Over the years, Malaysian society has become increasingly divided. Lines are being drawn: not just racially, author Tash Aw feels, but also in another area which many people tend to overlook.
“Malaysians are obsessed by racial division – we always think in terms of Malay, Chinese Indian. But, in fact, we are equally, if not more, divided according to class lines.
“Look at, for example, the Bangsar crowd. What bonds them is money and education,” Aw reflects, referring to the upscale Kuala Lumpur neighbourhood.
“A rich, English-speaking, foreign-educated Chinese person would be much more likely to have friends of similiar financial or educational background that are Malay or Indian, than they would working class, Chinese-educated Chinese. That’s where the real divisions lie.”
Class differences form the crux of Aw’s fourth novel, We, The Survivors (see review here; a 20% coupon is available in the print version of The Star on Aug 18). It tells the harrowing tale of Ah Hock, a poor, uneducated man from a fishing village whose only desire is to make a living. He ends up working a number of low-end jobs, including at a restaurant and a fish farm. Caught up in circumstances beyond his control, Ah Hock ends up killing a migrant worker from Bangladesh.
A major character in the book is Keong, one of Ah Hock’s childhood friends, who treats him like a brother, but also sadly contributes to Ah Hock’s fall.
“When people talk about friendships, particularly rural friendships, there is a lot in literature and the cultural imagination about two boys from the village who are always innocent until they come to the big city. But the reality is its not always like this!” Aw says with a laugh.
“When young men get together, more often than not they’re up to no good! There’s a constant romantisation of people who have rural lives, and I think that’s totally false. I think they’re just trying to hustle and get on with their lives as much as they can.”
The book plays out as a murderer’s confession, with Ah Hock relating his life to Pang Su Min, a graduate student interested in his life. Young, liberal and privileged, she and Ah Hock could not be any more different from each other.
“It’s really the story of how these two Malaysians, with two different outlooks, try to connect with each other, and most importantly, can they connect?” Aw says.
According to Aw, class differences are common to every society on Earth. What makes the case of Malaysia so striking, however, is how pronounced this difference has become in such a short time.
The 47-year-old author recalls how, went he went to school, his classmates came from all backgrounds.
“At that time, you had all the Rajas and Tunkus in the same school with people whose parents were rubber tappers. Malaysia was very mixed, even until the 1980s.
“But now, all my friends from that school, all their kids now go to private schools,” Aw says.
“So if you are that child, growing up in private schools, going on holidays abroad, all your friends are driven to school in a Mercedes Benz … their experience of life is completely different from people who, say, go to a school in the provinces.
“So what you have is a country divided along money and class lines, and that happened in one generation!
“I’m interested in how this happened, and how we think this is normal, a natural progression in society, when it’s actually not.”
Malaysian readers might be familiar with Aw’s slightly unusual start in life, as he was born and lived in Taipei, Taiwan, for two years before moving back here with his Malaysian parents. Aw then moved to London to study, and held a number of jobs there, including as a lawyer for about four years before writing his debut novel, The Harmony Silk Factory.
The novel won the 2005 Whitbread Book Awards First Novel Award and the 2005 Common-wealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel (Asia Pacific region) – and also earned him the attention-grabbing “The 3.5mil ringgit man” headline in our 2005 story that referred to how much he was paid for the manuscript.
He followed that up with Map Of The Invisible World (2009), Five Star Billionaire (2013), and the nonfiction work The Face: Strangers On A Pier (2016), with each work receiving much critical acclaim, thus making Aw one of the most successful Malaysian authors.
In We, The Survivors, Aw adopts a nonlinear timeline, with the narrative jumping around to show us different parts of Ah Hock’s story.
“I wanted it to be as casual a storyline as possible. I wanted to recapture the feel of a man just telling a story.
“And he’s not an educated person, so he’s not going to be thinking in the terms of a beautifully-plotted novel, with a nice shape and structure,” Aw says.
The author adds that this is the most personal novel he has ever written.
“I have family, cousins, who live in the countryside, who were not as lucky as me.
“It’s not like I was cleverer than them, it’s just I had access to education, was exposed to more culture at an earlier age. We grew up together. And now my life is so different from theirs,” Aw says.
“So this novel is an attempt to reconcile the two parts of Malaysian society, and also the two different parts of myself, split between the rural and the urban, the privileged and the underprivileged, and to make sense with that was going on.”
It was for this reason, Aw says, that he changed the format of the novel to include the interview with Su Min.
It was originally only going to be about Ah Hock’s experiences working with migrant workers.
Su Min, he says, is trying to tell Ah Hock’s story – but how much of her is in his story? By telling his story, is she controlling what was being said?
“I wanted to implicate the reader. Because the readers are going to be people like me. I wanted to question what and how we read.
“Because books are consumed by middle class people, and I have a feeling that they are mostly written by and for that class of people. And that’s not what literature should be,” Aw says.
“Literature should be in the service of society in general. It should be about trying to capture as many voices as possible, to interrogate the way we live – and by we, I mean everyone.”
His passion about this comes across clearly, and we wonder if it will inform his next book. Aw is working on a book about the migration of Chinese people across Africa, but it is still too early to know how it will eventually turn out.
Whatever it winds up being about, however, rest assured that it will certainly be worth the time you spend to read it because Aw is a firm believer in a writer living up to his responsibilities.
“I’ve always believed in giving the writing the respect it deserves. I don’t believe in the writer just writing when they feel inspired,” says the author.
“I believe writing is a craft, and a vocation. You have to work very hard at it. I feel I have to constantly interrogate myself, ask myself why I want to write, whether what I’m writing is interesting to me or useful.
“I feel there’s too much being published, and not everything that is being published adds to our understanding of the world. I don’t want so many trees being killed just to publish books that don’t mean anything!”