a few close friends who read my work and we discuss it. But in terms of day-to-day [activities], I am on my own.

Q Over the next few years, will you only be writing about Asia or are you planning to go beyond that?

A I can’t say for sure. But for the moment, my preoccupations are to do with Asia. I don’t know how they are going to manifest themselves in fiction, but they are mostly Asia-centric.