Writing into Silence

Tash Aw; photo by Tara Sosrowardoyo

Tash Aw; photo by Tara Sosrowardoyo

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

June 16, 1948, was the beginning of the twelve-year conflict that would come to be called “the Malayan Emergency” by British colonial troops and “the Anti-British National Liberation War” by the predominantly ethnically Chinese Communist fighters seeking to overthrow them. Five thousand civilians died, and as much as 10 percent of the entire population of British Malaya was placed in internment settlements. The photographer Sim Chi Yin’s grandfather was one of the victims of this war. Sim’s recent show in Berlin challenges the official narratives of this tragedy by interrogating both British propaganda photographs of the war and her own family’s fearful reluctance to discuss her grandfather.

“I’ve been in that position myself, chronicler of family history,” writes the Malaysian novelist Tash Aw in the Review’s May 11 issue. “My own family could well have been communist sympathizers…[but] they do not wish this story, with its connotations of treachery and subversiveness, to be part of my identity.” Aw has written deftly about conflict and historical memory throughout his celebrated career, from his Booker Prize–nominated first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory (2005), in which a Chinese Malaysian peasant’s wartime actions are remembered differently by three people close to him, to his last essay for this magazine, a review of Asako Serizawa’s stories about the legacy of Japanese atrocities in World War II. Born in Taipei, Aw was raised in Kuala Lumpur, moved to England to attend university, and now resides in Paris.

We corresponded over e-mail this week about the Emergency, cities, and interviewing family.

Willa Glickman: This essay was a personal one—you and Sim Chi Yin have similar family backgrounds, and you write that at times you found her images difficult to look at: “Too many of the faces displayed—whether of eighty-year-olds exiled from their homeland or rural families dressed neatly for studio portraits—resembled those of people I’ve known.” Have you ever seen this part of your family history represented? Have you written about it?

Tash Aw: One of the reasons I found Sim’s project so moving was that it helped explain why members of my family might have been so reticent to talk about their past. I’d never seen this specific episode—so violent, tragic, and unknown—represented so thoroughly in art before. Gan Chin Lee made some powerful sketches of the “New Villages” internment camps in 2019, and other Southeast Asian artists like Wong Hoy Cheong have worked on projects that examine colonial trauma, history, and memory in general, but Sim’s is the first work I’ve seen that traces the specific impact of the Malayan Emergency on younger generations. I’ve always wanted to write about it, but never felt brave enough. My own relatives were so silent on the subject that I felt it was something I couldn’t begin to approach.

Are you drawn to any of Sim’s other projects?

I’m fascinated by how Sim is expanding this project to examine the effects of the Emergency on the rest of her family, and on the generations that follow hers. Since writing the piece, I’ve read that she intends to create not just more books but video installations and a theater performance. I’m intrigued to see how an artist brings the historical into the personal, and vice versa, in a way that challenges national narratives—in this case, narratives of political and racial harmony.

How did you negotiate your family’s silences when you wrote your family memoir, Strangers on a Pier? How does a visual medium’s approach to the question differ? 

I set out to write Strangers on a Pier as a way of finding answers and explaining my family’s history, much like Sim did when she sat down to speak to her relatives. But I was much less successful—less brave, perhaps, less willing to confront my parents and other members of my family, who simply did not wish to speak about their pasts. Most writers and readers expect a family memoir to be built around the revelation of secrets, or the completing of a jigsaw. After many attempts to talk to my parents, I realized that my family’s history would be the very opposite—it was a story of silence. So I wrote about the inability to connect with the past, which was the only truthful thing for me to do.

In the hands of a sensitive artist, the visual medium can question personal and national silence from many different angles—Sim works with original photography, reworked archive material, video, and a book—and as a result, the gaps in our understanding of her family’s history are filled in with a clarity that I don’t think the written word alone can easily achieve.

Your most recent novel, We the Survivors, in which a sociologist returning to Malaysia after studying in the US interviews a villager who has committed a murder, also addresses the moral complexity of unearthing and recounting others’ histories. You’ve said in interviews that these two characters—the returning immigrant and the murderer—represent different parts of yourself: “One could easily have become me if I had been born to different parents, to parents who remained in the village. Su Min [the sociologist] is the foreign, educated part of me.” Is Su Min also a reflection on the work of the writer? Is this a question you think about when researching your novels?


I absolutely believe writers need to think about their relationship with their subjects—where they sit in relation to the world of their characters. This isn’t to say that writers should shy away from writing about people who aren’t exactly the same as they are—in fact, it’s the very opposite: I think we have a duty to reach out to understand the lives around us. For example, when I wrote about my grandmother in Strangers on a Pier, I was very conscious of the fact that our lives had been very different, and I would never fully know what it was like to live in her body, that of an underprivileged woman in rural Malaysia born in the 1920s, even though we had been very close. But it seemed to me that her story was entwined with mine, and if I didn’t record her life, who would? Literature has never had a place for people like her, and I wanted her life to be preserved the way others—richer, more educated, more privileged—are.

The difference between Su Min and me is that she was born into the world she still inhabits—that of middle-class, educated people. I now inhabit that space, but I started out in that of Ah Hock’s, the person whose story Su Min is telling. I think that makes my position even more complicated than hers. What happens when, through education and the resulting social mobility, the writer comes to incarnate power over others—like the person they once were? Whose story is the writer really telling, then—that of his past or present self? Everything I write seems to be built around this dichotomy.

You’ve lived in a number of cities around the world and are an adept chronicler of place, as in your portrait of Shanghai in Five Star Billionaire. Are there any cities you are especially interested in these days, for your fiction or otherwise?

In all the years I spent living in London, I never once thought of writing about it. It’s only now that I’ve moved away that I feel ready to give it a presence in my fiction. London is where I first explored and articulated my sexuality, where I first started writing seriously, and I’d like to capture that in a novel, somehow. Kuala Lumpur, where I grew up and still spend a large part of each year, will always figure in my writing. Even when I set out to write about other places, I’m always drawn back to it.

What are you reading?

Having finished Giorgio Bassani’s The Novel of Ferrara, I’m trying to read as much Natalia Ginzburg as I can. I’m also rediscovering the work of the Malaysian theorist Syed Hussein Alatas, particularly The Myth of the Lazy Native and The Problem of Corruption—so powerful and radical even four decades after they were written, but sadly very hard to find these days. I wish someone would republish all his work. 

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