Tash Aw is a Malaysian author focusing on providing literature for a Malaysian audience and has found success both in Malaysia and in the West. Staff Writer Josh Tate tagged along with Events Editor Isabel Sepulveda to gain insight into his writing and listen to some very smooth accents.
Firstly, the event was held in Buell Hall, the apparent former asylum that looks like a cross between a haunted house and a rustic art gallery. After checking all the sides to enter, we were seated front row in a sea of clear plastic chairs – it was an odd scene. Rows of students, writers, fellows, and several random passersby were sitting in strangely cheap, vaguely artistic see-through chairs. The brick building is also annoyingly positioned in the middle of several walkways, with The Thinker in front of Philosophy staring me down. It seemed like it was about to be a good time.
“Expanding the World of Literature” was the first of several hosted by the Columbia University Maison Française, a program dedicated to creating intellectual and artistic exchange between various artists around the world (specifically in English and French-speaking nations.) This talk was part of a project started in 2018, where seven Columbia faculty and seven creators (musicians, artists, writers, etc.) spent a year together and collaborated in Paris.
Two men sat down at a table in the front. The first was Mark Mazower, a professor at Columbia whose area of study focused predominantly on Greek history as well as general 20th-century European history. The second was Tash Aw, Malaysian author of books such as The Harmony Silk Factory, The Face: Strangers on a Pier, and most recently We, The Survivors, all dealing with his Malaysian identity as well as the struggles of Southeast Asian identity in the midst of global changes and pressures.
Aw was born in Taipei from Malaysian parents. He grew up in Malaysia, speaking multiple languages including Mandarin, Malay, and English. After success in a government school, he went on to Cambridge, briefly studying law before becoming a writer and publishing work concerned with and set in Southeast Asia. Mazower had high praises for his writing, many calling it “thoughtful, kind, and wise.” He singled in on the materials populating his books. There was money, buildings, and a savage pragmatism that seemed to loom and dominate the ideas and world of Aw’s novels. Mazower specifically described his newest book, We, The Survivors as “wonderful, but bloody grim.” (Did we mention that both Mazower and Aw have amazing accents?)
Aw started off thanking the crowd before going ahead and answering a question he’d gotten a lot in the past (usually from Western journalists): why did he write in English? He claimed that the question itself seemed to stem from postcolonial anguish on the part of the asker as the answer was very obvious to him. It wasn’t a question of authenticity or even finding a broader audience. It was the fact that in a country where speaking Mandarin and speaking Malay are both called for in different circumstances, English acts as an intermediary. English was chosen as the least political language for Malaysian audiences.
Aw went on to talk about his most recent book. We, The Survivors is a book centered around a working-class Malaysian man who is being interviewed by a Malaysian college student studying in the US after he was involved with the death of another man. The book is told through the student’s translation and transcript of the protagonist’s interview. It deals with issues of brutality and the danger of being a worker in rural Southeast Asia, as well as issues of class consciousness, translating narratives, and racism within Malaysia and Southeast Asia in general. He described it as a “dialogue between two parts of myself, of my family,” between the man he was and the person he could have been had he not been afforded the privilege of his education.
Perhaps the most impressive part of his talk came from the Q&A. Aw suffered no fools when asked about how he handled a lack of western knowledge about Asian politics. His reply was striking, citing that, first of all, he wrote for Malaysian audiences first, and second said that he would allow readers from different parts of the world to accept and use context to understand the situation. To publishers who passed on his books because they didn’t think they could convey inter-Asian racism to American audiences, he commented that he thought “the point of literature was to see our own experiences in different contexts.” He acknowledged that his own knowledge and experience of racism within Southeast Asia was heavily informed by his reading of Black American authors such as Angela Davis and Toni Morrison. As such, he feels that western audiences would be able to gain from his books similar lessons and knowledge despite not knowing the intricacies of Malaysian history and politics.
Themes of schism emerged throughout the talk – not only schism between East and West, between races, religions, and languages but also the schisms between city and country Aw felt defined him from a young age. Another prominent divide was that between generations, with the current generation losing faith in the narratives of constant upward trajectory and success that informed his childhood. The rapid economic and political growth in Southeast Asian countries has created what Aw described as “the temple to New Asia” that has so shaped current narratives about the region. Nevertheless, he’s interested in probing the “decay that lies underneath” this shiny, material surface.
At the end of the day, it’s by probing these schisms—those in himself and the world around him—that Aw expands the world of literature. He forces himself and others to contend with the contradictions they bring, the changes they introduce to an individual and a nation. During the Q&A, someone asked Aw if he’d ever write about somewhere other than the country in which he was born. He’d love to, he said, but then countered “how would my Paris novel expand the world of literature?” Writing is difficult, as any Bwogger who pitched a post and then forgot about it can attest. As Aw said, you “don’t do it unless you have to do it.” Aw seems to feel that these are the stories he has to tell, and if this talk is anything by which to judge, the world is better for it.
Photo via Isabel Sepúlveda