Saturday, June 06, 2009

How Reading and Writing Shaped Tash's Life

Went along to hear Tash Aw's talk at Sunway University College on Friday evening with Saras and Damyanti and was really glad I did.

Tash is an excellent speaker, engaging and very humble, and the message he delivered an extremely important one - especially for the young people in the audience. I really hope the full text of it gets to be published somewhere. I hope too that these reconstituted notes manage to give the flavour of the talk, and that I haven't misquoted Tash anywhere.

He was introduced by Elizabeth Lee Fu Yen Executive Director of Sunway University College and Tash's teacher (how proud must she have been!) before he left for the UK in the late 80's.

He began by saying that when he was in his teens, imagining the life of an author was like imagining the life of an alien - there simply were no role models for anyone who wanted to write. All the people he admired were Westerners ... and usually dead. Most people's idea of an author was someone who smokes, stays up all night, drinks a lot, has torrid love affairs. So he said he wanted in this talk to demystify the writer's life.

He had decided to start where a writers' journeys should start he said, with reading. As writers, he said, we've always evolved from somewhere, and the single cell that started it was probably children's books. The book that he particularly remembers is an abridged copy of The Illiad.

(Indeed, he said, if you spend time with writers, you'd be surprised at how childlike they are. Innocence and childlike detachment, a sense of curiosity and wonder stay with all writers.)

Two other books that set his imagination on fire were Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and Melville's Moby Dick. Both are set on the ocean and pitch man against fish, but the former is a novella which communicates emotion with clarity and power and shows him how even the simplest of stories can be universal.

He also mentioned Flaubert's Troi Contes, and in particular being moved by the first story - A Simple Heart (which you can read here.) Often, said Tash, the simplest tales (in terms of thought and in terms of style) can often be the most rich. Writing is not about an author trying to use big words or impress : the writing invariably suffers in the struggle for elaborate flowery prose. Rather you need clarity of though an expression, and most of the great works of literature are quite simple.

Tash took us by way of Pride and Prejudice ("the original rom com"), Steinbeck who showed him that "intimacy and grand scope can go together", Falkner (who was a major influence on The Harmony Silk Factory), Tolstoy and Nabokov (who perhaps because he learned English later uses the language "at its most inventive and playful best"). :
Writing is about creativity, but in order to break rules you need to know first what the rules are.
Tash says that he finds himself now allowing more Malaysianisms to creep into his writing, and says he is interested in how we can use language and change it.

There is scope for Malaysia writers to express their ideas in whatever ways they feel comfortable, as long as it represents them as an individual and they write clearly and with integrity :
Malaysia's is the story of many voices not just one.
Tash says he's often asked "What's Malaysia like?" by foreigners looking for just one version, when the truth is that Malaysia is not one thing but many:
We speak as a chorus but we're also sometimes discordant.
On why there have not been many Malaysian novelists until now :
The novel is a Western creation. We are disadvantaged by the tides of history and are only now beginning to play catch up. ... But already we can see the influence of Asian writing on the English novel.
In the last few years there have been at least 5 or 6 Malaysian authors winning recognition overseas. :
Novels show the way we think of ourselves - we're more comfortable confronting and questioning ourselves, where we come from and where we are going. ... We still have a long way to go but we are beyond the crawling stage and have begun to take our first steps.
Tash went on to talk about his typical writing day. He wakes up by 7-7.30 and is at his desk by 8. He works until 1 with a couple of short tea breaks. After lunch he may go for a stroll or a swim. 3-7 he works again. He doesn't work at night unless rushing to meet a deadline. The phone is switchedf off. He had a Blackberry once - for 24 hours. He doesn't surf the net. :
The thing that writers need most is solitude. ... You need to learn to live with yourself with nothing but work for company.
But in the end :
Writing is a hugely privileged profession. In so few other jobs do you get to think so deeply about yourself and the world around you.
After the talk, Tash took questions - most of them from students who showed a good knowledge of his work. And then there was book signing. MPH had the copies stacked high, and the queue was out the door.

(Photos nicked from Rodney Toh of MPH.)


Chet said...

At the Silverfish Books reading, he talked about the second book syndrome and said that for him, it wasn't pressure from outside but from himself to write a better book than his first one. He also said every book is different, and the writing of each requires the reinvention of the wheel. Using his own books as examples, he said the new book had characters but no plot, while a book he's currently thinking about has a plot but no characters. He didn't say whether the first book began with a plot or characters.

He also gave the same book reading recommendations that you mentioned.

Someone asked which character in Map of the Invisible World is most like him. He said it was a hard question to answer, and went on to say must treat every character equally, not show favouritism or the other characters will not like it and will misbehave. Haha ...

I'm glad I managed to attend the reading at Silverfiish Books. It was a cosy and literary atmosphere.

Oh, apparently, he's talking to Raman about holding a workshop.

BTW, I saw someone handling a video camera in one of Rodney's pictures. I hope this means the entire talk was recorded, and hopefully will be made available to the public.

bibliobibuli said...

thanks for filling in gaps, Chet. shame i couldn't be there. ahem.

Damyanti said...

Sharon, do write also about the No-black-tie, I could not make it there.

bibliobibuli said...

just did! :-D

Chet said...

Something else from the Silverfish Books reading (didn't take notes, so relying on faulty memory) ...

Someone asked about the usefulness of creative writing programmes at university level (like the one Tash attended at UEA). He said only for mature writers assured of their voice who would not be upset by critiques from other participants.

Anonymous said...

The thing that writers need most is MONEY. It's not cheap to be in an isolated place, with easy access to food, where you can go for a stroll or a swim.

Where is there such a place in the country?

Damyanti said...

He said the same thing, Chet, at the lecture. Creative writing programs are only useful if you are ready for them, if not, they can even block you, he said.

Reading and writing is the best way to become a writer, according to Aw, and I was somewhat cheered by it, seeing as there are no good creative writing programs at Uni level in Malaysia.