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Thursday, December 02, 2021

The Importance of Being Invisible

Tash Aw sympathises with Booker winner Aravind Adiga. “Whenever you write an honest account of your country and show it in an ‘unfavourable’ light,you are bound to upset many people,” says Aw.

Written by Anushreemajumdar |
February 4, 2009 3:00:23 am

After Somerset Maugham and Anthony Burgess,Malaysia has finally found its native storyteller in Tash Aw

Tash Aw sympathises with Booker winner Aravind Adiga. “Whenever you write an honest account of your country and show it in an ‘unfavourable’ light,you are bound to upset many people,” says Aw. The Chinese-Malaysian author of The Harmony Silk Factory (HarperCollins,Rs 350) is in Delhi,recuperating from a hectic week at the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival.

In 1940s British ruled Malay,the Harmony Silk Factory is the name of a textile store run by Johnny Lim,an ordinary Chinese peasant. But to the inhabitants of Kinta Valley,Johnny is a hero in his avatar as a communist who fought the Japanese during the invasion and was ready to sacrifice his life for the people. But that’s urban legend,the real story is told by three narrators,beginning with Johnny’s son Jasper who sees his father as a crook and the Factory as a front for his illegal businesses. Jasper’s mother,the beautiful Snow Soong narrates the second part of the novel. Through a diary she kept in 1941,she reveals a Johnny who is low class and insecure. The third narrator is an Englishman named Peter Wormwood,who befriends Johnny and decades later,tells his side of the story.

The book was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2005 and won the 2005 Whitbread Book First Novel Award as well as the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel (Asia Pacific region). But his book hasn’t been translated into Malay and many of his fellow Malaysians are unhappy about it. “I’m a novelist,not a spokesperson for Malaysia. I did not set out to write the definitive Great Malaysian Novel. It does disturb me because the writers of the west bear no such burden to present their nations in a certain light,” says Aw who began writing the book in 1996 but it wasn’t till two years later that he completely devoted himself to finishing the book.

Aw moved to England from Malaysia when he was 18,to study law at the University of Cambridge where he enjoyed being the observer in his various capacities as a student,a gardener,an employee at an auction house and finally as a lawyer. “It was difficult in the beginning. I never did really fit in. But that enables you to observe people and situations dispassionately,and helps you write,” says Aw who says he was quite surprised when the awards came in.

“Awards and recognition are a double-edged sword. I was given the opportunity to travel the world,meet different people but I hated being a writer who doesn’t write,” says Aw,who splits his time living between Malaysia and London.

But now is a good time to visit India since he’s just completed his second novel and doesn’t have to worry about leaving a task undone. Eloquently titled Map of the Invisible World,the novel,due for release in April,is set in 1960s Indonesia and Malaysia and tells a tale about two orphan brothers. “There’s a lot of sex and drugs in it,if that’s any consolation,” smiles Aw who will be back in India to promote the book in June.

Till then,he’s charting his own map around literary worlds.

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