Interview: Tash Aw, author of Strangers on a Pier; Portrait of a Family – “The writer’s job is to be critical”
Your memoir, Strangers on a Pier: Portrait of a Family, was first published in the US as part of Restless Books’ Face series in which authors work with the prompt of face as the focal point of the narrative woven around ethnicity and family history, a narrative that is at once personal and political. You have written about family dynamics in your fiction. What was it like to shift the lens on yourself and your family for this book?
The shift from fiction to non-fiction wasn’t so difficult. As I novelist, I’ve always been interested in fiction that reads like non-fiction, and as an essayist I always search for a narrative quality in what I read and write. When my first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, was being read by editors, one of them rang my agent after a few pages to confirm that it was indeed fiction that he was reading, not a family memoir — a confusion that I found quite pleasing. The tricky part about writing highly personal non-fiction is that it offers the writer no relief, no hiding places. I couldn’t rely on the novelist’s usual techniques of melding half-truths with half inventions, I couldn’t fill in the gaps in stories. So the narrative quality I wanted, that I’d been conditioned to believe made all kinds of writing satisfying, with proper development and shape, was impossible to achieve. That’s why the book became something else — something looser, more fragmented.
It is a sparse but eminently powerful portrait of your family, and also the personal history of modern Asia as told through your Malaysian and Chinese heritage. It’s quite a feat that such a short book can evoke so much about what it means to be a migrant and how fraught with shame (of having been colonised, as you write) the act of reclaiming one’s national heritage could be for many like you for whom identity and belonging have been fluid constructs due to a complicated family history of migration and adaptation. Is this a story you long wanted to tell? Did you have to chisel away a lot to arrive at the book’s concise form?
Right from the start I had to make a decision: either I’d write a short book, or a huge one. How do you write about themes like belonging, migration, race, identity, family histories, and so on — in fact, all the things that make us who we are — without being too wordy? I decided that I’d keep it short, and in the end, my material dictated the form of the book, because I just couldn’t get the answers and explanations that I wanted from my parents and other family members. So instead of a sprawling narrative, the book became a meditation on silence, and why we who grow up in Asian families can’t talk about certain things like family trauma, sadness, depression, or anything that counts as “failure.” Even something as banal as professional failure becomes a near-taboo subject. Social and political problems — riots, massacres, protests — are also off-limits. Poverty is the dirtiest subject of all and if ever anyone has ever experienced it, they must never talk about it. Perhaps Indian culture is better at dealing with personal and collective trauma than South East Asian cultures, given that there’s a greater tradition of dispute and argument, of openly expressing conflict. But in countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, we still haven’t found a way to discuss and dissect pain, and therefore we remain a prisoner of it. The book’s form is an expression of this strangulation. I set out to write a typical family memoir, sprawling, investigative, revealing; but because no one wanted to tell me anything — no one was capable of doing so — I ended up writing a different kind of family story; a story of how we are defined by our silence.
You begin with the story of both your grandfathers who, as teenagers, made the hazardous boat trip from southern China to the Malay Peninsula during the 1920s, escaping a famine-ravaged country on the cusp of exploding into civil war, and as they make a new life in a new land, how they resign to the fact that the “hardship and homesickness and melancholy and longing” would be a normal part of their lives since they were immigrants. “He was an immigrant. I was a grandchild of an immigrant. We would never see the world in the same way,” you write. How have your grandfathers, and your father, with his easy acceptance of the kind of childhood he had, shaped your outlook towards life? Do they, in some way, figure in the male characters/father figures in your novels?
My father and grandfathers were defined by the age and social conditions they grew up in; they couldn’t be anything other than silent, uncomplaining, accepting of discrimination and deprivation. They didn’t question life’s natural unfairness, and assumed that the structures into which they had been born were not going to be changed by anyone. Above all, they defined themselves as immigrants, and assumed that this would always be the reason for their experience of discrimination and marginalisation. I, on the other hand, was born Malaysian. I did not see myself as an immigrant, no matter how often I was told by the society I lived in that I was an outsider, and immigrant, a second-class citizen, a guest, and so on. Even when I understood — quite young, at the age of six or seven — that I was descended from people who moved to Malaysia a couple of generations previously, I wasn’t able emotionally to experience a divide between me and my country. That’s why the characters in my books experience belonging in very conflicting ways — some of them are forever trapped in the position of outsiders, silently resentful of the discrimination they face as immigrants but still unquestioning, because they don’t have the tools to question; whereas others are more emotionally expressive, more openly combative of the system. My father and grandfathers obviously belong to the former category; I belong to the latter. I never think too much of my characters when I start writing a novel, but you can always see this divide in everything I write, this collision between silence and expression.
In the second part, which is so beautiful and heartbreaking, you write about your grandmother, addressing her directly — her emotional resilience, her long hours of labour, and her natural aptitude for self-sacrifice. “You are my history. You are my past and my present, and I will talk about you,” you write about her. What made you shift to the first person direct address in the second part? How central is your grandmother to your consciousness of your roots and your literary quests? “How can I remember you and still be modern?” you write. Where has your attempt to find an answer to this question led you?
The original idea behind the essay was to write about myself, specifically about my face, but it soon occurred to me that I couldn’t write about my face without writing about the people who made my face — the genetic and cultural history behind my face. So the book quickly became about people other than me, the people closest to me. In the second part of the book, I wanted a greater sense of immediacy; I wanted to involve my grandmother directly in this conversation that, up to now, I was having with myself. A conversation about the struggle to articulate belonging, home, love, hardship. I tried to have this conversation with my parents recently, but, as I write in the first part of the book, we just couldn’t break down the barriers of expressiveness, so the conversation became a huge failure. My grandmother was someone who was hugely intelligent and expressive, and maybe I could have had that conversation with her if she’d been alive today. A few days before she died, I went to see her and we had a strange, haunting talk in which she told me things about herself that she hadn’t told anyone else. I don’t know why she did so. I hadn’t seen her for a couple of years, and something about the conversation felt urgent, as though she recognised the only opportunity we would ever have to sit down and talk, properly, as adults who had finally acquired the requisite amount of calm and maturity to speak intimately. But we also knew that it would probably be the last time we would be able to do so. I wanted to capture this sense of urgency and closeness, so the entire section is laced with a sense of hurriedness, as if time is running out, which it was for her, and I guess for me.
My grandmother wouldn’t have given me any answers that would have magically unlocked the secrets to understanding the feelings of belonging and exclusion that an immigrant experiences, but she was integral to my understanding of certain things, like the fact that love is often expressed in terms of separation, which represents sacrifice. If one is Asian and post-colonial, to write about one’s grandparents is seen by many as being sentimental, nostalgic and frankly, at times, colonial, full of a longing for a gentler era, when mothers and grandmothers cooked meals for the children and did the sewing and housework. The food is lovingly described, as are the household rituals, and the entire rhythm of life is captured with a certain fondness and affection. I can’t remember any of that. I don’t remember elaborate dinners or family games; I recall only family members leaving home to find work in faraway places at the opposite side of the country, or abroad if they could, sending money home to support the family, to pay for school fees, school uniforms; I remember people missing their spouses or their parents, being silent and miserable but never saying it; I remember parents leaving for weeks, months on end, and saying, ‘Don’t forget, Mama loves you.’ And these are things that haven’t changed, not in my family and not in millions of others; if anything the experience of separation from one’s family has become more common now than ever. Dismantling pre-packaged notions of love and reformulating them in more realistic terms is my way of talking about my grandmother in a modern way.
Has writing made it easier for you to navigate the vexed question of origins — ‘Where are you really from?’ Has putting the abyss between the three generations of your family — you grandparents, your parents and you and your sister — into words made it easier for you to deal with it?
Writing hasn’t made the answers any clearer, but it has helped me to be calmer about not finding the answers. In some ways, it has made it easier for me to live with simplistic, condensed ideas about where I’m from, because no matter how much I explain — to others and to myself — people are always going to be reductive about origins. To be honest, the writing has also helped me feel freer and more comfortable with the lack of complexity in everyday life, because I know that I’m working out the really difficult issues of origins and belonging in my books. So when someone says, ‘So you’re Chinese, right?’ and can’t quite work out the difference between being Chinese and being Chinese-Malaysian, I don’t really care, and don’t really take the time to explain the way I used to.
For a lot of diaspora writers, the strangeness of their new life tends to intensify their sense of the life they leave behind, of a place and a way of being that they think is lost to them forever. Was your experience during the initial years of shifting to London something similar? “The story of our relationship is the story of separation. Our closeness is measured in the distance between us,” you tell your grandmother. How do you look at distance shaping your relationship with your home and homeland? Did it lend you perspective or a particular way of looking at names, places and things?
In fact, no, not at all, though perhaps I’m in the minority in this regard. When I left Malaysia to attend university in Britain, I wanted the geographical and cultural separation to create this sense of longing for my homeland, the way Naipaul’s characters feel — a complex melancholy for what they’ve left behind, as you point out. But, in fact, I didn’t at all; I felt, firstly, that I knew exactly what to do and how to behave in my role as an outsider in Britain, because I finally realised that I’d been an outsider all my life in Malaysia, too. I’d never seen that in the past. So, suddenly, the act of separation created a new relationship with my home country, one that felt more honest and easier to navigate. Now that I knew what it was like to be officially an outsider, I could reconfigure my feelings for Malaysia too to make it so that I was also an outsider there, and suddenly I was freed from the burden of feeling that I needed to belong there, needed to be accepted there. Although there were many practices and customs in Britain that I did, and still do, find bizarre, in fact Malaysia was the place that started to seem strange. After a few months in Britain, I spoke to my parents about some political development or another that was taking place in Malaysia and remember thinking it bizarre that I’d lived in such a dysfunctional political system for so long without ever realising how damaged it was, and that I was a total product of that. I would stroll along the streets of London and see homeless people, and feel the words form in my head: ‘They should just get a job and work hard,’ and then realise that I was only repeating words that other had said to me and member of my family all our lives; I was only thinking that way because that was how Malaysian society dealt with suffering, by making it the fault of the individual. In diasporic writing, the homeland is usually portrayed as a place of innocence and simplicity, of richness because it is innocent and simple, as opposed to the corruption of the new place; but in fact in my case it was the opposite.
To be modern in Asia today, you write, “You are required to detach yourself from the past and live only in the present, without considering the people who shaped you”. Is it possible to make a complete break with the past? What kinds of connections does your new life in London allow you to have with the culture you come from? How has travelling between different cultures shaped the worlds you write about in your novels?
South East Asia is a region that continually tries to rewrite and suppress its history for various reasons. This happens on a personal and national level. When you live in the system, you’re living within the rewriting of the narrative; you’re part of the rewriting of your own story, and it’s very hard to escape that. In fact, I can see this happening right now with Britain too, under Boris Johnson’s Conservative government, which continually attempts to recreate its national narrative with lies that are very easy to discern if you live outside the country — but inside the country, things are different, and even sensible newspapers and educated people fall for the government’s story. London itself offers me very little wisdom. I don’t think Britain is a particularly enlightened place, especially not these days. What it does provide, with regard to Malaysia, is distance, and with distance comes perspective, which for a writer is crucial. When I’m in Malaysia, my view of the country is totally, and necessarily, different. Travelling between cultures means that I’m able to see those cultures more clearly, I think, to hold them to account and take them to task if necessary. The writer’s job is to be critical, and to be critical one needs perspective, which for me is impossible to achieve without movement.
How does the process of linguistic osmosis, the act of shifting between languages — Malay, Chinese and English — and dialects, work for you? While writing in fiction, do you sometimes tend to think in the other two languages?
That’s a tricky issue for me. The answer is yes, I do often think in my other languages, and sometimes while searching for a word in one language, it’ll pop up in another altogether. I wish I could say it’s always an enriching experience but the truth is that it’s sometimes very frustrating. Technically it has its challenges, too, when writing characters who speak one language or dialect in a framework that uses a totally different one. But in general terms I don’t think about it too much. I write what’s best for each character or setting and trust that it produces something interesting.
The dominant themes of your fiction have been the cost of accruing privilege; they reflect a constant interplay between success and failure, love and betrayal. Some of your characters come from the lower rungs of the society and make a better life for themselves, but are eventually buffeted by defeat. Do you write with the novel’s broad themes in mind or conceive your novels in a way that reflects the schisms of class and the nature of upward mobility in Asia?
I tend not to start with themes, but with particular characters or groups of characters in mind. And since these are always people or situations that are close to me — family members, friends, sometimes things I’ve seen in the news — they always in some way end up being reflective of the way South East Asia is changing. I was of that first generation of post-Independence babies who grew up in an age of nationalistic change. We were brought up with the idea that individual destiny lay entirely in our hands, that success and failure were entirely up to us, that we could control every aspect of our lives. We were not taught that actually, the state and society play a role in defining our futures, that if you were born into a rich, ruling-class family, it’s almost certain that you and your children will have rich, ruling-class lives, and at the other end of the spectrum, it’s hard to break out of a cycle of deprivation. It’s only now, less than two generations later, that people are beginning to see clearly that we have succeeded in creating a class-based society that has taken countries in Europe, or even India, generations to construct. I went to a government school with very limited facilities and a low standard of teaching. My classmates included everyone from the children of minor royalty, businessmen and rubber tappers. Some pupils couldn’t read; others were taking holidays in Japan and the US. It was a very mixed society with a sense of social mobility. Now, all my school mates who have white collar jobs send their kids to private schools. Society has separated so swiftly we only noticed it when the divisions were already too wide to bridge. That is the world I live in when I’m in Malaysia — a universe of divisions. You talked about separations in terms of leaving the country and going to Europe. In fact, the biggest separations take place within the country. If you move from a poor neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur to a rich one, you might as well be emigrating to Melbourne or New York, such is the gulf in social and cultural capital. That’s my starting point — my immediate world.
Your novels have all been set in Asia — from Shanghai and the new China to postcolonial Malaysia and Indonesia. You have travelled the world. Do you see yourself writing a novel set in the First World?
Yes, I can, but I’m not fascinated or concerned by Western countries and cultures the way I am with South East Asian ones, so I have a feeling my work will always keep pulling me back to Asia. The trajectory most people would expect me to take as a writer is to begin to examine what it means to be an Asian person living in the West, and more specifically, what it means to be an Asian writer living in the West, but that’s not very interesting to me, because my experience of life in the West has been that of someone with a good education, and latterly a supremely bourgeois profession that affords me a very particular view of life in the developed world. The moment I return to Malaysia, on the other hand, my life is still shaped by other factors, I’m much more conscious of political and social factors that haven’t changed since my childhood — factors that still bear heavily on the people closest to me, whereas most of the people I know in the West are a product of the same world of educated, white-collar people whose lives are protected by their social backgrounds.
These past two years have been a welter of isolation, sorrow, disease and death around the world. How have you coped with the new normal? What have you been reading and writing?
I’ve coped remarkably well, actually. I spent a lot of time during the first two lockdowns in France, listening to French people’s reactions to the sudden loss of liberty, and comparing them to my parents’ stoical enduring of the situation — which, in a funny way, made me want to write Strangers on a Pier. I’ve been revisiting the work of the late Malaysian philosopher and sociologist, Syed Hussein Alatas, and making my way through Zola…I’m not sure how all this is going to help me with my next novel, but I’m just at that stage of experimenting, and forming some broad ideas. I can’t tell you much more about the novel in progress, not because I’m superstitious or precious, but because it’s still quite vague and I haven’t yet got to grips with it. I’m quite slow to get going with novels.
Nawaid Anjum is an independent feature writer, translator and poet. He lives in New Delhi.