Tash Aw’s debut novel The Harmony Silk Factory was published in 2005 and made news for the reportedly high advance it fetched its author. It was also critically acclaimed, won the 2005 Whitbread Book First Novel Award and was longlisted for the 2005 Man Booker Prize. Born in Taipei, Aw grew up in Kuala Lumpur and moved to England—where he now resides—in his teens. In New Delhi in January, he spoke with Lounge about writing and his book Map of the Invisible World.
The author Tash Aw in New Delhi. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Is this your first trip to India?
Yes. It is a really big thing because growing up between southeast Asia and England you just assume so much familiarity with India. And of course when you come, it is a weird mixture of knowing it and not knowing it.
The Harmony Silk Factory was released in 2005 to much publicity and acclaim. You received a huge advance. How do you look at that experience?
You don’t believe that it can happen to you. Then you get a big publisher, you win a couple of prizes and it’s like you are living someone else’s life. A week in Stockholm is followed by a week in Rome—all of which means that you don’t have any time to write because it breaks the rhythm. So you spend six months not writing and then you wake up realizing that you are writer who doesn’t write. That’s a problem.
Tell us about the Map of the Invisible World.
Map of the Invisible World is set in the post-independence Indonesia and Malaysia of the 1960s. It is about two brothers who are orphaned at a very young age. One gets taken to live in Malaysia with a very rich family and other remains in Indonesia where he lives a simple life. It is set against the backdrop of a very tumultuous political climate in which all these newly independent southeast Asian countries are struggling to find their own identity.
Do you see yourself writing about this part of the world more?
Yes, Asia is what I want to write about. If you live in a small country like Malaysia you are always aware that the fate of your country is linked to that of other countries, that you don’t live in a bubble. So I have my next (third) novel is set in China. You know how 50 or even 30 years ago if you wanted to make your fortune you’d make a pilgrimage to London or New York. Before that it was Paris. And now people go to Delhi or Bombay or Shanghai. Those are going to be the world’s cities in the 21st century.
How important is your Chinese heritage and identity? Would it be proper to say that you see yourself as Chinese?
I am a fourth generation Malaysian Chinese. I’ve no connections to China other than linguistically and culturally. Chinese culture and heritage is fundamental to my makeup. At the same time I identify primarily as a Malaysian.
I think a lot people are quite conflicted by their identity, if they are born in Malaysia but come from a Chinese background. I have never had that difficulty. I speak Chinese. At the same time I am under no illusions that when I go to China that I am not considered Chinese.
Who do you see as your reader? An international cosmopolitan or are you addressing people in Malaysia, Indonesia, China?
When I write I don’t think of who my reader is. If your writing is good it will appeal to people in China and Canada equally and you won’t have to make any concessions. I think I address the concerns of my home country which is Malaysia, as equally as I do my adopted country which is Britain and everything else in between. That’s what I hope at least.
Any Indian writing in English that you like?
There are so many very fine Indian writers in English. Naipual is ethnically Indian, and he is one of the great writers of the last half of the 20th century. Rushdie’s early works. Midnight’s Children was a very important work and even his later work like Haroun and the Sea of Stories. One great writer who is underrated is Rohinton Mistry. A Fine Balance to my mind is one of best novels written in the last 20 years by any writer anywhere.
Who are some of the great Malaysian and Indonesian writers?
The greatest to my mind is the Indonesian writer who died recently, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. He wrote the Buru Quartet, a work of coruscating power, and also great poetry. Among the Malaysians, an ethnic Indian called K.S. Maniam is very important. He is one of the great exponents of what might be called southeast Asian mystic realism.