Malaysian writers make their mark
Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists is one of six novels up for the annual accolade celebrating the best English-language books of the year.
Eng's story chronicles the chance meeting of a young law graduate and the owner of the only Japanese garden in Malaya during the Japanese occupation of the country. In 1951, the Chinese-Malaysian student, a survivor of the Japanese camps during the war, gets the garden's creator, a secretive Japanese man, to accept her as an apprentice. Soon, the surrounding jungle begins to reveal its secrets in a book steeped with history, politics and personal experience.
It has been rare to hear about Malaysian authors, at least in the Western media, and the inclusion of Eng's work on the Booker short list marks a coming-of-age for the country's writers.
Buttressed between Thailand and Indonesia, Malaysia could be considered Southeast Asia's overlooked third sister. A country of roughly 28 million, which gained full independence from Britain in 1963, it's a multi-ethnic stew of Chinese, Malays, Tamils and native peoples.
For years, the only news out of Malaysia was about orangutans, logging in the rainforest and religious fundamentalism.
Its arts culture was rarely in the ether. That is, until 2005 when Tash Aw's The Harmony Silk Factory got posted on long lists for some major prizes including the Booker and the Whitbread. It nabbed the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel - Asia Pacific Region and two years later, it hit the long list of the International Impac Dublin Award.
Aw's second novel, Map of the Invisible World, was also published to acclaim in 2009.
Aw, who studied law at the University of Cambridge in England, now calls London home. He does work for the BBC and also writes short stories.
The author, who grew up in the capital of Kuala Lumpur, told the Malaysian Star in 2005 that he studied law "just in case I failed at writing but writing is exactly what I wanted to do." He eventually completed a creative writing degree at the University of East Anglia.
Malaysian author Tash Aw's 'The Harmony Silk Factory' was longlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
Interesting to note that Aw's first novel and Eng's current book both have storylines that harken to the Second World War and the Japanese occupation and Malaysia's British past. These are key events that have shaped many Malaysians of a certain age and continue to have repercussions in present-day.
Eng's inclusion this year on the Booker list also seems to be part of a wave of internationalist fervor among book juries - selecting works that have international flavour. Canada's Giller Prize long list for 2012 included several novels that took place in other countries including Kim Thuy's Ru which is set in Saigon, Malaysia and Quebec. This year's Booker short list included Narcopolis, set in India's opium dens, by Jeet Thayi.
This is Eng's second run at the Booker. The writer's 2007 novel, The Gift of Rain, was long-listed and was set in Penang in the years before and during the Japanese occupation. It featured a half Chinese, half British teenager and his friendship with a Japanese diplomat.
The Gift of Rain, hailed as a "rich, absorbing epic" by The London Times, was translated in into Romanian, Czech, Serbian, Greek, Spanish and Italian.
'Lost in memory'
On his website, Eng says the Second World War has been lost in memory in Malaysia: "Malaysians are a forgiving - or forgetful - lot. The people who lived through the Japanese Occupation have died or are growing older now, and the younger people actually have very little knowledge of it... Many of my friends in Malaysia told me, after reading [The Gift of Rain], that they hadn't been aware of quite a lot of the events during the war. It's different in the UK and Australia, where the returning veterans have written memoirs and books on the subject."
Also intriguing to note that both writers, in their late 30s now, have law backgrounds. Eng worked as an intellectual property lawyer. Aw has said that he gets annoyed at the stereotypical image of a "wild-eyed novelist."
"Would-be writers are practical and usually work to survive in ordinary jobs," he told the Star newspaper.
"Of course, you get the odd flamboyant writer who's insecure inside and hides it under a grand personality. That's just false confidence and they come across as wankers."
- June Chua
More entries for category: Books
About the Author
Other The Buzz Entries
About the Authors
- 2012 (139)
- November (5)
- South Park takes aim at Lance Armstrong
- The Walking Dead of the publishing world
- FILM REVIEW: The Paperboy
- Canadian ingenuity on YouTube
- FILM REVIEW: Stories We Tell
- FILM REVIEW: Argo
- Sarah Brightman and Chris Hadfield: Musicians in space
- Welcome to my McCartney years
- Rush and the long road to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
- Jack White and the restless folks at Radio City
- Why J.K. Rowling can't lose with The Casual Vacancy
- FILM REVIEW: The Master
- Syrian filmmaker Orwa Nyrabia says thanks after being freed
- TIFF movies that shone the brightest
- Blackbird, Caught in the Web explore risks of online expression
- Malaysian writers make their mark
- Meet the CCMA Rising Star contenders
- 13 buzz films unspooling at TIFF
- 7 films where the bike is king
- Let's hear it for the girls
- FRIDAY FILM BITES: Farewell My Queen, Hit and Run, Killer Joe
- Short and punchy - the brave new world of e-books
- FILM REVIEW: ParaNorman
- FILM REVIEW: The Expendables 2
- Bin Laden, Lincoln films work around U.S. election
- Is Drake planning an Aaliyah album without her family's blessing?
- Cultural Olympiad tries to dovetail with sport
- Maeve Binchy: An appreciation
- Alanis Morissette takes wing in new video Guardian
- FILM REVIEW: The Watch
- FILM REVIEW: Step Up: Revolution
- Twitter experiment celebrates Tom Thomson online
- FILM REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises
- FILM REVIEW: Beasts of the Southern Wild
- 5 unforgettable Rolling Stones gigs
- Cookie Monster covers Call Me, Maybe
- FILM REVIEW: To Rome with Love
- FILM REVIEW: Take This Waltz
- FILM REVIEW: Magic Mike
- Muse joins Olympics song canon
- Nora Ephron: a laugh at life's curveballs
- The cure for Game of Thrones withdrawal
- FILM REVIEW: Brave
- Rockstar Hotel bangs to '80s beat in Toronto
- FILM REVIEW: Rock of Ages
- Dallas returns to high expectations from viewers
- Bonnaroo: a musical education
- Tweeting Tom Thomson
- Madonna's cheeky Born This Way poke at Lady Gaga
- FILM REVIEW: Men in Black 3
- Queen Victoria's journals go online
- Whitney Houston's final song Celebrate debuts
- FILM REVIEW: The Dictator vs Bernie
- The trouble with Mrs. Eastwood and Company
- Young cancer patients enchant with Stronger lip dub
- FILM REVIEW: Dark Shadows
- Memories of Maurice Sendak's Really Rosie
- FILM REVIEWS: The Raven, The Five-Year Engagement
- Cirque's Amaluna needs a little more polish
- 5 Hot Docs films to whet your appetite
- Lindsay Lohan hitches star to Liz Taylor biopic
- FILM REVIEWS: The Lucky One, Damsels in Distress, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope
- Reaction to Pulitzer's fiction snub
- Breakfast with Coachella
- Phish answers the call for 'more cowbell'
- FILM REVIEWS: The Three Stooges, The Raid: Redemption
- The Hunger Games on the hunt for new director
- FABLE FIGHT: Mirror Mirror vs. Wrath of the Titans
- Hot in Cleveland heads to Ontario
- Jessica Paré turns chanteuse for Mad Men
- FILM REVIEW: Footnote
- FILM REVIEW: The Hunger Games
- Navigating Canadian Music Week: Day 1
- Inside Ai Weiwei's world
- Sugar Shack cuisine from Quebec's Martin Picard
- Bill Roache on Corrie Street and the great beyond
- FILM REVIEW: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey
- 5 memorable Oscar moments
- What not to do with an Oscar
- Assessing Oscar's actress and supporting actress races
- Couch potatoes triumph with Simpsons marathon
- Glee's 'unintentional' tribute to Whitney Houston
- The long shadow over Chris Brown's Grammy win
- Romance onscreen for Valentine's Day
- Spider-Man trailer: fresh take or more of the same?
- FILM REVIEW: The Woman in Black
- FILM REVIEW: Miss Bala
- Jack White goes solo
- Set course for Calgary, host of ST: TNG reunion
- FILM REVIEWS: Man on a Ledge, One for the Money, The Grey
- A first listen of Leonard Cohen's Old Ideas
- FILM REVIEW: Haywire and Red Tails
- FILM REVIEW: A Separation
- The Artist's silence isn't golden for some moviegoers
- Hello. Are these the films you're looking for?
- FILM REVIEWS | Contraband, Beauty and the Beast 3D and Pariah
- FILM REVIEW: A Dangerous Method