Why Aren’t White Writers Asked About Authenticity?
Tash Aw on the challenges of being a English writer from outside the Western world
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I cannot describe interviewing Tash Aw as a dream come true. This is because I did not ever imagine the possibility of interviewing Tash Aw. During the many years that I was an aspiring Malaysian writer, I followed Aw’s career spanning three novels and a slim memoir, always thrilled by his reinvention of styles with each successive book. His novels, whether set in Malaysia, Indonesia, or China, all attempt something new while maintaining cores of empathy for our common foibles.
Aw’s celebrated debut novel The Harmony Silk Factory came out not long after I published my first short story. I remember having questions when I read the book, questions that I tossed off into the void as unanswerable. Years later, I find myself squinting to retrieve them for this interview. How does one thrive as a writer in English while living far from the publishing hubs of New York and London? What does it mean to write precisely for those who might never read our words?
I thought I had moved past these questions, but now I know that they had only been pushed to the back of my mind, waiting. Something lifted when I shared these questions with Tash Aw.
In the second part of my interview with Tash Aw, we talked about being writers of outsiders, who gets to be a “real Malaysian,” and the questions that aren’t asked of white novelists. Translations below are mine. Read part one of the interview here.
YZ Chin: You’ve said that you felt to become a novelist was about as likely as becoming an astronaut. What was the impetus and process of internal transformation like, for you to eventually pursue the career of a novelist? Many writers, when asked, will say they have “always known” they wanted to write. I’m curious about other paths to authorship.
Tash Aw: I hear that too—usually from established writers—and wonder if it isn’t their way of glossing over the uncertainties of the path to authorship and claiming a sort of genius, or at least a talent so raw and powerful that it left them incapable of being anything other than a writer. Knowing that you want to write isn’t the same thing as knowing that you will be writing ten or twenty years later. But I guess there is at least that knowledge of what it means to write. To have the desire to write requires the existence of role models who inspire those ambitions, who show you that it’s possible to make writing a part of your life—a part of normal, regular life.
When I came to university in England I suddenly met people—other students—who were “going to be writers.” That’s what they said when I asked what they thought of doing after college. Then I found out that their parents were writers or editors themselves, or at least academics, or artists. They knew how Flaubert and Virginia Woolf had lived, they’d been given Chekhov’s journals as Christmas presents when they were sixteen by parents who wrote art monographs for a living. They had a writer’s life laid out for them—a particular kind of writer’s life. I’d been writing stories secretly, for no other reason than simply to describe to myself the world I came from, which existed so marginally that it didn’t seem to have a literary life at all. On hearing these students speak, I knew that I wasn’t going to be a writer in the same model. I was going to have to figure it all out myself, work out how to be a writer from outside the world they lived in, with my own set of priorities and rules for living.
YZC: When my first ever story was published, I excitedly showed it to my parents. They read it and told me they didn’t “get it.” I have been haunted by that ever since, the idea that who I write for does not include my immediate family. If it’s not too personal a question, does your family read your books? How do you feel about that either way?
TA: I know how that must have felt for you—it’s such an unsettling experience to discover the disconnect between how you feel about your work as a writer, and how your closest family see it. And it’s not just your family—it’s your closest friends from school, the wider community. It’s a question that writers who don’t come from long bourgeois traditions have to deal with: how to write for and about people who might never read your work.
The truth is that I don’t really know whether my parents have read my books–we certainly haven’t had any meaningful conversations about them. My sisters have absolutely read everything I’ve written, but that’s not a surprise, given that they have the same kind of educational background as I do and are on my wavelength. But I’m still not sure about my parents–I think my father has, but I’m fairly certain my mother hasn’t attempted the novels. They’re long books, and for people who are not used to reading 300-plus pages, it’s not easy, particularly in a language that isn’t their mother tongue; so I’ve never made an issue of my writing, never put any pressure on them to read. But, as you say, we are Asian writers, and Asian children, exploring the world we live in. And that world involves our parents.
One of the main reasons I wanted to write Strangers on a Pier, which is only 12,000 words long and makes a very short book, is that I wanted to make my writing accessible to those closest to me, whose lives inform every sentence I have ever written, but who would be intimidated by a long novel. I wanted to write something that was very obviously about them, addressed to them, in terms that would be as familiar to them as to someone who lived in Ang Mo Kio [in Singapore] or Balik Pulau [in Penang, Malaysia] or Park Slope [in Brooklyn, New York]. The physical size of that book was therefore crucial.
I told my parents it was about them, and that it was short, and maybe they should read it. I’d never done that before, and didn’t have any expectations. Eventually my mother rang me and said she’d read it, said she’d liked it, but that I got one detail wrong: when I said that my grandfather had arrived in Malaysia on his own, that was not true. He hadn’t been on his own, he’d been with another boy from his village in Fujian province. My mother knew this because, one day when she was still a child, the family received a call from Tanjung Rambutan, the local psychiatric hospital. There was a man, the hospital said, who was totally lost. No family, no home. The only name he had, the only person he knew, was my grandfather. My grandmother said, no way, don’t let that man into the house, he will bring bad luck. But my grandfather insisted, said he had no choice; so the man came, moped around the house silently for a few days. Then he drowned himself in the river, just thirty yards away.
I asked my mother why she had never told me this story. The whole of Strangers on a Pier is about the silences that exist within and shape the identity of families, especially immigrant families. Asian families. Our family. ‘Aiya,’ she said, briefly, before ringing off. ‘Such a boring story.’
Once I got over the initial feeling of being dumbfounded, I understood that it was her way–that very oblique, old-fashioned Asian way that I’m sure you know all too well—of saying to me that she cared about my work, that she knew it was important to me, that she was touched by it; but, also, that she would never fully be part of it. Her priorities were too different from mine; all her life she had fought to achieve different things: a sense of self, of being a strong-minded woman in a time and a society that didn’t encourage that identity; to protect and raise her children with the limited resources available to her. In the moments after I hung up the telephone, I thought about the gulf between our respective experiences. Her struggles were real. She had been living them, consumed by them; I was only describing them.
When you write about the people who are your own, who live outside the circles of middle-class dominance and who are therefore invisible in literature, you think that your work is the most important thing to them, since it’s the most important thing for you. But the truth is that they are too busy fighting the battles they have always fought to pay much attention to what you are doing. Your role and mine—that of the writer of outsiders—is just our way of continuing those struggles.
YZC: There’s a lot of bold imagination and drama injected into the characters’ narratives in your first novel The Harmony Silk Factory, whereas in your latest, We, The Survivors, the character’s story feels stripped down, consisting mostly of evocative everyday minutiae.
Do you think the role of storytelling differs for different social classes? Or has your thinking about that role changed over time?
TA: I see both the flamboyant storytelling of The Harmony Silk Factory and the stripped down portrait of Ah Hock’s life in We, The Survivors as part of the way Asia sees itself — the way we are trying to create modern narratives about ourselves in a rapidly changing world. For all the decades since the Second World War and the beginning of the end of colonization, we’ve fought to define our political and cultural identity, and that has required us to fashion new ideas about our histories, which in turn determine how we envisage our future.
In The Harmony Silk Factory, the characters are all engaged in myth-making on a monumental scale. It’s the only way they can deal with personal tragedy; with sacrifice; with loss; with emotional trauma; with having made terrible choices that they knew, even at the time, were mistakes. They made choices—in love, in work, in friendships—that they knew they would regret later, and yet they did so because it seemed like the only way they could survive in a confusing, chaotic world. Later, they had to invent stories about themselves in order to make everything seem stable and acceptable in their lives. In that way, they did exactly the same thing that Malaysia and Singapore and most other countries in Southeast Asia did on a national level.
The narratives that the characters in The Harmony Silk Factory created for themselves are based on the same, simple story that drives all of contemporary Asia: once we were poor, but now we are rich. Times were hard, now they are good. Now we can match the West in every way; in fact we are superior to the West. We believe in the hubris of modern Asia. My problem with this narrative is that it denies the complexity of our stories, pushes out the deeply troubling ways in which we have had to silence our fears, sacrifice rich human emotions and all kinds of social justice in order to fit into this smooth story of success. With that novel, I wanted to burrow underneath that shiny surface and talk about all that we gave up in order to become a modern, middle-class country.
But now we have reached a situation where it’s very hard to believe in this simplistic trajectory of growth and social mobility. “If you just keep your head down and work hard, things will turn out ok, you can achieve anything you want.” People like Ah Hock–incredibly hard-working, naturally intelligent, sensitive, with a high tolerance of suffering–can strive as much as they want, but they will never enjoy the same lifestyle as the urban middle-classes because they don’t enjoy the same education, the same parental support, the same conditions that help them find a stable job. I wanted to question this idea of agency in Asia, this belief that you can change your life simply because you want to. It’s a way of thinking that places the blame squarely on the individual if she or he is poor or deprived. I hear affluent people in town saying all the time: Well, what do you expect, if she’d worked harder at school, she wouldn’t be a shampoo girl/waitress/gas station attendant. We deny collective responsibility, deny the fact that social factors weigh heavily on our lives. But people are starting to realize that we live in an unequal society, and no matter how much personal will you have, things might be stacked against you.
YZC: Your new novel addresses some themes from your previous nonfiction book Strangers on a Pier, such as Asia’s stigmatization of poverty as personal shortcoming, and certain immigrants and their descendents’ tendency to accept hardship as a given. What are some differences for you between exploring a subject in fiction versus in nonfiction?
TA: They are part of the same conversation for me—I see them as complementary ways of exploring ideas that are important to me. I wrote Strangers on a Pier fairly quickly, because I wanted to address something in a rapid, direct fashion. It was about the immigrant family through the lens of my own family, and I don’t have to explain to you how difficult it is to confront stories of a Chinese-Malaysian family, shielded by the silence of parents in their late 70’s who are hugely resistant to the idea of talking about themselves. I felt I had to write about that distance between me and them, the same distance that exists in virtually every immigrant family I know in virtually every country I know. Nonfiction seemed a quicker way of dealing with these sensitive questions—I wanted to write it before I lost my nerve. Talking about things like mental health and poverty within the family experience–which don’t seem unusual in the West—felt incredibly difficult, and I didn’t want to risk losing the momentum.
For the longest time, growing up in Malaysia, I had no idea that my family was an immigrant family. I just couldn’t equate being Chinese with being an outsider. The fact that we spoke Chinese at home, and that I knew that some of my grandparents had come to Malaysia from China, didn’t affect my single Malaysian identity. I was some way into my teens, after years of hearing casual remarks like Cina babi [“Chinese pig”], Balik Tongsan [“Go back to China”], that I realized these comments were aimed at me, and not some random, unknown, foreign Chinese person. I realized that the political structure aimed to exclude me, and not some other vaguely foreign person.
I realized just a few years ago that my parents must have fought very hard to give me that untroubled “Malaysian” identity, and that they must have had to suppress their own instincts to connect with their racial and cultural heritage simply in order to make life happier for their children. Realizing this made me sad, and my instinct was to push that feeling aside, not to acknowledge it. If I’d spent years writing a novel just at that point, I might have flattened out that sadness, tried to make it prettier and more acceptable. I wanted to capture the immediacy of how I felt.
YZC: Raman Krishnan, publisher of Malaysia’s Silverfish Books, called We, the Survivors your first “truly Malaysian novel.” As someone who struggles with the concept of authenticity, I had mixed feelings when I read that. But I’m projecting again, of course. How do you feel about it? Has your thinking about how to write for a “global” audience that may be unfamiliar with your novels’ contexts evolved over your career?
TA: I didn’t see Raman’s comments, so I can’t address them directly, but in general terms, like you, I’m troubled by the notion of authenticity. It seems to me that only writers from outside the dominant white, western, middle-class canon are subject to questions of authenticity and veracity: writers of color, Asian and African writers, LGBTQ writers, writers who come from working-class backgrounds.
I’ve been writing and attending festivals and readings for over twenty years, and I’ve never—not once—heard any white middle-class British or American writer asked whether their portrayal of dinner parties in North London is “truly English,” or whether their novel set on an Ivy League campus is “truly representative of the American mentality.” Those writers are never asked, “So, who do you write for?” (The suggestion being that you’re making up stuff just to sell books). Readers simply judge those books on their own terms. Writers from outside this canon are constantly subjected to higher levels of scrutiny, as if we have to justify our existence in the publishing world.
It all seems to me to be somewhat colonial, and we need to question why this still exists; why we, as Asian readers ourselves, have ingested this essentially western need to doubt our own experience. Asian writers have as much power as anyone to commit to stylistic inventions, to thematic experiments; we have the right to fail at these just as any other writer does, to be unconvincing, or to be magnificently persuasive. We need to allow ourselves those freedoms—if we don’t, we are essentially surrendering the terrain of publishing to those who already dominate English-language publishing, which makes literature poorer and less interesting for everyone, all over the world.
My thinking about writing for any audience hasn’t changed at all since my first novel. I’ve never thought of readers in separate categories, and the question of who will read my writing never arises until the editing process, when my editors ask to clarify certain matters. Obviously, some readers will find greater resonance in my work than others, because they know the geographical or cultural spaces I talk about. (I’ve had many messages from friends in Malaysia recently, people who grew up in Klang and knew the exact spots I write about in We, the Survivors.) I’ve always assumed that writing is universal in its specificity. The books that spoke to me most intimately when I was younger were those by writers like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Marguerite Duras, Pramoedya—whose circumstances couldn’t have been more different from mine.
To take the point further, I find it troubling to talk about what a “real Malaysian” novel is, because it’s an extension of the question of what a “real Malaysian” is—a mentality that aims to exclude, rather than include, people. Is someone “really Malaysian” because they were born in Bangladesh? Because their parents immigrated from China? Because one of their parents is African, and they don’t look “really Malaysian”? Because they live abroad? Like so many countries these days, Malaysia functions on the politics of exclusion. We’re obsessed by finding ways of defining ourselves in the narrowest possible manner, in which various groups of people are pitted against each other rather than left to form naturally inclusive communities.
YZC: I like that—“writing is universal in its specificity.” If your thinking about audience hasn’t changed since your early writing days, what has changed? What about writing, or being a writer, has morphed for you over the course of five books?
TA: I don’t know—on the one hand, it feels as though nothing has changed. I still struggle with every book, I still doubt whether any line that I commit to the page is worthy of being written, never mind published. Artistically, I still feel anxious, I still feel that I’m testing my boundaries, and that there’s so much I want to achieve in my writing but never will. I’m not sure if I like that feeling of insecurity but I’ve come to appreciate it as something fundamental to a writer’s life.
I guess I’m more comfortable these days about saying I’m a writer. For the longest time, it used to feel so fake, so forced—as if I was claiming an identity that wasn’t mine to claim. That fear has at least abated even if it hasn’t dissipated entirely. Writers like us, who don’t come from long lines of writers, have to work harder to anchor ourselves in our literary identities. Life had other plans for us, pushed us towards other jobs, other ways of living, but instead we’ve fought to have this one. After all these years, I’m finally starting to inhabit this life fully.