To him writing means ‘creating something that will hopefully last a few generations.’ And Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng’s novels, two of them in five years, look well like on the way to be classics. The Gift of Rain takes place in Penang, before and during the Second World War; The Garden of Evening Mists is set in Cameron , Highlands, during the Malayan Emergency, after the Second World War.
His debut novel The Gift of Rain hoisted its then fledgling publisher the Myrmidon Books on to the Booker wagon in 2007, and later his second title The Garden of Evening Mists went on to be shortlisted for the Booker in 2012, and won the Man Asian Literary Prize of the same year.
Here’s the interview he gave me for the second issue of the Earthen Lamp Journal, which I co-edit.
SB: The Garden of Evening Mists is only the second book in the Man Asian Literary Prize history to be awarded to a book written in English, the rest have been translations. How much do you think writing and writers in English as a Second Language have come to be accepted in the English speaking countries in the recent times?
TTE: I can’t speak for those writers you’re referring to, as I write and think and dream in English, but there appears to be a growing interest in novels translated from other languages into English. The titles on the shortlists of the Man Asian Literary Prize over the years seem to indicate this.
Whether a translated novel is accepted and embraced by the English-speaking countries would depend on many factors, including the quality of the writing and its translation. It would also depend on how extensively it’s been promoted, and here the media plays a crucial role in giving more column inches to these translated novels, through reviews and interviews with the authors and translators.
SB: Your writing has been translated into other languages. I noticed a Marathi version of The Gift of Rain on an online bookseller’s page. What do you think is the role of translations in the life cycle of a book and the growth of a writer? Do you have any ambition on these grounds?
TTE: Translations widen a book’s readership – think of all the great novels we’ve been privileged to read: One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Name of the Rose, The Tale of Genji, Red Sorghum, Dream of the Red Chamber, The Buru Quartet, Love in a Fallen City, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, The Reader. The traffic goes in the opposite direction too – the fact that my novels have been translated into various languages means that more people around the world are able to read them.
Whether translations extend the lifespan of a book in its original language, I can’t tell you for certain, but perhaps if a translated edition continues to sell enough copies, it might sustain interest in and awareness of the novel in its original language, and keep that book in print. But for a novel to live on years, decades, after its first publication, its themes have to be timeless and universal, and it must have heart and soul.
The growth of a writer doesn’t depend on having his works translated, but on his own determination to improve his writing with every sentence he writes, with every book he produces.
I’m not qualified to be a translator, and I have no ambition or ability to be one. I know my own limitations!
SB: How much of writing from the Asian region are you familiar with? Do you have any favourites among the writers here and whose work you follow?
TTE: Not a lot. The authors I’m familiar with are the ones whose works have been translated into English: Mo Yan, Eileen Chang, Shusaku Endo, Yukio Mishima, Junichiro Tanizaki. This is one reason why the Man Asian Literary Prize is so important – it exposes writers in Asia not only to readers, but also to other writers in the region and beyond.
SB: Both your books have an element of nature involved right from the title, what role does nature play in your writing?
TTE: Nature plays a prominent role in my books because of their settings. I was never interested in nature until I went to stay in South Africa. My friends there are very much aware of nature and the world around us. They influenced me; they taught me to observe and appreciate nature. This appreciation has become a part of my life and has, naturally, seeped into my writing as well. An awareness of the minutiae of the world around you – that’s what a large part of being a writer is about, isn’t it?
SB: What did you read as a child? What do you read now?
TTE: Bookstores in Malaysia in the mid 1980s when I was growing up were limited in their selection. I read everything I could find – from Tintin and Asterix books to Enid Blyton, to the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries. Jules Verne, James A. Michener, Tolkien. D.H. Lawrence, Herman Wouk. The Wind in the Willows, Portnoy’s Complaint. My parents never restricted the types of books I read, and for that I’m very grateful.
My reading taste is too varied to list all the writers I read these days. I’ve just re-read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas because I thought the movie was well-made, and I’m reading Salman Rushdie’s autobiography, Joseph Anton. I want to start reading the other books on the Man Asian Literary Prize’s shortlist – I made it a point not to read them until the winner was announced.
SB: As a child, did you ever think of writing a book? Who do you think has influenced you most as a writer?
TTE: When I was about ten or eleven I read a very badly written but huge-selling novel. When I finished it, I said to myself, ‘I can write much better than that.’ But it was all talk only, and I never followed up on what I wanted to do until years later.
No one I knew influenced me to become a writer; the writers I read did. And there are so many writers I admire: Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Vladimir Nabokov, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Somerset Maugham, Anthony Burgess …
SB: Could you tell us something about your process of writing, and your writing routine as well? How do you decide on the theme, how do you go about the research? How do you use the research? Has the process of writing been refined as you move on to a third book?
TTE: I work from nine a.m. to five p.m., five to six days a week. The hours get longer the deeper I’m lost in the writing. I don’t decide on a theme, but it will usually show itself the more I work on and think about the book. I don’t plan my books in advance – I like to see how my characters will think and act, and how their actions and personalities will change the direction of the story.
My research is conducted through books and memoirs, and anything that will add to the depth and richness of the writing: photographs, paintings, poetry, music. Writers are magpies – we use everything we discover and read and hear, and we weave all of it into our writing.
A lot of the research has to be discarded if it gets in the way of the narrative’s momentum. It’s painful, because – like many writers – I’m reluctant to waste all that information I’ve spent months acquiring, but more often than not the book becomes much improved once I’ve cut away a lot of unnecessary information from the text.
The process of writing has been refined with my third book, but it has not become easier. One of the things I realized when I finished The Garden of Evening Mists was this: every subsequent book will be harder and harder to write.
SB: Both your books are connected to the same Place and Time, yet you created them as entirely different worlds. What is it about these two elements that fascinate you, Malaysia and WWII? Would you look at a third book with another story waiting to be told with the same elements?
TTE: They’re not connected to the exact same place and time – The Gift of Rain takes place in Penang, before and during the Second World War; The Garden of Evening Mists is set in Cameron Highlands, during the Malayan Emergency, after the Second World War.
I’m interested in the progression of our past. The Second World War and the Japanese Occupation was one of the most devastating events to have happened to us; it’s as a dividing line between the past and the present: the Japanese Occupation marked the end of the British Empire in Asia; after the war the Dutch and British colonies in South East Asia began to fight for independence from colonial rule. I’m also fascinated by how memory works, how we use, remember, interpret and revise our memories.
I’ll probably shift away from Malaya and Malaysia and WWII in my third book. But perhaps I’ll return to them again in another book, and complete my Malaysian trilogy.
SB: How has being Asian mattered to you as a writer, as also a human being? Does being Asian and having Asian values place you in a different podium altogether as you move across continents? Could you talk about your experiences relating to this aspect?
TTE: It has never mattered much to me as a writer or a human being – I don’t see myself as different from anyone else. I’ve been on panels with Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Icelandic, Indonesian, Sri Lankan, British, American, Australian, Thai, Nigerian, Canadian, South African writers, and I’ve never felt I was on a ‘different podium’.
The values I was taught by my parents are not just Asian, but universal: to be kind and honest, to do good, to be well-mannered, to have integrity, to respect other people and be considerate to them. These values are present in every society anywhere in the world, not just Asia.
SB: Are you comfortable with the demands of modern publishing, like the continuous promotional activities, and public appearances? How do you cope with the stress as a writer, when he is caught in a conflict between the need to write on and the need to be visible?
TTE: When I first started doing promotional activities I found it difficult to speak and read in public. But now I tend to enjoy them. I enjoy meeting readers and writers at literary festivals and public events. It’s the realities of modern-day publishing, and I consider it part of the job. But there always comes a time when I tell myself that I’ve carried out my responsibilities promoting my books, and it’s time to shut myself away and write.
I cope with the stress by treating writing as a profession, and making clear to other people the dividing line between the professional and the personal space.
SB: Could you tell us a bit about the story of how you found a publisher? What is the advantage of being published with an independent publisher who has a serene and distinct presence rather than the big publisher like the proverbial oak tree with shadows in all continents?
TTE: I sent my manuscript of The Gift of Rain to various literary agents in London. The third agent I wrote to responded almost immediately and agreed to represent me. She spent a year finding a publisher, without success. Finally Myrmidon Books decided to publish me.
There are a number of advantages to being published by an independent – I have a direct line of communication with the publisher and its team. I have a say in how my covers should look and how the books should be promoted. I have a strong working relationship with the publisher. If I have a problem related to my books, all I have to do is phone or email the publisher and I get an immediate reaction, and then we work together to solve the problem. Ed Handyside, my publisher, is very practical and pragmatic, and issues get resolved very quickly with no fuss or lengthy meetings.
SB: Do awards excite you? What is your take on the role of book awards and festivals in the growth of an author?
TTE: They do excite me, and they excite me even more if I’m on the list! Thousands of novels are published each year, but to have the world’s attention focused on just a handful of titles – such exposure is invaluable to a writer and his books.
Awards do put pressure on a writer. For me, however, every new book I produce has to be better written than the previous one, regardless of whether I’ve won an award or not. Otherwise I’m not improving as a writer.
Literary festivals are the writer’s version of the tours done by musicians to promote their albums. They’re important avenues and platforms for writers to engage with their readers, and to meet other authors from around the world. There have been many occasions when, after I’ve concluded a discussion panel, a reading or a question and answer session, someone from the audience will come up to me and say, ‘You know, I’ve never heard of you before this event, but now I’m very keen to read your books.’ This is one of the nicest things a writer hopes to hear.