An interview with Tan Twan Eng

Nicole Idar

Photograph by Andries Buys

Tan Twan Eng (b. 1972), author of The Garden of Evening Mists (2012), his second novel, is making history: This year, he edged out Orhan Pamuk to become the first Malaysian recipient of the Man Asian Literary Prize, an award created in 2007 to draw global attention to works by Asian writers, and last month he beat crowd favorite Hilary Mantel to the £25,000 Walter Scott Prize for best historical fiction.

Tan Twan Eng was born in Penang, an island off the northwestern coast of Malaysia, and grew up in Penang and in the nation's capital, Kuala Lumpur (KL). A former intellectual property lawyer, he began writing his debut novel The Gift of Rain (2007) while studying for a master's degree in law at the University of Cape Town.

I interviewed Tan Twan Eng while he was in London in May to speak at the closing night of Asia House's Festival of Asian Literature. We met at a café in Piccadilly, and from the moment he shrugged off his backpack and sat down he was warm, engaging, disarmingly down-to-earth; when I asked him what it was like meeting his literary heroes as a famous writer himself, he confessed that he was just as tongue-tied as any devoted fan would be before Salman Rushdie. "I think I told him something like 'I really love your work,'" he said, laughing, his accent still recognizably Malaysian even after ten years of going back and forth between his home country and South Africa. Here's what we talked about that sunny spring morning in London.

—Nicole Idar

Since you were named the first Malaysian recipient of the Man Asian Literary Prize in March, you've become an ambassador for Malaysian literature on a global stage. What has this role meant to you as a writer?

I don't see myself as an ambassador of Malaysian literature—I'm still a writer, a novelist. I won't say it's dangerous to impose this role on any person, but it's something I don't look for. I would prefer just to be known as a writer, and if you want to label it, a Malaysian writer.

What kind of an impact has winning the prize had on your writing life?

At the moment I can't say for certain because I haven't quite started writing my third book [laughs]. I've started a little bit, but I haven't had an extended period of writing time because I've been traveling or doing interviews, which I'm happy to do, but I feel guilty that I'm not writing. I can't begrudge it; so many people would love to have these sorts of disruptions, and I know I'm privileged to be in this position.

You've said that in interviews you're frequently asked about Malaysian politics. What do you think about that?

Writers these days are treated as talking heads, pundits; it's one of the strangest things I've experienced. I suppose it's because as writers we're describing our world to an audience, so [commenting about politics] is seen as an extension of the job, which I can't completely agree with. What the writer wants to say is in his work, in his books.

For many international readers, your novel The Garden of Evening Mists will be their first encounter with Malaysia, and with Malaysian literature. Was this a consideration when you were writing the novel?

It was more of a consideration in my first novel, The Gift of Rain. When you write you're semi-aware of this whole group of readers hovering outside your field of vision, but you can't see their faces, so you're not sure whom you're writing to. It was more an issue for the editors. For example, I refused to have a map in my first book; I said: "In the age of Google, people can look it up," but my publisher said, "No, you have to have a map," so in the end I drew the maps of Peninsular Malaysia and Penang myself. I even put my little seal there, to give it that antique look!

But I refused to have a glossary of Malaysian words. If you go to a foreign country and you listen to people talking around you, you won't understand most of it anyway, and that's the feeling I wanted people to have. So in my second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, I said absolutely no maps, and no glossary, either. I didn't even want the Malay or Chinese words to be in italics. The Malaysian writer, Preeta Samarasan, I really respect and admire her—the Malay and Chinese words in her novel [Evening is the Whole Day] are not in italics, "char kway teow" is not in italics. I find that italics are a distraction. You're trying to immerse the reader in this world, and suddenly there are words that are slanty—you disturb the reader's train of thought. I wanted to leave the words as they are, but my publisher said, "No, cannot lah..."

Speaking of fellow Malaysian writers, I was curious about whether, as a writer born fifteen years after independence, you feel part of a rising generation of post-merdeka writers, a group that includes writers of Indian and Chinese heritage such as Preeta Samarasan and Tash Aw?

When Tash Aw's first book came out [The Harmony Silk Factory, published in 2005] I read it and then friends told me we were at the same A-Levels college in KL! But he was a year ahead of me and we never knew each other, though we had mutual friends. I feel that as a writer you're alone in your own boat in this vast ocean; you're not thinking about other people. I've always worked alone, and I prefer to work alone, so being part of a generation hasn't been a factor for me.

It's interesting, though, that both you and Tash Aw have written about the past: The Harmony Silk Factory is set in the 1940s, and both your novels, The Gift of Rain and The Garden of Evening Mists, have to do with the trauma of the Japanese Occupation (1942–45) and its painful aftermath. Can you tell us why you wanted to write about this particular period in Malaysian history?

The Occupation was such a huge event—I would say the biggest thing that happened to us since being colonized. But this was a different form of colonization, this was conquest by an alien force; just imagine, you wake up one day and suddenly people say "Oh yes, you have to speak Japanese now!" It was a huge trauma. And yet so many of my contemporaries—my college friends, office mates, were not interested in it—they said "Ah, it's in the past already." A lot of people still think the Japanese invaded from Singapore, or KL, they didn't know that the Japanese came from the east coast. So there was all this unexplored territory to write about, and I've always been interested in history.

How did you develop this interest in Malaysian history?

I would have to say, not from my history teacher in secondary school! I went to a school in PJ [Petaling Jaya, a KL suburb], and discipline was very strict there. I had a teacher who would cane us with a wooden ruler, here [points at finger joints], for talking in class, or because I didn't do my homework. The discipline made me suspicious of authority from a very young age. I didn't like the powerlessness, the fact that you have no voice, you can't influence anything, and you're at the mercy of your teacher. It was necessary I suppose, otherwise we would have gone crazy, torn the place down [laughs].

Anyway, in class I was always reading novels under the table. While the teacher was teaching I would read. I wasn't caught, but it showed in my grades. I wasn't a good student I don't think; my parents must have been the only parents who regretted having encouraged their children to read! I took a book everywhere, if we went out to dinner I brought a book to read while we were waiting for food. But that's how I got interested in history—from reading a lot.

How did you make the leap from being a reader of novels, and thinking of literature as a form of escape, to being a writer of novels, and thinking of literature as something you wanted to create yourself?

Well, I read a lot of quite badly written books, and my tastes changed; I became more critical. I asked myself, "How did this book get published?" I told myself I could do better, but I never acted, I never followed through. I thought: "Tomorrow lah!" [Laughs.] Still, I knew that one day I wanted to be a writer.

Then when I was at Cape Town University—I'd worked for two years at a law firm, and went to Cape Town to do my master's—for some reason I had time on my hands to write. I told myself I'd better do it; if I went back to work I knew I wouldn't have time.

That's when you started The Gift of Rain? You started it while you were in Cape Town?

Yes. I think I was missing Malaysia at the time, and that longing infused the book. I wanted that, I didn't fight it—I think I had to feel that longing in order to convey it to the reader.

What elements of the story did you have to start with?

I had the location; there was never a doubt that if I wrote my first book, it would be set in Penang. I wanted Penang to be a character, I was adamant about that. Some readers have noticed the characters are named after streets in Penang; that was intentional. If the reader ever visits Georgetown, there would be a resonance there—there's a Hutton Lane, a Macalister Road.

I had the time period as well, and I had this character, Philip Hutton [the protagonist]. I wanted him to be half-Chinese and half-English, to bring in a wider point of view: not just the Malaysian Chinese point of view, but the British one as well. The British and the Chinese were the dominant communities [in Penang], and then to have another dominant force, the Japanese, coming in and breaking everything apart, that would be interesting, I thought.

The story of Philip and his lover Endo-san is very much a story about forbidden love—in terms of sexuality, and because of the historical moment; the story is set during the Occupation and Endo-san is Japanese...

Yes, and there's the age difference as well.

Right. When you started writing Philip's story, did you know it would be about forbidden love?

No, it just sort of grew and grew. I don't plot my books; I have no idea what happens every day when I sit down. Sometimes, nothing happens [laughs]. I just let my characters have free rein. As I write I start seeing the scene, I think about what my characters would do, and I move on from there.

Endo-san came to me because I wanted to see the Japanese Occupation from a Japanese point of view; I knew there had to be a Japanese character. And I wanted [somebody] Philip would have to react against.

Philip Hutton is half Penang Chinese, whereas the protagonist in your second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, Teoh Yun Ling, is Straits Chinese on both sides of the family. As Yun Ling explains, being Straits Chinese means her parents spoke English rather than Chinese at home, and they considered themselves loyal British, rather than Chinese, subjects. You're Straits Chinese yourself. I wondered, how has your Straits Chinese identity shaped you as a writer?

It's influenced me in that we speak English at home—my parents went to English-medium schools in Penang. My dad's Hokkien, so we spoke Hokkien at home as well. My mum is Teochew, but she didn't really speak Teochew with me. Cantonese I had to learn because people in KL speak it; Mandarin I can speak and understand a bit. For me, being Straits Chinese is primarily about the English language.

And I grew up reading [English language] books, The Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew, though I didn't like characters that were too goody-goody. I liked Enid Blyton's Five Find-Outers...there was one character, Frederick Algernon Trotteville, or Fatty—can you imagine calling a character Fatty, you'd never get away with it now!—but he was such a great character; he was arrogant, a bit of an egotist. Then later, when I was older, I read writers like James Michener and Anne Rice. I'd save up my pocket money and buy books from the second-hand bookshop.

It seems to me that part of the Straits Chinese identity also has to do with nostalgia for the past—a fascination with ancestral homes, for example. Is there an ancestral home in your family that's important to you?

Actually, my dad's younger sister lived in a very old house in Georgetown; maybe that was where I developed this habit of loving old houses. It was her husband's parents who built the house, and it had been around at least since the 1930s or 1940s; there were wooden floorboards, and all these old photos on the walls. It was so different from my terrace house on a housing estate in Penang. But sadly it's been torn down now; they sold the house, and it's been demolished. I wish I still had this ancestral home—I would have done anything I could to protect it and keep it there.

The Straits Chinese have been so open to modernization all their lives; they sent their kids to English schools, they educated their daughters when some Chinese communities didn't do that. They were very forward looking, and I suppose that's why it's been harder for them to hang on to their heritage.

Let's talk about The Garden of Evening Mists. It has an intricate structure: it begins in the present, just as Yun Ling, a Supreme Court judge in Kuala Lumpur, is retiring from the bench. It flashes back in time to the years of the Communist insurgency, when Yun Ling apprentices herself to Aritomo, a former gardener to the Emperor of Japan. It jumps further back in time to the period when Yun Ling was imprisoned at an internment camp during the Japanese Occupation. How did you work out the structure for the novel—did you write it chronologically, and rearrange chapters later?

I started writing it chronologically. I started with Yun Ling as she is now, and tried to follow her story all the way through to the end. When I finished it I felt certain scenes—like what happened to Yun Ling in the camp—revealed the story too early; in the first draft Yun Ling's revelation of what she did in the camp came in Chapter 3, and that let out the narrative tension too soon. It took a lot of rewrites: six, seven, eight, I lost count. That was the hard part.

I had no idea about the risks I was taking when I started writing the novel. If you were to tell me I would write a novel with all these different historical periods, I would say: "I can't pull it off, how do you bring it all together?" So when I started writing it, I was blissfully unaware.

Did the novel begin for you with Yun Ling?

It did. I had a picture of a woman, now old, and I knew something happened to her during the war. What was it? At first I thought—she's been in a prisoner-of-war camp. As I started writing, I did more research. I read about comfort women in Malaya, and a few years ago I came across the Golden Lily Operation [a secret wartime initiative to smuggle artifacts stolen from Asian countries to Japan]. I thought: if I could bring these things together, I could build up the story of this hard, scarred woman.

Again, I thought: I've created this character, whom should she interact with? I had no idea how to bring all these elements together—the location, the Communist Emergency, Golden Lily, the camps—and then I met an actual gardener of the Emperor of Japan at a cocktail reception in South Africa. I was introduced to him, I said hello, and five minutes later he probably forgot about me, but I remembered him. I thought about it for a few days, the evocativeness of his job description. I started creating [the character of Aritomo] from the ground up: if it's the 1950s, he has to be this particular age, and I worked backward...but I didn't have his full story until I started writing. Sometimes it's a requirement of the narrative, and I work my way backwards. You can't just make a character an expert in woodblock prints. You have to build up his story.

Both Endo-san and Aritomo are capable of doing terrible things, yet they are both refined men, artists; Endo-san has his aikido, Aritomo has his gardening and his woodblock prints. Were you interested in showing the human side of these characters?

Always. That's what makes literature interesting—it's all so complex, nuanced. They're not just baddies, they're people. I've often wondered, would I betray someone to save my own life? How brave would I be?

I noticed that the story of Tatsuji, the kamikaze pilot, was originally published as a short excerpt in the Asian Literary Review [Autumn 2007, Volume 5]. Did Tatsuji's story begin as a short story?

[The Asian Literary Review's literary festival] was the first one I was ever invited to, and they said they were commissioning writers appearing there to write something, so I wrote this short story. I was interested in what would motivate someone to become a kamikaze pilot, so I read up on it. Their stories were heartbreaking: they were kids, sixteen, seventeen years old, manipulated by authorities—there's my hang-up again [laughs]. All the old generals sent these kids away, and told them they were "falling blossoms," they tried to glamorize it. So much is unknown about these pilots, so I started writing about them. Again, I saw them as people. I was interested in their personal sacrifice, not this jingoistic thing—about honor, family—but something personal, and the most personal sacrifice is love.

When I was thinking of a past for Tatsuji, I wondered why he would be interested in Malaya, and I wondered what he'd done in the war. At first he was just a common soldier, in Manchuria, or Nanjing, and then I thought—what if he was a kamikaze pilot? I took out this short story, but the tone was wrong, it was too flowery. Tatsuji is dry, he narrates in a very detached way. So I had to simplify the story to fit the tone of the novel.

I've never read about kamikaze pilots in Malaya before, it's a unique story. As a fiction writer, you're free to imagine scenarios that could have happened—in The Gift of Rain, for example, you note that the official ceremony to mark the surrender of Penang to the Japanese never took place; that was invented.

My rule is I can add, but I can't subtract from an event. If an event happened, or if there was a particular building, person, or road somewhere, I leave it, I don't wipe it away to fit the story. I work around the existing facts. If there's a historical building and I add a wing to it, I don't think there's any harm. I invent, but I don't eradicate—that's disrespectful.

As I was reading The Garden of Evening Mists I thought about how the work of creating a novel, like the work of creating a Japanese garden, is very much an exercise in creating order out of chaos. In the writing of a novel as complex as this, how did you create order out of chaos, how did you keep track of all the narrative threads?

I tried to keep a notebook and scribbled in it, here and there, a reminder to write about this or that, or if I thought of a sentence that was pretty I wrote it down, though sometimes later I'd read it and think: "What was I thinking?"

I also drew a map of the garden, because I was getting lost. The map was just for me; I wanted readers to find their own way. Originally there was a smaller pond outside the house, because I wanted to write about these birds hunting fish in this little pond. I found this South African gardener who protected his koi fish with spiked wire, and I saw the birds walking around looking frustrated, and I thought: Oh, there's an interesting image. But eventually I took the small pond out; it was too confusing with two ponds.

What about the heron, it has a symbolic role in the novel...

Ah, the heron was there from the start. I saw this heron, and I liked how elegant it was, and I wanted to have it in the book. They're very solitary birds, herons, I've never seen two together. When I brought in the kamikaze story I incorporated the motif of the two herons chasing each other, always in pursuit, never catching each other.

How was the experience of writing The Garden of Evening Mists different from writing The Gift of Rain?

My first novel, I wrote in about a year and a half, maybe two years. The rewrites took another six months. [The Garden of Evening Mists] took three years. During this time I was traveling a lot, but it was also harder to write. I was always second-guessing myself. I would write a pretty sentence, and then I would do a word search [on my manuscript]. I caught myself using the same descriptions two or three times. So when I finished the novel I had to go through every sentence!

In The Gift of Rain the past and present ties up more smoothly, but in this novel I wasn't so concerned with that.

In an interview with Asymptote last April, the writer Igor Stiks describes literature as an artistic form that is "cosmopolitan in its essence." Your novels underscore his point—they are set in Malaysia, but they have a global feel. The Garden of Evening Mists, for example, is about a Malaysian woman attempting to build a Japanese garden next door to a tea estate owned by a veteran of the Second Boer War. Can you tell us about these South African characters, Magnus and Frederik, when did they enter the story?

Well, I love Cape Dutch houses, and I thought: Let's have some fun here, let's put one in the book. And I wanted to write about a South African [Magnus] who lives outside the country—in South African literature at the moment, there are a lot of stories about exiles coming home, but I wanted to write the reverse—what would happen if you took a traditional, conservative, nationalistic South African and put him in this new environment? The fact that I wrote about this character as a human being, and didn't just criticize him for the past, I think South African readers found that refreshing. Weirdly enough, nobody else has commented on the appearance of these characters in a novel set in Malaysia outside of South Africa.

I love that Magnus explains what brought him to Southeast Asia, and to Malaysia in particular. Why was Magnus's past a story you wanted to tell?

It gives readers a way of understanding him. Magnus travels to Malacca and sees a gravestone that is Jan van Riebeeck's, a former governor of Cape Town. Even South Africans don't know what happened to van Riebeeck—he was exiled as punishment for something he'd done, and for him to end up in Malacca is a surprise, and it shows how interconnected we all are. I think more should be done to connect Malacca with Penang, with Cape Town, and with the history of other colonies as well.

You know, some people ask me for writing tips, how to be a better writer. I always say, "Watch more stand-up comedy." Good comedy writers are funny because they look at life at a slightly slanted angle, and they show us how life is both painful and funny, and that's what writers are trying to do. We have to look at the world slightly differently; we have to see connections others might not see.

You mentioned interconnectedness, how does it feel to see your books translated into other languages?

It's a strange feeling—I have no control over the translations. Sometimes translators change the title: the Italian version of The Gift of Rain is The Girl Who Came with the Rain, and the Spanish version of The Garden of Evening Mists is just Garden of Mists, which isn't the same.

The Garden of Evening Mists is also coming out in Chinese, Korean, and Indonesian, which is great. It's because of translations that I've been able to read other Asian writers I might not have read otherwise.

Do you find yourself drawn to writing other forms of literature—short stories, poems, or non-fiction, perhaps?

I would like to write more short stories, but I like stories to have a beginning, middle, and end, and I find modern short stories difficult to get into. Also, I have a problem keeping to the word limit! The story I wrote for the Asian Literary Review was 7,000 words, the maximum they allowed me. When I went over the limit, I started changing words from "I will" to "I'll"!

As for non-fiction... a couple of years ago I thought I should write a Bill Bryson-style history of rubber, and call it Bounce [laughs]. The story is fascinating, how rubber came to Malaysia. Maybe I'll still do that.

And there are a lot of stories I want to write about Penang, and I would love to write more about Peranakan [Straits Chinese] culture. It's such a rich culture.

At the end of the interview, I asked Tan Twan Eng if he'd be willing to sign my copy of The Garden of Evening Mists. I had the UK paperback edition, the one depicting a golden heron against a red background.

"Oh, I'll not only sign it—I'll stamp it," he said, and reached into his backpack, producing an inkpad and a wooden stamp bearing the imprint of a heron in flight.

After he returned the book to me I gazed at the outline of the heron he'd stamped on the book's title page. The heron's wings were elaborately feathered, its neck bowed, its beak slightly parted. The ink he'd used was gray instead of black, which gave the bird the delicate appearance of a faded brush painting. I thought about how the solitary heron shares much in common with the writer,"alone in your own boat in this vast ocean,"—as Tan Twan Eng himself put it—his imagination perpetually in flight.