By DOUGLAS WILLIAMS
TASH AW is Malaysia’s most successful author to date. The Perak native’s début novel The Harmony Silk Factory won the Whitbread Prize in 2005 and the plaudits have been pouring in ever since. It’s a mesmerizing tale set before WWII with three narrators describing a road trip through Perak which culminates in a boat trip to some fictional islands. The mosaic of Malaysian society is sketched out with some sensitivity as is rural Perak, Kinta Valley, complete with sleepy kampongs and rutted, red, clay tracks through the jungle. Aw captures three distinct voices with crystal clarity and these overlap in an ingenious way. It’s a tale that’s hard not to get caught up in and round the world it’s switching people on to the multiple charms of this most beguiling of countries.
Aw is now based in London but was in Malaysia in June as part of his round the world book promotion tour. His second book, Map of the Invisible World, is out now. He somehow found time in his busy schedule to talk with The Expat. His maternal grandmother and father live in Batu Gajah and Aw, now 30-something, spent a lot of time in and around the small town as he grew up.
“The towns in that area are small but they are historically very wealthy, even though much of the actual wealth has gone. They still have beautiful stucco-fronted colonial shophouses and you don’t have that in other states, it’s very atmospheric. They have a quality—the carpentry, the paint work, you can feel how it was a very rich state.” It’s this clear adoration that pours out in The Harmony Silk Factory. “If you look at Kuala Kangsar Palace, it’s heartbreakingly beautiful,” he implores. It’s infectious and will have the reader eager to go experience the area for him- or herself.
Tash was born in Taipei, grew up in Malaysia, mostly Perak, he studied in the UK and now lives in Islington, North London. He’s a trained lawyer but with his second book in stores he is now a fully fledged author signed to HarperCollins, one of the world’s biggest publishers.
A most genteel chap, Aw captures “faded grandeur” exquisitely, though some have said he has something of a quaint take on modern Malaysia: “I think Malaysia is still at heart a rural society and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. Malaysians are by nature very relaxed, we have a strong attachment to the countryside, the big growth of the cities is associated with a certain melancholy.” It’s something he feels quite strongly about and a view that has not endeared him to some local commentators. “When I grew up in KL in the 1970s and ’80s it was like a big village, people were very relaxed, you’d dump your car anywhere and go and eat. I don’t think Malaysian people are comfortable in big cities like this, we don’t do it naturally, not like Singapore or Hong Kong.” The Harmony Silk Factory is a lovely novel and it will make a great film full of rich textures. It’s a simple yet unfathomably complex story and the real star of the book is rural Malaysia.
His follow-up, Map of the Invisible World, is actually a superior novel. Set in Suharto’s Indonesia in 1965 and the “Year of Living Dangerously” it’s ambitious. There are a number of threads but Aw pulls it off, interweaving plotlines and generating within the reader genuine sympathy for each of the characters. Brotherly love, first love, the abyss between wealth and poverty and adoptive family are explored. There’s an air of menace and chaos throughout, some unforgettable set pieces and it’s a tremendously satisfying read.
His first book took Tash six years to write, he was working most of the time. “It wasn’t a hobby, I wanted to be a writer but once it was published my productivity levels plunged. I was exhausted.” The second came more quickly and was published three years later.
Regarding Jakarta where much of Map of the Invisible World is set, he says: “Underneath all that chaos there’s a rhythm and once you’re plugged into that it’s really easy, Indonesians are very friendly, they are a very expressive people, not as conservative as Malaysians.”
Tash is heartened by the recent emergence of a crop of Malaysian writers. “My generation, in our 30s, is really the first to have placed an enormous amount of importance on reading and writing. It’s indicative that the education system has done something right.”
What it will mean for the country to have people on Tokyo’s metro, the buses of Edinburgh and Californian beaches pouring over the work of contemporary Malaysian novelists remains to be seen. It seems unlikely to be negative.
Reproduced from the September 2008 issue of The Expat magazine