Remapping the Literary World of SE Asia – Tash Aw

Photo by Ishan @seefromthesky on Unsplash

For the Western reader, member Helen T. posited that the work of Malaysian author Tash Aw remaps the literature about southeast Asia from the viewpoint of an Asian author. Mr. Aw is both an ‘insider’, born and raised in SE Asia, he is also to a certain extent an ‘outsider’ as the grandchild of Chinese immigrants to Malaysia, and as a Cambridge educated author who now lives in London.

On April 12, 2022, Helen presented Tash Aw’s fiction and non-fiction in the context of George Orwell’s 1946 essay Why I Write. Here is my brief summary of how she saw Mr. Aw’s work fitting into Orwell’s 4 basic motivations.

Sheer Egoism: to show skill and to explore oneself. Helen put Strangers on a Pier, a book of personal essays and Five Star Billionaire in this category.

Aesthetic Enthusiasm: Map of the Invisible World, Helen’s favourite of Aw’s novels, is in this category. It is a novel about home, identity and belonging envisioned as a haunting historical drama.

Historical Impulse: The Harmony Silk Factory is set in the Malay Peninsula, just prior to the Japanese invasion. A story is told through 3 imperfect narrators and the readers is left with questions.

Political Purpose: In this case, political purpose can be defined as an attempt to influence the reader to a certain viewpoint about what society should strive for. Tash Aw’s book We, the Survivors highlights the plight of illegal laborers from other Asian countries in Malaysia and how the price for rapid development is paid by those who can least afford it. Follow this link to see Mr. Aw discuss this book.

Helen ended by reiterating that any of Tash Aw’s works could fit in one or all of these categories. While his themes are universal, he turns the focus of the Western reader to Asia in a new way.

Next week, member Janet S. will be presenting the works of Steven Price.

Shawna M.

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