A gifted writer
by Zafar Anjum
I had interviewed Malaysian novelist, Tan Twan Eng, sometime ago for India Se. I am reproducing the full interview here for your reading pleasure. Hope you enjoy reading it.
You are a lawyer by profession. How did you decide to become a writer? Were you inspired by some other writers or you genuinely felt that you had something to express?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer since I began reading children’s books at the age of four or five, without realising how difficult it is to write. But as I grew older I became aware that it’s almost impossible to make a living from it, and so I decided to read Law when the time came to choose a career. I don’t regret it, because it’s given me an awareness of the importance of writing with clarity, and it’s made me a more disciplined writer. As I used to be an intellectual property lawyer, it’s also been useful whenever I have to read the publisher’s contracts.
Some of the books I’ve read were so awful that I often told myself, ‘I can do much better than this.’ But I was also galvanised into action by some writers who took my breath away with their writing: Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Andre Brink, Edmund White, Anthony Burgess, Vladimir Nabokov. Reading these authors made me realise how unlimited, varied and vibrant the world of the imagination could be.
When did you start to think of writing The Gift of Rain? What motivations were at work?
I started to seriously think of writing a book when I was doing my Masters in Shipping Law in Cape Town, in 2003. At that point I had in mind of writing a massive history of Malaya and Malaysia from the late 18th century to present day. I soon realised I had taken on a heavy load and became dispirited about ever completing it. Then one day I decided I would take two of the minor characters from this work and write a much shorter novel about them. I told myself if I could finish this shorter novel, it would give me a strong boost of confidence to tackle the larger work. To my surprise this originally shorter novel which became The Gift of Rain soon grew to the size it is now.
In many ways, The Gift of Rain is a testament to the island of Penang, to what is fast disappearing: the beautiful and elaborate architecture from the 1900s, which combined Anglo-Indian elements with local Malay and Peranakan and Chinese influences. Such a combination has resulted in buildings which are unique and which should be protected – shophouses, schools, mansions, townhouses and municipal buildings. Unfortunately, they are being torn down to make way for modern apartment blocks, shopping malls and coffee shops.
I wanted to record the old way of life in Penang before it all faded away, to capture that wonderful, nostalgic atmosphere that is found only on this island.
As I’m interested in the meeting of Western and Eastern thoughts and philosophies, The Gift of Rain is also an exploration of these issues – I wanted to see how different and yet similar they are.
But most of all, I wanted to tell a strong, emotionally-resonant story that would remain lodged in the reader’s memory for the rest of his or her life.
Did you always imagine setting your novel in the Second World War era? And, was it a difficult novel to write as it deals with a historical time period?
There was never any question that The Gift of Rain would be set around and during the Second World War. It is such a fertile period for a writer: the world was changing, painfully, with great uncertainty and chaos. Something of the old order was coming to an end, and no one then knew what was going to replace it.
It wasn’t a difficult novel to write from that aspect. I’ve always been a history buff and I’ve been collecting books on that era since I was a teenager. I know my history and it was merely a question of going back to the materials to reconfirm a particular fact.
As I was living in South Africa at that time and most of my books were in Malaysia, I owe my mother a debt of gratitude for her patience in answering my questions I’d sent via email. I often asked her to get a particular book from my shelf, open it to a particular chapter, and tell me if I had gotten a name or a date correct.
The West expects a certain kind of writing or certain elements in a work of fiction from writers coming from the East. Did this consideration cross your mind while you were penning your novel?
No, I wrote with a wonderful lack of self-imposed restrictions. That’s always the case with a first novel, I feel, this total freedom – beginner-writers have no awareness of the rules they may be breaking, and that’s when truly original and exciting art is created. I was aware that there were certain aspects of lifestyle or custom which I had to explain to a reader who is unfamiliar with this part of the world, and I had to find a balance to ensure that my clarifications would not be tedious to a reader who is completely familiar with the East. This was the hardest part of writing The Gift of Rain, finding this balance.
There is also a strong element of subversion to The Gift of Rain – One of my goals when I began writing was to subvert the expectations of readers, especially readers in Asia, who’ve grown up with the same plot-structures in story-telling as I have.
Being a first time novelist, how was the journey from writing to publication to Booker nomination? Did you feel overly frustrated or overly elated at any point of time?
The Gift of Rain encountered difficulties in obtaining a publisher. The major publishing houses sent back positive comments (barring one or two which said it was dull and boring!) but the editorial teams had to get feedback from the sales teams, and quite often it was these sales teams which said The Gift of Rain would be difficult to market. I became doubtful if it’d ever be published and here credit must go to my agent, who’s an amazing woman. She’s been in the business for 20 years and she’s always been unwavering in her faith. “Don’t worry,” she’d always tell me. “I’ve never been wrong. It’ll be published.” In the meantime she told me to start work on my second novel. It’s funny, because on the day the nominations were announced, my agent had phone calls from publishers saying, “You were right!” I was glad that her faith in me had been paid off, had been vindicated.
Did you ever imagine that your debut work will make it to the Booker Long list? How did you feel when you got the news?
I never imagined it would make it to the Man Booker Long List, although like many authors I had hopes of that happening! Which author doesn’t? When I was informed that The Gift of Rain was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, I was naturally stunned, elated and also fearful. I was fearful of the sudden focus of attention to my novel, I was fearful of the weight of expectation this would bring. But I was also grateful that The Gift of Rain would now be taken to a larger, worldwide audience of discerning book-lovers. It had been doing well even in the two months before the announcement of the Longlist, when it went all the way up to No. 41 on the amazon.co.uk bestseller list. Since then it’s been hovering in the Top 100, occasionally falling to the 500s. But with the news of the longlisting the sales have risen tremendously. It’s now going to be translated into Italian, Greek, and, surprisingly, Serbian.
It was also an incredible honour to be on the Longlist together with established authors like Ian McEwan. In fact the publisher is the youngest publisher ever to have a novel nominated in the history of the Booker Prize. The first thing I did was to send an email to thank my agent for her support.
I was not at home the night the announcement was issued but when I got back and checked my e-mail, I had a slew of mails from my agent and publisher. They had kindly put “CONGRATULATIONS!” on the subject heading. And since I wasn’t expecting a baby at that stage, I knew I had been nominated before I even opened the mails. For the first time in my life I could not fall asleep that night. Quite bizarre, actually. So at 3 a.m. I decided to get up from bed and begin answering the emails which had come in from friends and family.
A few years back, it was Tash Aw in the Booker long list. This year, it’s you. Do you think it is a sign that Malaysians writing in English have started to make their mark?
I think Tash Aw’s Booker nomination was in 2004 or 2005, wasn’t it? But yes, I think it’s a sign that Malaysians are starting to make their mark in the literary world. It’s exciting, but we face such strong competition from writers around the world. Especially India! Which regularly produces writers of impressive calibre.
What’s your next project going to be? Another novel or a collection of short stories?
My next project will be a novel set in Malaya after the war. I am just starting to write some short stories. It’s difficult for me to write short stories since I hardly ever read them. I prefer the extended relationship and commitment a novel requires!
Aside from writing, I will be speaking at the Singapore Writers’ Festival in December this year, the Perth Writers’ Festival early next year, and also the Asian Man Booker Festival in Hong Kong thereafter. I enjoy these festivals because I get to listen to feedback from readers of The Gift of Rain from so many places.
(First published in Nov 2007)