Tash Aw on the dark side of the modern Asian dream
This interview was originally broadcast in 2019.
A senseless act of violence becomes part of a much larger story in Tash Aw's novel, We, the Survivors. An ordinary, uneducated man, raised in poverty in rural Malaysia, tells a harrowing and sadly familiar tale of aspiration and struggle, leading to the murder of a migrant worker. Both the character and the author ask, why?
Born in Taipei and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Aw grew up with a foot in two worlds — a privileged, urban life in the Malaysian capital and summers spent in the countryside with his extended family. He draws on that experience in his prize-winning fiction, including his earlier novels, The Harmony Silk Factory, Map of the Invisible World and Five Star Billionaire.
He spoke to Eleanor Wachtel onstage at the Vancouver Writers Festival in October 2019.
A lifetime of violence
"It's not a spoiler — because it's revealed at the very start of the book — that Ah Hock, the protagonist of the book, is forced into a series of bad decisions and ends up killing a Bangladeshi migrant worker. A lot of readers in Malaysia are divided as to whether or not it was a deliberate act or if it was just a senseless act of violence that had no explanation.
"The book is a quest to understand why he did it. When I was writing it, I had no idea whether I wanted the book to provide all the answers or there was actually no answer. That's why the book becomes a portrait of his entire life. I'd like the reader to decide whether it was due to a tiny shift in the way he thought or whether it's due to the fact that he's lived his entire life under a ruthless and brutal social structure that has given him very little choice.
"All his life has been funnelled toward this one moment of violence. He doesn't really know at the moment that he committed the act. I don't think there's one event or one thing that triggered it. It all seems like a series of coincidences, but is the end product of a whole lifetime of violence."
A lot of readers in Malaysia are divided as to whether or not it was a deliberate act or if it was just a senseless act of violence that had no explanation.- Tash Aw
Life in Kuala Lumpur
"My most vivid and early memories growing up in Kuala Lumpur come in two separate chunks. The first chunk was when I was very small, about six or seven.
"At that age, one remembers the idyll. One remembers all the things that people everywhere in the world attach to their childhood — the space, the contact with nature and the closeness of a large family. When I went to stay with my relatives it was always with my grandparents. It was a large Chinese family and I had a lot of cousins who were around my age. We went fishing. We went walking in the jungle. We had all these things that, as a city boy, I felt were exotic and freeing.
"The second part of those recollections comes in a chunk that involves much greater anxiety. That takes place in my teens. I am no longer at ease in the country and this is due to the fact that I am now in secondary school in the city. I am now receiving an education and I'm being exposed to different cultural references.
"I'm being exposed to books, to films, to all kinds of things that my cousins in the countryside don't have access to. And I can feel my thought processes changing, my vocabulary changing and the slang I use changing. So I felt this divide growing between me and my family. That divide made me feel more and more uncomfortable as I grew up."
A fractured world
"I realized what I was trying to do with the book was portray the life of one of my cousins or one of the many boys I went to school with. They were boys who didn't really have the breaks that I did and were forced into a series of bad decisions as Ah Hock was.
"Then I realized that I was actually part of this story, which was the guy that actually managed to escape the system. Malaysia — and actually most of Southeast Asia and most of the world — has become very fractured. We've become divided between the people who have and the people who don't.
"So this book is about the two parts of me that are still anchored in that Kuala Lumpur village. The part of me that my parents wanted to be anchored in that village and the part of me that got out. That part now represents the shiny new Asia that people talk about in highly clichéd ways. I wanted the book to be a dialogue between these two parts of me. I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about it."
Malaysia — and actually most of Southeast Asia and most of the world — has become very fractured. We've become divided between the people who have and the people who don't.- Tash Aw
Tash Aw's comments have been edited for length and clarity.