Thursday, October 04, 2007

Searching the Past

The hand of destiny brought together two authors from opposite sides of the world who found they had a great deal in common in a panel discussion called Searching the Past, at the Ubud Writers' and Readers' Festival. It was an extremely interesting discussion in which the two authors discovered that they had a lot of common ground.

Tan Twan Eng is of course Malaysian of Chinese descent, while Madeleine Thien has Malaysian-Chinese parents but lives in Vancouver.

Twan's novel is set in Penang, Thien's latest novel Certainty is set in Sandakan where her father grew up. Both set their novels during World War II and the Japanese invasion figures large. (She told us how her grandfather had worked for the Japanese and was taken away to be killed when her father was only 5 years old.) Her novel explores the theme of displacement.

Both books, as moderator Joanna Saville pointed out, are about human choices and about fate and destiny and how much we can control.

And both novels have won critical acclaim and have been serious contenders for prestigious literary prizes. Twan of course was Booker longlisted for The Gift of Rain, while Thien was shortlisted for the Kiriyama Prize for novels from the Pacific Rim for Certainty.

(You might also like to check out her previous books Simple Recipes (a collection of stories) and The Chinese Violin (a children's book).)

How difficult was it for them to carry out the research for their books?

Thien found it hard to obtain first hand information from her family, as they didn't want to talk about that period, so she came to Malaysia for two months in 1999.

Sandakan had been "bombed to bits in the war", she says, and so she found herself writing about a place that had essentially been lost.

But she didn't feel so strange going back - she still has family there, and her father had drawn a map for her from memory which enabled her to find her way around, and so she says there was a sense of entering the world of the novel. She found people in Sandakan willing to talk to her about that period of history: most hadn't been asked about their wartime experiences for so many years.

However, because she does not speak Hakka and Malay, so she always felt that she was at one remove from the people she interviewed. (This proved to be another area of similarity between the two authors, as Twan does not speak Mandarin or a Chinese dialect either.)

Twan said said that he did not need to do any specific research before starting the novel as he has always read a great deal about the period although the literature on the 2nd World War was written by the British rather than by the local inhabitants. And he said that that it was only in the older generation of Malaysians has he heard rancour against the Japanese for atrocities committed during the war.

He described Penang as a main character in the book, and said that he felt a need to record a part of the world that is so quickly changing.

Twan also explained how he had begun writing The Gift of Rain. He'd always felt that he wanted to write but finally had some time on his hands when he was doing his Masters in Shipping Law with the University of Cape Town. He originally set out to write what he says was
a 100 page short story about three minor characters whom he wanted to include in a much larger novel, but their story grew and grew until it became the present novel!

The novel was actually written on the edge of the desert in Kimberley, and his longing for rain in this arid landscape seeps into the opening pages so much you can almost smell the scent of it ...

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