PENANG: Do you think your child is not reading enough books and is glued to the iPad or television instead? The solution for parents may be to stop nagging and start reading themselves, says award-winning author Tan Twan Eng.
“First of all, you have to have a house that’s full of books. So many people these days – parents, first of all – themselves don’t read. So there are no books in their houses,” says the 47-year old lawyer-turned-novelist.
“A house without books isn’t a complete home to me.”
Mr Tan is arguably one of Malaysia’s most successful authors now. A few years ago, he won the Man Asian Literary Award – awarded each year for the best novel by an Asian writer – along with its US$30,000 (S$41,000) prize money.
And his novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, is being shot as a tele-movie which will appear on the HBO cable network this year.
“When I was growing up, my parents never insisted that I read books. What they did was they read. So there were always books lying around, and they never censored what I read. I was reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover at eight or nine years old,” grins the bespectacled novelist.
That 1920’s novel by British author D H Lawrence contained racy sex scenes by the standards of that time.
NO ITALICS FOR LAKSA
Mr Tan is part of a new generation of Southeast Asian authors who write in English but are anchored culturally and historically in the region.
Born and bred on the island of Penang, he is unapologetic about referring to local Southeast Asian food like nasi lemak, laksa or chicken rice without any explanation for the non-Asian reader.
This self-assuredness, which he admits borders on stubbornness, means he has had friendly run-ins with his UK-based publisher.
“I absolutely refused, point blank (to include explanations). We even come down to arguing about whether to put those terms in italics … You don’t put those terms in italics because you don’t put croissant in italics,” he says emphatically.
“Why? It kicks the reader out of the immersive experience of reading a book when you suddenly come across something that’s in italics or with a lot of explanations. I want my reader to be lost in this world in Penang.”
He also refused to let his publisher put in a glossary explaining the terms and initially rejected any suggestion of inserting a map to show the location of Penang in the world.
In the end, he gave in and reached a compromise by drawing the map of Penang himself, which can be seen at the start of the book. “It lends a sort of a personal touch to the book,” he concedes.
You have a map which is obviously hand-drawn, and it sort of gives the feeling that the map is part of the novel, and it was drawn by one of the characters in it.
DEALING WITH A TURBULENT PAST
His delicately researched novels also bring to light many of the lesser-known parts of Southeast Asian history.
He takes a real but minor character such as the Emperor of Japan’s gardener and makes him one of the key figures in The Garden of Evening Mists – his second novel, set in Cameron Highlands during a turbulent post-war Malaya.
“I do my best to be historically accurate. I suppose it’s because of my background as a lawyer. When I’m writing my books, I have this rule that I add to what has happened – to a scene or a street – but I don’t remove something,” he says.
I don’t take away a building or an event just so that my story flows better. So that’s the rule that I stick to stringently.
His award-winning books have a lyrical feel to them. Some reviewers say there is a quiet beauty in the prose that is similar to another well-known Asian author who writes in English – Kazuo Ishiguro.
The exquisite settings of the novels belie the fact that Mr Tan’s books deal with ugly themes of Southeast Asia’s past, from the British abandoning Penang to the invading Japanese forces to the torture practised by the Japanese military police.
One of his protagonists collaborates with the Japanese to try to save his family, yet his morally ambivalent choices go awry in the end. Most of his family perish, and his father is beheaded in an exchange that spares the young man’s life.
Mr Tan agrees that some of his characters may not be likeable, but he argues that it makes them human, complex and, therefore, memorable.
“I ask myself what I would’ve done if I were living in those times, and I don’t have an answer. It’s very easy to think that you’ll act bravely and nobly. But when the test comes, then that’s when you really find out what you’re made of,” he concludes.
Watch the full exclusive interview on Channel NewsAsia’s Conversation With, on Friday, Feb 15, at 9pm (SIN/HK).