Singing the diaspora (remixed)

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This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

Looking in, looking out — not an easy position. But writer Tash Aw has been doing it from England for 15 years. In 2005, his book, The Harmony Silk Factory, picked up the Whitbread Award for first novel. Unkind critics said the novel was in hot pursuit of Joseph Conrad through the Malaysian jungle, and kinder ones, that it was crisp and promising.

Hyphenated identities certainly get pulled in all directions. “Chinese ethnicity, Malaysian nationality, British residency” is how Tash describes himself. “I’m Malaysian but the Chinese heritage gives me a viewpoint — that of an outsider.” But it
leaves one with more questions than answers.

It doesn’t help that his book does the same. Various people all through the novel try to find out who Johnny Lim, gangster tycoon and the central character of The Harmony Silk Factory really is. So do they? No. And that’s the least of the problems. The book’s stumbling block is its core. At its heart is the same old cliché of the inscrutable East that the writer seems to have peddled and criticised at the same time.

“How would you know what her self is?” [says Johnny to Wormwood speaking of his wife Snow] and with that he turned to his silence …There was nothing I could do but sing…Drink to me only with thine eyes.”

Tash, however, explains the moral ambiguity, first of Johnny and then in the book’s structure. Johnny, he says, is “representative of Asian tycoons who are amazing self-publicists but either speak too little or too much about their pasts”. This silence Tash ties to the lack of an archive culture. “Because a lot of our recorded history is colonial history, there’s a shame associated with it. This is particularly so of personal history.”

The Englishman, Wormwood, however, is a different kettle of fish. He, says Tash, has access to both points of view. “Peter completely misunderstands Johnny and vice versa.”

And what is Snow’s stand? Snow loves all of them, says the writer. She is not a helpless victim, she has various love interests. “There’s this view in the West that our women are benign, sexually available creatures…Mothers make samosas…I wanted to show that beneath all that they are people with real ambition and can be controlling,” says Tash.
The misunderstandings, the unresolved questions, are also, in a sense Tash Aw’s ‘revenge’. “I did want to caricaturise,” he admits, “yes, a small part of me did, even though I wish I hadn’t.”

“Having grown up in Malaysia I am linked, culturally, that is, to China. Big countries like China and India can stand by itself, but Malaysia is always aware of other countries. We have a stronger sense of neighbourhood… Conrad wrote about Malaysia from the position of an outsider. I’m not foreign. That’s a big difference.”

Not everything about Malaysia pleases him though. “We have such terrible ads in our country like ‘Malaysia is truly Asia’,” says Tash flinching. “It’s away from the city that Malaysia actually lives.”

A place like Kinta Valley, for instance, where his novel is located. “It’s where my grandparents live. The big element of Malay rural tradition is the ghost story. In Snow’s section, the landscape is very threatening and heightened,” he points out.

His second novel, Map of the Invisible World, tells the story of two orphan brothers and will be out in May. The sale of his first manuscript has reportedly fetched him a million pounds. That should make his parents, who still live in Malaysia, proud.

“You know what Asian parents are,” he says. I do. “‘My son Tash Aw is doing very well, you have a girl for him?’ They must be telling the neighbours…” I tell him completing the picture. The writer smiles and doesn’t reply.
There goes another question unanswered.

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