People with My Kind of Upbringing Were Not Destined to Be Writers
Tash Aw on writing about the working class in Malaysia and feeling like an outsider at a literary party
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
With his latest novel We, the Survivors, acclaimed writer Tash Aw draws us into the life of Ah Hock, a working-class Malaysian whose struggles to rise beyond his circumstances eventually culminate in the accidental murder of a migrant worker.
Ah Hock wants only what any of us want: A better, more secure life, free from the spectres of poverty and indignity. Aw paints a devastating picture of a man who seems to make headway clawing a path out of his small fishing village, only to meet with insurmountable roadblocks stemming from his class and level of education. I have grown up knowing Ah Hocks in my life; the familiarity made me flinch. Aw’s portrait is clear-eyed and intimate, and the whydunit is a skillful demonstration of how to develop narrative tension while pitting a character against something so abstract as the norms of society.
In the first part of my two-part interview with Tash Aw, I spoke to him about the fallacy of the Asian Dream, the different forms of marginalization of migrant workers and ethnic minorities in Malaysia, and feeling like an outsider at literary parties. (Translations below are mine.)
YZ Chin: We, the Survivors plays with authorship and the trope of “story within a story” in interesting ways. In the novel, Ah Hock feels compelled against his intentions to lay out brutal details of his life, and yet he is also deeply convinced that his story is uninteresting and unimportant. Instead, his interviewer Su-Min is the one who takes Ah Hock’s words and turns them into a book for wider consumption. And all of this is framed within your novel, which is itself fiction, of course.
How did you settle on this structure, and what does it represent for you?
Tash Aw: I didn’t set out to play with intricate structures in any way. I felt I’d already done that in my previous novels, so this time I wanted something more direct—a narrative thread that would reflect the gravity and urgency of Ah Hock’s story. I wanted it, simply, to be the story of one person’s life, with all the tragedies and joyousness it involved. But as soon as I had scribbled the first few pages, I knew that the novel had to be more layered, that it required an overarching presence that would mirror my own relationship with the novel’s themes.
The novel is a portrait of someone whom the entire world would consider ordinary; but it is also many other things: the story of an immigrant; a study of class, of privilege and deprivation, and what we sacrifice in order to survive in the modern world. I am part of all these narratives, and because of my family background—like so many Southeast Asians, split between rural hardship and urban aspiration—I found myself questioning on which side of the writer-subject divide I lay. My life now couldn’t be more different from my childhood. I wasn’t so great at school but I got lucky and went to university. Higher education changed me, allowed me access to middle-class jobs and an entirely different way of living from that of my parents and grandparents. My trajectory seemed entirely natural for Asians of my generation, the first that dared to expect that life would be comfortable.
And yet, despite decades of Asian growth, it’s now clear that I belong to the minority. I have relatives who still struggle in jobs in factories or who run small shops in dying rural communities. The reality is that the Asian Dream—this idea that all we have to do is work hard and life will be glorious—has not come true for everyone. For most people, like Ah Hock, surviving this ruthless system requires internalizing a whole lot of suffering; it requires normalizing harshness and exclusion. It requires, above all, the acceptance of inequality.
So what happens when, as a writer, you find yourself living a privileged life because of your education, but excluded because of your race, and parts of your own family are still anchored in that other, unprivileged, part of society? Many middle-class people I know in Malaysia and elsewhere know what it’s like to have dual or multiple identities. We might experience exclusion due to gender, race, sexuality and numerous other issues. But the fact is that we are mostly educated, and that changes things. We have choices.
Su-Min and Ah Hock represent two parts of society—I think, in some ways, they are two parts of myself. I wanted the novel to question the idea of Voice and Story. When we talk of one person’s voice, one person’s story, we are really talking about stories that are enmeshed with others, lives that are entwined inextricably. So the novel’s structure is a conversation between people who have found themselves on opposing sides of the chasm that has emerged in modern Asian society, and yet find themselves tangled in the same story.
YZC: Your previous novels feature either chapters told in alternating voices, or else sections that closely follow different characters. I may be projecting here, but I think minority writers who are used to code-switching more readily reach for the device of alternating voices. But We, the Survivors is a departure, told entirely from Ah Hock’s viewpoint. Why did you choose to leave out Su-Min’s direct narrative voice?
TA: I wanted to explore the idea of who controls the narrative when writing about class and society, whose is the dominant voice—in short, whose story it really is. The novel is meant to be entirely about Ah Hock—a portrait of the life of a working-class man. Coming from a family so strongly anchored in Ah Hock’s circumstances, I wanted to provide an existence to people like him—honest, flawed, complex people struggling to get by—who make up the majority of the population in any country, but are never given any visibility in literature, which, even more than most art forms, I think, is dominated by the educated middle-class.
But the reality is that Ah Hock does not have the tools or the connections to write and publish his own story. He has the intelligence and the sensitivity, but the vocabulary, the prose, the structure—that belongs to Su-Min. Ah Hock doesn’t know any publishers; she does. She is entirely well-meaning, and steps out of the story in order to make it entirely his. She makes this point several times. But is she actually able to do it? She listens, she transcribes—she decides what to record, and how to record it. In that way, even though her voice isn’t directly heard, she controls the narrative. All of Ah Hock’s story is filtered through her. Her presence is everywhere, and we always sense it.
YZC: Various characters in the book have very different attitudes toward the migrant workers who have come to Malaysia in vast numbers over the last two or three decades, generally to work in the lowest-paid jobs. Keong sees them as raw materials, barely human. Ah Hock witnesses their suffering and seems affected by it, although he also senses a great gulf between them. Meanwhile, Su-Min breaks up with her girlfriend in part because of the girlfriend’s prejudiced view of migrants as criminals. Presumably all these characters are themselves descendants of migrants to Malaysia.
Why do you think there is such a wide range of attitudes among these descendants of migrants?
TA: I think it has something to do with how these descendents of migrants have themselves experienced different levels of discrimination—principally because of their race and class, but also because they are women, or gay. All the people you mention have been part of a system of exclusion, whether they acknowledge it or not, and most of them have internalized this to such a great degree that they reproduce this way of thinking when confronted by other, more recent, migrants. This is a phenomenon I find quite often within immigrant communities all over the world–this instinctive urge to align themselves with the dominant social classes by marginalizing newer immigrants, inflicting on others what has been, and continues to be, inflicted on them. Excluding someone else gives you the sensation of belonging; it gives you a sense of power.
Class and material considerations exacerbate this, and not in the way you might expect. In my experience, middle-class people in Asia tend to be less sympathetic to recent migrant workers than working-class ones. People like Keong, who are no longer poor, haven’t been middle-class for long enough to feel secure. Their position in society’s so-called comfortable classes is fragile, so they see everyone below them on the social scale as a threat to their own hard-fought existence. Ah Hock actually works with Bangladeshi and Indonesian migrants but nonetheless there is a huge gulf between them, and they remain entirely foreign to him.
Education can change your political viewpoint, and Su-Min cares deeply about the issues surrounding migrant workers in Malaysia today. But she doesn’t actually know any of them personally either. How could she? In contemporary societies, we want migrants to remain foreign, and the novel reproduces this effect of deliberate unknowing. The irony here is of course that this distancing is being carried out by immigrants themselves.
All throughout my childhood, as soon as I was aware of the phrase “Balik Tongsan” [“Go back to China”], I was troubled by the similarities between my position in Malaysian society and that of the Indonesian workers who were already present in Malaysia (soon to be followed by the Burmese, Nepalese, and Bangladeshi). After 150 years in Malaysia, ethnic Chinese people are still called “pendatang” [a derogatory term marking ethnic minorities as “immigrants” and outsiders] and, more recently, even “Penumpang” [literally ‘passengers;’ ‘freeloaders’ by implication]. If we should go back to China, we’re not different from the so-called temporary migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar.
YZC: I’ve interpreted the title as by turns ironic, grimly confessional (we survive; they do not), or simply resigned (surviving versus thriving). What do you think? Who is included in the “We?”
TA: “We” is precisely that: it is all of us. It’s Ah Hock and Su-Min, of course, but it’s also us, the readers, who participate in this fierce and often troubled dialogue. I wanted to implicate the reader, just as I felt personally implicated in the story of Ah Hock; I wanted to create a feeling that we are all enmeshed in this sticky story of life, which for the last few years seems to have become a grim story of survival.
People everywhere in the world, even those who should, on paper, be comfortable, are struggling—struggling to make ends meet, struggling to hang on to a sense of optimism, for themselves and their children. That intense feeling of thriving in one’s life—which I believe comes from a sense of equality—seems to have disappeared. In Malaysia, we believed that the free market economy would benefit everyone, and that life’s upward trajectory would be endless, but now we are surviving rather than flourishing.
You’re right to point out that it also refers to a literal life-and-death equation. Ah Hock, despite the hardships that fill his life, survives prison; the Bangladeshi, Nepalese and Indonesian workers around him are not so lucky. For Su-Min, things are easier in a material sense, but people of her generation are facing incredible emotional and moral pressures that people 20 years older have not had to confront so starkly—the fact that she is a woman in a deeply conservative, patriarchal society, for example, or the intensely divisive nature of politics, whose presence is inescapable. You know what things are like in Malaysia; you’re either pro-BN [Barisan Nasional / National Front, the nationalist political coalition that ruled Malaysia for six decades until 2018] or pro-PH [Pakatan Harapan / Alliance of Hope, staunch BN opposition that pulled off a shock victory in 2018 elections], and everyone you know has to declare which side of the fence they are on. It’s the same elsewhere. Democrat or Republican. Brexit or Remain. Sometimes these tensions are so great that they create a state of suspended animation in which we fight to keep things from degenerating too far—a social and mental stasis where we survive without advancing.
YZC: You said that Ah Hock and Su-Min represent two parts of your own story. In the novel there seems no possibility of reconciliation for these parts. The two characters have vastly different opinions and expectations towards life. At the end of the book, Su-Min makes a joke about marrying Ah Hock, which comes across as so ridiculous of an idea that both of them laugh. How do you approach reconciling these two parts of your story, if you do?
TA: I think the reason Su-Min and Ah Hock laugh at the idea of reconciling their differences through an act as obvious as marriage is because I often feel that there’s something surreal about the two parts of my life: on the one hand the person whose work involves the extraordinary privilege of writing novels; and on the other, the person anchored in a Chinese-Malaysian identity and all the discrimination built into that identity, shaped by a crushingly ordinary suburban upbringing, education in the local government school, with many of my family still living in small rural towns. People with my kind of upbringing were not destined to be writers. There was no one I could look to, remotely close to my family, to whom I could look at and say, Maybe one day I’ll be like them. It just didn’t enter my thinking. If I’d become a math teacher at the local school, that would have been a decent job for me; becoming an accountant or lawyer would have been hugely impressive and desirable, but to become a novelist was about as likely as becoming an astronaut.
I think a lot about what it means to reinvent oneself, to experience such social change that you are no longer the same person. Higher education changed me fundamentally: my tastes, my view of the world, the way I speak and think—all these are dramatically different from what they were even in my late teens. I can measure this change every single time I speak to my parents, or my relatives who live in the countryside. I grew up with my cousins; we were identical in every respect, but now there is a huge gulf. The French writers Didier Eribon and Édouard Louis write very powerfully about what it means to be a “class transfuge,” someone who undergoes a dramatic shift in mannerisms and taste and one’s very way of thinking, triggered by education and sexuality and, often, exclusion in some way or another.
I think this experience is even more acute among immigrants. We need to change ourselves radically, to become different people simply in order to fit in. With all immigrant parents, the surest way to gain acceptance and security in society is to push their children to achieve a higher level of education than they themselves had, but this creates an instant gulf between them. The more their children achieve what the parents wish for them, the greater the schism. When I first read Alice Walker’s description of how, after just one year at college, she felt a huge distance between her and her father, I cried for hours. Her words spoke to the deep sadness that I felt at no longer being able to communicate fully with my parents. I realized that the price of education and so-called success is a loss of intimacy.
And yet, that part of me that is anchored in small-town Malaysia refuses to go away. I see it clearly in my weakness for certain kinds of unhealthy food and music, like the syrupy Cantonese songs that lend themselves to karaoke – all the things that more cultured people consider cheap and vulgar. Sometimes, I’ll be sitting on stage at a literary festival in some far-flung and—to me—exotic place, like Norway or New Zealand, and suddenly I’ll be filled with a vague panic, as if I’m not meant to be there. I’ll look at the audience and part of me is convinced that they can’t really be there to listen to me. Nothing makes me feel more of an outsider than a literary party. Last time I was in London, I went to a fancy event thrown by a literary magazine in an art gallery—the kind of do where everyone seems to know everyone. Waiters were coming round with canapés and glasses of wine, and the partygoers were taking them off the trays without breaking their conversations—that is to say, without speaking to the serving staff. There were a lot of people of color among the waiters, including one or two who looked East Asian, and suddenly I was seized by a feeling that I was on the wrong side of the fence—that I had somehow ended up by mistake as a guest, instead of serving the food. In those instances I feel pulled apart. I feel two distinct parts of me tugging in different directions in an almost physical way.