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Tash Aw in Conversation with Chia-Chia Lin

Just before my first novel came out, I dove into Tash Aw’s fourth novel, We, the Survivors, desperate for the distraction. I’d long admired Tash’s work, and I knew I could count on a richly textured world and a fascinating story—a book that would swallow me whole.

We, the Survivors did that, but it also startled me. It made me resketch the contours of what a novel is, and what writers can do. Is it strange to say the novel—with all its brimming anguish—inspired me?

The story is deceptively, unsettlingly simple: the narrator, Ah Hock, is a Chinese Malaysian man who can’t seem to find a foothold to climb away from his origins of rural poverty. We learn he has killed someone: a Bangladeshi migrant worker. As Ah Hock tells the story leading up to the killing, he speaks to a faceless “you.” At one point, he says, dully contemplating an alternate life, “Maybe I could’ve been you.” Fifty pages in, we learn that the addressee is Su-Min, a well-meaning, young, foreign-educated researcher who is interviewing Ah Hock after his release from prison. The divide between them is palpable and uncomfortable; Ah Hock receives his groceries from a church, while Su-Min refuses his meal offering because she is off carbs “at the moment.” She’s fiercely principled, railing against government corruption, though her principles are sometimes out of place, or costly, in his world.

Even after that “you” takes on a name, a face, a distinct personality, it still continues to ring in our ears. It’s me, I think. Ah Hock is talking to me. The novel is set in Malaysia’s central region, but its preoccupations have obvious, painful parallels to American issues today. I had to know more. Tash Aw gamely sat through a lengthy video chat from his temporary apartment in Paris, where he’s a fellow at Columbia’s Institute for Ideas and Imagination. He’d magnanimously, alarmingly, read my novel. He spoke in whole, lucid paragraphs. Later, I realized I’d asked just one question over and over again: how did you write something that both implicated and sustained me?

—Chia-Chia Lin

I. “You’ve turned into a white child, an ang mo kia

CHIA-CHIA LIN: You’ve now completed four novels—so many, I can’t imagine it. How have your inquiries stayed the same or shifted?

TASH AW: When I started writing, I wanted to interrogate what it means to be Asian and living in the times I’m living in—how people’s ambitions and desires and fears have changed over the last sixty since Malaysian independence. So many of these stories are closed off. Particularly as immigrant families, we were engaged in the act of survival: finding work, getting educated. We didn’t have the luxury of stepping back and questioning where we were going, or what stories we’d invented for ourselves in order to survive.

I left Malaysia at nineteen, and every time I tried to talk to my parents or grandparents about their stories, they’d say, “You’ve turned into a white child, an ang mo kia.” It’s not a pejorative term, but it’s not meant to be complimentary either. There was a sense that these inquiries were reserved for richer, more comfortable people. And that’s a tragedy because then those are the people that end up with a stranglehold on literature. We’re erasing our own stories.

My quest to grapple with who we were, how we’ve changed, and how we’re changing has become more intense. In the last few years, we’ve been living in a world that really demands these answers, as well as a frank look at how we structure our societies—otherwise we’re not looking at a happy future.

CL: Has the writing process changed for you over the years? I’m curious about the day-to-day, but also whether you have a better understanding of what a novel is.

TA: The day-to-day hasn’t changed at all. I’ve always been a great believer in discipline. [Laughs.] I know when an Asian person talks about discipline, it sort of makes you cringe. But at the back of my mind I have my family, all the people I grew up with, who, when they’re sick, still have to go to work. The Asian guilt part of me, which is so much a part of my psyche, compels me to redress that imbalance by being at my desk every day, or certainly five or six days a week.

As far as understanding how a novel works, I’m as clueless now as I was twenty years ago.

CL: You don’t have more faith? Now that you’ve ushered several novels to completion?

TA: No. And part of me doesn’t really want the feeling of “Yeah, I know what a novel is, I know how to do one,” because that would mean it becomes less mysterious, that it doesn’t fill you with a sense of newness. I think terror is probably the most important feeling for me as a writer. On every page, I have to face the possibility that I might not be able to finish this novel. It’s the only thing that will push me through it.

CL: Your books tend to have complicated structures. Did you really not plot things out?

TA: What did you do? Did you plot?

CL: No, but I should have. I’m not comfortable with terror.

TA: The way I see writing is it’s a long process of terror punctuated by periods of intense, unsurpassed pleasure. Because you’ve dealt with two months of terror before that, you have that purple patch for a week, maybe two weeks, when you know what’s going on, you know what you’re achieving, and words come easily. Then you go back to terror. And I’m not talking about terror in the sense of “I don’t know how to plot this chapter,” but the terror of, “Why am I even writing, what a ridiculous thing to do.”

CL: The novel that preceded We, the Survivors was Five Star Billionaire, in which four characters drift through a world of extreme wealth. These two novels seem to tackle opposite worlds: wealth and opportunity, versus poverty and closed doors. But actually, both explore what money can or can’t do, and how easy it is for everything to collapse.It occurred to me that we might be looking at the same world, and that the camera simply swerved. How did We, the Survivors come to follow Five Star Billionaire?

TA: You’re exactly right in saying that both novels explore the same world. Until very recently, this has been the modern Asian dream: if you work really hard, if you hustle, you’ll become as rich as anyone else. Newspapers and magazines were littered with stories of people who’d started businesses in China, and in two years they’d have a private jet. In Five Star Billionaire, everyone is riding this wave of optimism. It’s a really seductive story if you’ve come from a country that’s only recently hauled itself out of extreme poverty.

But the mood has changed in the last few years. For a lot of people, the reality is becoming crushingly obvious. The Asian dream is starting to fracture.

You still see traces of that blind optimism in We, the Survivors. Jenny, Ah Hock’s wife, like so many people I know, is drawn into a multi-level scheme. You’re bombarded by images of how successful it will be. The idea is that you invite your friends, host a few parties, and soon you’ll be talking at a conference in the States. It’s so appealing.

CL: I found that optimism to be absolutely gutting, especially when Jenny quits her job and explains her new pursuit: “‘It’s a big American company,’ she said … ‘This isn’t some lousy local business that’s going to rip you off at any time.’ She read from the brochure: ‘Skin-Glo. Founded in 1983 in Colorado. Annual turnover, US$1.1 billion.’ There was a diagram in the shape of a pyramid. ‘Right now I’m down here, but all I have to do is recruit a few people and I’ll move up one step, then another, then one day’—she traced her finger all the way to the apex of the pyramid—‘that will be me.’”

How prevalent are these schemes in Malaysia? Are they always American companies?

TA: These schemes were everywhere in my childhood. They stayed with me because they seemed both incredibly hopeful and incredibly desperate. And yes, so many times, I heard people explain the American provenance of their products. It made everything seem more advanced and sophisticated. It made them feel that they were plugged into a world far beyond the grittiness of their everyday lives.

II. “We don’t want you to establish any form of life”

CL: Ah Hock is a third-generation immigrant in Malaysia, and the book also looks at his interactions with newly arrived migrant laborers. Do you view We, the Survivors as an immigration story?

TA: Yes. The experience of immigration is a multi-generational one. In my experience, almost all new immigrants want to believe that they instantly become part of their country. They want their children to be part of that fabric from the day they’re born. But there are so many obstacles—external factors, like the institutionalized discrimination faced by Chinese Malaysians, and internal factors, like the silence and withholding of stories of the family’s past—that even three generations down, the family is still struggling to find its place in society.

Ah Hock has only one identity when he is born, that of a Malaysian. But as he grows older, he begins to realize he doesn’t have the same opportunities as other, more privileged Malaysians, and this creates a deep anxiety.

CL: Is it significant that Ah Hock’s father leaves—emigrates from—Malaysia?

TA: It’s a huge turning point. It emphasizes the lack of a bright future for Ah Hock and his mother. His father moves to Singapore, which is not just economically successful but mostly ethnically Chinese. That affords him an opportunity to start fresh without the disadvantages faced in his home country.

CL: Despite the pervasiveness of migrant workers in Asia, I’ve read very little about them in literature—and I’m talking about mere mentions here. Were you consciously responding to this absence?

TA: I’m shocked by the disconnect between how present and visible they are in every aspect of life—every house, every road that’s being built is being built by migrant labor—and how absent they are in formal literature. The poignant thing for me about the way they’re being marginalized, and the language we use when we talk about them, is that it’s exactly the same language and way of thinking that were applied to my own grandparents and great-grandparents.

The only difference I can see now between my ancestors and these newer migrants is the fact that, if we’re brutally honest, we really just want to use them for what their bodies can provide. They’re here on three-year contracts. They’re not allowed to get married. When people came to Malaysia a hundred years ago, there were other crushing forms of discrimination, but we weren’t so naked about the fact that they were just here to be used. Actively saying they can’t get married—we’re basically saying, “We don’t want you to establish any form of life in this country.”

CL: Your descriptions of the labor, the physical toil, are incredibly visceral, but the writing style isn’t elaborate. It’s stark. There’s a refusal to glorify the brutality of the conditions, maybe an impulse to lay things bare and get out of the way as the writer.

TA: I wanted to capture the physical sensation of working those kinds of jobs. Before you can even think about what it means to be assimilated into the new country, or learning a new language, it’s about physical survival: literally whether your body can withstand what is being thrown at you.

I’ve heard migrant workers ask, “Am I going to survive this week?” Even twenty-three, twenty-four-year-old men say this. In the circles I move in, thanks to my education and supremely white-collar job, these are not questions people ask. The kinds of questions people ask about their bodies are, “What is my body fat percentage this week?” Friends of mine come out of body attack classes, and they’re measuring their body fat—

CL: I don’t know what a body attack class is.

TA: [Laughs] Well, me neither. I think it’s American! People say, “I’ve just been to a body attack class,” and it’s a status symbol. And they say this when they’re sitting down to meals in new malls that have been constructed by men who are asking themselves whether they’re going to survive to the end of that week.

And then there’s the person in between, like Ah Hock, because he starts off as a manual laborer—he has the memory of what it’s like. What he hasn’t realized is that he’s internalized that learned experience of work, and he can’t fully get rid of it. I haven’t gotten to the bottom of that yet, what that does to a person’s mentality. When he’s under stress, when he’s confronted by the Bangladeshi migrant, it just comes flooding out.

You asked me at the beginning how my inquiries have changed over the years. It’s become obvious to me that so many immigrant families—in wanting to create a narrative for themselves that everything’s fine, we’re not starving—normalize so much hardship. It manifests itself in weird physical forms. My own family members have suffered mysterious illnesses that were never spoken of, which would turn out to be mental health problems or extreme stress because they were working three jobs at once. It was all covered up or talked about as totally normal until they suddenly ended up in hospital or tried to kill themselves. And it’s because they’re carrying on their shoulders all this stuff that’s been dumped on them, and they’re not given a chance to explore it, to interrogate it, in the way that I would be able to.

III. “That zone where there is some unease”

CL: I want to talk more about this divide between those who are able to interrogate their situation and those who are not. That rift is felt on every page of We, the Survivors. It’s also embedded in the structure of the novel: Su-Min, a young researcher doing “field work,” interviews Ah Hock about his life leading up to his killing of a Bangladeshi migrant. Do you identify with Su Min, the one doing the asking?

TA: Absolutely. The book is the two parts of myself having a dialogue. For the people of my generation, it’s important to know how we arrived at this point in time—what it means to be Chinese and Malaysian. To my parents, why is that important? They’d say, “Get a job.” That’s important. To them, survival is important. To me, survival means a different thing. My parents made it out of the countryside. It’s not like the countryside in Europe, which has connotations of ease and beauty; in Malaysia, it’s a place of deprivation. But there are people in our extended family who didn’t make it out.

Maybe ten or twenty percent of the people I went to school with squeezed through that window of opportunity and managed to enjoy the benefits of education and the middle class. But what about the other eighty percent? Those are the people I grew up with, and I feel very attached to them. But now I speak differently, I have different tastes, I have different ways of thinking about the world.

CL: In the novel, were you sometimes mocking that part of yourself, those tastes, that way of thinking?

TA: I don’t think I am, but there is a part of me that feels more than thankful that I have the life I have, and guilty for it. I wanted to implicate myself. I also wanted to implicate the reader. I wanted them to feel actively part of a society that is fractured. And I hope there’s no value judgment. But ultimately one person is more privileged than the other.

CL: Your previous three novels have all included multiple points of view. Was there a conscious decision to leave out Su-Min’s point of view here?

TA: Yes, absolutely. I wanted to test the notion of power and the ownership of stories. It’s meant to be Ah Hock’s story, but actually Su-Min is the one transcribing. She’s the one translating, choosing the words, the syntax, the structure of the story. So she’s the one who’s in control. Whose story is it, really?

CL: Halfway through the interviews, Su-Min tells Ah Hock that she’s decided to write a book about him. We don’t have great feelings about the book she’s writing, or even whether she’s well placed to be writing Ah Hock’s story. I think about this a lot in my own writing. Do you?

TA: I grapple with these questions a lot. In the novel, I wanted to ask these questions of who controls narratives in literature. What does that dynamic look like, when one person who is educated and privileged writes about another, who is not? I wanted to be honest about how that feels. And being that well-meaning person. Is that uncomfortable?

Like me, like a lot of writers, Su Min is not unaware of the issues. She asks permission to write Ah Hock’s story. But still, there’s a fundamental disconnect between her and Ah Hock that stems from the fact that literature—the act of reading and writing a book—is middle class. When you look at the world population, the people who are reading books are a tiny minority. Unless we accept that books are only going to be written by that minority, about that minority, then we have to enter a zone where there is some unease. And I think that unease has to be explored by people who have come from that space, even if they’re no longer part of it. People like Su Min. Like me.

There might be an uncomfortable dynamic at play, but we can’t let that stop us from writing these stories because they literally just wouldn’t exist. And I don’t want my family’s stories, I don’t want immigrant stories in the world, to stop existing.

IV. “It does something funny to the way you think”

CL: Can you tell me about the influence of The Stranger on We, the Survivors? There are direct points of comparison—the narrator has killed someone, and the resounding question is why. But the feeling of reading this book, for me, was totally different; I felt much more of an emotional connection.

TA: The senseless killing of a stranger, a foreigner, and more specifically a dark-skinned foreigner—you can’t write about that and not have people think of Camus. But for me, that’s where the similarity ends. Camus’ book is always held up to be one of the great existentialist texts—Meursault doesn’t believe in anything. He’s this nihilistic presence in the world, and we’re expected to believe that he lives in a society but isn’t attached to it.

It seems to me inconceivable that someone can write that story and not admit to their own circumstances. Camus came from a family that was white and therefore part of the colonizing force, but they were also very poor. He grew up in a deprived neighborhood of Algiers. He was part of the dominant social group, but poverty skews that sense of dominance. In the novel, both Meursault and the Arab man he kills don’t live comfortable lives. From my view, desperation causes them to behave in certain ways. But the social context is absent, which is why I’ve always found the book frustrating.

CL: As far as why Ah Hock kills the Bangladeshi migrant, I couldn’t quite decide if the question was unanswerable, or if, in fact, you had offered a thousand answers.

TA: There aren’t immediate reasons, but there are much deeper underlying explanations. When you lash out, you do it in the way that you see as most normal. Ah Hock is just doing in an extreme form what has been done to him over many, many years.

It was also important to me that Ah Hock know the name of the man he’s killed. The Arab in The Stranger remains unnamed. In the trial, Ah Hock has to confront the fact that he’s killed a person with a name, a family, an ID card. Like most Malaysians, he lives and works with these migrants, but he doesn’t know anything about their lives. But because of what he’s done, he has to take on board the fact that this person is a person. With a name.

In many ways, The Stranger is a foil to this novel. That book fascinated and troubled me for years. I wanted to write a book that mirrored the senseless violence but also tried to make clear that violence is rarely senseless. There are always societal conditions at play.

Every day, almost, you’ll open the papers in Malaysia, and there will be some story about how five or six Myanmar nationals have been found butchered, and how six Cambodian men have been arrested on suspicion of their murder. And when you ask why, no one can give an answer—he owed me twenty bucks, and therefore I had to chop his head off. This doesn’t happen under normal circumstances. But when people have to work sixteen, eighteen hours a day, six days a week, and live in terrible conditions, it places them under tremendous stress, and sometimes the normal boundaries of human behaviour have no meaning.

CL: There’s a backdrop of these stories in your novel. I’m thinking, for example, of the man who ran a chicken factory, “who went berserk and killed his entire family.” Was that drawn from a real-life article? Ah Hock says of that story, “[T]here is no because.

TA: Totally. If you said to someone in the States that a family owns a business, a chicken factory, it would be hard to imagine them living in two shipping containers with chickens being slaughtered next to them. But that’s what this family did. They lived in Penang, in the same bracket of society as Ah Hock. No one could explain why the man killed his family. He’d tried to start a new business, and his mother had lent him four thousand ringgits, but that didn’t work out so he was ashamed and he shot her. On one hand it seems senseless, but on the other hand, if you’re living that kind of life, you’re under extreme stress all the time. You see erratic, inexplicable behavior, and it’s so normal that you don’t question it. People like Ah Hock think there’s no point in even asking why.

V. “If that’s my heritage, I don’t want it”

CL: There are many moments of hope and attainment in your novel, but part of the reason I was so drawn to it is that it lets go of the upward trajectory that so many published Asian immigrant stories follow, in which failures are just small steps along the way up. We, the Survivors begins, “You want me to talk about life, but all I’ve talked about is failure …” Your novel caught my attention with its head-on approach. So many stories avoid looking straight at failure.

TA: Exactly. What’s your take on that? I’m really interested to hear your take.

CL: I haven’t come to a definitive answer—I wanted to ask you! But partly I think it’s the story people want to hear about immigrants. And partly I think there’s also something in Asian culture itself, an unwillingness to see certain facets of one’s life story. I can’t quite put my finger on it. But my own family doesn’t dwell on certain catastrophic events of our past. We act as though they never happened.

TA: It’s an admission of weakness, or I don’t know what. That’s why I’m interested to hear why you feel there’s a resistance. The success element is deemed to be so much more important than the rest of it. It’s almost as though we need to convince ourselves that in order for the immigrant experience to be valid, or valuable, it has to be only successful, and nothing else. But you can’t create an entire identity with only success.

I think it’s also about face, about not wanting, in modern Asian society, to be poor. People are ashamed to be poor. In Malaysia, when people go back to the villages for the big festivals, they hire fancy cars to go back, so that they look successful, and they spend months’ worth of their salary to buy presents for their country relatives. Otherwise their relatives would think, “You moved to the city. What kind of job do you have if you don’t even own your own car?” There’s a refusal to be frank about the fact that not everyone is successful. How do we make it so it’s nothing to be ashamed about? That’s what I’m obsessed with. Why is there this deep need to tell these sanitized stories about ourselves?

CL: That rings true to me, this belief that success is the only thing that adds to your identity or image, while failure detracts from it.

TA: It’s also weird because so much of Chinese culture is based on valuing suffering. The expression I hear so often is chi ku, to eat bitterness. It gives a sense that to suffer, to sacrifice, is of value, and is part of the Chinese way of life.

When my sister went through an especially hard time as a teenager living away from home, I remember my grandfather said, “What’s she complaining about? She’s Chinese and she’s an immigrant. Life’s not going to be easy.” I remember thinking, if that’s my heritage, I don’t want it. But there’s an awareness of that suffering. And yet when we come to package these stories, many of these things are edited out. And what you then have is a narrative based on a simplistic upward trajectory.

CL: I’m thankful you took a different path. How was the process of finding an American audience?

TA: Actually, when we sent the book to American publishers, I got some responses along the lines of, “We think it’s great writing, but we don’t know if we can communicate a novel about intra-Asian racism to an American readership at this time.” That was quite common. It doesn’t fill you with joy.

I guess they were concerned that it would require an awful lot of context to make the story comprehensible for an American readership. But I disagree. Everything I learned about my condition—that of a Chinese Malaysian growing up in Malaysia—I learned by reading James Baldwin and Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. Or Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Of course there are always local details that make more sense to some. But when a very specific story of racism is committed to paper, it acquires a universality that speaks far beyond its boundaries.

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