Monday, April 15, 2013

The Constant Gardener

TAN TWAN ENG, the author of The Gift of Rain
and The Garden of Evening Mists
SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH learns that the seed of Malaysian novelist TAN TWAN ENG’s writing career was planted early and well tended thereafter

TAN TWAN ENG is a straightforward sort of person. Beautiful, complex sentences are his forte on the printed page, but his answers for this piece is nothing if not brutally candid and clear-cut. When asked how he would describe himself, Tan states: “A person who finds answering a question like this self-indulgent. I’ll leave it to you to describe me—it’s your job after all.”

And when I ask him what he thinks his chances of winning the 2012 Man Booker Prize for Fiction are and what is the first thing he will do if he wins, he replies, “There are six shortlisted authors, so the odds of my winning are one in six. What’s the first thing I’ll do if I win? Walk up to the podium and accept the prize.”

Although the Malaysian novelist did not walk up to the podium to accept the prize (the winner was British novelist Hilary Mantel for Bring Up the Bodies, an ambitious and richly detailed historical novel about Thomas Cromwell and the treachery in the court of King Henry VIII), the fame and glory of being “merely” shortlisted is something nearly every other author around the world can only dream of. With The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan has become the first Malaysian to be shortlisted for the prestigious international literary prize. [In March 2013, Tan was declared the winner of the 2013 Man Asian Literary Prize. He was shortlisted for the prize along with Jeet Thayil, Nobel Prize laureate Orhan Pamuk, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Hiromi Kawakami.]

Tan, who grew up in Penang and later in Kuala Lumpur, says he had an idyllic, uneventful childhood. “I was fortunate to have parents who let me read anything I wanted to. No censorship at all, and I’ve always appreciated the trust they had in me.”

One of Tan’s earliest memories about books and writing goes all the way back to when he was just five or six years old. “I realised that I enjoyed reading a book of texts more than an illustrated book. It felt more fulfilling.” At the age of ten, he remembers thinking that writers had an easy life. “All I’d need to do was write a book and live off the royalties for the rest of my life. How completely wrong I’ve been proven!”

As it turned out, the ten-year-old would indeed grow up to become a writer but only after he had put in some time in law school. “I practised intellectual property law for about five years. I don’t miss it, but I miss the structure it gives to my days.”

Despite the lack of structure, Tan appears to be more than capable of following an organised routine. “I write from nine-thirty in the morning to five in the evening, sometimes later. I take a number of breaks in between. I work five days a week, but when I approach the completion of a novel I’m working on, the hours become much longer and I usually work on weekends, too.”

It seems that Tan adopts this regimented approach in other areas of his life as well. “Always be punctual for meetings,” which he says is his personal motto, comes across as an unusually dry maxim, coming from the fertile mind of a fiction writer, but it ties in perfectly with his disciplined mindset.

There must be something to this ordered outlook because Tan is one of a rare breed of writers who achieve great success from the very beginning of their writing careers. Tan’s début novel, The Gift of Rain, about a young man’s journey through wartime deceptions and loyalties, was critically acclaimed and longlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize and of course his second published work, The Garden of Evening Mists, has earned him eternal bragging rights and a coveted spot alongside other writers who have made the shortlist over the years, such as Colm Tóibín, Sarah Waters, Zadie Smith, Anita Desai, David Mitchell and Rohinton Mistry, among others.

Set in Cameron Highlands in the 1950s, The Garden of Evening Mists tells the story of seventeen-year-old Teoh Yun Ling, the sole survivor of a Japanese internment camp, and her complex relationship with the self-exiled taciturn Nakamura Aritomo, the owner of the only Japanese garden in Malaya and once the gardener of Emperor Hirohito of Japan. Yun Ling hopes to create a Japanese garden in memory of her beloved older sister who died in the camp. It is a heart-wrenching tale of remembrance and forgiveness narrated in a strong yet quiet voice.

TAN TWAN ENG, winner of the 2013 Man Asian Literary Prize
for his second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists

Tan says the ideas and central theme for the book came to him over time. “There wasn’t a single lightning-bolt moment; for me writing doesn’t work like that,” he says. “I had some of the ideas already and it was just a question of sitting down at my desk and struggling hard to get them all to cohere.”

Tan’s novel reveals remarkably well-researched details about Japanese culture and he admits that it grew out of his passion for aikido, a type of Japanese martial arts. “I practised aikido for ten years. I was obsessed by it. It’s one of the more traditional Japanese martial arts, and to improve your skills in it you have to understand its historical and cultural contexts. My knowledge was accumulated through reading and talking to visiting instructors.”

From left: Tan Twan Eng, Deborah Levy, Hilary Mantel,
Will Self, Alison Moore and Jeet Thayil

Despite his rigorous writing routine, Tan says it took him more than three years to complete The Garden of Evening Mists. He admits that he faced a few challenges during the early stages of the writing process. “Getting the structure and the balance right. For the novel to work, the sequence of chapters had to be carefully considered.”

Tan, who now lives in Cape Town, hopes his novel will prove to be a transformative experience for readers and change the way they look at things. He is confident that those who attempt a second read will be rewarded with fresh new aspects of the story. “If you reread it, you’ll view aspects of the book from a different angle. It’s similar to walking through the same garden you’ve already seen, but at different times of the day, or in another season of the year.”

For those keen on being a novelist, Tan’s advice is: “Read as much and as widely as you can. Be thankful if there’s someone in your life who can give you the harshest, most honest criticisms about your work. If you don’t have such a person, find one. You must be able to accept those brutally honest criticisms. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. A manuscript will never be perfect, but you should do everything possible to make it so. Find out everything you can about the publishing industry. Read the trade journals. If writing is to be your career, you should have a working knowledge of all its aspects.”


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