UEA Literary Festival: Tash Aw in Conversation

Last week Tash Aw visited the University of East Anglia as part of the UEA Literary Festival. I was lucky enough to be able to attend the wonderful event and thought what better way to start my blog than with a short piece on the talk!

The evening was centered mainly on Aw’s new release: We, The Survivors, but the author also offered an insight into issues in Malaysia, as well as his experiences as an author, and as a UEA student. Luckily enough for me, the chat did not give away too much about Aw’s new novel (I am only halfway through reading it). He did however, discuss his reasons behind writing the novel, the meanings that the story evoked, and his personal connections to the book.

We, The Survivors explores the story of Ah Hock, a poor Malaysian man who commits an unforgivable crime towards someone far different. The reader follows Ah Hock as he tells his story to Su-Min, an educated journalist from the city. As the story unfolds, we learn of the vast differences in the morals, history, and lives of each character.

To start off the talk, Tash revealed to the room that the inspiration for his new novel came from wanting to represent what he called the ‘two Malaysias’. Aw was born in 1971, just over a decade after Malaysia (like many other Asian countries) had won back independence from Britain. During this time of decolonisation (the 70’s and 80’s) Malaysia became very rich, however, this was a process of rapid change and soon came to a grinding halt. Aw’s family has a poor background in the countryside, however his parents were lucky enough to have the opportunity to leave this lifestyle behind when they moved to Kuala Lumpur. This is where Aw grew up whilst the remainder of his extended family stayed in the countryside.

In Kuala Lumpur, Aw was exposed to to a brand new world, he discovered different cultures, literature, music, and film, but along with the rest of his family, his cousins the same age as him did not experience this. Whenever he spent time with his cousins, Aw said that he could sense this difference between them. This was the case for many in the country, there were huge contrasts between what Aw dubbed the ‘two Malaysias’: rich and poor, cultured and uncultured, educated and uneducated. To an extent, this divide in society still exists today, and is exactly what Aw wished to represent in We, The Survivors: the two Malaysias and just how drastically different they are.

“The reason I wanted to explore division between the privileged and the under priveleged world is because I come from a very mixed family. It is not always easy to represent a certain group of people. Ah-Hock and Su-Min represent two very different groups of people, and I hope that somehow represents the country itself.”

Aw stated that it took him a while to perceive this difference, and in order to do so, he had to be away from his home country before he realised that such a difference existed, and that this difference was not so normal.

“Some writers need to be close to their subject to write it, some writers need distance and perspective from their subject. I needed distance in order to recognise my subject, in stepping away from Malaysia, I realised the schism in Malaysian society was not normal.”

After moving to the UK to begin his undergraduate degree in Law at Cambridge, Aw was finally able to identify the societal divide in Malaysia. Although there are apparent divides in society within the UK, more often than not, they are not so drastic, and the differences are not so huge. Aw soon realised that the cultural and educational divides in his home country were not at all normal, and when his writing career eventually began he made the conscious decision to write about situations and characters familiar to him.

“I wanted to be a writer to write about the people I know, the people I recognise, I want to give them visibility.”

Aw continued to discuss the importance of representation of minorities in literature and how positive he feels in adding a Malaysian perspective and narrative to the literary world.

To end the brilliant talk, Aw divulged a little about his experiences on the MA in Creative Writing at UEA, describing his first workshop as ‘battering’.

“After the first workshop I felt battered. The key skill to being a writer is resilience – and I learnt that here at UEA.”

Personally, I found this very reassuring, as I myself also felt destroyed after my first MA class this year! It is comforting to hear that someone in Aw’s position felt the same when he was first starting out too.

Tash Aw in conversation was insightful and thought-provoking. That evening I left inspired and with a head full of ideas for my own writing. I would highly recommend anyone to pick up a copy of Aw’s outstanding first novel The Harmony Silk Factory, and also to join me in reading the wonderful We, The Survivors. 

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