‘Whose Story Is It?’: A Conversation with Tash Aw

Tash Aw was born in Taipei and brought up in Malaysia. He is the author of The Harmony Silk Factory, which was the winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel, and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. His other works include Map of the Invisible World, We, the Survivors, and Five Star Billionaire, which was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013. He is the author of a memoir of an immigrant family, The Face: Strangers on a Pier, a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. His novels have been translated into 23 languages. He is also a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, and was a research fellow at Columbia University’s Institute for Ideas and Imagination.

I’m interested in the way your work maps the changes in Southeast Asia and the responsibility you carry about the ownership and dissemination of these stories, and its effects on how you conduct your work as a writer beyond the page. There’s so much to unpack in the conversation around your latest novel. We, The Survivors charts the social and environmental impact of the Southeast Asian dream and its rise and disintegration on the body of one man, Ah Hock, who’s being tried in court for the murder of a migrant worker. The novel is framed as an interview many years later, between Ah Hock and Su-Min, a sociology graduate writing about it. Let’s talk about the responsibility of the Southeast Asian writer, in terms of representation in these stories.

When I’m not writing I do think about what my aim is as a writer, and what I’m doing as a writer. Malaysia and Singapore are very multilingual countries and I feel that when writing in English, what you’re trying to do is create a body of work that your readers will recognize themselves in, and in which you can recognize yourself.

We don’t come from countries like Britain, France, Germany, or America, which have generations of people who write fiction that encapsulates so many different kinds of experiences; here, you’re really trying to build everything from scratch. So for me, there’s a lot more freedom in a way. One of my bigger problems with Anglo-American literature, is that—because, in the course of generations, writers have become stylistically and thematically refined in what fiction is—it has become dominated by a small stratum of very well educated middle class people writing about themselves and others like them. If we accept that, it means that literature is necessarily going to become an ever-shrinking circle. In Southeast Asia we don’t have those hierarchies yet, but they will form very quickly. What I’m trying to do is make literature inclusive of the society I live in—all of the society that I live in, not just other educated middle class people. I come from a very divided family, partly anchored in urban middle class society and partly rural Malaysia, and because I straddle that divide, it is very important to me to capture both sides of my experience.

I wanted to ask about that: the kind of work that a writer does beyond the act of writing that involves creating that kind of space, enacting that kind of inclusivity, one of which, of course, is teaching. In my own experience before I took a workshop with you, I was just writing stories, and after the class, though I can’t pinpoint exactly when, I started to think about what my work had to say, what it could or should aim to do. How, as a writer, does the way you approach your work affect the way you teach? How does it change the way you nurture writers?

It comes very organically; what I tend to do in my classes is to try and engage the writer in thinking of her own space, in her own society, and as an individual, to get the writer to think about what it means to be writing what they want to write in that particular time and space—in a society that has a history, a future, a present. Because we writers spend so much time on our own, it’s very easy to become individualistic, and we forget that we’re not writing in a vacuum—we’re writing in real time and real space. All those spaces have social consequences because there are social consequences to the way we live. The more people are aware of that, the more their writing takes on different aspects and new dimensions.

I guess I see my writing classes as a conversation between me and my students, and I try to create a space where everyone can reach their own conclusion as to what kind of writer they’re going to be. They might be very different. Whatever it is, even if you’re writing genre fiction—horror, fantasy, etc—all these things that the publishing world sees as artificial divides for the purpose of marketing, there is a way you can make that more meaningful for yourself, and more powerful for yourself by having some awareness of your characters’ actions. Because they too, are living in a specific space.

I’m thinking now of what you said about straddling that divide, and the choice of using someone like Su-Min as an interviewer. Someone who, like many of your students—because of the way countries in Southeast Asia progress so quickly—would not have experienced that period of transition you detail in The Face: Strangers on a Pier, especially in a cosmopolitan city like Singapore, where you teach and where these histories are not personal. More than that, they have not been cultivated as a point of interest in the same way a teenager growing up in Britain might have been encouraged to follow an interest in, say, King Henry and his eight wives. So these students in Southeast Asia trying to explore that kind of significant transition that’s key to their homes, their identities, would be trying to write outside their locus of experience, an experience that has been deliberately and conscientiously erased, as you pointed out in The Face.

Well, first of all I think it’s wrong to say that young writers have not experienced periods of transition. They’ve all lived through periods of transition, they just may not be aware of it. In fact they’re living through a huge transition now: Singapore is going through huge social and economic change—people are just too busy and stressed to realize that. That’s the beauty of writing though, that you can step back and think about how you’re living, the world you’re living in. The minute you do that, you realize your life has changed.

The sense of dislocation I felt about how people feel in Singapore, is not the same as the sense of dislocation people feel in other parts of Asia, which is usually linked to moves from rural areas to the city. But you experience a sense of things changing so fast that you feel utterly divorced from your past. If you walk down Tiong Bahru, you see all these shops that sell beautiful objects handmade by hipsters, and they’re basically all nostalgic! They’re all based on things that existed in the 1990s or something, and to me that was yesterday, but to a lot of Singaporeans, that feels like a completely different era. So that is a time of transition, where the speed of economic development forces you to disengage from your recollection and your engagement with the past. People are living through transition – they just need to be aware of that. The principle reason for being a writer is to question yourself, and the world you live in. Once you do that, you start finding these incredible fault lines.

The entire novel is framed as an interview, which is essentially a formal curiosity into a different person’s story, a story that is not yours. How does the act of interviewing come into play in your writing process?

Actually, I find the act of formal interviewing very awkward, maybe because I’m Asian (sorry!) and a lot of my interview subjects would also be Asian. I was trying, when I wrote The Face, to interview my father formally, and the minute you put the iPhone on the table and press record, it’s just silence, and you really can’t do anything. And I have recordings of these silences, its like you can hear the glass on the table, you can hear one of my awkward questions, and my father’s monosyllabic answers, and then you turn the thing off and there’s a lingering awkwardness, but then at a bizarre moment he, or my mother, might tell me something amazing, and it’s the kind of thing that I guess can’t happen in a formal sense. And as a writer you need to be open to these things, you can’t force anything.

So for Su-Min to be able to conduct this whole interview with Ah Hock, where Ah Hock no longer has any sense of embarrassment or withholding – well I think it’s a testament to Su-Min’s powers of empathy and connection, that she is able to establish some kind of bond with him. There’s also a sense of Ah Hock being really just thrilled that anyone is interested in listening to his story. And this doesn’t just apply to him, but also to the Bangladeshi workers in the story.

People always ask me, how do you find out about or do research on the Bangladeshi workers, and I mean…I just ask them? Any one of these migrant workers, working in a café anywhere in Malaysia, you ask them one question about their lives, and you’ll get the whole story. Because they’re just desperate for someone to talk to, for someone to notice they live and exist as human beings.

Let’s talk about the empathetic bond you mentioned earlier. I noticed that while the idea of guilt factors strongly into your work, Su-Min herself seems to have no guilt per se.

I’m not sure if she has guilt, but she certainly has a conscience, which is not the same thing. I have guilt—it’s a personal thing—but Su-Min doesn’t share my family background; she’s been born into a family of privilege and she does have a conscience, but in order to experience guilt you have to have that experience of deprivation beforehand, because I don’t think it’s genuine otherwise. So when people say: “I feel guilty for the privilege I have,” I don’t feel that’s real—I’m not sure how guilty you can feel. I think you can be incredibly empathetic, which is what Su-Min is and which is why she is doing this project.

Recognizing that we have created hierarchies and live in a society that suffers from structural hierarchy sort of feeds into my work—Su-Min is someone like me, very much like me, and part of wanting to write the book that way is to implicate the reader, because I wanted to implicate myself as a writer. I wanted to ask: How do I negotiate my position as someone who, not originating from that background initially, is now educated and middle class? How do I implicate myself in this whole new society that has structured itself? It was my way of reminding myself and becoming aware of how we have become increasingly hierarchical, and how this doesn’t need to be the case. Because, as far as modern societies go, we are still very young and there is absolutely space to change. There’s always space to change in any country of course, but in Western societies it’s generally harder because they have generations of bourgeoisie and it’s very hard to unpick those levels. Whereas we have created these hierarchies in basically one generation—and that’s something that deeply concerns me.

The interview is just one layer in the storytelling that goes on in We, The Survivors. I want to ask about the act of storytelling and ownership, something the novel makes a big point of: We have you, the author, and then Su-Min, and then Ah Hock, and then the whole layer of the other characters narrating his life back to him.

Yes. The whole point of stories and the telling of stories goes back to that question of who wields the power when you tell them. For me, the question is: Whose story is it? Because, at the heart of the matter, which I think we have slightly lost focus of, it is a question of power. Who holds the power when you tell a story? In this case, it is supposed to be, and is, Ah Hock’s story. That’s what Su- Min wants—she’s clear in her aims and well meaning—and she takes that responsibility seriously. Ah Hock is so used to people not asking and just taking advantage of him that he thinks, well, do what you want, you’re going to do what you want anyway, so you might as well do it. But she doesn’t, she takes it very seriously, and we ought to believe that it is his story.

But how can his story become literary if it’s not through someone like Su-Min? If he had himself acquired the skills, the education, the language, and everything else, then he would be Su-Min. If we look at Su-Min that way, she holds the power because she chooses the sentence structure, the words, and how to structure the narrative arc. She knows publishers and she’s connected to that world. So, really, that’s what lies at the heart of the book. I have a lot of unease about writers who write about underprivileged people—there’s usually very little empathy and experience of that other world. When they do talk about it, it’s in this incredibly patronizing way in which the subject of the story does not recognize himself. It’s a bit like when he’s being described by his lawyer at the trial. She’s describing the facts, but he still doesn’t recognize himself, because they’re reducing him to the bare basics of his life— that he suffered, that he was a victim—that are all undeniably true, but he’s also more than that, and that’s why he doesn’t recognize himself.

Bouncing off that, I want to talk about storytelling in the context of today’s publishing world and the existence of a story from Southeast Asia. How do you work against the expectations of an audience or a publishing industry that, until very recently—in looking to populate the umbrella of “representation” stories—didn’t discern between the different types of Asian (Yeah, so everything encapsulated within Memoirs of a Geisha basically) and which almost demands for writing from the East to be sensationalized or mythologized? Because your writing in We, the Survivors, very blatantly refuses to do that.

I’ve always been aware of the need to simplify, but I think for some reason I felt slightly immune to that [sensationalizing], and I don’t know why. Nowadays when dealing with Western publishers, which are the primary publishers I deal with, I don’t feel any pressure at all. Every time I come up against a small editorial comment that requires explanation I just shrug my shoulders and say, well you just have to take that leap of understanding. When I read an American novel that has a long baseball scene, or a British novel where people go out on a picnic and kneel on a blanket on a field somewhere—although that is totally bizarre and foreign to me (you know, who would do that in Malaysia?!), I still accept the picnic as something people do. Often I don’t understand vernacular or dramatic expressions, but I try, and it’s the same in my writing—just in reverse—and I think, well, if people are interested enough, they’ll read it.

You know, when my manuscript went out to publishers, responses were basically like, we like this novel, but we don’t know how to communicate intra-Asian racism to an American audience. It struck me as incredibly strange because intra-Asian racism is similar to American racism, you know, the issues are the same. And you can only learn about racism by learning about how it works in other countries. I grew up in Malaysia, vaguely aware of the fact that racism exists, but I never really had the language or the understanding or the means to articulate this until I read people like James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Angela Davis. It is really African American writers that gave me that vocabulary, that way of thinking, even though they came from a country thousands of miles away, which I wouldn’t visit until much later. It’s in making these leaps of understanding that we understand more about ourselves, about the world. When people try and discount or other your experience of racism, it is really unnerving. Growing up in Malaysia, even before coming to Europe, that was racism to me. That was all my experience of racism, so for someone to say they can’t understand it or can’t communicate it—it’s just weird.

I was actually very glad your novel pulled on the thread of intra-Asian racism because it’s so prevalent and yet it rarely enters public discourse. Even in your previous novel, Five Star Billionaire, when the Malaysian pop star Gary pretends to be Taiwanese (Yes, and Phoebe pretends to be mainland Chinese because it’s cooler!) there’s already a sense of self-discrimination there that I immediately recognized. Nobody talks about it because maybe there’s a sense of shame attached to it, but it’s there. I will say though, that it does feel like the act of writing (especially socially conscious writing) now has to be accompanied by a tour de force of essays, commentaries, and interviews. Do you feel like the responsibility of the writer from the “margins” has compulsorily extended past the page? For example, looking at the anonymity a writer like Elena Ferrante has had—would a Southeast Asian writer be granted that same permission?

I think I could do it if I wanted to, and if I wanted the book to have no visibility beyond its pages. I guess when you ask about the business of being a writer, it’s hard, because it can be invigorating but also a drain—it gets tough when you’re on the road for many weeks at a time. Every writer just wants to be alone in their study writing and asking questions and striving for a better world—that’s what we live for, I think. If we can make that exist only in the space of our literature, that already feels like a small triumph. But often these two worlds are separate and you have to engage different parts of your brain when you’re on the road.

I do feel that it’s all part of the writing process these days—the publicity element that can’t be denied. It also allows you to explain to sensitive journalists, or other writers, how you see the book. In my interviews, just like in my writing, I’m addressing my home audience as much as everyone else. Everything I talk about is very specific to Malaysians and Singaporeans; it’s specific to the questions we have in Malaysia and Singapore. It’s part of my desire to spark conversations that I think are important, and it just so happens that these issues are common to many countries, including America. So I guess that’s why I do the interviews, the publicity, the writing that I do, because it’s not just about the novel, it’s about reaching out to as many people as possible.

When I was reading your novel, I was also struck by the ways in which your storytelling deliberately defied the stereotypes of what one has come to expect of writing from Asia. The idea of physicality, for example. In modern (Western) culture, talking about the body is almost always the same as talking about claiming ownership over your body. But in your novel, the body functions almost like an invoice of injustices committed towards certain classes or groups of people. This idea of the body as a map of evolving culture recurs throughout your work—particularly in The Face: Strangers on a Pier (which I have bought seven times, by the way, because I keep giving it away). As a writer, how much does physicality affect the way you conceive stories? Can you talk a bit about the relationship your characters have between their physical characteristics and cultural upbringing?

For me, a lot of this about how Southeast Asia is becoming such a hierarchical place, and how people are judged instantly by the way they look. You and I have talked about this before—how you appear racially is connected to what people assume of you, and whether you belong to the dominant majority or not really affects how you feel about yourself. It affords you certain advantages, especially in Singapore and Malaysia.

There are also questions of class that are directly connected to questions of the body. Something that was obvious to me while growing up was how rich someone looked, how affluent, how middle class—and this wasn’t just how they dressed (although they are superficial markers of wealth), it was also how healthy they looked, how confident they were when they walked into the room. When wealthy people in Malaysia and Singapore walk into any restaurant, bank, café, or physical space, they own that space, and people respect them because of that.

When I was growing up I didn’t belong to that class of people, I didn’t have that confidence. It’s something I’m very sensitive to—that by virtue of my education, travel, profession, etc, I have all of those things now, but I still see that divide very clearly. So physicality is also about how people’s bodies are marked, and that reflects itself a lot in my fiction. All these things to me matter; it matters to me how my characters look.

I remember reading about Southeast Asia in W. Somerset Maugham or Joseph Conrad’s works, and more recently when white writers go to Bangkok or Malaysia for a month and write this whole thing with Southeast Asian characters. I can’t help thinking I have no idea who these people are, I just do not recognize anyone I know in those characters. So, even though I know they have all the undeniable surface characteristics of a Southeast Asian person, I don’t recognize them. For so long, Southeast Asian writers did not have the power to exercise that degree of independence within literature, and now that I have a space within literature, that’s what I do. I am deliberately trying to carve out a bigger space with my writing.

It’s not like a writer from Asia has to talk about food, but the fact that it jumped out to me that there wasn’t this long drawn scene gushing over a bowl of bak chor mee or something highlighted to me, again, how your novel refused to pander to that expectation of a romanticized version of the region.

The thing about talking about food in an Asian novel written by an Asian person is that the minute you talk about it in literature, it seems really exotic, whereas to us it is totally normal. It fetishises food in the way we don’t fetishise food. I get the sense that when we talk about food, it is always designed to make foreigners impressed by our culture, and food isn’t that. It’s used as universally joyous and uncontentious in books, and it doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a very lazy cultural marker. Also, I think it veers very easily into more powerful stereotypes. How many times have you seen an Asian woman in the kitchen stirring a pot? It’s so lazy, because Asian women do more than just cook, obviously, and yet it is somehow seen as fundamental to an Asian woman’s being.

To me, food is only interesting when it appears as it reveals something about the characters. In how it divides people, for example, based on what they will and will not eat. Su-Min is a vegetarian and carb-avoidant, and when Ah Hock buys her chee cheong fun for breakfast, you just know it’s something she will never eat. When he falls sick and she goes and fills his fridge with all these organic vegetables, which are totally foreign to him, it’s interesting to me what that says about the fundamental divides in their worlds. Otherwise food is just a way to avoid talking about the stuff we should be talking about.

Let’s talk about that—the hole of silence that exists where what we should be talking about resides. The Asia we grew up in is so private about its sufferings, whereas continents like Europe and America seem very culturally open towards a display of pain and trauma. It feels like there is also the flip side of responsibility as a writer from Southeast Asia to their home, to maintain that sort of silence about the less savory parts of our history.

I’m paraphrasing Baldwin when he said that the country he really truly cared about was America, and so he reserved his harshest criticism for it. Because if you don’t care about a country, why do you bother about it? I love Malaysia, which is why I write so truthfully about it—if I wanted to write happy romantic stories about Malaysia I guess I could, but that’s not what I want to do. I want to write novels that represent my experience of Malaysia and what I feel other people’s experience of Malaysia is. Those experiences are not necessarily tender all the time—they’re mainly pretty harsh. I really resist this idea that any country can be so neatly packaged, particularly for the purposes of presenting this image to a foreign country.

You know, Malaysians are incredibly argumentative, we love to bicker, and in the private sphere you have all these lively debates. But the minute you take these debates and put them in the New York Times, it’s a problem, because we still have this inferiority complex towards America, towards any Western facing country, even to Singapore. The reaction to my New York Times op-ed shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, but it really was, and that’s when I realised what the difference between Asian and Western writers is—we are still in some way expected to be the spokesperson for our whole country, for our whole government, and I think that places an unnecessary and unreal burden on the writer because it completely shackles them. It makes them completely aware of what they have to do and what they can’t say. It’s like all the family disputes that have to be kept within the family.

I have the reverse view, because I grew up in the generation that believes that Malaysia is a very capable and successful country in its own way, and so I don’t see why we shouldn’t have these conversations in public, in the international sphere. Every country has conflict, and so that question of pain and trauma should be out there, because it really is part of the national discourse. But somehow when it gets solidified in literature it requires a different gravity and we don’t like that.

We have a silence that is both political and cultural. It all starts in the family for us—the things you don’t say, the whole idea of “not answering back”—which is a very strong thing. You’re not really expected to have any strong opinions that conflict with how the family is run, or how society is run. Your writing existence is not divorced from your personal experience, so of course one carries over into the writing sphere this sense of taboo, this sense of things you can’t talk about. In writing something like The Face, even talking about my family felt like a transgression, and I really sort of had to do it quickly before I thought too hard about it and lost my nerve. I had to go in with a sense of knowing it would be a difficult thing to do. And yes, being a writer contextualized in Southeast Asia is a question of trying to sort of peel back those layers of self censorship. I’ve been doing that for twenty years and I still feel like there is more work to be done.

That said, there is so much hope in your novels. We, the Survivors, opens with hope, with Ah Hock looking at the schoolboys in their freshly laundered uniforms and feeling optimistic, and also ends with hope—passed like a baton to the next generation. Do you, as the writer, feel personally hopeful?

I do feel hopeful because I’m being realistic—I do think that at the end Su-Min and Ah Hock establish a closeness, an understanding, and even though he still can’t access the world she lives in, she’s left with a slight unease about the way things worked out; we see that she does have a conscience. I also see this in young people in Singapore and Malaysia, people who are not just with a conscience, but who are actually doing things, striving for women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, racial and religious rights—and you know, I’m not out there doing things. That’s not my role, my role as a writer is to ask the questions. But there are a lot of people out there doing things.

I think we have moved forward enough that there is a sufficient number of decent people in the world, and we just have to galvanize ourselves… I don’t have the answers, but I do feel hopeful. I do feel hopeful, or I wouldn’t continue to write.

About the author

Jemimah Wei is a writer based in Singapore and New York. She is the recipient of a National Arts Council Scholarship (Singapore) and a Felipe P. De Alba Fellowship at Columbia University, where she is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction.

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