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

Etgar Keret: Israel’s urban challenge

Israeli writer-director Etgar Keret, 43, said Jewish people usually gave their children names with meanings.

Keret’s first name means challenge. His last name means urban. “So my name means urban challenge,” he said.

He explained this in a prelude as to why his short stories are mostly based in urban settings. Keret is Israel’s best-selling short story writer who writes absurd and humorous tales of urban life in Israel. His works have been published in 30 languages and are included in Israel’s high school curriculum.

Having lived in Tel Aviv all his life, an urban life is the only one he knows, he says. “I think there’s something really urban about my mind… I love nature. But the most interesting thing for me is people. That’s why an urban setting is something that I like because you condense people together in small spaces. It heightens tension. It kind of pumps it out. So I like writing about urban life. And it’s also the only life I l know,” he said.

Keret was in Ubud, Bali, recently for the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. When it was suggested he would find Jakarta interesting, he said that his visa for Indonesia
only allowed him to travel to Bali for the festival. Coming from a country that does not have a bilateral relationship with Indonesia, Keret jokingly says: “I was born with the wrong passport!”

He was almost could not attend the festival and had to wait five days in Bangkok for his pass, “But I’m really glad I made it,” he said. When he received the invitation to the festival, he said he was very excited. “Because [Indonesia] is a part of the world that I can’t travel to normally. I was very curious,” he said.

Sitting in an Ubud restaurant over a plate of Greek salad, Keret said that one of the purposes of his writing was to humanize Israel in the eyes of people. “Not to make us saints,” he points out “but to make us human.

“Regardless of all the trouble that I have in my country, we are people. Some of us are better, some of us are worse,” he said.

Keret, a son of a holocaust survivor, has for a long time been a spokesman for peace, writing witty and poignant criticism in his op-eds about the war. In a 2007 interview, he once said that his family was like a microcosm of Israel. Keret, the youngest of three siblings went into the arts. His stories do not show any political leanings, never putting things in black or white. His brother, currently living in Thailand, is a peace activist who founded the legalizing marijuana movement in
Israel. His sister became ultra-orthodox. Her 11 children are forbidden on religious grounds to read Keret’s graphic novels, which he dedicated to them.

Keret said his wish was to reach out to different communities. “Just so they have a glimpse of how [Israelis] live,” he said.

His short story collections have entered bookstores in Muslim countries. “I’m the only Israeli writer since the second intifada [whose works are] translated and published in Palestine,” he said. His books are published in Turkey as well.

Keret’s works have been translated in to 30 languages but the Indonesian language is yet to be one of them. “Nothing would make me happier to have an Indonesian one,” he said.

Reading Keret’s short stories, one sees the high-paced energy of urban life situations in his flowing sentences. But Keret’s surreal imaginations are what make his stories special.

During the festival opening, Keret read out his short story Fatso that tells of a man whose girlfriend morphs into a hairy man with no neck who wears a gold ring on his pinkie finger.

Fatso is a quirky love letter to Keret’s wife, Shira Geffen. They live in Tel Aviv with a 5-year-old son. Keret has co-directed the film Jellyfish with Geffen, based on a story that she wrote. The film went on to win best first feature at Cannes Film Festival.

Keret’s wild imagination in Fatso is only one example of how Keret’s mind explores the absurd. In Second Chance, he tells a story about a service that allows people to experience events and emotions that would occur if they had taken a different path in their lives simultaneously to the life they experience now. In Nimrod’s Flip Out, which also became the title of one of his short-story collections, he tells a story about how Nimrod’s suicide affected three friends who all experience mental episodes.

Keret said that writing had taught him to learn more about himself. Keret said he was an angry person when he was young. “I couldn’t articulate it but I had feelings that maybe I was being self-destructive. I just wanted to do something with my life. But I didn’t know how to do it. It was very frustrating,” he said.

Keret said the fact that he did not know what he wanted to be when he grew up “stoked deep fear in me”.

“Aggression usually comes from fear and incompetence. And I think writing taught me to be less afraid. And I became less angry. I know more about myself because of it.”

Keret has published his latest collection of short stories this year called Suddenly, A Knock on The Door.

He said that he would be traveling and has yet to think about his next project. “Between projects, I’m free falling. I don’t know what’s going on,” he said.

“There is something about writing. It’s like a gift. You can’t force people to give you a gift. If it comes, it comes,” he said.

Even now, Keret said, he felt uneasy about calling himself a “writer” on forms that ask his profession. “It’s what I do now. I don’t know if I will do it later. You know it’s like somebody who’s happy. They’re happy now. But who knows if they will be happy later.”

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | People | Sat, October 30 2010

Ma Jian: A note to remember


Chinese writer Ma Jian, 57, whose works are banned in his home country, never tires of reminding people of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, which took place more than 20 years ago.

His latest book, Beijing Coma, recounts the story of a young student activist who falls into a coma after being shot during the Tiananmen protests. Through Ma’s protagonist Dai Wei, the reader finds out what it must have been like to grow up under communist rule.

For Ma Jian, who was present during the 1989 protests, his protagonist’s comatose state is a metaphor for the Chinese people, who after 20 years have either forgotten or ignored the death of the thousands of unarmed citizens on June 4.

“This is a problem in Asia as well as China. As long as people’s living standards improve and they live a comfortable life, they don’t care so much about abuses of human rights,” Ma Jian said recently in Ubud, Bali, as translated by his wife Flora Drew. He noted that many East Asian countries had grown economically but remained undemocratic.

Ma said he wrote Beijing Coma “not only to remind the young people [of China] about this history they may not know about but to also tell them about the idealism and optimism of young people 20 years ago”.

But given Ma’s books are banned in China, youth there is not able to access his books freely. Ma, who lives in London, said he knew more about what was happening in China than the people living there because of the government’s tight policy on information dissemination. He also has more freedom to express his views compared to his friends who live in China.

“Some writers in China perhaps feel they have freedom of expression – that things have improved but they are fooling themselves,” he said.

“Young Chinese writers have grown up in this culture. They are somehow able to circumvent it through the Internet but they can’t use sensitive words, otherwise access to their content will be blocked,” he said.

Ma hopes the Internet will help Chinese youth read his works.

Ma and Drew attended the Ubud Writers and Readers festival. The day Ma talked to The Jakarta Post, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced imprisoned Chinese and human rights activist and writer Liu Xiaobo had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

“These things indicate the West is putting pressure on China to respect freedom of speech,” Ma said.
Ma moved from Beijing to Hong Kong in 1987 shortly before his books were banned there. He now lives in London with Drew and their four children. Every time he came back to China, he was under constant monitoring, he said. In 1989, he joined the student protests, but a few days before the day of the massacre, Ma returned to his hometown in Qingdao as his brother fell into a coma after an accident.

Ma said that had he stayed in China, one of two things would have happened. “One, I would have remained a writer and would be in jail. Or, I would have given up writing altogether because if I cannot write freely, I would prefer not to write.”

Ma met Drew in 1997 on the night Hong Kong was handed over to China. Drew, who had studied Chinese in London, was at that time making a documentary for an American television station. She read Ma’s books, which he showed to her, and was convinced they needed to be translated into English.

After Ma moved to London, Drew translated his memoir Red Dust for almost two years while he was writing. The book about Ma’s precarious three years of traveling in China in his early 30s, at a time where travel permits were required to travel anywhere inside China, went on to win the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.

Red Dust was published in China under a pseudonym, but only after half of the content was censored, Ma said.

Ma set off on the journey because he wanted to see China through his own eyes. He was a state journalist before and explained everything that was shown to him was pre-arranged to paint a rosy picture. When he reached Tibet, he penned his findings in his first book Stick Out Your Tongue, about Tibet’s underbelly.

China is still Ma’s spiritual homeland, which he will continue to stay connected to. He said living away from China helped him see the country more clearly, like looking at a mountain from afar.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Ubud, Bali | People | Thu, October 21 2010