Tash Aw: Mapping invisible worlds

JP/Stanny Angga
JP/Stanny Angga

Malaysian author Tash Aw grew up knowing Indonesia was his country’s closest and most influential neighbor. But when he moved to England for college, he found there was little mention of Indonesia in the Western world.

“It was virtually invisible,” Aw said. This inspired him to title his second novel, set in 1960s Indonesia and Malaysia, Map of the Invisible World. “This was my way of drawing attention to Indonesia, of mapping it,” Aw wrote in an email recently.

Aw’s debut novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, won the Whitbread Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel in 2005, and was longlisted for the MAN Booker Prize. Set in 1940s Malaya, The Harmony Silk Factory has become an important voice in telling a Southeast Asian story to an English-speaking audience. With his 2009 Map of the Invisible World, Aw returns to Southeast Asia, this time further south to Indonesia.

Map of the Invisible World tells the story of two orphaned brothers. A wealthy Kuala Lumpur couple adopts the older brother, Johan, while the younger, Adam, is adopted by a Dutch-Indonesian man. The story begins on an island east of Bali, where Adam witnesses Karl, his adopted father, being arrested by the army during the time of Sukarno’s anti-imperialist rhetoric. Adam is an orphan once again, and journeys to Jakarta, meeting Karl’s former flame, Margaret, a university lecturer, and her assistant Din, who entices Adam to join in revolutionary struggle.

The title of the novel recalls the plight of its main characters, Aw says. “All the characters in the novel are physically present in one place, but their emotional lives are caught in another place, another time — in another world that has ceased to exist, or which may never have existed, a world that is now invisible,” he said.

Aw’s characters view home as an abstract and fragile thing. He may have drawn this from his own life experience, of finding a home in another country while continuing to view Malaysia as home. Aw writes about Adam’s view of home: “In those days he did not yet understand that Home was not necessarily where you were born, or even where you grew up, but something else entirely, something fragile that could exist anywhere in the world.”

Aw moved to England when he was 19, to study law at Warwick University and Cambridge University. He stayed in England, working as a lawyer for several years while working on his writing — a childhood ambition. Aw completed a degree in Creative Writing in 2002 at the University of East Anglia.

Asked where his home is, Aw’s reply was: “Home — that is the million dollar question for me!”
Aw says he owns an apartment in London, which makes London technically his home. “But I spend a lot of time in Kuala Lumpur and the rest of Southeast Asia. I think Malaysia will always be my point
of reference.”

Aw’s story of two brothers setting off on different paths is also a metaphor for how Aw views Indonesia and Malaysia.

“The two countries were often thought of as ‘brothers’ — with a shared language and religion and set apart from the other non-Muslim countries in Southeast Asia. We share music, TV and film. But it also struck me that in many fundamental ways the two countries could not be more different, both in terms of history and everyday contemporary life,” Aw says.

“So I decided to write a novel about two brothers and two countries, whose differences were most clearly highlighted in the 1960s during the time of Konfrontasi. The 1960s were a very turbulent time for Southeast Asian countries, most notably Indonesia, which is why it seemed the natural starting point for the novel.”

Aw has traveled extensively in Indonesia, including to Lombok. Last month, Aw took part in the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali.

Aw recognizes the love-hate relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia. The two countries have had bumpy relations, starting with Konfrontasi when Sukarno waged a war against Malaysia under the pretext that the latter was a neo-imperialist puppet.

In recent years, more spats have occurred because of misunderstandings about the use of traditional music and dance, or because of unclear borders. On the web one can gauge the strong animosity between the two countries, with harsh words and name calling on both sides.

Aw likens this to sibling rivalry.

“The animosity between Malaysia and Indonesia is, and always has been, a kind of sibling rivalry. I think it is the kind of tension that might arise if two children who shared much in common happened to have very different paths in life. Essentially I think it boils down to wealth, and how the two countries see themselves in relation to each other.”

Aw said Indonesia has had a much tougher time, particularly in the 20th century. “History has not been kind to Indonesia — Malaysia has had much more luck in this respect.”

Malaysia’s smaller size made its problems smaller in scale, he said. “We were able to become relatively prosperous and have more of a middle class earlier than Indonesia. But Indonesia has a much
older, richer and more varied history and culture — it is, after all, a far bigger country.

“I sometimes think Malaysia knows this and has a kind of inferiority complex that manifests itself in a kind of nouveau-riche arrogance,” he adds.

Despite the seeming animosity, Aw said ultimately there was more closeness between the countries than tension.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Ubud, Bali | People | Thu, November 04 2010

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