I can count on one hand the books that I’ve given by the dozens to lucky relatives and friends over the decades. One of those counting fingers belongs to Tan Twan Eng‘s debut stunner, The Gift of Rain. With the impending American release this month of his long-awaited second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, I grabbed the chance to interview the young writer … only to thoroughly embarrass myself by the third question by revealing my inexcusable myopia, as I referred to Tan’s native Malaysia as an island.
“Terry,” he gently corrected, “Malaysia isn’t an island, but a peninsula, and Penang is an island off its northwest coast.” My mortified apology was met with “It’s a part of the world not many people know much about,” which gave me yet another reason to continue to spread Tan’s titles far and wide.
Longlisted for the coveted Man Booker Prize in 2007, The Gift of Rain was an astonishing accomplishment. Its protagonist is the half-British, half-Chinese Philip Hutton, the youngest (and only mixed-race) child of a powerful British trading family based in Malaysia. On the eve of World War II, the gorgeous islands show no hint of the devastation about to unfold, and young Philip finds himself befriending an elegant Japanese man, Hayato Endo, who has taken residence on the tiny island across the Hutton estate.
Endo begins to train Philip in the Japanese martial art aikido, transforming the distant teen into a strong and confident young man. But nothing is as it appears, and as the much-feared Japanese military finally lands on Malaysian shores, surviving the war will mean betrayal and redemption, and ultimately love.
Like Rain, Tan’s second novel is exquisite; like Rain, The Garden of Evening Mists arrives stateside with Booker-longlist approval, announced just weeks before the U.S. publication date. This time, Tan’s protagonist is a damaged, wary woman, Teoh Yun Ling, who has just taken early retirement from a lauded career as a respected judge; she has at most a year before she will lose all language and memory to aphasia.
She leaves Kuala Lumpur for the highlands of central Malaysia to Yugiri – the eponymous Garden of Evening Mists – where she’s agreed to meet a Japanese scholar writing a book about Yugiri’s creator, Aritomo, the self-exiled former gardener to the emperor of Japan. Four decades earlier, in spite of being the single survivor of a murderous World War II Japanese prison camp, Yun Ling apprenticed herself to Aritomo; she sublimated her fear and loathing in the hopes of learning to create the perfect garden to honor her older sister who died in the camp. Almost 38 years have passed since Aritomo disappeared, and now threatened with erasure, Yun Ling begins to record her, his – their story.
In both unforgettable novels, Tan manages to intertwine the redemptive power of storytelling with the elusive search for truth, all the while juxtaposing Japan’s inhumane war history with glorious moments of Japanese art and philosophy. His is a challenging balancing act, and yet he never falters, intimately revealing his stories with power and grace.
Because you’ve set both novels primarily during and after the brutal occupation of Malaysia during World War II, both are understandably infused with a symbiotic mixture of horror and beauty. What is your fascination with that time period? You were decades from being born.
The Japanese Occupation of Malaya (as it was then called) was one of the country’s most traumatic experiences. Growing up, I heard some stories about the Occupation from my parents. My father was a child when it happened, so he didn’t have any terrible experiences, but he heard about them from his family. My mother has no direct experience of it either, as she was born after the war.
Do you think you will return to that time again in future works?
I don’t know if I’ll revisit that terrain in my future works. If I do, I’ll want to find something new about it to write, angles that haven’t been explored before.
How have you lived with the terror of your homeland’s history – World War II through the “Emergency” that finally ended in 1960 – that you recreated in your books? Both books must have taken years to write, which means you must have had to endure long years of inhabiting the historically accurate world you had to conjure forth on the page?
I’ve always been interested in that period of our past, so I had been reading up and collecting materials on it for years. When I wrote The Gift of Rain, I had all the details I needed in my head and it was a just matter of crafting the story. There comes a point when the writer has to forget his research and just, simply, tell the tale.
Writing The Garden of Evening Mists, on the other hand, required more extensive research. The settings and the time period were different from Gift‘s, and I was never much of a gardening man, so it took a lot of work to learn how to create a Japanese garden. But the more research I did, the more fascinated I became with it and the more I appreciated it; I realized that the principles of gardening could be applied to life, too.
Dealing with the horrors of the Japanese Occupation and the violence of the Malayan Emergency was at times emotionally draining, but it’s the writer’s responsibility to feel, and then to convey those emotions to the readers, otherwise the writing will come across as lifeless. [... click here for more]
Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Tan Twan Eng,” Bookslut.com, September 2012