As the world grapples with a pandemic that no nation seems capable of defeating, writer Tan Twan Eng, whose past two books have looked at how the Japanese occupation affected society, reflects upon how this global catastrophe is affecting us.

Tan Twan Eng
Photography by Tommi Chu /Blink Studio

“It’s brought up to me again how difficult times bring out not just the best qualities in many people but also the worst in others,” he reflects. Currently, in Cape Town, Tan contemplates, “It makes me wonder if people were also like this during other cataclysmic moments in history. For example, the First and Second World Wars.”

One supposes that this global phenomenon will in some way influence his writing. It hasn’t or perhaps, he hasn’t noticed it “infiltrating his writing yet.” But more importantly, he feels that his experience isn’t necessarily something that readers want to read about.

“I was asked to contribute an essay about my experience during this pandemic to a literary journal but I declined,” he says. “I told the editor that nearly everyone in the world is going through this, and unless your experience of it is so challenging or traumatic or unusual, I don’t want to read about it, much less inflict my own experience on readers.”

The last statement captures Tan’s perspective on what constitutes good writing. In a previous interview with August Man Malaysia, he described “wasting the reader’s time” as a “cardinal sin.” At the time of the interview Tan was in Malaysia for the premiere of the film adaptation of The Garden of Evening Mists. Following the release of the film, Malaysia began reacquainting themselves with the writer. He is currently working on his third book.

“I was told the first was going to be the hardest to write,” he also said in the previous interview. Now, that a film adaptation adds to a list of awards received for his previous two novels, the pressure must be great for the third. But that, he says, is just part of the process.

“Even without the awards and the film adaptation, the pressure has always been there, dogging every word I write” he admits. “You want to make each book a stronger one than the previous ones and as a write you’re evolving as well. The style and your interests are going to change. Your ideas also change as you age.”

The Garden of Evening Mists which was published in 2011 made it to the shortlist for the Booker Prize in 2012. The following year, it won the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical fiction. His first novel The Gift of Rain released in 2007 was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Set in Penang, amidst the backdrop of the turbulent World War II. At the time, Tan was doing his masters in Cape Town. It was at this time that a story which in his words had been “simmering in my mind’s cauldron” started to manifest.

“Ever since I was young I wanted to write a book set in Penang, a paean to the island where I was born, before it lost the elements that make it special: the old buildings, the languid pace of life,” he says, adding that, “Penang today is overdeveloped, congested, and there are just too many mass tourists. I despair that Penang is in peril of turning into Venice.”

His third book, which is currently being written, will likely follow the theme of its predecessors. While it may appear that it is the events surrounding the Japanese Occupation that are the focal point of his novels, it is actually what is remembered about those events that intrigue him.

“The themes will again revolve around, among other things, the workings of memory: how we remember, how we forget and how stories are created,” he says. “It’s how I view the great sweep of history as well.”

It is not so much about what has been recorded, he adds, but rather what has not. While the Japanese Occupation caused great calamity to the country, Tan reminds that it also showed that an Asian country could defeat a powerful European colonial power.

He draws some parallels of what Malaysians must have experienced with that of the protagonist of The Garden of Evening Mists. She suffered from aphasia, he explains, a condition in which she loses her ability to understand language – aural and vocal.

“What Malayans experienced during the Japanese Occupation was also a form of aphasia, a national one. They woke up one day and everything in their world had to be conducted in a foreign, incomprehensible language: road signs, documents, names. Failure to understand what was shouted to you could mean punishment, torture or death.”

As is often recounted by those who lived during the occupation, the period left considerable scars on our national psyche. Despite this, Tan believes that Malaysians are remarkably forgiving. He recalls an incident a couple of years ago while sitting in a pew at St. George’s Church in Penang.

“One of the church members was giving a Japanese couple a tour of

the building. She described to them how the building had been bombed by Japanese planes. The Japanese couple were discomfited. ‘Very sorry,’ the man said stiffly. ‘War… very bad. Very sorry.’ The guide smiled and said, ‘It’s okay, never mind – all forgiven and forgotten.’ Sitting there and listening to them, I thought her philosophical acceptance was the right stance – yes, we should forgive, but we mustn’t forget either.”

It is because of this that Tan says it is essential to know history. Now, more than ever, he stresses. The narrative these days is dominated by leaders, opinion-makers and politicians who are attempting to rewrite history to serve their own agenda. “History is being warped in order to get us all riled up, to sway us and blow us down the path they want us to take,” he says.

Quoting L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between which opens with the sentence, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently here,” Tan stresses the importance of knowing how different.

“We must have knowledge of history so we can distinguish what is true and what is a lie. If you don’t want to be just another sheep among the flock, start by understanding the past.”

To achieve this, he stresses that one should read more, particularly fiction. Media too, he believes, plays a role in facilitating this by devoting more space to literary matters by making books a more visible part of life.

Thankfully, in recent years there has been a bit of a shift of printed materials with physical books staging a comeback. In the UK, for example, publishers have made a greater effort to make their books look enticing which has led to a greater demand for books.

Perhaps confirming to the stereotypes of literary figures, the writer is not a fan of e-books. Though he does have a Kindle “packed away somewhere”, he retired it a while back.

“I found it difficult to retain in my memory what I’ve read,” he says. And naturally, he is of the opinion that books are an integral part of a house. “I like having walls of books in a room, which you can’t have with e-books. Unless there are books in it, a house just doesn’t feel like a proper home, no matter how palatial it is.”

Tan Twan Eng
Photography by Tommi Chu /Blink Studio

What is your view on the current culture of writing? There seems to be greater interest but perhaps they don’t conform to the rules of traditional writing?

There seems to be a lot of noise and static surrounding the culture of writing, and very often it’s very divisive. I make an effort to remove myself away from all that, and just focus on my writing. It’s easier said than done, I concede. A lot of writing these days is very smooth, very polished, due in a large part to so many writers being pumped out from creative writing programmes. But perhaps it is also too polished. The older I get, the more I miss the gritty texture of the old-school writers, writers who had lived life, who had choked down its bitterness but also bathed in its sweetness.

Through your research, what have you discovered about Malaya?
We have a treasure trove of stories waiting to be discovered. And we were once so much more easy-going with one another, we didn’t give and take umbrage so easily. There was a stronger feeling of muhibbah, I think. We were gentler to one another.

Has the current pandemic altered your world view and has this affected your writing and the things you want to write about?
In the past few months I’m aware again of strong and interesting stories from a book I’m reading. I have less patience with overtly literary novels which are literary merely for its own sake. It’s the same with my writing – I plunge into the story each day, delighted to lock myself away in another time and place for a few hours

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