Tash Aw speaking @SILF 2010, March 21. Photo by Esther Young.
It’s the final day of the Shanghai Lit Fest (March 21), and people are crammed into the Crystal Room to hear from Tash Aw, acclaimed author of The Harmony Silk Factory and Map of the Invisible World. We spoke of authors with multiple cultural identities earlier on, and Tash is another one – born in Taipei to Malaysian parents, he returned to Malaysia at the age of 3, then moved to England in his teens, where he’s resided ever since.
Although based in London, he remains emotionally connected to Malaysia. The Southeast Asian region is the setting for his novels, both of which are located in a particular time and place: The Harmony Silk Factory is set in Malaya on the eve of the Japanese Occupation in 1941, while the events in Map of the Invisible World take place during the period of postcolonial unrest in 1960s’ Indonesia and Malaysia. Tash’s international success has turned him into a national celebrity-slash-hero, and he’s lauded for bringing an “authentic Malaysian voice” to the global literary scene.
Of course, the idea of authenticity is always the most susceptible to criticism, especially considering that Tash lives in London and writes about a Malaysia he could never experience. Moderator Tina Kanagaratnam asks him how being so removed from the time and place in his novels impacts on his work. Tash, a charmingly eloquent speaker (who was a lawyer before pursuing writing), argues that you “need a certain distance from your subject in order to write convincingly about it”. Malaysia, he says, is a difficult country to write about, requiring some detachment on his part while researching the country’s painful history. Being an outsider, he claims, lends authenticity to the voice in his novels, as they are very much about people who are alienated, constantly crossing boundaries and living in places hostile to them.
Tash acknowledges the importance of identity, and people’s need to ‘sort out’ what he is. “I am sure there are Malaysians in the audience, and that they want to ask me what I feel myself to be,” he says, glancing around the room. I sink into my seat as he gazes in my direction – I am guilty as charged. “It’s simple. I am ethnically Chinese, Malaysian Chinese.” And after so many years in England, he says he has developed a Britishness too, which he appreciates as it allows him to think objectively about Malaysia.
Someone asks him – Why England? “A prosaic reason, really,” laughs Tash. “I went there for university, and stayed on. Malaysia was a British colony, so for historical reasons it was easy to go there.” He notes that the tides have changed, and that students from Southeast Asia are now looking towards China for postgraduate programs. Tina talks about how China was once “the poor man of Asia, where the ancestors fled from”. She thinks it’s been a gradual shift back to China. “A quick change,” Tash interjects. “Ten years ago Malaysians couldn’t even go to China without a well-defined reason. In school I wasn’t allowed to speak Chinese in class, whereas now the language has become part of the curriculum even in non-Chinese schools in Malaysia.”
Fascinated by these changes, he says that his third novel will, in theory, be about the rise of China and the shift of focus from Europe back to the East. In China, he says, he often listens for people speaking Mandarin with a Southeast Asian accent. He himself will be joining the numbers of Malaysians in Shanghai, as the recipient of the 2010 M Literary China Residency.
So what does he think about his host city? “Shanghai is the New York of our times,” he says. “It’s a city you want to fall in love with.” Interestingly, he says that something he shares with the Shanghainese is a sense of melancholy. “Maybe I’m just imagining this, but the Chinese in Shanghai have a highly developed sense of loss and longing.”
A Chinese friend once told Tash that “two countries in the world are inherently sad – Russia and China!” This gets a big laugh from the audience. “I can’t remember when I saw a happy Chinese film – unless you are into trashy films, Chinese films are of a varying degree of misery. One of my favorite Chinese films is Farewell My Concubine, and that was miserable!” Perhaps because of China’s unhappy history, melancholy has seeped through the cracks, he suggests.
Lynn Pan remarks that she often hears people talking about an incredible, unfulfilled longing in Shanghai – she is Shanghainese, and doesn’t sense this emotion. She wonders whether this melancholy is purely constructed by the literati who look back on previous dynasties with nostalgia. Tash concedes that perhaps all Asian countries have nostalgic tendencies in their artistic makeup, and that it’s not a particularly Chinese (or Shanghainese) characteristic. As abstract as they may seem, for him there are no bigger issues than nostalgia and longing, fundamental human emotions that continue to shape the politics of a nation, and feature predominantly throughout his novels.
The Lit Fest is officially over, but you still have a chance to catch an author session. James Palmer’s talk has been rescheduled to Saturday, March 27, 4 p.m. at Glamour Bar. See here for details.