There's a misconception that, because of their perceived exoticism, books by Asian writers are snapped up by publishers. 'Maybe if I was a young lady living in Beijing, discovering Starbucks and having the first orgasm of my life and writing about it, it would have been much easier to sell my book,' says Tan Twan Eng with a laugh.
Instead, it took the first-time Malaysian writer more than four years to finally see The Gift of Rain appear on shelves in British and Asian bookstores. 'I found an agent in London to represent me quickly after finishing the book, but she had problems selling it. The feedback we kept getting from publishers was, 'Interesting, very readable, but we're not sure how we can market it',' the 34-year-old says.
Part of the problem was that The Gift of Rain is hard to classify. Although the author set out to write literary fiction, the book, set in colonial Penang in the 1930s and 40s, is also a weighty historical novel, combining a mystery-like plot with dashes of martial arts and oriental philosophy and liberal doses of literary exoticism.
The Gift of Rain explores the opposing ideas of predestination and self-determination. It's about divided loyalties and unbearable loss as well as human courage, Tan says.
In 1939, 16-year-old Philip Hutton - the half-Chinese youngest child of the head of one of Penang's great trading families - is a loner who feels alienated from both the British and Chinese communities. He discovers a sense of belonging in an unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat.
As the boy proudly guides his new friend around the island, Endo shows him the discipline of aiki-jutsu, a martial art then still in its infancy, and teaches him about Japanese language and culture. But when the Japanese invade Malaya, Philip realises that his sensei - to whom he owes absolute loyalty - is a spy. Forced into collaborating with the Japanese to safeguard his family and their interests, yet tormented by his part in events, he risks everything to restore his moral balance.
Tan draws on his childhood knowledge of Penang, where he was born, and his knowledge of aikido (he has a top ranking in the discipline, which he used to practise four hours a day).
'Doing research for the book wasn't hard because I'd done a lot of reading on the period,' he says. 'But I did want to get the period details right - the type of shops people back then would go to, the type of cars they would drive. To me it was more important to get these details right than to get the political history right. I've tried to be as accurate as possible about history, but certain facts are made up.'
The book has a lot of martial arts philosophy and fights, even though Tan says he tried to restrain himself. 'I didn't want to overload the book with too many technical moves, but the techniques I describe are pertinent to the lessons the character has to learn for later in life,' he says. A tenet of aiki-jutsu is not to meet the force of a strike head-on, but to parry, step to the side to avoid the blow, redirect the force and unbalance your opponent. It's the same in daily life, says Tan.
'Never meet a person's anger directly,' Endo tells Philip. 'Deflect, distract him, and even agree with him. Unbalance his mind and you can lead him anywhere you want.'
Tan, an intellectual property lawyer, wrote the novel while travelling in South Africa, after furthering his legal studies. 'I love books and writing came as a natural progression from reading. Some of the books I read when I was younger were really junk and I thought, 'I can do much better than that',' he says. His biggest influence has been Kazuo Ishiguro. He describes his own writing style as detached, 'but very visual, with a lot of references to the five senses. I wanted the reader to have total immersion in the book'.
'From the start, The Gift of Rain was about Philip, someone who doesn't fit into his world and how he goes about finding his place. Because I love Penang, its architecture and history, it was a natural choice of location. It's a sort of memorial or testament to what's disappeared and is disappearing,' he says.
Stylistically the book is divided into two parts, with Philip's years of training described in a gentle, exotic lyricism, and the war rendered in a more abrupt tone.
'It wasn't really intentional, but the plot requires a change of tone. The war is coming. There's a sudden fracture. If I was to write of the war in the same tone as the first half, there would be complaints,' he says with a laugh.
'But I don't think the book is pandering to exoticism. Although it may seem like I'm 'exotifying' some elements, I feel it's necessary because the general reader must have some context.
'Anyway, I don't see anything wrong with exoticism. People want to escape nowadays. If they didn't, they wouldn't be travelling half way around the world.'
The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon Books, HK$208)