Blog Archive

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Tan Twan Eng Visits The Penang Bookshelf

A Chat with Tan Twan Eng

This month Tan Twan Eng, Penang's best selling literary author of the Gift of Rain, was in town, killing time before his next book is launched in Malaysia and Singapore. I was unaware that he was already a customer of The Penang Bookshelf and only managed to meet him  when he visited the new shop at 70 Lebuh Acheh (Acheen Street). Apart from buying a couple of books, he agreed to spend a bit more time chatting about himself and his writing.

Although his family, academic studies and career took him away from Penang, he still loves to come back to the place that formed him. He particularly misses not being able to speak Penang Hokkien, which is still the predominant language spoken in the city. Like most creoles it's probably a language that appeals to writers because of its free and haphazard use of words from a whole range of languages that have swirled through the island at one time or another.

I found him amazingly relaxed considering that he was waiting for the launch of his second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists. Not only, like most second novels, it was more difficult to write than the first, but, of course, there was the slight anxiety as to how the book was going to be received. As it's just in the process of being launched it hadn't yet been reviewed at the time of our meeting. Although he didn't say it, I guess that the wait for the first reviews and first sales figures must be particularly nerve wracking when your first novel has made such an impact.

When he talked about his new book, I noticed that there were a couple of common threads between this book and The Gift of Rain, i.e. World War II and the Japanese. Although this novel is set during the Malayan Emergency, the main protagonist suffered at the hands of the Japanese during the war and was a prosecutor of Japanese war criminals. Tan Twan Eng, who has a first dan ranking in akido, admits that he's drawn to the 'refined' elements of Japanese culture, but at the same time is troubled by the country's war time atrocities and particularly their refusal or difficulty in coming to terms with some of the after effects. Like many he is also puzzled as to how people so cultured can also be so brutal.

Such complexity makes good grist for novelists such as Tan Twan Eng who allows his works to develop through his characters meeting or shying away from the challenges that they present to each other. He's developed this ability not through psychological training, he says, but rather through reading books, both fiction and historical. He'd always wanted to be a writer after living in a household where his parents gave him free rein in his reading. However probably even the most supportive parents would find it difficult to imagine their child moving straight from university into the uncertainties of a literary career. Instead he went into the law and specilised in copyright law with a leading Kuala Lumpur firm. However he found himself being employed as an enforcer - often in dangerous circumstances - rather than as an adviser to clients on the finer points of the law. 

When he did leave the law to write, he went in feet first. He didn't try and build a reputation with short story writing first. In fact he's never been very happy with the short stories he's written. Instead he went headlong into his first novel. Even when it was written it took some time to find a publisher since the general response was that it would 'be difficult to market.' Malaysian fiction writing in English has never had the cachet that, for example, similar writing from India does. So he ended up with a publisher, Myrmidon Books, who were just starting out as well. For both author and publisher the partnership is obviously beginning to pay off. Tan Twang Eng says that even after publishing his first novel he's managing to earn enough to live on - as long as he watches his budget!

He now lives in South Africa for much of the time. It was there that he met a retired Gardener to the Emperor of Japan. The meeting sparked him into thinking about the form of his second novel. One of the differences between The Garden of Evening Mists and The Gift of Rain is the rural setting, Malaysia's Cameron Highlands, of the new novel. He says one of the differences between Malaysia and South Africa is the greater appreciation of nature in South Africa, which has enthused him. I mentioned that at the Penang Bookshelf, I have always been surpised at how poorly nature and wildlife books sell despite all that Malaysia has to offer. 

At our couple of meetings I was particularly impressed by Tan Twan Eng's diffidence. He only spoke about his writing when asked to do so. We didn't discuss his significant achievements and he never sought to bring them up. He spoke with clarity, sometimes passion, about his work and interests, but never gave the impression of trying to ram any point home. One of the results of his early success has been to receive invitations to literary festivals where he meets other writers. Without me asking he's put me in touch with other Malaysian writers whom he sugests are featured at the Penang Bookshelf - and he keeps on suggesting more.

It was only after our meeting that I discovered that The Gift of Rain has sold over 60,000 copies and has never been out of the literary fiction e-book top 100 since the book was issued in that format. I have yet to get my hands on a copy of The Garden of Evening Mists, but based on the man I got to know briefly and what he's written before, I wish him even greater success.


Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.