On Language, Power, and Simply Making the Visible Visible: An Interview with Tash Aw

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

I read Tash Aw’s fourth novel, We, the Survivors, during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, just as the winter air in Chicago, where I live, was beginning to thaw. I have long admired Aw’s work, which includes the Booker Prize-longlisted The Harmony Silk Factory, the novels Map of the Invisible World and Five Star Billionaire, and the memoir The Face: Strangers on a Pier. We, the Survivors circles the precarious life and livelihoods of Ah Hock, a man born and raised among the rural agricultural poor in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city, and who we learn, at the novel’s outset, recently served a prison sentence for killing a Bangladeshi migrant laborer. Central to the novel’s making is a formal complication: Ah Hock’s narrative, as we receive it, is mediated by his interviewer Su-Min, an upper-middle-class Malaysian graduate student and ethnographer recently returned from New York. In Aw’s novel I found a lucid and quietly compelling articulation of the invisible forces that structure ordinary life under capitalism—forces at once relentless and accretive, and whose implications and inequities ramify through the individual, the societal, and the ecological.

Reading We, the Survivors amid the dislocation of a pandemic offered me both solace and provocation. As country after country went into lockdown, I was grateful to vicariously live amid the details of my hometown and its environs, which Aw, who also grew up in Malaysia, renders with complexity and attunement. I was also grateful for a work with which I could meditate on questions of migration, social mobility, economic vulnerability, and our entanglement with the natural world—questions imbued with even greater poignancy in this ongoing crisis. I was honored to talk to Aw over email about the novel, his writing of it, and issues of language and power in contemporary Asia.

TQ: Masatsugu Ono once noted that Murakami wrote Norwegian Wood when he was living in Greece and Italy and began The Wind-up Bird Chronicle while in New Jersey; and that Césaire wrote Cahier du retour au pays natal while on a shore in Croatia overlooking a small island in the Adriatic Sea, thousands of miles away from his island homeland of Martinique. The implication here, I think, is that distance from one’s homeland can liberate and sharpen a writer’s tools: sense, memory, intellection, perspective. At the same time, many of us are haunted by the cost of leaving the country in which we were born — “an inescapable facet of emigration,” writes Irish writer Dan Sheehan, is “that you cease to be a player in the unfolding story of home.”

You’ve lived in the United Kingdom for a long time, and travel to Malaysia and Singapore for family visits and to teach. Where were you physically located when you wrote We, the Survivors? For a novel that actively engages contemporary Malaysia, how did place — distance from, or proximity to, your homeland — influence your writing process?

TA: I wrote We, the Survivors in a variety of places – in Malaysia, London and France. I’m generally not conscious of place when I write, and every book has its own geographical demands. For Five Star Billionaire, for example, I felt I needed to be in Shanghai as much as possible, and some of the sharpest segments of that novel were the Malaysian chapters, which I wrote while I was in China. I do feel that physical separation from one’s own country – the place one identifies as being one’s home, however vague and vast that definition is – does provide a sort of liberty and clarity, an objectivity that is harder to attain than when you’re in that place. You have to be aware of nostalgia, of course, and how easy it is for it to seep into your writing, but worse than nostalgia is a kind of pain of separation (Edward Said) that can color your work without you realising it. I don’t understand the argument that you need to be in your home country to write about it – I’m a fiction writer, not a news journalist. I’m reacting not to the latest Twitter scandal and how it plays out on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, but instead trying to get at some deeper truth about the country, something fundamental, and if you carry enough of your country and culture within you, where you are isn’t so relevant. Geography becomes just one of many elements that feed into writing.

TQ: Ah Hock and the Bangladeshi migrant worker Mohammad Ashadul are people whom the theorist Rob Nixon might call a nation state’s “unimagined communities” — “communities whose vigorously unimagined condition becomes indispensable to maintaining a highly selective discourse of national development.” These communities, according to Nixon, are frequently subject to rhetorical and visual evacuation from a nation’s idea of itself. One way to read your novel is as an active rejection of these forms of erasure. I’m curious about the formal decisions that you made to render legible the lives of your novel’s characters and their traditionally marginalized communities. In particular, I’m intrigued by your decision to write from Ah Hock’s first-person point of view, as opposed to choosing an omniscient third-person narrator, or interweaving multiple points of view. Were there specific formal constraints or rules that appealed to you when you decided to situate your novel within the frame of an interview?

TA: I wanted Ah Hock’s to be the dominant voice in the novel, for us to perceive the world through his eyes. There are very specific reasons for this, partly biographical, partly political and theoretical. Like many Malaysians—specifically Chinese Malaysians—of my generation, I come from a very divided family in that some parts of the family have become middle class and urban over the space of one generation, whereas the rest of it remains mired in rural or provincial deprivation. As you know, the 1970s and 80s were a very particular period in Southeast Asian social and development, with rapid economic development and anti-Western colonialism fueling a sort of optimism and belief in a system of free markets and the power of individuals to achieve whatever they wanted. But of course the reality was that this was always an illusion, and social circumstances played a huge role in a person’s progress through life.

Both my parents were born and grew up in isolated, deprived rural communities but had moved to Kuala Lumpur by the time I was born, so I had a modest suburban upbringing which gave me a certain perception of the world. I spent all my school holidays with my grandparents in their village, growing up with my cousins. When we were small, we didn’t feel that there was any difference between us. The illusion was further enhanced by the general atmosphere in Malaysia at the time, the early days of Muhibah – a harmonious multiculturalism which was talked about as almost compulsory, that is to say, you were only a valid part of society if you were part of this “harmony.” (People still attempt to revive these days as a way of silencing discussion of social divisions). But by the time I got to secondary school, the divide between me and my cousins was evident, and growing larger all the time. My uncles and aunts never had the luxury of formal education, and their children followed suit. One cousin, in particular, who is exactly the same age as me, was naturally very intelligent but in his village school, no one ever made it to college, so he never saw the point of education. As a result, thirty years later, the fact that I stayed in school and he dropped out means that I work as a writer, one of the ultimate bourgeois professions, with all its connotations of cultural capital, while he and some of my first cousins work in factories, or as bus drivers or waitresses in provincial towns. They have difficult lives, they struggle, they represent the majority of people in the country—in the world—who strive to fit into the contemporary dream of hard work and success, but who can’t, because they didn’t grow up in structures where education and opportunities were possible. They are not flourishing, but merely surviving, in this ruthless system.

I could so easily have been born to one of my uncles or aunts, rather than my own parents; I could have easily ended up working in a factory. A part of me still feels anchored in that village, especially whenever I meet with my cousins at Chinese New Year. I wanted to encapsulate our lives in formal literature—and in so doing, question how we are able to live with the schisms in our family and society. Writing this novel, I realised for the first time that this is what drives so much of my work: wanting to celebrate, and interrogate, people and lives that are everywhere—who in fact form the majority of every society—but whom we conspire to exclude from literature. It’s the opposite of wanting to render the invisible visible: I’m simply making the visible visible. In Ah Hock’s case, being Chinese and working class means that he doesn’t fit into the national narrative. Sometimes he emerges in one of the subcategories of Venal Chinese who is a threat to the harmonious workings of society. But largely he is invisible.

Contemporary literature is full of writers writing about writers – about the existential complications of being a middle-class person with a cultural being. It’s a system where a certain kind of person writes for the same type of person. On a global scale this system is dominated by white middle-class writers, but it applies to individual countries too—India, Malaysia, and so on. I come from outside this exclusive amphitheater; I always have, even when I was a teenager in Malaysia. Writers seemed to belong to a closed circle, artistic and cultural, often linked to being wealthy, that made literature seem beyond the reach of the rest of society. Part of my vision as a writer is to write for people like myself who don’t see themselves as part of our collective storytelling. That’s what informs the political aims of the novel, and how it dovetails with my personal circumstances. Having set out to write about Ah Hock, I had to give him control of the narrative. But is he, really, totally in control? That’s where Su Min comes in – and where my divided self becomes relevant.

TQ: Ah Hock has a quietly obsessive attachment to a better life, as he moves from manual agricultural labor to managerial work. This desire for a better life becomes both a site of potential and a terrible bind, and ultimately results in tragedy. I’m reminded of Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, in which she observes that “people are worn out by the activity of life-building, especially the poor and the non-normative.” Could you talk about this arc of life-building as a source of a novel’s narrative propulsion?

TA: The minutiae of life-building is a simple observation of the lives of everyone I grew up with, particularly my parents, who were typical of most of Malaysian society, which aspired to a middle-class existence but were destined in most cases to fail. In SE Asia over the last half-decade we’ve been taught to believe in the notion of “success”—something that is essentially based on material wealth, and which for which the individual is entirely responsible. If you are a failure – if you are poor – it is your fault and yours alone. If you want to get rich, you can. If you didn’t get a good job, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough at school. Societal forces are largely absent from this notion – class, gender, race, family circumstances are never seen to impact the individual’s trajectory through life. The novel is merely a refocusing of the contemporary Asian narrative of success, a more truly realist rendition that addresses the grinding realities of daily life in contemporary SE Asia in a matter of fact way. I wanted the novel to be confrontational in its simplicity. In a lot of the interviews I did with the British press, one comment was made quite often: journalists found it really arresting to see people working in the novel; actually going to work, and reading about the details of their work. The journalists spoke about this as if it was a really radical, shocking thing, and it really drove home to me how insular and middle-class and escapist so much of writing must be, if even the most common feature of our everyday lives seems unusual when encapsulated in literature. The people I know and write about are engaged in life-building, but it seems that this doesn’t have a place in fiction. When I think of the aspirations of the people around me in Malaysia – all the hopes and failed ambitions and bitterness, and the small sources of joy – I think about the intense drama it creates, the natural comedy and tragedy it contains. I didn’t have to do much to it to create a novel.

TQ: Global warming and rising sea levels loom in the backdrop of Ah Hock’s early livelihood. When you were writing We, the Survivors, did a philosophy or model emerge for how you wanted the ecological to operate in your novel?

TA: It really came from examining the lives of people like Ah Hock – those who live in deprived communities where life seems like an endless struggle just to keep afloat, often literally. Every time there’s flooding during the rainy season, people I know who live in the neat suburbs of KL and PJ complain of the traffic, how it takes forever to get to the mall and back, how entire roads, even highways, sit under three feet of water. Sometimes this leads to secondary problems, the internet is down, the electricity fails. Then there’s the smog, which makes everyone aware of an asthma condition or an eye condition and everyone is going to the doctor for an inhaler. Environmental change in the cities is a huge inconvenience but ultimately, it’s just that: an inconvenience. The people I know who fight to preserve our fragile ecology do so out of principle and belief in a better world; they don’t do so out of personal necessity.

In the novel, I wanted to emphasise that environmental damage affects deprived communities in a far more fundamental, devastating way than it does middle-class people. Even in the cities, the slums – and there still are many of them – are destroyed by flooding whereas very few suburban housing estates these days suffer in a meaningful way. In rural areas entire villages are still washed away by tides, crops are destroyed, livelihoods are snatched away. People have an entirely different relationship with nature. For people like Ah Hock, the ecology isn’t an ideology, it’s yet another thing that can ruin his life in an instant, and which he is powerless to resist. Unlike me or you or other urban middle-class people, he has no protection against the elements. The armory we have – decent housing, an education, a white-collar income – gives us some protection against the vagaries of the environment, politics, the changing global economy. Ah Hock has none of that.

That’s why it was important to me that Su-Min exists in the novel – someone well-meaning, who is in some ways deeply connected to Ah Hock’s point of view but also vastly removed from it in terms of cultural and financial capital. In some ways she represents people like me, and together she and Ah Hock represent two sides of Malaysia—the two sides of me.

TQ: Switching gears for a moment—I’ve really enjoyed reading Freeze Frame, your current column on Asian cinema for The Paris Review. How have cinema and visual culture fed your practice as a novelist?

TA: Cinema offers a different way of telling stories, of examining an emotional state, or a way of thinking. As a novelist, I’m always thinking about new ways of forming narratives, of challenging the way we see ourselves, and cinema obviously provides a different way of doing so from writing. A lot of the most interesting narratives coming out of SE Asia over the last 30 years have been in cinema, with a glorious period of Malaysian filmmaking in particular emerging in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s. I also feel very attached to the other countries in SE Asia, culturally and artistically, and Thai filmmakers in particular have brought a really radical visuality to our consciousness. I also feel that SE Asian filmmakers have managed to be more sophisticated in their political and cultural representations than writers have so far—I haven’t quite worked out why this is so.

TQ: I was compelled by your essay on Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet — a film, as you note, “built upon a detailed exploration of Malaysia’s nuances of language and identity.” I had missed watching this film when I was growing up in Malaysia, and had to work hard to source the film online or on DVD! Much of the joy and deft sensitivity in Sepet stems from the film’s virtuosic use of Manglish. After watching the film I found myself feeling a sense of loss, rooted in my conviction that the film’s rich linguistic play and layers of cultural commentary couldn’t possibly be translated and fully expressed to audiences outside of Malaysia.

I’d love to think with you on the question of global Englishes and the conditions in which a work of art — be it a novel, an essay, or a film — is circulated, particularly in the Western Anglophone world. In your novel, Ah Hock speaks primarily standard English, perhaps in part for the benefit of his interviewer Su-Min. In the instances that Ah Hock interlaces his speech with expressions in Malay, Cantonese, or Hokkien — essentially Manglish — you’ve done incredibly intricate work at the syntactic level on the page so that the meaning of these expressions can be inferred by any reader. How did you think through the calculus of making the novel legible to the broader English-speaking world, while reflecting the realities of the lived English that is spoken every day and making space for your own stylistic choices?

TA: Actually, these days I spend very little time thinking about this issue. I’ve never thought of my own version of English as a secondary or subservient form of English; instead I’ve always thought of it as just another variation of English, in the Australian or American English might be as compared to British English. Politically and culturally, I don’t think it’s something worth agonising over, and I’ve certainly never made concessions to non-Malaysian readers artificially. There are a lot of references in the novel to specific food, landscapes, practices, etc., that aren’t even that familiar to readers in Singapore, but I don’t really worry about that. My view as a writer is the same as my view as a reader: everything can be understood in context, provided you want to make some effort to understand it.

You’re absolutely right though, to pick up on the functions of language – its registers and nuances – as they exist between Su-Min and Ah Hock. The major factor in all of this is class: how the two of them are divided by education and social hierarchy. Who is telling the story? Is it Ah Hock or Su-Min? It’s his story, and she is very aware of this fact, indeed she says so several times. Yet we know that the novel is a series of transcripts made by Su-Min. We also know that although Ah Hock has the intelligence and sensitivity to tell his own story, he might not have enough formal education to render this in a structured way. That is all constructed by Su-Min.

The fact is, they aren’t speaking in English, but Chinese – a mixture of Mandarin and dialects, the natural canvas that someone like Ah Hock would use on a daily basis. Growing up in a remote fishing and farming community like Ah Hock did, there would be absolutely no chance of him speaking decent English, certainly nothing close to the level required to form an entire novel. He would have been Chinese-educated in a rural vernacular school, and in fact makes this point several times. Su-Min, on the other hand, would be from an urban, primarily English-speaking family, Western in outlook, and would have a basic grasp of Chinese – not fantastic, but enough to have a conversation with Ah Hock and to transcribe the recordings. So the conceit of the novel is that it is entirely in translation, though I wanted that to be subtle, because in Malaysia we are constantly translating – to members of other ethnic groups, even to ourselves. People nowadays think of translation as a process that occurs from a minor language to a dominant one; and by extension that we have to translate the experience of a so-called minor culture to a dominant one. By further implication you could say this involves the global south for the benefit of the global north; translating the experience of non-white for white. But this isn’t the case in We, the Survivors, which is why a lot of people have picked up on the issue of language in the novel. It’s a translation between two Asians for the benefit of each other; they are trying to understand each other, rich Asia and poor Asia, if you will. But who is translating whose story, and who wields the power in all this? My view is that they are both integral to our understanding of the issue of language and power in contemporary Asia. We can’t begin to see the whole picture until we see both of them struggling to interpret their lives to the other.