September 2012

Terry Hong


An Interview with Tan Twan Eng

I can count on one hand the books that I've given by the dozens to lucky relatives and friends over the decades. One of those counting fingers belongs to Tan Twan Eng's debut stunner, The Gift of Rain. With the impending American release this month of his long-awaited second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, I grabbed the chance to interview the young writer... only to thoroughly embarrass myself by the third question by revealing my inexcusable myopia, as I referred to Tan's native Malaysia as an island.

"Terry," he gently corrected, "Malaysia isn't an island, but a peninsula, and Penang is an island off its northwest coast." My mortified apology was met with "It's a part of the world not many people know much about," which gave me yet another reason to continue to spread Tan's titles far and wide.

Longlisted for the coveted Man Booker Prize in 2007, The Gift of Rain was an astonishing accomplishment. Its protagonist is the half-British, half-Chinese Philip Hutton, the youngest (and only mixed-race) child of a powerful British trading family based in Malaysia. On the eve of World War II, the gorgeous islands show no hint of the devastation about to unfold, and young Philip finds himself befriending an elegant Japanese man, Hayato Endo, who has taken residence on the tiny island across the Hutton estate.

Endo begins to train Philip in the Japanese martial art aikido, transforming the distant teen into a strong and confident young man. But nothing is as it appears, and as the much-feared Japanese military finally lands on Malaysian shores, surviving the war will mean betrayal and redemption, and ultimately love.

Like Rain, Tan's second novel is exquisite; like Rain, The Garden of Evening Mists arrives stateside with Booker-longlist approval, announced just weeks before the U.S. publication date. This time, Tan's protagonist is a damaged, wary woman, Teoh Yun Ling, who has just taken early retirement from a lauded career as a respected judge; she has at most a year before she will lose all language and memory to aphasia.

She leaves Kuala Lumpur for the highlands of central Malaysia to Yugiri -- the eponymous Garden of Evening Mists -- where she's agreed to meet a Japanese scholar writing a book about Yugiri's creator, Aritomo, the self-exiled former gardener to the emperor of Japan. Four decades earlier, in spite of being the single survivor of a murderous World War II Japanese prison camp, Yun Ling apprenticed herself to Aritomo; she sublimated her fear and loathing in the hopes of learning to create the perfect garden to honor her older sister who died in the camp. Almost thirty-eight years have passed since Aritomo disappeared, and now threatened with erasure, Yun Ling begins to record her, his -- their story.

In both unforgettable novels, Tan manages to intertwine the redemptive power of storytelling with the elusive search for truth, all the while juxtaposing Japan's inhumane war history with glorious moments of Japanese art and philosophy. His is a challenging balancing act, and yet he never falters, intimately revealing his stories with power and grace.

Because you've set both novels primarily during and after the brutal occupation of Malaysia during World War II, both are understandably infused with a symbiotic mixture of horror and beauty. What is your fascination with that time period? You were decades from being born.

The Japanese Occupation of Malaya (as it was then called) was one of the country's most traumatic experiences. Growing up, I heard some stories about the Occupation from my parents. My father was a child when it happened, so he didn't have any terrible experiences, but he heard about them from his family. My mother has no direct experience of it either, as she was born after the war.

Do you think you will return to that time again in future works?

I don't know if I'll revisit that terrain in my future works. If I do, I'll want to find something new about it to write, angles that haven't been explored before.

How have you lived with the terror of your homeland's history -- World War II through the "Emergency" that finally ended in 1960 -- that you recreated in your books? Both books must have taken years to write, which means you must have had to endure long years of inhabiting the historically accurate world you had to conjure forth on the page?

I've always been interested in that period of our past, so I had been reading up and collecting materials on it for years. When I wrote The Gift of Rain, I had all the details I needed in my head and it was a just matter of crafting the story. There comes a point when the writer has to forget his research and just, simply, tell the tale.

Writing The Garden of Evening Mists, on the other hand, required more extensive research. The settings and the time period were different from Gift's, and I was never much of a gardening man, so it took a lot of work to learn how to create a Japanese garden. But the more research I did, the more fascinated I became with it and the more I appreciated it; I realized that the principles of gardening could be applied to life, too.

Dealing with the horrors of the Japanese Occupation and the violence of the Malayan Emergency was at times emotionally draining, but it's the writer's responsibility to feel, and then to convey those emotions to the readers, otherwise the writing will come across as lifeless.

You obviously have had some serious training in many things Japanese. Mono no aware and shakkei are not exactly as familiar as sushi or karate, easily recognized by cosmopolitan citizens around the world. How did your interest in Japan originate? And how have you acquired your knowledge of things Japanese?

In my late teens I became obsessed with aikido. For a period of eleven or twelve years, I trained for hours almost every day, read up and watched everything on it -- books, manuals, instructional videos. Aikido's practical and philosophical aspects fascinated me. I went to classes even when I was ill or injured, if only to sit outside and watch, because I had been told that you can learn just as much by observing. I attended seminars conducted by visiting Japanese masters and talked to them about aikido techniques and their views on life. To understand aikido and its roots, you have to know the world it originated from, so I became interested in Japanese culture and history. At one point, I even considered going to Japan to be an uchi-deshi, a live-in apprentice, at one of the schools there. That didn't happen, and looking back now I'm relieved. I wouldn't have survived it.

Your stories, while set within a small, limited geography, literally bring vastly scattered parts of the world together: Chinese, British, Dutch, South African, and, of course, Japanese. Just how many languages do you speak?

The scattered parts of the world have been connected for far longer than we think. Globalization isn't something recent; it's been happening for as long as there have been geographical borders. I speak Malay, English, a bit of Mandarin (not at all well), and my parents' dialects, Hokkien and Teochew (not fluently either), and Cantonese, which is spoken in Kuala Lumpur among the Chinese. I'm also trying to pick up Afrikaans, which I find to be an earthy, yet sophisticated and poetic language.

Now have you familiarized yourself with these diverse cultures and histories?

I read a lot. I watch their movies, listen to their music, taste their food, and meet their people.

And how do you do your research in general for your novels?

Through lots of reading -- memoirs, biographies, history, current affairs, and fiction, too. I study old photographs and watch documentaries. But there comes a point when I jettison all that I've researched and make the leap to create fiction.

In Gift of Rain, your protagonist was a young man. In Garden, you take on the first-person voice of a woman. How challenging was assuming the other gender for this novel?

I changed my preconceived thinking in small but pertinent ways. For example, in The Gift of Rain, Philip could travel to all sorts of places, on his own, at any time of the day or night. But in The Garden of Evening Mists, Yun Ling is a single woman living in the 1950s during the Malayan Emergency, so she can't run around as freely as a man. She was also much older than Philip Hutton, and less open about herself.

But, aside from that, I wrote Yun Ling as a human being, with all a human being's fears and hopes. I did find it hard to write her at first, not because of her gender, but because of what she had been through. The early days of writing the Garden were frustrating; I felt she was intentionally not letting me into her thoughts. It was only when I was reaching the end of the novel that she allowed me in. This meant I had to go back to the first page and rewrite the novel and incorporate things I now understood about her.

I understand you were born and raised in Malaysia and now live in Cape Town. Why South Africa? How did you end up there?

I was working as a lawyer in Kuala Lumpur and I wanted to see the world, so I thought doing a master's degree in law justified that. My South African friends suggested a university in Cape Town. It's a beautiful and fascinating city.

Do you plan on returning to Malaysia some day?

I travel back and forth between Cape Town and Malaysia regularly. I'm normally only in Cape Town during the winter, which, coming from a tropical country, I enjoy. I go back to Malaysia every year and stay for long periods of time. Malaysia is "home."

You're a lawyer by training (experience you've well incorporated into your novels)... Why law?

Like many Chinese parents, mine insisted that I enter one of the "proper" professions: medicine, accounting, engineering, law, or economics. My science and math abilities are abysmal, and language has always been my strong point, so it made sense to choose law. I'm glad I did; being a lawyer forced me to become organized and disciplined, and to write with clarity.

Do you think you'll ever go back to the legal world?

I don't know. Law is fascinating, and you get to meet interesting people, but at the moment, writing is my full-time career and I want to develop it to the best that I can.

How did you start writing? Who encouraged you? Who influenced you?

There were always books in my house when I was a child. I started reading when I was young. My parents encouraged the habit and allowed me to read whatever I wanted. I sometimes wonder if they regret it. I took storybooks to school and read them beneath the edge of my desk while classes were going on. I didn't know anyone who was a writer, and nobody influenced me to be one. The more books I read, the more I thought I wanted to be a writer. The realization crystallized one day when I was reading a badly written novel. I put it aside in disgust and thought, "I can write better than that."

When you're in the midst of writing your own works, do you read other books?

I read to find information I need for what I'm in the midst of writing. Or I might read something just to forget the world I'm writing about. I'm compelled to read every day, even if only a few pages. Otherwise, I feel the day is incomplete.

Do you have a preference for a genre or time period?

I prefer literary fiction, but no particular time period.

So what was your reaction when you got your second Booker longlist nod? Might I add that The Gift of Rain was far superior to three of the five titles on the 2007 shortlist -- I did not read the other two; I have not yet read any on the 2012 longlist except for Garden, so I will hold my tongue -- for now. Congratulations, indeed, on two for two!

Thank you! When I heard that Garden was longlisted, I let out a long breath of relief. It was a vindication for the countless rewrites I had done. I kept pushing back deadline after deadline before I felt the novel was finally ready. My agent and publisher despaired about whether I would ever finish it. It's a great honor to be longlisted for my debut and now my second novel, and in a year when so many other strong writers are publishing their novels.

And always the inevitable... especially from such an impatient reader... what are you working on now?  

At the moment, I'm working on getting the American edition of Garden out. With Garden's longlisting, things have been very hectic.

A very good hectic, though! So is the U.S. edition very different from the original? And as we gleefully anticipate Garden's upcoming pub date, can we hope you might come stateside for an American book tour?

I'm not complaining at all, Terry! The changes we did for the U.S. edition are minor, American spelling for certain words, changing the quotation marks for dialogue to follow my publisher's house style. The designer, Laura Klynstra, did a wonderful job on the U.S. edition. The editions have vastly different covers, but each is, I feel, a work of art in its own way. My publisher's working on a book tour, and I'm hoping it'll come through. I did a West Coast tour for The Gift of Rain a few years back -- it was my first visit to the States, and I was very moved by how passionately The Gift of Rain was received by American booksellers and readers.

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.