The Life Interview With Tash Aw

Acclaimed Malaysian author Tash Aw: 'Even though I haven't wanted to, I've become a role model for some young people'

Award-winning novelist Tash Aw's interest in how people communicate stems from the multicultural environment he grew up

Acclaimed Malaysian novelist Tash Aw, who has a polished accent from decades spent living in England, appears to be the quintessential cosmopolitan.

The 44-year-old writes with his finger firmly on the pulse of world metropolises. Based in London, he regularly pens shrewdly observed columns for The New York Times, on politics, race and bilateral relations in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, cities he has lived in.

"People in the West who look at Malaysia and Singapore tend to see us in a reductive, un-nuanced way. They don't realise we live in a region of unrivalled cultural hybridity and, with that, comes a lot of messiness," he tells The Straits Times in a two-hour interview at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), where he teaches creative writing.

His most recent full-length novel, Five Star Billionaire, which was long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2013, chronicles how five Malaysian Chinese are lured to Shanghai by the promise of fame and fortune, only to find their lives slowly unravelling. He also spent time in the city on writing residencies between 2009 and 2011.

Ask Aw about his literary success and he will credit it to his humble upbringing.

His parents left their hometowns to work in the city - his father was an electrical engineer and his mother a quantity surveyor - and he grew up in the urban suburb of Petaling Jaya near Kuala Lumpur.

I say everything I need to say in my published work, so I've nothing more to add.

AUTHOR TASH AW, on not taking to social media such as Facebook

He recalls being packed off to spend school holidays with his relatives in the rural towns of Kuala Krai, Kelantan, and Parit in Perak, where his grandparents lived.

"You can see the evolution of a country more clearly in the countryside than in the city. Whenever I went back, I encountered a different mentality, language and way of being.

"I had to be a different person to fit in with my cousins who lived in the villages. My extended family gave me that link to people who didn't share my privilege," he says.

Today, that awkward, gangly teenager has become one of South-east Asia's most distinguished authors, whose works have been translated into 23 languages and have appeared in publications such as The New Yorker magazine.

Aw, a bachelor, also clinched the Whitbread First Novel Award (now the Costa Award) for his 2005 literary debut, The Harmony Silk Factory, which was also long-listed for the Man Booker Prize - Britain's top literary accolade - in the same year.

The book narrates the sordid life of textile merchant Johnny Lim, a Chinese migrant who settles in 1940s British-occupied Malaya and rises to become a communist rebel leader.

Winding back and forth in time, it is told from the perspectives of characters who knew Lim differently - through his son, his wife's diary entries and his eccentric Englishman friend.

Malaysian narratives are at the heart of Aw's oeuvre, as he spent his formative years growing up in the country, even though he was born in Taiwan, where his father had temporarily moved for work.

The middle of three children and the only son in his family, he was "middling" at studying, but a voracious reader who devoured whatever books he could get hold of.

He says: "I would read anything - comics, Enid Blyton, an abridged version of The Iliad. When I was 12, I got my library card and started reading Ernest Hemingway.

"I remember being fascinated by language and how people communicate."

Navigating worlds with ease

His interest stemmed from the multicultural environment he was raised in. At home, he conversed in English and Mandarin with his parents, who spoke Hokkien to each other, and while at state school, he spoke a mix of Malay and Cantonese.

"Things were egalitarian in class - it was mixed. No one would have thought twice about sending their children to government schools then.

"Now, anyone who can afford it will send their children to private school. As we grew older, it became obvious we weren't equal," he says.

It is this keen ear for languages and dialects, coupled with an acute perceptiveness of racial and class differences, that attend Aw's writing and enable him to navigate different worlds with ease.

He is equally at home bantering with the cleaners at NTU, as he is socialising with literary peers at a reading.

His taste in other areas such as music also reflects how he is a curious mix of the earthy and erudite - he appreciates a wide range of music from classical composers ("I like Bach's structure") to Mandopop singers ("Jay Chou is an amazing writer who has a great instinct for pop melodies").

At the age of 18, he yearned to see the world beyond Malaysia, so he spent a year doing volunteer work in Patagonia, Chile, and travelling through South America and Europe.

He says: "I lived in a tent for four months with people I didn't know, dug wells and built schools for rural communities there. It changed the way I saw myself."

After the sabbatical, he read law at the University of Cambridge, sponsored by scholarships.

"My parents were happy that I did it and so was I. I didn't come from a background where we had many such role models. I harboured fantasies of being a veterinarian at one point - that was the extent of my ambitions," he says, a hint of detached irony in his voice.

After graduation, he began work at a law firm in London.

It was then that he began to write, although he could do so only in what little downtime he had amid a gruelling 12- to 14-hour daily work schedule.

His motivation came from "a deep desire to write a novel and a conviction that I had something to say".

"I was already writing something that would become The Harmony Silk Factory. I knew it would be multi-generational and I'd started talking to my parents and grandparents about their recollections."

He adds: "Then, I tried to look for novels that represented my experience in the world - there was none. I guess what kept me going was that I was trying to give a voice to people who didn't have one."

In 2002, he quit law and enrolled in the master's programme in creative writing (prose fiction) at the University of East Anglia, where he completed his debut novel in a year.

"I'd written about a quarter of the novel by then and I thought if I don't leave my job and finish it, I'd never get it done. Being at the university was the first time when I was surrounded by writers.

"I used to feel guilty spending my time writing. It was probably the middle-class-Asian part of me that felt I should be doing something more useful."

He recalls feeling overwhelmed by the positive reception of The Harmony Silk Factory and the media scrutiny that came with it, which he later parlayed into the storyline of a character in Five Star Billionaire.

"My life became this whirlwind of promotion. I was on the road for weeks, months on end, doing interviews and readings. I woke up to find I was a writer who wasn't writing," he recalls.

Nonetheless, he pressed on to complete his sophomore novel, Map Of The Invisible World, which was published in 2009.

Set in the 1960s, the book tells the stories of two brothers adopted by families in Indonesia and Malaysia, and is backgrounded by events such as civil war and the bloody anti-communist purge in Indonesia, as well as the violent Konfrontasi era.

"I was interested in that weird, uneasy state of mind right before a catastrophic event. What goes through someone's head when he knows something awful is about to happen. It's the same with The Harmony Silk Factory - the action takes place just before Malaya is invaded," says Aw.

Fellow countryman and author Tan Twan Eng, 44, who first met Aw at the Galle literary festival in 2011, says Aw's writing is "fluid and immersive".

"From the first sentence, the reader is immediately pulled into the world he's writing about."

Of Aw's personality, Tan adds: "He's private, but also approachable."

That seeming contradiction describes Aw well. In an age where writers take to social media to air their views and promote themselves, he eschews Facebook, although he does update his Twitter account.

He finds such platforms "limiting", adding: "I say everything I need to say in my published work, so I've nothing more to add.

"I find that all the public profiles on Facebook are curated, no matter how spontaneous they seem. I can't be bothered to curate my image."

He prefers to write his first drafts on paper before transferring them to the computer.

"Writing directly on the laptop tempts you to stop and edit what's on screen, but with longhand, it's harder to edit, so you develop momentum, which is key," he says.

He also believes firmly in maintaining strict discipline when it comes to writing.

"You have to respect your job. Even if I have nothing to say or I want to sleep in, I get up, go to my desk and write. That's what separates professional writers from people who pretend to write.

"We clock in and clock out. It's not about waiting for inspiration to strike."

Neither does he read reviews of his work: "No matter how resilient you are, a bad review will p*** you off for at least a day or two, which is a day or two of not working.

"A great review doesn't change your life. The next day, you still have to go back to work. You have to have that isolation and focus."

Being one of the few Malaysian and South-east Asian writers on the world stage is a prestige and responsibility he wears well.

"It is what it is," he says of his standing in the literary world.

"I do feel that, even though I haven't wanted to, I've become a role model for young people. Being in that position, there are responsibilities.

"However, what I want is to be constantly innovative and to push the boundaries of what I can express as a novelist."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2016, with the headline 'Fascinated by language'. Print Edition | Subscribe