28 Nov 2007

tan twan eng's "the gift of rain"

Fridae interviews Booker Prize-nominated Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng on his first novel, The Gift of Rain.

The Gift of Rain is not a gay novel. The author, Tan Twan Eng, would prefer for readers to focus on the book as a story of self-discovery and betrayal, set in Penang during the traumatic years of the Japanese Occupation in World War Two.

Above: Tan Twan Eng, author of The Gift of Rain which made it to the 'Man Booker Dozen' - the longlist of 13 books chosen from 110 entries. Formerly known as the Booker, the prestigious award is open to writers from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth of former British colonies.
Naturally, though, I'm intrigued by the very queer themes in the book, played out between figures who would never see themselves as gay. The story's narrated by Philip Hutton, a half-English, half-Chinese teenager who feels like a misfit in the stratified colonial world around him, just beginning to learn aikido from a mysterious Japanese diplomat named Hayato Endo.

And what a story it is. With its vivid, detailed descriptions of pre-war Malaya, its epic narrative and compellingly spiritual core, The Gift of Rain could make a claim towards being the Great Malayan Novel - and note that I say Malayan rather than Malaysian, because the histories and cultures described in the book speak to Singaporeans just as much as they do to Malaysians. The judges of this year's prestigious Man Booker Prize certainly thought so, placing the first-time novelist's work on the longlist for the 2007 award - a rare achievement for Malaysian literature.

Though Tan prefers not to discuss his sexuality as an author, Fridae managed to get him to agree to an online interview. Readers will have a chance to meet the man face-to face this coming weekend at the Singapore Writers' Festival.

æ: Age, sex, location?

Twan Eng: Age: 35, sex - male. Location: I divide my time between Kuala Lumpur and Cape Town. Currently in Kuala Lumpur. I was in Cape Town to study for a Masters degree and I used my time there to write The Gift of Rain.

æ: What's your current profession?

Twan Eng: Full time writer.

æ: What gave you the impulse to write The Gift of Rain? How long have you been working on it, did it take a lot of research, and what were your major inspirations?

Twan Eng: There wasn't much research to be done as I've been interested in the period since I was young and I've been reading up on it, collecting materials, books (memoirs, biographies, history). It was more a case of verifying facts, confirming certain details. I've worked on it for approximately two years from first draft to final draft.

I've always wanted to be a writer, but like many people in Malaysia and Singapore, I went into the legal profession to placate my parents. I'm glad that I did, because it gave me a good grounding in discipline, being professional and meticulous.

æ: Why did you decide to use homosexual eroticism in your story? I've never seen it used in a book on the Japanese Occupation.

Twan Eng: I used this element because we've never seen it used. It's also added an additional layer of conflict and psychological depth to the characters and the novel.

æ: What was the response to this aspect of the story? Have you found that people have misread it, tried to avoid discussing it, or been overly fixated on it?

Twan Eng: The more perceptive readers have comprehended the deeper dynamics of the characters and have understood that there's more to them than just what appears on the surface. The discerning readers have not been overly fixated on it because they do realise that there's more to the novel than that. I've met two readers who said they were uncomfortable with it, but that in the end the story pulled them along. If you read the novel carefully and with some awareness, you'll realise that there are many things happening at various different levels.

æ: What has the response been like to the book as a whole? I'm curious not just about the critical response, but also the political/cultural response, e.g. representations of Malaysia (including the fact that Malays are barely mentioned), the simultaneous praise and horror at the Japanese, etc.

Twan Eng: The response has been very strong and positive. I've had Malay, Indian, Chinese, European readers who've come up to me and told me they enjoyed reading the book. You should give readers more credit because I really feel that they - whatever their race - care more about the strength of the story and the quality of the writing than the racial composition of a novel. It's only politicians who have to resort to playing the race card to get some attention. As for the Japanese, I've only heard feedback from one Japanese reader, and she said if was difficult reading about the brutality of the Japanese. But I think I've been fair to all sides. Sometimes it's interesting to explore the humane aspect of evil, rather than the evil elements of humanity.

æ: What projects are you working on now?

Twan Eng: I'm working on my second book, also set in pre-Independence Malaysia.

æ: What writers do you admire, within Malaysia/Singapore, Asia and globally?

Twan Eng: In Singapore: Vyvyane Loh for Breaking The Tongue. Elsewhere in Asia - Han Suyin's non-fiction works, Yiyun Li, Yasunari Kawabata, Martin Booth, Mary Yukari-Waters. In the rest of the world - Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro.

æ: What advice would you have for aspiring gay writers in Asia?

Twan Eng: My advice would be the same whether for straight or gay writers: read as widely as you can, start with a strong story and you won't need any textual gimmicks or literary tricks.

Tan Twan Eng will be speaking at the Singapore Writers' Festival on Dec 2, 2007. A Meet-the-Author Session will be held at 1pm, while a talk on getting published, entitled The Writing Room: Blood, Sweat and Tears: Tips for Getting Yourself Published, will be held at 4pm. Both events will be held at the Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane, Singapore 179429. Admission is free.

Ng Yi-Sheng is Singaporean playwright and poet who rose to prominence after publishing SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century, a documentary book on gay, lesbian and bisexual Singaporeans in 2006.