Spinning a yarn

Focussing on a different world Tash Aw

Focussing on a different world Tash Aw   | Photo Credit: Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Author Tash Aw sketches the challenges before a modern-day writer to P. ANIMA

You hardly catch an author in between works. However, Malaysian author Tash Aw is now treading that tricky territory. His debut novel, “The Harmony Silk Factory”, published by Harper Perennial, won pleasant reviews world-over and a few prizes, but is now tucked into the past. His second work, “Map of the Invisible World”, is waiting in the wings.

A pioneer

In India to attend the Jaipur Literature Week, Tash stopped over in the Capital.

A pioneering writer in English from Malaysia, he narrates his unique struggle, the burden of recognition and subverting notions. Born in Taipei, raised in Kuala Lumpur and based in London, Tash has no “complexes” about writing in English stories which are rooted in South-East Asia. At a time when the focus is firmly on South Asian writing, Tash holds light to a bristling yet untouched terrain with Malaysia.

However, leading the way was not easy, says the author who is in his mid-30s.

“I had no role models to look up to. I could not anticipate the kind of life I could lead as a writer. Who is my audience? Is it going to be local, foreign or a combination of both?” asks Tash.


“I had more anxieties than most people. But I shut them off and wrote,” he says. His determination met success. “The Harmony Silk Factory” uncovers a dubious Johnny Lim through the eyes of his son, his wife and an Englishman. Tash’s narrative technique too lured notice when he used three perspectives to know one man.

Tash who has a legal degree, took on a law job to see him through as he wrote. “I had to earn enough money to be able to write full-time.” .

However, the accolades for his debut have made the second novel a steep task. “You keep pushing the boundaries. Sometimes you get into a twist, wondering if it is a step back. You are afraid of failure,” says Tash. If “The Harmony Silk Factory” had the virtue of a long gestation, the second one is bound by a contract. “If you live on your writing as I do, you need to get your act together,” he says. “With recognition comes travel. You are on the road month after month and it breaks the rhythm,” he adds.

Despite the hitches, Tash is done with “Map of the Invisible World” set in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. The novel tells the tale of two orphan brothers who are separated. “It is set in 1964 — Sukarno’s year of living dangerously,” says Tash.

Though Tash enjoyed a “gentle” childhood, he was keenly aware of how “polarised” the Malaysian society was. “A country can be so polarised and schizophrenic,” says Tash.

In a country where Chinese, Malay and Tamil are the “big” languages, Tash prefers to write in English as it is the most “free.”

“If I wrote in Chinese it would be thought that I am highlighting my Chinese heritage. So English becomes the most neutral language, which is free of politics,” Tash points out a post-colonial reality.

“English is as much mine as the Englishman’s,” he asserts. Though he writes for any “above average reader in any country” he effortlessly weaves in local jargon and resents any attempts to explain them all.

He says when he read British and American novels, there were instances when he did not understand certain terms, especially pertaining to food.

“But I used my imagination and thought what it could be,” he says.

Tash, even when writing in a global language, remains regional in spirit and gently draws you to know a culture better.

The Silk Saga

Recognition for “The Harmony Silk Factory”

2005 Whitbread First Novel Award

2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize for First Novel

Long listed for 2005 Man Booker Prize

The book is now translated into 19 languages

His second novel “The Map of an Invisible World”

releases in May 2009

Recommended for you