The search for the fundamental answers in life drove Alex Tan Bok Hooi to pursue a postgraduate degree in particle physics – and, surprisingly, to write short stories. Dry science and heartwarming stories about love and life don’t seem to go together, but Tan, 47, has found a way to tap both of these very different areas.
“After all, Einstein said that while logic can take us from Point A to Point B, it is imagination that can take us everywhere,” he points out.
Imagination took him into the world of art when he was child growing up in a little village in Butterworth, Penang. He recalls deriving great pleasure from sketching and painting: “I would cycle to town and sit for hours watching street artists paint, then return home to try out the techniques I had seen.”
As time progressed, Tan discovered writing as another way to “explore the hidden treasures of the universe” and set about finding stories that matter. He began writing when he was 16 and at 21, had his first Malay novel, Topeng (Mask), published by Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka in 1992.
“During my post-grad days and subsequently getting caught up in the corporate world, I got so preoccupied with work that I completely forgot about the joys of writing. But one fine day, nearly two decades after Topeng, I found an unpublished manuscript in my utility room. The next thing I knew, I was raring to get back into the writing world,” he says.
In 2016, Tan published his first book in English, a collection of short stories that began when inspiration struck unexpectedly while he was having lunch in a coffee shop in his hometown.
There was an elderly guy seated beside Tan, and when his food arrived he took out his wallet to pay. What caught Tan’s eye was that the wallet was carefully wrapped in a plastic bag.
“He told me that it was a birthday gift from his kids. He works on a construction site and was worried that his sweat would eventually damage his wallet, hence the idea to wrap it up in that plastic bag,” Tan relates.
This became the first story of A Man And His Wallet And Other Stories, a collection he describes as a Malaysian version of the well-loved Chicken Soup For The Soul series.
It was selected by Majlis Buku Kebangsaan Malaysia as one of the 50 Best Malaysian Titles for International Rights for 2016/17 and was exhibited at the Malaysian Pavilion at the Frankfurt Book Festival in 2016.
Tan will soon launch his second collection of short stories in English, Love Will Find You And Other Stories. The prolific author will concurrently launch two Malay novels, Sahabat (Friend) and Protes (Protest).
“Love Will Find You dwells on the unpredictable nature of love, a faceless entity with the ability to wreak havoc in our lives, yet is worth all the trouble. Love is incomprehensible, yet we cannot live without it. It can be an angel today or the devil tomorrow,” Tan waxes poetical in describing the book.
Presenting anecdotes and reflections in bite-sized servings, Love Will Find You delves – among other subjects – into the topic of love for our parents and the tough choices we have to make when we take flight with dreams of our own even as they age; love as a double-edged sword in our search for happiness and for that special someone; and inspiring moments that guide us throughout our life journey into the unknown.
“My writing style is simple and minimalistic, I avoid big words whenever possible. I try to tackle the topic head on and with clarity, but I do not seek to provide answers to the fundamental questions posed along the way,” Tan says.
“Life is a maze and we need to make choices and live with them. But you are the master of your destiny and the answers you seek can only be found within yourself,” he adds.
All these stories are drawn from personal experiences and observations, and Tan confides that he has come to know himself better while working on them.
“As I write, clarity is found in the most unexpected ways. It allows me to explore my innermost thoughts in a manner that provokes questions unasked before. You become more sensitive to your needs and those of others. In essence, after the manuscript was completed, I knew myself better than before,” he says.
Tan shares the lessons he’s learning from his writing as a motivational speaker; a man of many hats, he divides his time between his consultancy work in the medical device industry, the motivational talks and physics coaching.
And he always, always makes time for literary projects because to Tan, writing comes with a sense of accomplishment and happiness.
“When I share my thoughts in the form of my writing, I feel lighter, as if a massive load has been lifted from my shoulders. Writing makes me happy and contented and allows me to experience the emotions that we can only sometimes yearn for. The tranquillity experienced is a joyful moment in life.”