Tash Aw was the second author to join this year’s Autumn Literary Festival and was preceded by the wonderful Elizabeth Macneal. Aw was interviewed by Jean Mcneil, a prolific author and LDC school tutor.
Aw was speaking to promote his newest novel ‘We The Survivors”, which follows an ordinary Malaysian man as he tells his story to a journalist. I was unfamiliar with Aw before this event, but he shared a fascinating personal narrative that is clearly reflected in his works. Aw has links to UEA, having completed a Creative Writing MA here in 2003, and has since had two books listed for the Man Booker prize. He was raised by Malaysian parents in Kuala Lumpur and graduated with qualifications in Law from both Cambridge and Warwick University. Aw laughed after Mcneil’s introduction, joking that others always describe you as a better person than you really are.
Mcneil’s questions ranged from the personal to literary, although Aw’s answers were intertwined with the two. Aw frequently spoke of the idea of two Malaysias, and the economy and society of South East Asia opening up as the area came out of colonialism. He was consciously speaking about the impression of the East that is present in the West, claiming that Asia is not where it leads the world to believe it is, and that “endless upwards trajectories…are closing down”. The dream of prosperity has only become reality for a minority of people, and Aw remarked that “people associate the countryside with deprivation”. Aw also addressed the stereotype that is present on campuses of rich international students, suggesting that they represent a small group of people and that “no group of people is ever easily represented”. In some more general cultural discussion, Mcneil pondered how the recent movie “Crazy Rich Asians” has become a touchstone for Asian culture in the Western world, whilst Aw shared that the East lacks the benefit of the National Arts Councils that the West is lucky to have.
Aw’s language was woven with an acute awareness of his own privilege and ideas of classism. Mcneil acknowledged Aw’s graphic descriptions of physical labour, commenting that “it’s very rare to see people working in books”. Aw attributed these descriptions to wanting to give those that he knows on-page visibility. He explored how both book reading and writing is a middle class, white-collar activity and that many novels leave jobs behind in a secondary position to pay attention to emotional crises that many people cannot afford to have.
Returning to his own experiences with writing, Aw had a clear and self-aware approach to explaining his process. Aw shared that he needed physical and emotional distance from his childhood home to gain perspective on the world and learn who he was away from his family and the existing structures that were holding him together. The aforementioned journalist that interviews Aw’s protagonist represents Aw himself – someone who is gay, progressive, and had access to higher education. However, Mcneil comments that, despite this, the journalist remains the more judgmental of the two characters, and that whilst they share a nationality, is it really possible to understand someone with a life so different from your own?
In closing, Aw spoke about the of the success of his work, and the value of taking criticism from other creatives, imparting to “trust one’s instincts, but you’re never the final word on your work”. This comment brings to mind an interesting discussion of how to balance one’s instincts and not let the feedback of others influence you too much, but also remain generally “good” enough to sell enough to make a living.
I was unfamiliar with Aw’s work at the beginning of the evening but felt much more acquainted with him and his goals in writing by the end of it. I look forward to reading Aw’s fiction, but also exploring his non-fiction work, as his speech and expression of ideas was thoroughly engaging and thought-provoking.
The Literary Festival continues with Tracy Chevalier on Wednesday, October 16th.