“It is the most personal novel I’ve ever written,” says Tash Aw of his fourth novel We, the Survivors. “It is very close to my heart.” For this reason, it was also the most difficult to write. It is the story of Ah Hock, born in a poor fishing village in Malaysia, whose dreams of self-improvement are destroyed in an act of senseless violence — Camus’s L’Etranger shadows the novel.
Twice Booker-longlisted, the 47-year-old author fits in comfortably with the youthful, snappily dressed crowd at the industrial London restaurant where we meet. But this is a world away from the one depicted in his novel — where people survive from day to day, at the mercy of the elements, where “the sun is the enemy”. Both of Aw’s grandfathers came from China and his parents “were born into very humble families” in rural Malaysia, where the countryside means only one thing: “deprivation”.
Aw was born 14 years after Malaysian independence and brought up in Kuala Lumpur, where his father trained as an electrical engineer and his mother became a technician — “I had parents who got lucky.” He wanted to write about the people he grew up alongside, “people who have lives very close to those of my cousins”. But as he wrote, the novel also became a portrait of his divided self. There are “really only two characters” in the novel, he says, which takes the form of a series of interviews between Ah Hock and Su Min, the well-intentioned sociology graduate to whom he tells his story: “One could easily have become me if I had been born to different parents, to parents who remained in the village. Su Min is the foreign, educated part of me.”
Despite these deeply personal elements, Aw also intended to confront uncomfortable truths about his country. Ever since his debut, The Harmony Silk Factory, set in British Malaya in the 1940s, which won the Whitbread first novel award in 2005, his fiction can be read as an attempt to capture the changing nature of Asian society over the last 100 years, which he felt wasn’t reflected anywhere in English-language writing. His novel Five Star Billionaire, which follows the fortunes of five immigrants in contemporary Shanghai, was his “homage to people of my generation, who had ridden this wave of optimism and Asian materialism, and believed that material wealth could provide them with the emotional security that they needed”.
We, the Survivors is his testament to the failure of those aspirations. “It is really an examination of how that sense of optimism has died in just two generations. We believed that life was always going to be on an upward trajectory, we were going to become more educated, we were going to become richer,” he says. “But the example of the majority of people in Malaysia shows that that’s not true.”
He set out to expose the ugly reality hiding behind the slick suits and skyscrapers synonymous with the hit film Crazy Rich Asians: “It has become the new cliche. Thirty or 40 years ago the cliche was that Asia is very poor, and then it was poor but beautiful, very exotic, very spiritual. And now it is ‘Asians are rich’.” But this wealth is concentrated in “the hands of a tiny, tiny minority. The gulf between rich and poor is much greater than in the west.”
As Aw points out, these changes are no different from those across the world, “but in Asia you see it speeded up”, and so divisions and adjustments that in Europe take place over several generations, “we’ve achieved in one”. This new narrative of success is “very handy” for both westerners and Asians, “because it gives us a sense of self-confidence that we are no longer these poor repressed people”. But it has created a society in which to be anything but rich is in some way shameful.
Unlike the anglophone novelists of the 80s and 90s, “writing either under the influence of, or in reaction against the white colonials”, writers of Aw’s generation are “trying to deal with our own problems, which were the creation of newly independent countries”. (He is a big fan of early VS Naipaul who, as a Trinidadian British author, was “very important for non-white authors writing in English”.) As Aw points out, “for many years, to be Asian and to be a writer meant that in some way you had privilege,” and those earlier novels often unwittingly perpetuated the idea “that suffering is beautiful, that people are poor but happy”, as well as sentimentalising the Asian family. He feels a duty to reflect the distinctly un-beautiful truth: “Suffering is suffering — it has no aesthetic quality to it.”
From scraping around for shellfish in the coastal mudflats, to waiting on tables in Kuala Lumpur, to becoming manager of a fish farm, Ah Hock’s story makes real the precarious existence of those for whom a regular salary is an impossible dream. Contemporary fiction is often wary of entering an office let alone a sweatshop, but Aw recognises the importance of work in our lives, especially for those such as Ah Hock’s mother who “didn’t have time for love,” and he is particularly strong on the crushing physical and mental impact of hard labour.
When they are first married, Ah Hock and Jenny move into an unlovely, but to them hopeful, single-storey suburban house. “I grew up in those houses,” Aw says. “They are all the same. Terraced with a small front yard, not much light.” (As a child Aw assumed English people lived either in Coronation Street-style terraces or a version of Brideshead.) In one horribly memorable scene, Jenny has diarrhoea, but the toilet is broken: “I tried to fix the flush,” narrates Ah Hock, “but it was hopeless — something in the mechanism was broken beyond repair.” Aw laughs grimly. “That was my growing up. [Expletive] happens. It’s just there festering away. You don’t have the money to call a plumber.”
While Ah Hock’s life is harsh, the novel shows that for many refugees and illegal immigrants, such as the Rohingya workers with cholera — “you get sick, you get the sack”, the novel says — it is unbearably inhumane. Between 2006 and 2014 the number of deaths of Nepalese migrants to Malaysia was the highest of any country, and more than 10 per cent of these deaths were suicide. “How can that be?” Aw asks. “It is so much part of everyday life that we have become almost immune to it.” The murder story (Ah Hock tells us he has killed someone in the opening pages) is far from “exceptional”, with similar cases, especially among migrant communities, routinely reported in the papers. We, the Survivors is Aw’s attempt to give these stories “visibility in literature” and of addressing the way in which “we have come to see things as normal that really shouldn’t be normal”.
While novels about the immigrant experience in London or New York are hardly new, much less well documented are the same struggles happening in kitchens and on construction sites across the globe. In “most English-language western literature, every non-white person dreams of coming to the west,” Aw says. “It’s not the only story of migration in the world. In fact, the more important story is about how Chinese people see Bangladeshis, how Malays see Nepalese. This is a story that needs to be told.” His next novel will be about the migration of Chinese people across Africa.
As part of an ethnic Chinese family, Aw is acutely aware of the way in which recent immigrants from countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia and Myanmar are being subjected to “exactly the same kind of social violence” as that suffered by his grandparents. “It really is a question of dark skin. In Malaysia they have all these words for people who are different from us, who are foreign.” Racism, Aw reminds us, “does not revolve around the white person”. And white guilt — “actually very healthy” — is “not the only kind of guilt in the world”.
Aw grew up speaking Malay and Chinese, learning English from a very early age; “We had to work at it just to prove our middle-class credentials.” He attended a “really bog-standard” government school, and won a scholarship to come to the UK in the 90s and a place to study law at Cambridge University. He revelled in the possibilities for reinvention, a recurring theme in his fiction, most notably in Five Star Billionaire. “Back then, I might as well have come from Mars,” he says. “I could be anyone, I could do anything. All my interest in literature, and wanting to be a writer, all those things that the system I had grown up in had told me were not meant for me, they were meant for more educated, more cultured people than my family — suddenly I thought: I have access to all that. So for me, the sense of liberation outweighed any sense of terror.”
But it also increased his feelings of unease and isolation, as he writes in The Face: Strangers on a Pier (his first foray into first-person non-fiction): “The knowledge that I was an imposter, that I would, at any time, be revealed as an outsider ... Someone alien to his own family.”
He wincingly remembers using the word “deforestation” while visiting his cousins in the jungle, and while We, the Survivors is alert to the devastating ecological costs of Malaysia’s economic rise, Aw is cautious of what he regards as “the hypocrisy in the moral lessons handed out to Asia”. As one character observes: “The Europeans want to save the [expletive] planet so they ban the use of palm oil in food; within a month the entire port is on its knees.”
His background, he says, means he treats writing as a job: “I turn up at work every day. I do the hours.” For many years, he has divided his time between his home in east London and teaching creative writing in Singapore. But this year he is on a fellowship in Paris, a luxury he finds impossible to explain to his parents — “the idea of someone giving me a salary to sit in an office in the middle of Paris to think about a work of fiction.”
He returns to Kuala Lumpur more regularly now they are getting older, but is “very conscious of the fact that I’m no longer part of that world.” Both his sisters attended foreign universities and, as he reflects in Strangers on a Pier, a degree from Cambridge makes you “a fundamentally different person from someone who shared your bloodlines and DNA but who quit a rural Malaysian school at age 17.” In a traditional Asian family, “those differences become even more pronounced”; he sometimes sees his parents looking at him and wondering “how they have produced this thing”.
This is where the character of Su Min comes in: so detached from the novel’s tragic inevitabilities she is only given a name in the final pages, her lifestyle is so removed from Ah Hock’s that they can’t share a meal together as it’s unthinkable in Asian society. With her liberal views, lectures on sexual politics (she’s a lesbian — “one of those things that in my world is so normal, but in their world isn’t”), and horror of rats and carbohydrates, Su Min allows Aw to have fun at his own expense, sending up the fashionable literary milieu he now inhabits. “I go to these dinner parties in London and New York and there are no carbs, and that’s when I really know that part of me is still Ah Hock. I literally have to go home and have instant noodles because I can’t sleep if I don’t have carbs.”
But as the one transcribing Ah Hock’s life on to the page and eventually into a novel, she holds all the power. “Well-meaning though Su Min is and well-meaning though I may be, what I’m trying to do is create a story about other people, which they might or might not agree with,” Aw says. “I am privileged, and I have to acknowledge that.”
–Guardian News & Media Ltd
We, The Survivors by Tash Aw is published by Fourth Estate.