Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Tash Aw
By Phan Ming Yen
Encountering the works of Tash Aw is in a way to encounter the breadth of the world.
In his debut The Harmony Silk Factory which won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 2005, Aw brought to international attention the socio-historical landscape of the Malaysian state of Perak on the eve of World War II. Told from three different perspectives, the book was on various longlists, including the Man Booker and the International Impac Dublin Prize. It has been translated into more than 20 languages.
In Map of the Invisible World (2009) which followed, Aw moved on to the Indonesia of the 1960s during the time of President Sukarno's anti-communist purges while in the more recent Five Star Billionaire (2013), which was longlisted for the Man Booker in 2013, Aw focused on the lives of Malaysians lured by dreams of riches in contemporary Shanghai. In a review, the New York Times described Aw as "a patient writer, and an elegant one" and his "supple yet unshowy prose can resemble Kazuo Ishiguro's."
Aw was born in Taipei to Malaysian parents. He grew up in Kuala Lumpur before moving to Britain to attend university. His novels have been translated into 23 languages. He is also a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.
1. What are you reading right now?
I'm working my way through all of Svetlana Alexievich – or at least everything I can find that has been translated. Penguin Classics has just reissued an early work, The Unwomanly Face of War, which is feeding my addiction.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
I've imagined myself as various characters in Hong Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber). But I'd have to settle on Wang Xifeng – such a complex character, capable of great empathy and kindness, whose very existence questioned the cultural expectations of the time. But the reality is that I'll never share her extremes – of brilliance or of cruelty.
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
That I can't drive. Not sure why people think this, but they do. And that I can't perform physical labour.
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
I'm not sure 'identify with' is an accurate sentiment in these cases. It is more like 'wish I could be like': James Baldwin, for all the obvious reasons—his radical dismantling of entrenched ideas of oppression and division, as well as the way his anger was shot through by an instinct for reaching common ground; Chimamanda Adichie, for the way she has made writing and thinking about race, culture and nationality a mainstream subject, and for the nuance with which she unpicks cultural differences with the right dose of moral and political judgement for each situation.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Writers get stuck, but I don't know of many who actually call it 'writer's block.' Mostly they talk about it in terms of specifics: I can't get this character right, the plot isn't working, etc, etc. which makes it a question of dealing with that specific problem. Whatever the case is, whenever I'm up against this, the solution is always the same – keep writing, and keep reading, until such time as the knot loosens.
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
Courage—to try something new and risk failure.
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
It's a paraphrase, Murakami quoting Graham Greene: when writing well, always stop before the point of exhaustion, when you feel as if you could go on for much longer. You start the next day with plenty of oil in the tank, as it were.
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I…
eat a huge amount.
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
Are there any more real tragedies in cinema? Probably a comedy, in any case.
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
I'm on a reading tour in Italy right now, where every word sounds voluptuous. I keep hearing the word "adesso." Which seems so much fuller and more commanding than 'now.'
12. Write a Singapore-based short-short story in three lines that include the following three items: puff, prata, padang.
He offered me a curry puff, I said, No way, I want a fantasy dinner. Prata and Chicken Kapitan and Dom Perignon. At Violet Oon's, with a view of the Padang.
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
A notebook, A5 size or slightly bigger, with good quality grid-paper. (Not lines or blank pages.) Apart from that one detail I really don't obsess much about writing rituals or materials.
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
In the morning, from 7am-1pm.
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
I wouldn't have literary figures to supper – the fictional ones would be very unsuitable company, and real ones far too boring!
16. The socio-historical landscape of northern Malaysia, in particular that of the state of Perak figures largely, whether as background or foreground, in your novels. Why does and what aspects of life in Perak inspire you?
Perak is a central figure in my first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, because it was where I spent a lot of my school holidays when I was a child, in the small town where my grandparents and uncle and cousins lived. It's a physical beautiful place, very rich in layers of social and political history, and also a world apart from Kuala Lumpur in cultural terms. My experience of being an outsider—a city boy in a rural setting, someone who had a different education from the rest of my family—made me start to interrogate notions of belonging and identity at a very early age. What does one do to fit in? How do languages, dialects and accents change your relationship with your family, your country, your culture? I became aware of ideas of privilege and deprivation, of opportunity, of class and aspiration very early on in life, and that happened to me in principally in Perak, which is why its presence is very powerful in my imagination.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 17 No. 1 Jan 2018
That's something for others to imagine, not me.