Man Asian Literary Prize winner and on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize, Tan Twan Eng believes that the literary gift can be nurtured. MC speaks to one of Malaysia’s great literary talents.
Currently working on his third novel, Tan Twan Eng, is an award-winning author who manages to set his literary works against the beautiful landscapes of Malaysia and brings to life the culture and historical aspects of the country in his works. His first novel The Gift of Rain was long-listed for the 2007 Man Booker Prize and his second, The Garden of Evening Mists, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012 and won the Man Asian Literary Prize. He takes timeout to reflect on the way forward for local talent.
How did you manage to get noticed outside of Malaysia?
I started reading at about seven or eight years old. For some od reason I always fascinated with the copyright page of every book with great interest. I’d read it carefully, again and again, and over the years I deciphered what the various items on that page meant. I learned how the publishing industry works, how manuscripts are submitted, how to get a literary agent. All this well before the age of the internet, so these days I do get impatient with people who ask me how to get published. You want to be a writer? Then do the necessary groundwork and research, just as you would if you aspire to be a surgeon or a teacher or an economist. All the information is out there, accessible to anyone.
Right from the start I always intended my writing to have a universal readership, and for that to happen I knew that I had to be published in the United Kingdom, because that’s the centre of the English-language publishing world is (my comments here wouldn’t be pertinent, of course, if you’re not writing in English). When I finished my first novel, The Gift of Rain, I sent it off to a list of literary agents in London. I never considered sending it elsewhere.
Do you think there is encouragement on home ground to spur young people to expand their creative boundaries?
I suppose there is, if one measures that by the number of events where people are encouraged to read their works-in-progress in public (for example, Readings at Seksan’s in Bangsar, organised by Sharon Bakar, who also runs creative writing courses) and the growing number of arts and literary festivals in Malaysia.
I’ve also noticed that parents are less fixated on their children pursuing the traditional professions (law, medicine, accounting, engineering) so that’s a good sign too, although I do feel that my few years spent working as a lawyer helped me to mature and to learn to do things and deal with people in a professional manner.
Malaysia sets the backdrop for your novels, what about the country most inspires you to continue writing about it and what do would you encourage young people to learn about their country as possible inspiration for creativity?
It’s rich history, the sense that once, not so long ago, our country was so open to influences from around the world, it was a place where everyone was welcome, no matter how different or eccentric he or she was. That sense of interconnectedness. The beauty of its natural landscapes. The warmth of its people.
I’d encourage young people to learn more about our past, to discover what we have gained, but also what we have lost and are in danger of losing.
What should the media be looking for in identifying and encouraging young talent?
I don’t think it’s what the media should be looking for, but rather what they should be reporting on and finding newsworthy. Do we really need to read about some reality TV starlet who bared her arse in a fashion shoot? Or who’s wearing what and sleeping with who?
The media should devote more pages to literary and cultural features – intelligent interviews with authors and artists and philosophers, in-depth book reviews, news from the publishing industry. These are the things I wish I could have read more of when I was growing up. So, if the media are sincere about encouraging young talent, they have to decide on the intrinsic and fundamental values they ought to be promoting.
The media could also provide a platform to publish short stories and poetry.
In your opinion, how do you think we can generate more bright talent like yourself to make it in the international front?
It has to start early – build a strong foundation in English in the young, instil the habit of reading in them, expose them to all types of books. I was fortunate because my parents never restricted or censored what I read, and to this day I abhor censorship of any kind.
And as I mentioned above, let’s have more intelligent and well-written features on the creative fields instead of vacuous articles on celebrities. I’d love to see at least ONE quality English-language literary magazine in Malaysia, something similar to the Times Literary Supplement or the London Review of Books or Literary Review. The establishment of creative writing courses at universities. Lucrative, prestigious and long-term literary prizes that are awarded based on the quality of the writing and not on sales figures or public voting.