Tash Aw, whose Five Star Billionaire is on the Man Booker long list, talks about why his novels revolve around the immigrant experience.
Watching Star Trek and Superman the very week in which I discussed Tash Aw’s recent novel Five Star Billionaire with the author himself, I found these different stories dovetailing into the tensions that churn our world: migration and identity, a shot at reinvention, finding one’s place in a world that’s at best indifferent (hostile at worst), recognising what we once had been and what we could be again.
“The notion of starting over is, for me, a fundamental part of what it means to move from one country to another, or from one social or cultural sphere to another. Put in another way, it’s a chance for reinvention. And these social and personal shifts are attractive to me because I think that they are part of the modern historical narrative of so many countries in post-colonial Asia. The very act of Independence entails a process of reinvention — beginning again after a brokenness — and I think that when this happens on a national level, it somehow seeps into the individual’s consciousness.”
...Billionaire is a story of Malaysians courting fortune in Shanghai amidst high-quality counterfeit, ‘crowds, the traffic, the impenetrable dialect, the muddy rains that carried the remnants of the Gobi Desert sandstorms and stained your clothes every March’, a neon skyline in which buildings ‘trembled with life, intimate yet unknowable’ and the future’s shadowed by the past no matter how ‘ruthlessly forward’ they move. Tash traced its genesis, “The idea first came to me when I began to notice that more and more Malaysians were leaving the country to seek jobs in China. Twenty years ago, the default destination for Southeast Asian economic migrants would have been the great cities of the West. I found it interesting that such a fundamental shift had occurred in such a short space of time, and that it affected so many different classes of people.”
As successive alternating chapters narrate the different dreams unravelling in Shanghai, …Billionaire could read as a cautionary tale wrapped up in detective noir. “What makes something vibrant is precisely the edginess provided by potential danger,” quipped Tash.
“I think that I am interested in stories about how people survive in hostile environments. I think everyone is,” Tash reflected. “I also think that the immigrant experience involves a test of endurance that is nuanced and complicated by two conflicting forces: the genuine wish to commit to a new place and new way of life, but somehow being unable to shake off what one knows and finds familiar and comforting.”
Tash analysed a critical concern in his stories, “I think that there’s a tendency in many Asian cultures to be very ruthless with the past, both in a national and a personal sense. Partly this is because our recent histories have been difficult narratives to deal with; often involving upheaval, violence and, above all, the lingering and badly-articulated humiliation of having been colonised, or defeated in some sense. So we tend to focus on the shiny new ‘Now’, in which our countries are on an upward curve, certainly in a material sense; the past is at best irrelevant, at worst a bit shameful. Which means that we cut off parts of our narratives and, in so doing, cut off our emotional roots. But what happens when we do so is that we have to advance into the future from a base that is patchy, sometimes a total void, and that is very confusing — it’s not very ‘authentic’. Countries like Malaysia and Singapore, also China, find it difficult to engage with the past in an honest way and a lot of my work deals with this notion of being open to the past in an intelligently critical rather than nostalgic way.”
Tash discussed how he landscapes his stories, “I try to write about the physical setting of the novel in a way that reflects the emotional lives of the characters — often, they become characters in their own right. In …Billionaire, Shanghai is sometimes thrilling and hallucinatory in its sense of possibility, almost drugged-up in its crazy lights and highways; and at other times it is overwhelming, or else quiet and intimate and lyrical, depending on which characters experience it.”
I asked Tash if there are books that give him itchy feet, the way his tempt their readers into journeying: “For the longest time, I wanted to go to Normandy because I’d read Flaubert’s A Simple Heart when I was a teenager and even tried to recreate Felicité’s bedroom! And eventually, I did do it. When I finished Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul (admittedly not a novel), I booked a ticket out there straightaway Like lots of people, I wanted to visit Kerala after I read Arundhati Roy, but I still haven’t made it there. Every time I go to India I get distracted by the bright lights of Bombay or Delhi and get stuck there.”