THE WRITING LIFE ... Tash AW
INHABITING THE INVISIBLE WORLD
Malaysia’s most famous novelist, TASH AW, who was back in Kuala Lumpur in June 2009, chats with TAN MAY LEE about his second novel, Map of the Invisible World, and the places he has been to
EVEN IF YOU HAVE NEVER MET TASH AW BEFORE, you would feel as if you have known him for years. His début novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, made waves as rumours of a huge advance got everyone talking about the story of Johnny Lim’s textile factory during the turbulent period of World War II. Winning the Whitbread First Book Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Southeast Asia and South Pacific) in 2005, not to mention securing a place on the longlist of the 2005 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, only confirmed his talents.
The critically acclaimed London-based Malaysian novelist is now back with Map of the Invisible World, a book which took him four years to write. It is a story about two brothers raised in a Jakarta orphanage who were separated. John, the elder brother, is adopted by a wealthy Malaysian family and taken to Kuala Lumpur, while Adam eventually gets adopted by a benevolent Dutchman living in Indonesia. For Aw, the ties of kinship and family transcend time and space. The novel is set mostly in Jakarta in 1964 during Sukarno’s movement to purge the former Dutch colony of its colonial past.
Aw is busy working on his third novel.
TEXT & PHOTOGRAPHS BY TAN MAY LEE
The Harmony Silk Factory was published in 2005, and your readers have waited four years for Map of the Invisible World. What is the difference between writing your first and second book? Did you experience the Second Novel Syndrome at all?
Writing the second novel is a much bigger undertaking than the first. I think when you’re writing your first novel, you’re writing in a vacuum. It’s a very innocent process. Writing your second novel raises expectations. The Second Novel Syndrome is experienced widely if the first one has achieved some degree of recognition. Because you’ve won prizes and you’ve sold a certain amount of copies and you’ve got a certain reputation, people expect the second book to do even better. For me, that’s not important. My pressure is internal. After writing my first novel, I want to write a better one, to challenge myself and write something that’s different, more exciting, and see myself grow as a writer. Those pressures give you a lot of anxiety. They make you feel as if you need to live up to something from an artistic point of view.
How do you know when your manuscript is completed? Do deadlines determine this or do you feel a sense of confidence that there is no way you can improve on the text anymore?
That’s a difficult question to answer. I think writers want to control the process and polish the novel to perfection. The problem is, you can do that for years before making the final full stop. There comes a time when you basically have to say that the book is good enough at this point of your career. I don’t have a deadline, but if I had a contractual deadline I think that would’ve helped a lot.
What about feedback from your agent David Godwin and editor? Did that help?
I’m lucky because I have a very good agent and editor and they helped a lot. But ultimately a writer is responsible for his or her own work. You have to judge for yourself whether the book is good or at an end.
Do you know where you are going with a novel as you write or does it evolve?
Both. I always start with a certain structure. I try to plan a beginning and an end just so I know where I’m going. But what invariably happens when I write a novel is that things take off in different directions and unplanned ideas very often just plunge themselves into the narrative and go their own way. That’s one of the joys of writing. If you were to sit down and plan a novel, and everything goes as planned, it gets boring as you’re just writing to a formula. If the characters take on a life of their own, it becomes interesting for a writer. As a writer, you need to keep yourself interested; it’s not just about scribbling things on a piece of paper. You need to refresh yourself and communicate with enthusiasm. And you can only do that when the novel takes you to places you don’t know.
Your book was structured quite strategically—there’s a chapter on Adam, then it focuses on Johan, but apart from these main characters, there’s Margaret as well to give a woman’s perspective. How did this structure come about?
I think female characters are very important and my novel tries to be very realistic, but characters can be complicated and complex. I came to structure it that way by trial and error. Writing is all about making mistakes. Like any other job, you have to make mistakes to know what is right and what works for you.
What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing the two novels?
A lot. For example, although I live for most of the year in London, I discovered that my emotional life is still preoccupied with Malaysia and Southeast Asia. The big questions in life I think about when I go to bed at night and turn off the lights relate to my life in Malaysia and my past there. In Map of the Invisible World, even though it wasn’t a conscious thing, all the characters in the novel are similar to me in that way although they inhabit 1964 Malaysia and Indonesia.
Your dad worked in Jakarta for over 20 years, so you must know a lot about the city. How do you compare Indonesia with Malaysia?
For any Malaysian going to Indonesia, we experience culture shock because we presume a certain level of familiarity. We share a similar language, facial features and there’s a common religion. We’ve also been exposed to Indonesian music and TV. We assume it’s going to be the same and we’re going to feel at ease, but that’s not the case at all. Jakarta is a very different place—much, much bigger than KL, with overwhelming crowds at times. I’ve always been struck by these two brotherly countries, and how they’re so different. That’s why I wrote the novel the way I did, involving two brothers and two countries.
“No trees lined the road. Adam could see no vegetation or foliage, just a forest of concrete structures built in fantastic shapes conceived in a dream. He was tired from the walking, he was tired of this city. It was not at all like the city he had once constructed in his imagination. He could barely remember that invisible world he had once known so intimately, a place full of love and possibility and promise.” Did the title Map of the Invisible World come from this passage?
Although Adam lives in the real world, the world that is more important to him is his past with Johan. He can’t remember it anymore so it has become invisible. It’s suggested in that passage and all the characters in the novel are like that to some degree. Although they all inhabit this world, there’s another invisible world they still occupy.
Margaret’s mother tells her, “Man is a restless creature, nomadic at heart.” Somehow that sentence struck me. You managed to capture rich descriptions of landscapes to dingy alleyways in your book. You’ve been to many places for book tours and personal trips. What are your thoughts on travel in general?
There’s a theory that we’re all nomadic at heart and the problems we face come from the fact we settle in one place and become fixed. I like coming back home to my apartment in London where I see my books, clothes and everything else. But I also like moving around. Travel has always been essential to my life. My parents have worked abroad in various periods. Travel is so enriching and I never want to stop travelling, seeing new things and meeting people. I don’t think I can work as a writer if I don’t travel. I like being quite versatile in my travelling. It depends on where I’m going and what kind of mood I’m in. I like being able to slip on a backpack and just travel lightly, and go really footloose and not bother with an itinerary, but at the same time I like to settle into a really nice hotel room when I’m working. I don’t want to worry about whether or not my door can lock at night.
Do you read travelogues and write travel stories?
Travel writing was actually my first love. When I first started out as a writer in my twenties, I thought I would be a novelist and travel writer. In fact, a travel writer who has written about China and the Silk Road is my mentor.
On the world map, what would be your most memorable places?
I went to India for the first time recently for the Jaipur Literature Festival and I found Jaipur amazing. Also Indonesia, especially Java. But there’s so much to discover in Malaysia as well, although everyone goes to the same old places. Malaysia’s actually a physically beautiful place and one of the most beautiful countries I know. What I like most is taking a car and just driving around. My father’s family is from Kelantan and driving up there is an amazing experience. If you live in Kuala Lumpur, you might think that Malaysia is really crowded, but when you get far away, the city seems a million miles away and Malaysia turns out to be quite empty. I also think the east coast is beautiful.
Is literature a form of luxury? What kind of background should writers then come from to be the ones outside looking in?
Literature used to be a luxury and people still think of it as a luxury. But it’s not—it belongs to everyone, and therefore everyone can read and write. So writers should and can come from all walks of life. Some older people think writing is just for educated people, but that’s not true. When people read my book, I hope they will see their country and themselves in a new light. If you just wake up everyday, go to work and cari makan, that’s your preoccupation and you don’t think about other things. Reading a book could help you think about other things. It should be entertaining, but it should also help you think about things.
TAN MAY LEE works in the Malaysian hospitality industry. Her stories have been published in anthologies such as Urban Odysseys and Body2Body. She has written for such publications as Management, Seni Hias, Heritage Asia, The Star, Malay Mail and Quill.
Reproduced from the July-September 2009 issue of Quill magazine