Tan Twan Eng and I met recently at a rooftop café in Cape Town to chat about his second novel, “The Garden of Evening Mists,” which has been shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. (His first novel, “The Gift of Rain,” made the 2007 Booker long list.) The 40-year-old author prefer to winter in Cape Town and spends the rest of the year in his native Malaysia.
As a writer whose novels are categorized as historical fiction, Tan is also concerned with the legacy of the books themselves, with an eye to future generations of readers.
“A book with an historical setting can remain timeless if the story is very strong on human themes,” says Tan. “Relationships, aging, love. [A book like that] has a good chance of standing the test of time.” He cites South African-born novelist J.M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” as a tale that manages to be both political and timeless.
He’s also finely attuned to writing for readers from different backgrounds. “It's a difficult balance to strike because I'm aware that a lot of readers are non-Malaysians,” says Tan. “Malaysian writers are at a disadvantage because there haven’t been other Malaysian writers being read by a worldwide audience.”
Compared to, say, an Indian writer who can invoke Bombay with a single word, Tan needs to unpack details without slowing down the story for Malaysian readers. For example, one passage reads:
"Japanese troops landed in the northeast coast of Malaya, fifteen minutes after midnight and an hour before Pearl Harbor was attacked. People think that Japan entered the war through Pearl Harbor, but Malaya was the first door they smashed open."
In addition to managing such geopolitical points, “The Garden of Evening Mists” is loaded with rich and diverse set of cultural biographies, including Chinese, Malay, Japanese, Afrikaner, and English characters.
Arguably, “The Garden of Evening Mists” is more about memory than history. The lushly told story investigates the nature of memory through its protagonist, Yun Ling, a just-retired judge with aphasia. Yun Ling’s youth was marked by violence and loss when she was sent to a concentration camp during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia. To honor the memory of her sister, Yun Ling undertakes an apprenticeship with Aritomo, the Japanese emperor’s former gardener, who is now working on his own land in Malaysia.
Yun Ling acknowledges that she doesn’t know much about Japanese gardens. Despite Tan’s own initial lack of horticultural knowledge, the titular “Garden” acts almost a character itself. His research included not just the usual books and interviews, but visits to Japanese gardens in San Francisco, Melbourne, and Sydney.
“I’m not a gardener to start with and I’m not very much into nature,” says Tan. “So when I had the idea for the book, I was reluctant. I had to have the feel of it, so I started some planting too. You have to take your gloves off and feel the soil. It’s very dirty.”
The crash course has left Tan with a greater appreciation for flora. He says he has surprised friends by suggesting trips to national parks; he recently made a trip up South Africa’s West Coast to witness its famous spring wildflowers in bloom.
In the book, Aritomo’s garden signature is his deft use of borrowed scenes, such as a wall of hedges with a break in it that perfectly frames a view of a mountain in the distance.
“Borrowed scenery is one of the pillars of Japanese gardening. Due to space constraints, you use the neighbor's trees to give depth to the gardens,” says Tan. “You place every stone carefully to achieve maximum effect. With writing, it's the same. You don't just describe the character. You use the past, memories, borrowed locations, to create this character in the reader’s mind.”
Tan’s stories usually begin with one character. “I can see the first scene, and I know what happens in the last chapter, but I don't know how I'll get from A to Z,” he says. “I hate the word 'organic,' but I don't plan my chapters.”
“I enjoy rewriting tremendously,” Tan, who says that “Garden” was difficult to complete, said of his process. “With the first [novel], nobody knew I was writing. I could write whatever I wanted. With the second, I had my editor's voice in my head. ‘The Gift of Rain’ was a millstone in the early stages. I spent some time second-guessing myself. It was only about halfway through the book that I ignored that. My sense of confidence is stronger.”
Until he moved to Cape Town for graduate school, Tan worked as an attorney in Malaysia. While many students who pursue an MFA in creative writing aren’t able to finish a novel, Tan managed to write his first while studying for a master’s degree in law.
“For an Asian student who had been trained to study, coming here was sort of like a holiday,” says Tan with a smile. “Once I did my work for the course, I had a lot of free time. I told myself, ‘This is your opportunity, don't waste it.’”
Prior to that, he says that his only creative outlet was drafting legal documents. “I always wanted to be a writer. But a lot of people say that.”
Clearly, the focused dedication paid off. Tan now writes full-time, albeit with a bit of a hiatus at the moment due to the keen interest that “The Garden of Evening Mists” has garnered since arriving on the Booker short list. Having just participated at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, Tan heads next to London and Kuala Lumpur for more literary events. Tan notes that South Africa has a longer publishing tradition, while the Malaysian scene is smaller but quite active.
“Here, I'm in a good position of being an outsider,” says Tan. “In Malaysia, I'm a bit of an outsider as well.”
Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist based in South Africa and an occasional correspondent for the Monitor.