Rich in Imagery and Action
The Star, 25 February 2007

A new Malaysian voice makes its debut in London with a book redolent of ‘exotic’ Asia and creates a buzz among the literati.

MALAYSIAN and Singaporean authors who publish overseas are invariably accused by local readers of capitalising on the perceived exoticism of the Asian setting. I put this to author Tan Twan Eng when we talk about his debut novel, The Gift of Rain, which is set in colonial Penang.

Admirably, he meets the charge squarely.

"I know some people will probably say that the book is pandering to Western tastes,” he says "And why not? That+’s what people want to read in a book set in Asia, that’s what they buy. They want the heat, they want, yes, the exotic aspects of it.”

Tan says that the novel was largely born out of homesickness while he was living in South Africa.

"I knew friends there and they said why don’t you come and travel? I already had this story at the back of my mind, and I had time, so I sat down and started it.”

The characters were actually drawn from a much larger piece that Tan had in mind.

"I was ambitious and thought I’d write something like a 2,000-page family saga, but then I thought, that’s too much, I’m not going to finish it. So I decided to test myself by taking out these two characters, namely Philip Hutton and Endo, and using them in a short story.

"I felt that if I could finish that, it would give me some confidence to tackle the larger work but as I started writing the story (about the two characters) grew, and now I really have no intention of going back to the original idea.”

One of the most riveting sequences in The Gift of Rain came to the author in a dream. "I woke up with this image of this young lost emperor kneeling in front of something and sat down to write his story.”

At first, Tan was unsure what to do with the piece and thought that he might develop it into a short novel by itself. But when he began writing The Gift of Rain, the story of the lost emperor slotted in nicely, bringing the pivotal character of the grandfather to life and echoing the strong martial arts theme of the novel.

Many of the scenes in the book are strikingly visual, and Tan says that he wrote with a movie version of the book in mind. He says that (Ang Lee’s) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the only Chinese film he could get in the DVD shop in Kimberley (in South Africa), was another influence on the novel: "I wanted to translate some of that lyrical grace to the book as well.”

I tell Tan that I’m very impressed by the depth of historical research in the book. How did he ensure that the background to the novel was as authentic as possible?

"Well, there wasn’t so much research as confirmation of facts I’d acquired over the years.”

He explains that he has always been interested in history, especially colonial history and the history of Penang, and has read widely about these subjects over the years. But he hit a snag when he started writing because he did not have any of the books he needed with him in South Africa and says he had to rely on memory and e-mail his mother to check certain facts until he could return home.

He was concerned to get even the smallest details correct – right down to the kind of aftershave Philip's father uses. "I asked a few people in their 80s if they could you remember that.”

Tan says that the exoticism of the book also reflects his love of kung-fu movies, a passion passed on by his father. Tan also draws on his own enthusiasm for aikido: "I was interested not just in the physical aspect but also in the philosophical part as well,” he says. "In the book the aikido training is there for a purpose. It makes Philip, this spoiled little brat, grow up and mature, and prepares him for when the Japanese come.”

I point out that there are an awful lot of fight scenes for a piece of literary fiction.

"I tried to limit those. I imagined this nice little old lady somewhere reading it and saying, ‘Oh dear, all this violence’,” he laughs.

How did Tan manage to keep the book so pacy despite giving so much historical detail and explaining so much of the cultural background for an international readership?

Tan says he applied a simple measure: "I thought that if I got bored writing a scene, then people were going to get bored reading it. And I get bored easily.”

Predestination, as opposed to free will, is a major theme of the novel, yet Tan says that he did not consciously plan to write about that when he began the novel. Rather, it’s used as a reason to explain the tremendous connection that the two main characters feel for each other and to explain why Philip is prepared to make such sacrifices.

Does Tan believe that everything is mapped out for us? "I think so,” he smiles "But the answer depends on which day you ask.”

This brings us to the unconventional relationship – between the half-Chinese Philip and the Japanese diplomat, Endo – at the heart of the book. Would Tan describe it as a love story?

"It depends what people want to read into it. It can be viewed in a variety of ways,” he says, adding that he aimed deliberately for restraint but also "dropped a lot of clues on purpose”.

Tan has a strong dislike of what he calls "gimmicky writing styles for the sake of gimmicks”. His prose style is straightforward, and slightly formal to reflect Philip’s voice, but at the same time, there’s a richness of imagery that is consciously in keeping with the mood of the book.

"I was comfortable writing it,” he says, "the imagery wasn’t tacked on. There were certain similes I thought were too obvious, so I took them out.”

Tan is now working on his second novel. All he’s prepared to give away at the moment is that it’s set in Cameron Highlands, Pahang, during the Emergency (1948-1960) and that it’s about a war criminal.

Would he ever consider writing a novel set in contemporary Malaysia?

"No,” he laughs, "What is there to write about? Shopping malls? Seriously, I can’t think of anything to write about.”

From trash to literature

TAN Twan Eng was born in Penang in 1972. His father worked for a bank and was frequently transferred so the family lived in various parts of Malaysia. His obsession with books began with his first Enid Blyton when he was five or six, and he describes himself as a child who was a loner and a bookworm, who frequently read through family mealtimes and under the desk at school. He read widely and fairly indiscriminately as a teenager, absorbing what he calls "a lot of trash” including Jackie Collins, Sydney Sheldon, Judith Krantz.

He says that he first began to take literature seriously when he was doing his A Levels because he had an excellent teacher. The writers who have most influenced him include Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Vikram Seth, Vladimir Nabokov, and W. Somerset Maugham.

Tan studied law through the University of London and later worked as an advocate and solicitor in one of Kuala Lumpur’s most reputable law firms. He left Malaysia in 2000 to travel in South Africa where he also furthered his legal studies. He is currently spending time in that country as well back here in Malaysia.

Tan has a first dan ranking in aikido and is deeply concerned about the conservation of heritage buildings. He has also written about food and drink for several publications (including The Star), and has won an award for his piece, Little wine farm in the valley of the Huguenots, which appeared in Flavours, the food and lifestyle magazine published by Star Publications (M) Bhd.

Article courtesy of The Star