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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Monday, August 20, 2007


The day the list was out, some literary trackers groaned "haven't heard of half of these writers on the Booker Long list." More voices screamed "literary heavy weights felled." Sure, the list was shorter, yes some names were ignored, yet some great ones were recognised. I was delighted to see Mohsin Hamid and Tan Twan Eng on that list. Just when you think the congratulatory messages should be pouring in, the insider-outsider debate is back.

Raman of Silverfish Books wrote about it, Sharon posted a worthy rejoinder and the comments are an indication that the debate is here to stay.

At the risk of detracting from this post, I'll add that this isn't something that's unique to Malaysian writing, take a look at Indian writing and you can count the outsiders who have made it big globally. Authors who have moved outside and decided to write about their home reality will always tell you about the pining for home, the sound of rain, the heat, the dust, the sights, smells, sounds - all of which turn into a heightened sense of reality when you are away from home.

As Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen rightly put it, there's nothing wrong in multiple identities.

Given that one can feel for more than one thing at the same time, my take is that as long as it spurs great writing, it doesn't matter if you are an outsider writing from the inside or an insider writing from the outside.

With that, let me get back to what I set to do in my post of the day. It was to write about Tan Twan Eng, some of his thoughts that have spurred his writing, what it took to get published and what made him give up his law career. Excerpts from a conversation with the reluctant lawyer.

Was writing always on his radar?
I found the light and decided to devote myself full-time to writing. Writing was always on my radar, I’ve written a lot of stuff in my youth but nothing serious. Being a lawyer gave me the avenue to write as well.

What got him started on ‘The Gift of Rain’:
I was living in South Africa and I had time to write. I’d always wanted to write the history of Penang because
a)I was born there
b)and I love the place, the history, the city streets, the atmosphere of the older streets and I’ve always wanted to capture that. So much of it is disappearing because the old buildings are being torn down, new apartment blocks are being built, I wanted to capture that old world charm. In a way, its a testament, a memorial to something that is fast disappearing.

Being in South Africa, not Penang, while penning the book:
I think (being in Penang) wouldn’t have helped. I felt the emotions were stronger while I was away. The sort of longing for something which is familiar when you are sitting out there. Outside its almost a desert landscape and there you are longing for a tropical rainstorm. In Penang, it’s almost like part of your being. You are in the landscape, life has a pattern, going to the beach, walking, eating. It’s the absence that drove the book – absence in a good way.

What it’s taken to stay true to fact?
I’ve tried to be as accurate as I can. It helped that I’ve always been interested in the subject. The facts have always been there in my head, since the time I was a little boy. The process of getting it all right required verifying, re-confirming, re-checking.

Did his background as a lawyer help in this?
Yes, of course. My British agent also warned me that British readers, particularly those who are interested in history are very unforgiving when it comes to inaccuracies. The phrase that was used was “they would fall on me like a ton of bricks if there were any inaccuracies.”

Tweaking it for a broader audience:
I did have to explain some issues, the background. Some people would say it’s over-exoticising our Asian culture but I think that is necessary because if I were to just have a single line then it wouldn’t make sense to a lot of people. Though local readers would say he is going on and on, so I had to sort of play a balancing role all the way through. I reject the point that the adjustment is only for Westerners, those who are not familiar could be from other Asian countries as well – from Japan, from Indonesia. But, I’ll say that catering to everyone is a difficult balancing act.

Flashback, dreams and characters:
Yes, there is a part in the book that came to me in a dream, maybe it was my homesickness. But the characters didn’t come to me in a dream, they were created with much thought, to include as many viewpoints as possible. I’ve tried not to be insulting or dismissive in the portrayal of the different characters and the views they represent. If anything, I’ve tried to be fair and balanced in my writing.

Authors he looks upto:
I read widely, so it’s a long list, though the one’s who have influenced me the most are Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie.

Process of writing the book:
It took me about 8 months to write the book, another 4 months for re-writing. The book's become longer through the re-writing process. People don’t know how much re-writing authors have to go through to get the book out. Agents will look at, editors will look at it, they'll make suggestions or ask for changed. Then we discuss it, then there is the whole process of re-writing and sometimes all of this may just get repeated.

Is a movie in the works?
My agents have pitched it, I think it’s a very cinematic book. I do understand if a movie is to be made, it would have would have to change a lot, the book is very introspective.

Getting to a publisher:
I sent it out to 5 agents and I got an agent fairly easily. The difficult part was getting a publisher. They’d all say while it’s a good read, they didn’t know how to market it.

Certainly hope someone, somewhere happens to be feasting on their words. Also read one of Twan's first interviews with Dovegreyreader and don't leave without seeing all the support Sharon's extended to a truly deserving author. Love the Starbucks and the exclamation marks!!!!

If you want to meet the author, it isn't too late to get yourself booked for the Ubud Writers Festival, that's happening in September.

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