I was born in Taiwan and moved to KL when I was about four. Having spent the first few years of my life in Taiwan, even though I have no memory of it, I think it altered my mentality.
It’s a case of how people see you too. People see me as different. As a child I had no sense of being different but every time I filled in a form at school and wrote ‘Place of birth: Taiwan’, everybody thought, “Oh my god! You’re foreign!”
I grew up in what was then called Kampung Kerinchi. It was a slum, basically. Now it’s called Bangsar South. It’s really quite amazing.
At the foot of the hill, Bukit Pantai, you had Kampung Kerinchi, and then moment you climbed the hill, it totally changed. Our daily help – washerwomen, we called them – used to live in the slums. My parents would go down there for Hari Raya. There were mud floors, thin mattresses and there was one tap where everyone got water from.
You could never really escape that. You were always aware that there were people less fortunate than you. That was one of the things that formed my experience of growing up in Asia and my writing experiences: to see how affluent areas sat next to areas of deprivation. Whereas now, people live in gated communities and it’s not possible.
People talk about race divisions and they ignore class divisions.
The gap between rich and poor is getting bigger – not just in real terms, but in empathetic terms. In my generation, not that many people had rich parents. Most of us were one generation away from someone who knew real poverty. Now I see my sister’s kids – they have no idea.
I relate more to the countryside, where my parents are from. My dad’s from Kelantan, my mum’s from Perak, which is where my first novel were set. I spent school holidays in a village where my grandfather lived. My uncle and cousin still live in that same house, a shophouse. My parents are the only people in their family who moved to KL.
People talk about race divisions and they ignore class divisions. I went to a normal government school which was, in those days, very mixed. It was easy to see how Malay, Chinese, Indian kids from the same neighbourhoods were much more likely to hang out with each other. As a Chinese kid you were more likely to play with the Malay kid next door than a Chinese kid who went to a Chinese school in Jinjiang.
It’s really easy to find your space in London. It’s one of the few big cities that doesn’t require you to drop your cultural baggage to live there. People from all over the world don’t have to stop being Bangladeshi, Nigerian or whatever. In London you can just go and blend in and it’s a really anonymous city. For a writer that’s a very attractive thing.
London is where I wrote my first novel, where I struggled in my twenties. I think the city where you struggle to establish yourself in your twenties is the place that ends up being important to you.
I’ve been living out of a suitcase. I don’t know where I’ll be for the next few years. I find the idea of living in one place quite terrifying. I always have done.
I like that sense of things changing. Every move is exciting. Every time I move there is an atmosphere of optimism and I’ve become so accustomed to that. Even as a child I liked going places.
Countries like Malaysia wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the immigrant experience.
Going to new places gives me a perspective not just on where I’m going, but on the place I’ve been. I think if you stay in one place and you never leave that place, you never know how that place is special or not special. You never know how you’re different.
A lot of my work as a writer relies on that: the understanding or misunderstanding between cultures and people. So I need to keep moving between the cultures.
All writers are outsiders to some degree or another. Even the ones who are strongly identified with a place, they are always outsiders in some way. I don’t think you can write about a place if you’re completely an insider.
My life fundamentally involves airmiles. Any immigrant’s life does. If you wanted me to stay in one place, basically you’re saying that the whole immigrant experience has to be broken. You can never go back and be in touch with your roots, which is nuts. Countries like Malaysia wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the immigrant experience. The fabric of our society is built on hybridity.
Of course you don’t have to move abroad to be a writer – but it’s more difficult if you don’t. I’ve been a full time writer for 12 years. In that time, things have changed a lot. Before I was published, there wasn’t anyone I could look at and say, “That’s how you become a writer.”
I don’t think any creative writing course tells you, this is the way you do character, or voice. All a creative writing course teaches you – at least, a good one – is to be more self aware about your own writing. It’s a misnomer. Because you can’t teach a person to write, nor can you teach a person to be creative. What you can do is teach a person to be aware of what it is they are trying to do. Sometimes as a writer you have instincts but you’re not clear about the processes, the techniques. It can be like wandering about in a dark room and someone turns on the light. Suddenly they see what’s in the room, realise there is a table, and this is how they could arrange the stuff. But what they do with what’s in the room is entirely up to them.
Did I want to be a writer when I was a kid? Not really. I wanted to be a writer but in the same way that I wanted to be a vet. Even as a child I was writing stories, though. Quite seriously too – in my best handwriting, making books with hand-drawn covers. I really hope those don’t exist now.
I find KL both comforting and scary.
I don’t see Malaysia being ‘third world’ as a necessarily bad thing. A lot of Malaysians don’t really feel that comfortable in posh restaurants. Given the choice we’d rather go to a dai chow or a mamak or a kopitiam like this.
I’m not a nostalgic kind of person. I don’t believe in being traditional for the sake of being traditional. But I do think it’s also important to connect with what is right and not aspire to things that you think you should, just because the rest of the world values those things.
In spite of the fact that KL changes physically, I still think places like this coffee shop, this neighbourhood, haven’t really changed that much. The houses in Damansara Heights haven’t changed beyond a bit of cosmetic renovation. In that sense I find KL both comforting and scary. Like, why hasn’t it changed?
Asian people expect change all the time. We’ve been conditioned to think about that, about things being on an upward curve all the time.
Tash Aw is a novelist. His first book, The Harmony Silk Factory, is set in 1940s Malaya and won the Whitbread Book Awards’ First Novel Award in 2005. He is also author of Map of the Invisible World (2009) and Five Star Billionaire (2013).
Interview by Ling Low; Photos by Stacy Liu.