Tan Twan Eng’s Favourite Books
MALAYSIAN NOVELIST TAN TWAN ENG was longlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize for his début novel, The Gift of Rain (Myrmidon, 2007/Weinstein Books, 2008). The Penang-born novelist, who now lives in Cape Town, South Africa, lived in various places in Malaysia as a child. He studied law through the University of London, and later worked as an advocate and solicitor in one of Kuala Lumpur’s leading law firms. Tan’s second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, was published in February 2012 and has been shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. This is unique in Booker history: he is the first novelist to be nominated for the Man Booker Prize for his first two novels.
Interview by ERIC FORBES
Photographs courtesy of TAN TWAN ENG
Could you write a description of yourself and an update on what you have done or are doing?
I love using words, playing with them, and I’m always trying to come up with new ways to say something. I’m trying to finish the first draft of my second novel and therefore I’m irritable, anxious, distracted, exhausted and tense. Normally I’m polite and friendly but I don’t suffer fools gladly. I am cynical and irreverent about many things. I’m diplomatic but political correctness pisses me off greatly, as does censorship in any form. We’re all adults and we don’t need anyone telling us what we should or should not read, see, watch, hear or do.
Where do you find the time to read with your busy schedule?
Like all worthwhile things, one has to make time to do it. If it means I watch no TV in order to get time to read, then I’ll happily do so. I usually read for an hour or two before going to sleep. I always carry a book with me everywhere I go. If I have to wait somewhere then I’ll use the time to read (instead of just fiddling with my cell phone). I’m also a ruthless reader; if I find the book too dull or too filled with pretentious and fashionable textual gimmicks, or if it’s badly written, I usually will drop it and go to another book.
Do you think reading matters today?
Of course it does. More so than ever. We’re so inundated with unreliable information everywhere we go that we have to train ourselves to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the only way to do this is to read widely.
What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Were there any books that had a significant impact on you at that early age?
Everything I could lay my hands on—from children’s books to adult bestsellers. Malaysian bookstores in the 1980s stocked mostly commercial fiction, and that’s what I—and many of my contemporaries—read when I was growing up. I started reading from a young age. There were too many books that impacted upon me to mention here, but I remember reading Shirley Conran’s Lace when it was first published and I was not even ten or twelve years old then, I think. But how could anyone resist a book which had the tagline on its cover, “The Bestselling Novel That Teaches Men About Women, and Women About Themselves”? and also one of the greatest lines of all time, “Which one of you bitches is my mother”? The wonderful thing about the 1980s was that there were so many brick-sized ‘guilty pleasure’ novels being turned into television mini-series and Lace was one of them. I’m going to sound like an old fart now, but I can still recall how much I paid for that book—RM8.80!
I remember the mini-series; it had Phoebe Cates, Bess Armstrong, Brooke Adams and Arielle Dombasle in the leading roles … and, of course, that infamous line! Hard to believe that that was some 25 years ago—a quarter of a century ago! So who are some of your favourite contemporary writers? Why do you enjoy reading their books?
Julian Barnes (The Lemon Table is one of the most extraordinary collections of short stories I’ve ever read), Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro. An extremely underrated author would be Martin Booth—sadly he died a few years ago. His novels, Hiroshima Joe, The Industry of Souls (nominated for the Booker Prize in 1998) and Adrift in the Oceans of Mercy, are very good and difficult to obtain as they are out of print. And Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is a work of genius—in Humbert Humbert we have one of the saddest, drollest, funniest, most intelligent, most human characters ever to run rampant between the pages of a book. And the girl Lolita wasn’t as innocent as many people wish to think!
What are some of your favourite contemporary books?
Julian Barnes’s The Lemon Table, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World, Mary Yukari Waters’s The Laws of Evening and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.
Do you have an all-time favourite book? Why do you enjoy reading and rereading it?
I have too many books I wish I have the time to reread. If I have to really choose, then An Artist of the Floating World is something I keep going back to again. It’s much better than the better-known Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day, I feel. And it’s short enough that I can reread it quickly. The book is about an old Japanese man who was once a well-known artist before and during World War II in Japan, and how he copes with the changes the war has wrought on his life, his family and his society, and how he comes to terms with the role he played in it. All the themes which obsess me are there: regret, the unreliability of memory, the pains of ageing, solitude, loneliness. Ishiguro’s very spare style of writing appeals to me, and really, nothing much happens in the book at all, and yet something about it haunts me every time.
What are the elements in fiction that take your breath away? In other words, what do you think are the essentials of good fiction? What distinguishes the great novels from the merely good? What about nonfiction?
The art of telling a good, powerful story seems to have been lost. The poetic (but logical and precise) use of language also appeals to me as well. Great novels are those which don’t have to rely on the improper or non-use of punctuation and/or typefaces which look as though they’ve been set by a dyslexic typesetter. I do read nonfiction, too, but mostly history and biographies of writers and tempestuous opera singers. I can’t bear self-help or motivational books and misery memoirs.
What are you reading at the moment?
James Hamilton-Paterson’s Gerontius. It’s a fictionalised account of Sir Edward Elgar’s ship voyage from Southampton to the Amazon just after World War I. He is past his peak, and is a tired, disillusioned old man, bitter about his life despite all the glories which have been heaped upon him for his music. There’s no plot or anything by way of a story, but the writing is powerful. Hamilton-Paterson is a science writer with a poet’s soul, and it comes through in the way he makes use of scientific terms and phrases and descriptions and imbues them with a breathtaking beauty. Each word he uses is precise but evocative. The many, many pages of discussions on the issues of artistic creation are thought-provoking, as are the questions raised about memory, age, regret, lost loves and opportunities carelessly discarded.
Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat. A very difficult read, so I’m proceeding very slowly with it. It was originally written in Afrikaans and was translated into English. Both versions have won major prizes in South Africa. It’s published in the United Kingdom as The Way of the Women. The novel is about an old white woman, Milla, who is suffering from a motor neuron disease, and her relationship with her coloured servant of many years, Agaat, as well as a story of a farming community in South Africa, and how the country and its people have changed over the decades.
What are your thoughts on the future of books, particularly on e-books and e-book readers? Do you think they will replace physical books one of these days?
I think e-books will be the iPods of the near future. They’ll bring us convenience but we’ll miss the days of having a book in our hand (and its smells, weight and feel) and return to books again. It’s just like the iPods—I bought a CD recently (which I haven’t done for a while) and realised how nice the physical thing was. It wasn’t just some intangible collection of data streamed over the ether into my computer. I’m not interested at all in acquiring an e-book reader though.
Reproduced from The Malaysian Insider of May 22, 2010 and the July-September 2011 issue of Quill magazine